Harmony in diversity: Proposing an Islamic human rights approach

Today we live in a global village with diverse races, ethnicities and religions. This reality is something we ought to celebrate and protect, as stated in the Koran’s verse, Al-Hujurât

Ayang Utriza Yakin, Jakarta | Opinion | Fri, January 09 2015, 11:05 AM

Today we live in a global village with diverse races, ethnicities and religions. This reality is something we ought to celebrate and protect, as stated in the Koran’s verse, Al-Hujurât.

Diversity gives people an opportunity to be curious about others, to respect and to engage in mutual exploration and learning.

The joy and fruit of diversity can only exist in a peaceful and plural society, which requires people to respect the dignity and freedom of others.

For this, we need to value universal human rights, which is difficult to attain without democracy.

The role of government, politicians, religious leaders, the press and the NGOs in promoting and practicing human rights is extremely important.

In Southeast Asia, countries like Indonesia and Malaysia are deeply diverse. Yet there is still religion-based violence and intolerance caused by the incitement of hatred. Among Muslims, challenges remain in respecting rights, such as the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion and the freedom of sexual orientation.

Universal human rights are rooted in Islamic teachings and culture. It is a religion that deeply supports religious tolerance and pluralism as we found in the period of
Medina in the time of the Prophet Muhammad and in the period of Islamic sultanates before the birth of Indonesia.

We must also look to the values and norms of local wisdom. One such example is from Maluku in eastern Indonesia.

Despite the sectarian conflict in 1999-2002, people continue to practice the local wisdom of masohi, a synonym for mutual cooperation or gotong royong. People of different faiths will work together to build a church or a mosque.

When a Muslim community builds a mosque, Christians give materials and take part in the construction. In the final phase of construction, the symbol of the crescent and moon is created and members of the community make a long line, composed of Christians and Muslims, passing the symbol from one to the other until the symbol is placed on top of the mosque by a Christian.

Similarly, when Christians build a church, Muslims will help and will place the cross on top of the church. This tradition helps to sustain peace and harmony over the years.

Another practice that has helped sustain peace, tolerance and social cohesion is interfaith dialogue. We need a space where we can have the freedom to speak about our own faith and a space where we accept that not everyone must have the same beliefs.

The objective of interfaith dialogue is not to convert others but to enrich the knowledge of others to avoid misunderstandings and prejudice.

Through this practice we can also find common ground to build a more just world, as was suggested in the Koran: people of the Book should share “common words”.

We need these “common words” — to unite us in mutual respect and protect us against self-serving provocations. We need to continue to raise awareness about these “common words”, namely human rights, through schools and universities.

In Indonesia, respect for human rights is supported by two of the biggest Islamic organizations: Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah.

These two civil society organizations are free from state intervention and highly critical to government policies. Figures, such as the late president Abdurrahman Wahid of NU and Syafii Maarif of Muhammadiyah, are known for their campaigns against religious intolerance.

However, current constraints come from vocal minority vigilante organizations, such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), Forum Umat Islam (Islamic Community Forum), etc. With no respect for pluralistic and multi-religious societies they are keen to preach and propagate hatred and bigotry. Their voice is much louder than the majority of moderate Muslims.

Therefore, we must raise awareness in our mosques that religious pluralism and a multi-cultural society is a blessing that should unite us and not divide us, as the Koran says in Al-Baqarah/2:62 “Those who believe [in the Koran] and those who follow the Jewish [scriptures] and the Christians and the Sabians, any who believe in Allah and the Last Day […] shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.”

Murtadha Muthahari, a famous Iranian Shiite scholar, and “Buya” Hamka, the highly respected Indonesian Sunni scholar, interpreted the verse as follows: All believers from all religions will enter into paradise if they follow their religious teachings.

All Muslim leaders and other religious leaders should come up with a declaration that goes beyond the “Amman Message”, a declaration initiated by King Abdullah II of Jordan in November 2004 and formalized by more than 200 Islamic scholars from 50 countries in Amman, 2005.

The Amman Message comprises the recognition of the validity of eight schools of Sunni and also Shiism, Ibadi, Sufi, Salafi and Asharism; the prohibition of the declaration of apostasy (takfir) between Muslims; and regulations on the issuing fatwa.

Based on this message, for instance, we should recognize Shiites as part of the Muslim community of believers or ummah. A new message should embrace every important issue in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights such as religious freedom.

Muslims have to respect, protect and campaign against discrimination towards its minority sects, such as the Ahmadiyyah and Shiites.

We should extend the good and equitable life towards religious minorities in majority Muslim countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.


The writer lectures at the Graduate School of the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN), Jakarta and is a researcher at the Center for Islamic and Social Studies (PPIM UIN Jakarta). The article is based on a speech at the UN Forum of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur to celebrate the 66th Anniversary of Human Rights Day held by the Global Movement of Moderates Foundation, Malaysia, on Dec. 8

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