Reminding Dr. Baba Ceesay of Cairo Declaration and
Rights to Freedom (Sura 3: Al-Imran: 79)
By Alagi Yorro Jallow
Recent demagogic statements by Dr. Baba Ceesay, an Islamic Cleric in the Gambia, are not only extreme and vicious, but could incite violence in the country and endanger the lives of innocent Gambians. As such, real Muslim scholars must come forward now and refute his deceitfulness. Baba Ceesay must be countered, not by use of invective language and violence, but through a solid textual arguments and interpretations, based on the Qur’án and Hadith. Moderate Muslims scholars have a duty to challenge Dr Ceesay, expose his deception and point people to the truth.If our scholars can prove that Baba Ceesay’s hate-filled message is contrary to the teachings of the Qur’an and Hadith, then his appeal, even among his followers, could be significantly undermined.
Dr Ceesay is Vice Chancellor of the new “President Yahya Jammeh Islamic University of the Gambia”, which is currently under construction in Banjulinding, Kombo North, West Coast Region. The Islamic University is being largely funded by World Islamic Heritage in Kuwait. In a controversial lecture, recently uploaded onto You Tube, on Ta’atul Amir (the rights of an Islamic leader), Dr Ceesay discussed at length, the position of Islam regarding leadership and their rights. Speaking in Mandinka, the Islamic cleric dilated on what he called the Islamic position on how Muslims should be following their leaders, in the context of Islam. In what many see as an attempt to appease President Jammeh, Dr. Baba Ceesay, in a clear language, pointed out that Islam does oppose democracy and that political opposition and demonstrations against leaders, are prohibited in Islam. He did not mince his words. It is legal in Islam to “kill” anyone attempting to destabilize a Muslim leader, so as to bring disunity in the country, he claimed. He then called upon Gambians to rally behind President Jammeh and get rid of the government’s opponents even if it meant killing them because that is what God has ordained.
Dr.Ceesay accords priority to rationalizing government repression and perpetuating traditional hierarchies in society. He clearly supports political repression in the Gambia and did not care about the fact that Gambians live under the tyranny of the Jammeh government whose human rights record range from “the mediocre to the atrocious”. Instead, he argued that democracy was incompatible and inimical to Islam. It is evident that Dr Ceesay subscribes to the “Islamic exceptionalism” thesis, when it comes to democracy. But Turkey and Indonesia are models of modern Islamic states that have continued to accommodate democratic political systems.
Therefore, let us no more hear about Islamic exceptionalism from Ceesay, as this argument does not hold water.
Whether Islam is compatible with democracy is a misleading question, Islam and democracy are two different entities although both cannot be divorced when dealing with politics in the Muslim world. If Islam does not teach either democracy or dictatorship clearly, Islamism is ready to impose ideological tenets upon Muslims (Al Makin 2011).
Islam like any other religion is an old system of belief: Democracy is a new advancement of modern political system. Each can complement the other although between the two can also occur for example the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights and Islam alternative version of the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights. Evidence has shown that dictatorship is inherent in both Islamic history and text. Early Caliphs and later Caliphs in numerous Islamic dynasties ruled their people without democratic principles. They simply justified their absolute political power with religious dogma, ignoring the people’s voice. It is true that the Muslim world has provided more dictators than any other modern society (Yogyakarta,2011).
In 1990 Muslim leaders convened in Cairo and produced an alternative Islamic version of human rights. This became known as the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights. All the countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference officially adopted it in 2000. The spirit of the Cairo Declaration is fundamentally different from that of the Universal Declaration. It firmly sets the Islamic understanding of human rights in terms of the Quran and of the Sharia. Human rights derive from the dignity conferred to Man by God’s ascription of vice-regency to Man, and Sharia is the fundamental basis for understanding and interpreting these rights (Cairo document,1990).
Dr. Baba Ceesay, in his statement, literally says that Islam opposes democracy and political parties, and that political movements and demonstrations are farfetched excuses. One could understand if Dr. Ceesay had opposed the United Nations’ Declaration on Human Rights adopted in 1948. That could make some sense because the possibility of an Islamic ‘exception’ to the evolving doctrine on human rights was hardly an issue. The entire effort paid lip service to the concerns and world views of other civilizations (Allawi,2009). But it is clear from his statement that he does not even accept the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which provides an overview of the Islamic perspective on human rights, and affirms Islamic Sharia as its source. The Cairo Declaration protects each individual from arbitrary arrest, torture, maltreatment, or indignity. It clearly does not condone abuse of power and authority, but Baba Ceesay does not buy into these things, and interestingly, he recites and quotes verses of the Quran and Hadiths to back his assertions. Yet the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam was adopted by members of the IOC, composed of eminent Islamic scholars, as an alternative to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights.
