Achieving Social Justice and Human Rights for Newly Liberated Muslim States

Malick Elias

Social Justice, how is it achievable and what should it mean to new Muslim states? Social Justice and Human Rights, terms which we will be using in our social, religious and political discourse are rooted in Anglo Saxon political culture and caution needs to taken when employing their use. Even in Anglo Saxon culture, to which these concepts did emerge their meanings will differ depending upon whether the person using them is a Socialist, Liberal, Democrat, Conservative and or any mixture of those political ideologies.

However, despite these complexities in practice the common man will know what is implied by the use of the term justice. The eradication of extreme poverty – a subtle acknowledgement that poverty will always exist – full employment, fair and equal access to the law, the opportunities of having a basic, free and quality education, health and affordable housing are the minimum basic rights the peoples of all nations deserve. Without, their provision how can a people live with dignity?

The peoples of the newly liberated Muslim states deserve most these rights and should be supported by the western developed nations, that aided and abetted the dictators which once denied them their full basic rights. Muslim nations are now at the crossroads where these concepts have to mean something in practice and enrich the social, political, cultural and human experiences of their peoples.

The real question is to what extent are theses terms – social justice and human rights – relative only to any particular culture? From an Islamic perspective, it is fool hardy to believe that these concepts are relative only to a particular historical experience. Moreover, to think along these lines is contrary to the premise that we are one humanity in front of One Creator. In addition to this, one cannot deny that our humanity is based upon contrasts and that our intellectual and philosophical heritages reflects this reasoning. Moral Relativity, therefore, is as valid as Moral Universalism. This balancing of opposites is an expression of the ‘Theodicy,’ which Hamid Dabashi in his book Islamic Liberation Theology had been envisioning. A duality existing in harmony? Whereas, on the one hand injustice is understood as a result of human free will and choice responding to social conditioning, is counterbalanced by the innate nature of the human conscience (Fitrah) that urges for justice, when injustice raises its ugly head.

In Islamic epistemology God is responsible for both the creation of good and evil, the beautiful and the ugly, justice and injustice. ‘I seek refuge in the Lord of the daybreak (Allah), from the evil of that which He created…’ (Translated from Sahih International, 113:1-2).

Human nature is also thought of as inherently good and inclines towards goodness. Therefore, evil or all of its synonyms are as a result of human choice, an action or inaction, having a negative impact upon the social conscience of a society or group sharing common interests – however those interests maybe defined. In the tensions between the forces of good and evil, moral relativist and universalist and the long list of opposing forces, textures and contrasts, the scales of justice are held stable for a single purpose, and that is, the removal of harm and oppression. And human beings by their nature have been charged with challenging injustice.

Consider this Quranic statement:

… And if it were not for Allah checking [some] people by means of others, there would have been demolished monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of Allah is much mentioned. And Allah will surely support those who support Him. Indeed, Allah is Powerful and Exalted in Might.’ (Translation from Sahih International: 22:40)

In a similar wording:

And if it were not for Allah checking [some] people by means of others, the earth would have been corrupted, but Allah is full of bounty to the worlds.’ (Translation from Sahih International: 2:251)

See then in Allah’s wisdom how He uses one people to keep in check, the other. The one who has been blessed with abundant gifts is obliged to make sure his neighbour is not suffering from need. The Holy Prophet (pbuh) once said that the Angel Jibraeel (asaw) kept urging him to treat neighbours with kindness, that he thought that his neighbour would inherit him.

Thus, social justice becomes the obligation of all and not just those responsible for the affairs of state.  Hence, the state is obliged to encourage its citizens to take ownership of their neighbourhoods and cities. What weak states can do as a first step towards tackling social injustices is to educate the public of their social responsibilities and rights towards others and to invest in the public conscience of society. They should take the lead in doing so, by strengthening the idea of civic participation.

It was admirable to see that during the recent ‘public disobedience strikes’ in Egypt, that members of the Parliament were cleaning the streets in a symbolic gesture of preparedness to do what the ordinary man did, but also in protest over the strikes.

