by Faizal Nor Izham

Trigger warnings: Female Genital Mutilation, Islamophobia, Homophobia, Torture

How does Islam actually fare in terms of human rights, and is it really any different from any other religion? The “religion of peace” has been getting a poor reputation in Western media over the issue for decades, with human rights abuses in Muslim countries often stretching from the major to the mundane.

Female genital mutilation, the stoning of homosexuals to death, the subjugation of women – the list goes on and on. Apostasy is frequently met with the death sentence in conservative states such as Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, individual liberties in these countries, such as speaking up against the state, are frequently curtailed on the pretext of actually insulting the religion itself. Just ask Raif Badawi, the Saudi activist and blogger who dared to criticize the Saudi regime and was sentenced up to 1,000 lashes from the theocratic state for his troubles.

This repressive trend continues all over the Muslim world to this day. Following an attempted coup against him, as well as a bombing in Ankara that killed 37 people, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called for redefinition of so-called “anti-terror” laws in a bid to heighten security in the country.

According to the BBC, the president in a statement added journalists, lawmakers and activists to the group of people considered to be “terrorists”. Media censorship is not new to Erdoğan either, as he has previously blocked Twitter and YouTube in the past, as well as other social media platforms. In Malaysia, this trend has been emulated by Prime Minister Najib Razak, who, following his much-publicized corruption scandal  ongoing since 2015, has declared heightened security laws to take effect in the country on Aug 1, under a similar pretext of “curtailing terrorism”. This includes the National Security Act which will give Malaysian authorities the right to search or arrest suspects without a warrant.

However, the sad reality is that the Muslim faith, just like any other religion throughout history, has often been utilized for power and political gain by its leaders and clerics.

But any critical-thinking individual will undoubtedly see through such repressive measures as a means to maintain a leader’s grip on power, rather than view it as being wholly representative of Islam’s stance on human rights altogether. Just because human rights violations occur in Muslim countries does not necessarily make the religion itself intolerant of human rights altogether, right? Or does Islam really promote violence and encourage repression as many claim?

Contemporary moderate Muslim scholars, such as Iranian-American Reza Aslan, insist that individuals tend to insert their own values into the reading of scripture as a means to justify deriving power and authority from it, rather than relying on scripture as the sole authority on various issues. In other words, if you are a violent misogynist, you will be able to find plenty of material in scripture to back your point. If, on the other hand, you are a peaceful feminist, you’ll find just as much material to accommodate your viewpoint from the very same source. Meaning is often lost on the interpreter, not necessarily the interpretation itself.


Female genital mutilation, for example, is a cultural practice mainly found in Africa, and is not exclusively a Muslim country problem as it is also practised in African Christian countries as well. Women are forbidden from driving in Saudi Arabia, but there is no mention of this ruling in the Qur’an – obviously, for a book written in the 7th century, there would certainly not be any passages that mention automobiles and how they should remain exclusive to men.

The repression of female rights in the oil-rich state are simply reflective of the fact that, regardless of religion, the Saudis are just good-old fashioned sexist and patriarchal by nature. On the contrary, it is a well-established fact that, as recently as 2015, 70 per cent of Iranian engineering graduates are women. Tunisian women have always played an empowered role in commerce and, as far back as 1956, were given progressive rights (such as the right to vote, divorce and abortion) way before the West did.  In Turkey, despite women’s suffrage admittedly being under seige in the present day, women were also awarded voting rights under its first president Ataturk way before the West did. And let’s not forget that female leaders are becoming increasingly prominent all over the Muslim world, such as in Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia.


Even the topic of homosexuality in the Muslim world is not as clear-cut as some would suggest. In May this year, a top Saudi cleric insisted that, despite it being considered a sin in holy Semitic books, homosexuality should not be criminally punished by governments and that such judgement should be left reserved “after death” instead. It is also noteworthy that Sharia law, from which such punishments are usually derived, was a man-made law first enforced in the 9th century, while the Prophet Muhammad himself lived in the 7th century.

The fact remains that Islam is, according to scholars such as Reza Aslan, a very “malleable” belief system that can be interpreted and accommodated according to varying cultures and time periods. However, the sad reality is that the Muslim faith, just like any other religion throughout history, has often been utilised for power and political gain by its leaders and clerics.

Things like human rights, compassion and common sense should always be seen as universal standards from which we should collectively view the world but sadly, this isn’t always the case when it comes to those in positions of power – regardless of whether they base their decisions in religion or not.

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