Justice Brandei gave the principle its classic formulation: “that public discussion is a political duty, and should be a fundamental principle…..that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction, that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination, that fear breeds repression, that repression breeds hate, that hate menaces stable government, that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsel is good one. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law- argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.”
Are human rights an essentially Western construct? There is little doubt that the idea of human rights can be traced both to the Quran and Biblical sources and to the notion of natural law which would be separate from divine revelation. “The Bible talks about Man being created in the image of God, and St. Paul’s letters emphasize the equality of mankind in Christ. The natural law tradition goes back to the ancient Greeks, through the idea that human beings are endowed with inalienable rights which derive from an unwritten law or a higher principle. Then there is the Protestant Reformation, which asserted individual conscience as the foundation for an authentic faith. English common law and its concern with inheritable rights is another noted source for the ideal of human rights. The privileging of the individual over the collective is a common theme in these traditions of human rights, and it underpins the Universal Declaration”( p.190). Its preamble is replete with words such as “inalienable” and “inherent”. The French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Magna Carta, writs of habeas corpus, Christian theology, the US Constitution and Bill of Rights –all have been utilized as sources for modern human rights. So in a sense human rights are indeed a product of human decency and human tradition.
“Human rights and their universal application are rightly seen as a defining challenge to the principles of Islamic life and civilization. The issue is now highly politicized, especially with the rise of Islam phobia all over the world with the imposition of Sharia and the war on terror, which wittingly or otherwise has conflated the notion of ‘Islam with violence’ in the minds of millions of people. “Human rights have become an either/or issue: either Islam accepts the universality of the rights embodied in the UN Declaration and subordinates its own ethical foundations to it, or it opts out and charts its own way of formalizing human rights in Islam”(Allawi,2009). Although the authors of the Cairo Declaration may not have realized it at the time, the formulation used in the document was very much derived from modern preconception, garbed in the language of Sharia. Rights in Islam had previously been formulated in terms of duties and obligations of people to each other: to those in authority over them, to those subordinate to them, and, above all, to God.
Whatever rights human beings have are thus the outcome of individuals and societies fulfilling their duties and responsibilities to each other. There are few rights which are explicitly recognized as such in the Quran – parental rights over children, for example, but most rights are in the nature of obligations. The rights of God over Man are met through acts of worship and devotion (Cairo, 1990) . The right to work exists because human beings have a duty to work and strive to improve their lot; the right to free expression exists because man has a duty to seek the truth and its fulfillment. Even in matters which are not on the surface contentious- such as the right to justice- the right arises in consequence of the fact that others, the state, the judiciary, or those in power- have not fulfilled their duty to provide or dispense justice.
What are the real challenges and significance of the Cairo Declaration? The declaration decries genocide, but several of the OIC member countries massacred and terrorized their populations. Article 3 of the Cairo Declaration, which sets the principles of warfare, has been flagrantly ignored in most of the wars involving OIC member countries, for example in the Somali, Syrian and Afghan civil wars and in the South of the Sudan. Articles dealing with torture and the inviolability of the individual are routinely ignored when Muslim states feel under threat. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians by the state security apparatus in the Gambia in April 2000, resulting in the massacre of students is a case in point, as are the measures deployed by the Egyptian government to combat militant Islamism. Article 20 bans torture and arrest without due cause and process, but torture and abuse of prisoners are common practice in the authoritarian states of the OIC, which includes nearly all the Arab countries and sub-Saharan Muslim countries. Article 6 guarantees the dignity of womankind, only to see its stipulations flouted by innumerable cases where women have been treated in a degrading and cruel manner on account of local tribal or social customs. Article 7 guarantees the rights of children (Cairo declaration). Yet ’Almudoo,’ abused, abandoned and mistreated children –let alone the widespread use of child labor – are a common feature of Muslim countries. Article 8 guarantees the right to justice. However, Muslim countries have probably some of the worst judicial systems, where corrupt judges, overloaded courts, and cumbersome and unfathomable legal systems conspire to undermine one of Islamic civilization’s key props: the delivery of fair and speedy justice by incorruptible judges with real authority. The list goes on. Nearly every aspect of the Cairo Declaration is discounted in practice, there is no effective mechanism, either governmental or that generated by civil society networks, to monitor and ensure compliance with its terms.