Hence, social justice is linked with the rights of others and also with the idea of being socially responsible. Too often theorists (See Rawls, for instance) and politicians become bogged down with espousing the basic rights of others as defined by a range of International charters: Freedom of thought, Conscience, Association, Movement and access to Justice, for instance, to the neglect of responsibilities. What about the range of subtler rights which nurtures care and respect for one another in society? Or the responsibility of kindness, and gratitude towards others, good neighbourliness and simple actions such as picking up litter or acknowledging other road users. What I am highlighting here is the importance of putting Faith or Imaan into action.

Societies, especially Muslim ones must take the lead in returning faith to the public space. How often are people rewarded for being responsible citizens? ‘Whistle blowers’ who act in conscience are demonised for defending the public right to know and I am referring to the WikiLeaks whistle blower, Bradley Manning; and bank executives, who collapse the economies of nations through lies and misinformation walk free.

Social, political and cultural institutions too, are to be held socially responsible for their role in shaping the public conscience. The media should not be silenced, but should also act socially responsible. It is time news and other media corporations be given quotas and awards for the airing of programs which highlight acts of virtue and good citizenship. In the same manner some journalists are awarded for acts of bravery or for highlighting stories of human concern. Social justice should encompass other social concerns as protecting the public good. One has to ask why censorship laws do not cover some of the factual documentaries and news items we see on primetime television. It is not enough to cover faces or smudge out private parts. It is time that television programs, fact or fiction, be classified: 12A, 15 or 18+ and programs not fit for younger consciences be shown on pay per view channels. These ideas may be seen as draconian to some and impossible to police, since all children have access to the internet and I am among those who is certainly against attempts to control cyberspace. I do agree that there are no easy solutions to these dilemmas – for instance, of espousing both ideas of freedom and responsibility at the same time. However, I am convinced that it is this type of theodicy, of thinking in opposites or both sides of the arguments, which is needed, so that consensus can be met in an atmosphere of seeking the public good.

There is a role too, for regional and International institutions is guaranteeing social justice, despite any implied cynicism of the euro-centredness or perceived incompetence of these institutions. We must not fail to remind the powers behind these institutions that their roles is not to impose their will and values onto other nations, but to reach consensus through dialogue, debate and mutual respect. Muslim nations must continue to use these institutions to the benefit of their peoples, but in a dignified manner.

The UN Millennium Development project (MDP) is a good example of an institution which developing nations can use to mirror their development in the context of setting admirable goals for obtaining a level of justice and dignity for its peoples. Now mark my words carefully here, which can be used ‘to mirror good governance,’ and not to beg for monetary assistance or upon which to become dependant. The MDP had set for itself the admirable task of halving poverty for instance by the year 2015 to that portion of the worlds population whose income is less than dollar a day and similarly, those unable to afford safe drinking water. We all know that human’s plan, but that God is the best planner. It is now highly questionable as to whether these goals will be met, but that is not the issue at hand.

So where should Muslims nations begin in addressing the extreme poverty of their populations. The collection of Zakaat is a good place to begin. Muslims states need to look within, take what they have and administer it properly. Zakaat is a tax enshrined in Islamic law and if collected, and redistributed to improve the lives of those in extreme poverty – and not just give temporary handouts – it can provide one means of the trickle-down effect of accumulated wealth to the poor. Think of the amount of money that can be saved from firstly planning for economic sustainability rather than dependency and for accountability and transparency to avoid waste and mis-management which ultimately leads to corruption. The poor does not need a social justice system which makes them dependant upon welfare and handouts. They want the dignity of a system that affords to them the protection of their basic rights before the law, the opportunity of having a basic free education, access to a quality health service, full employment, affordable housing and most of all their voices to be heard and acknowledged when they think things are going wrong. In administering social justice or trying to be fair there is no recipe for success, only social conscience, a willingness to listening to the arguments and applying principles of ‘good governance,’ is it not?

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Malick Elias

The vision of 'Vivaislam' is to provide a space for Muslim and non-Muslim activists to air their voices on how best to organise and manage their world. The aim is to focus upon recommending solutions to issues of social injustices, freedoms and citizenship facing predominantly Muslim and non-Muslim societies, rather than offering descriptions of problems. It is our hope that these voices will reach the echelons of power and influence.