Islam not only respects but also demands freedom of expression. “The Quranic injunction to ‘enjoin the good and shun the evil’ is impossible to act upon if human beings are not allowed to speak and act freely. But the concept of hisbah, which embodies this injunction, has been perverted over time. In an erudite and comprehensive work, Freedom of Expression in Islam, the Afghan scholar Muhammad Hashim Kamali sets out specific principles from which an entire doctrine of free speech can be derived”(Kamali,1988). These principles are derived from the fact that many actions which are deemed praiseworthy in Islam can only be undertaken if one has the ability to express oneself freely. These include the proffering of sincere advice (Nasihah), the need to consult (shura), personal reasoning, the freedom to criticize, the freedom to express an opinion, the freedom of association, and the freedom of religion. These rights are not absolute. They are constrained both morally and legally. The moral constraints on freedom of expression are found in all the great religions. They are built-in safeguards that prevent injustice, abuse and strife. Islamic literature is full of irreverent and satirical poets, who caricatured rulers and the high and mighty (Kamali,1988).
Speech or action which encourages fitna (sedition and conspiracy) against legally constituted authority is a punishable offence. It would be no different from sanctioning those who conspire to overturn or undermine the legal order in any democratic state. The modern Muslim state has ignored the wide latitude given in Islam to exercise freedom of expression. But this has more to do with the structures of authoritarian states and governments than with Islam as such. Most Muslim governments attained power in a way which the Sharia would condemn: military coup d’état or assassinations and killings. Most of the world sees Muslims and Muslim rulers who flagrantly violate universal standards of human rights and freedoms, but does not pause to consider whether these violations are in any way allowed or tolerated by Islam. It is automatically assumed that because they are perpetrated by Muslim dictators they must have the sanction of the religion in whose names these violations are often committed or justified. But those who denigrate Islam’s commitment to freedom of expression appear to have a strong case in the very special and limited issue of the Islamic position on apostasy and blasphemy (p.203). This is typical of the clash between the values of a secular modernity and a religiously inspired world, one which has been relegated to the past in most liberal democracies.
The defense of an Islamic norm for human rights is often hypocritical. The rhetoric of an Islamic basis for human rights frequently camouflages a cavalier disregard for every Islamic value that the countries in question purport to promote. Muslims’ confidence in their own capacity to address the issue of human rights would be immeasurably boosted if the human rights record of the Islamic world were to live up to Islam’s own codes of practice (p.196). It is hopeless for Muslim countries to rail against a Western conspiracy to undermine Islam by imposing Western standards of human rights, if the human rights record in Muslim countries is dreadful. Muslims must denounce abuses, demand the abandonment of unacceptable conduct, and confront governments with their human rights record-framed, where possible, within the ethical norms of Islam. Islamic scholars will then find it more difficult to disguise their abusive behavior by using cultural norms or traditional customs as their justification; they will be unable to reject criticism with a blanket condemnation of human rights codes as Western invention.
A valid and effective Islamic version of human rights would not only serve the interest of Muslims, but might introduce a needed balance to the global human rights movement as well.
1. The Crisis of Islamic Civilization, Ali A.Allawi, 2009, Yale University Press Publications
2. Civilization, Islamic -20th Century, Ali.Allawi 1947.Yale University Press Publications
3. From Charles Malik,’God and Man in Contemporary Islamic Thoughts’13 September.1971
4. Charles Malik’s work at the UN on the Universal Declaration, the Challenges of Human Rights, Oxford, 2000
4. the Cairo Declaration of 1990.the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, issued by the Islamic Council of Europe in 1981
5. an example of East European movements is the Charter 77 group, founded by Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia
6. Paper on ‘Islamic Contribution to Enriching the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister M.Javad Zarif, October, 1988, Seminar in Geneva on the Issue of Islam and human rights.
7. Freedom of Expression in Islam, Mohammad Hashim Kamal, Ilmiah Publishers: Kuala Lumpur, 1988.
8. Literary History of the Arabs, R.A Nicholson, Curzon Press: London, 1993
9. Islam and Politics, Al-Makin, Yogyakarta, Jakarta post, 2011
10. Mr Justice Brandeis, the opinion in the 1963 case of the New York Times versus Sullivan, 1963.
11.Sura 3: Al-Imran: 79.The Holy Quran