The Trouble With the Cairo Declaration

Anyone attempting to understand the tensions between Western liberal democracies and Islamic societies over human rights issues has got to start with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and one of its foundational documents, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI).

Shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, countries with significant Muslim populations—57 in all—joined together to form the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). (Just this year, the name was changed to “Organisation of Islamic Cooperation”—still OIC). The organization’s purpose is to represent the interests of the Muslim world (the Ummah) and to promote cooperation between the Islamic states in social, economic, cultural, scientific, and political spheres; it has a permanent delegation to the United Nations and claims to be the world’s second-largest international organization (after the UN itself). In 2007, U.S. President G. W. Bush established an envoy to the Parliamentary Union of the OIC member states (PUOICM), which is headquartered in Tehran.

The member countries of the OIC had long chafed under the presumptive authority of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. In 1981, the Iranian representative to the UN stated his country’s position that the UDHR was “a secular understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition” that could not be implemented by Muslims without violating Islamic law.

Accordingly, the OIC crafted its own declaration, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, and officially adopted it in 1990. It was promoted as a “complement” to the UDHR, not a replacement, and efforts were made to have it adopted by the UN Human Rights Council.

But the Cairo Declaration does not in fact “complement” the UDHR. In many important respects, it is its antithesis. Recognizing this, liberal Muslim organizations and human rights advocates opposed its endorsement by the UN Human Rights Council. They pointed to two critically important provisions of the document:

All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shariah. (Article 24)

The Islamic Shariah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration. (Article 25)

The Cairo Declaration is nothing more or less than a “front” for Shariah law, which is itself a kind of “dark matter” of sayings, traditions, sacred writings, and juridical opinions about which Islamic scholars have disagreed almost since Day 1 of the Islamic era. The Cairo Declaration’s framers obviously meant to provide an Islamic counterpart to the UDHR, which they rightly viewed as a product of Western Judeo-Christian and secularist traditions. Their document would (1) affirm Islamic values that are palatable to non-Muslims while backgrounding those that are not, (2) establish or reinforce rights and protections for workers, families, children, women and military combatants and noncombatants, and (3) protect the integrity of Islam by deferring to Shariah regarding blasphemy, apostasy, and marriage with non-Muslims.

But there were problems in all three of these categories, particularly the third. On the one hand, the writers recognized that certain provisions of Shariah (such as the death sentence for apostasy and blasphemy) were considered barbaric by Western democracies and would never pass muster in international courts. On the other, they knew that the Declaration could not be authentically Islamic without an unflinching adherence to even the most draconian provisions of Shariah. Their solution was to fashion a document that defers to Shariah from beginning to end (15 times in a text of only 2446 [English] words) without ever once specifying what the relevant Shariah laws are. All references to Shariah are vague, embedded in phrases like, “…in accordance with the tenets of Shariah,” “…within the framework of Shariah,” and “…contrary to the principles of Shariah.”

In 1992, the Cairo Declaration was presented to the UN Commission on Human Rights (now the Human Rights Council), where it was strongly condemned by the International Commission of Jurists.

Little wonder.

Keeping in mind that what has been omitted from a document like the CDHRI may be more telling than what is included, let’s examine a few of the CDHRI’s provisions.

Blasphemy protest by London Muslims


In Islam, blasphemy is irreverent behavior toward personages, beliefs, or customs that Muslims revere. Judging from reports that appear almost daily in the world press, Muslims throughout the world seem to have an exquisite sensitivity to any criticism of their religion. All the more curious, then, that blasphemy is never mentioned in the Cairo Declaration. Instead, we learn from Article 22(a) that “Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shariah.”  Fine. So what does Shariah have to say about freely expressing opinions that are critical of Islam?

Islamic scholar Dr. Zakir Naik has this to say: “In Islam, a person who has committed blasphemy can either be killed or crucified, or his opposite hands and feet can be cut off, or he can be exiled from that land. On the other hand, in other religions there is no other option except capital punishment. Islam at least has four options of punishment for an act of blasphemy.”

So we are to conclude that Islam is superior to other religions because it offers a wider selection of barbaric penalties for free expression?

Blasphemy in Pakistan

CDHRI Article 22 (d), which prohibits incitement of doctrinal hatred, can also be used to stifle free expression. The case of Parvez Kambaksh, an Afghani student arrested and sentenced to death in 2007 for having distributed to classmates an Internet article critical of Islam’s treatment of women, shows how broadly the word “hatred” can be interpreted.

Taking into account the importance of Islam to Muslims and its pervasiveness in their lives, the Cairo Declaration’s implicit “bracketing” of expression critical of Islam constitutes a major restriction on human rights. The glass is not almost full. It is almost empty.

Privacy Rights

CDHRI Article 18 (b) states that “Everyone shall have the right to privacy in the conduct of his private affairs, in his home, among his family, [and] with regard to his property and his relationships.”

The broad consensus among scholars of Shariah is that the hadith (sayings of Mohammad) prescribe harsh punishment for homosexual acts—even those performed in the privacy of one’s home. Modern scholars of Islam interpret homosexuality as a punishable offense without prescribing any specific punishment.


Like blasphemy, apostasy is never explicitly mentioned in the Cairo Declaration. This is yet another curious omission in a document that one would expect to advocate against the extremely harsh punishments meted out to defectors from the True Faith under Shariah law. Article 10 prohibits any attempt to proselytize a Muslim, but fails to affirm the rights of those who are successfully proselytized:

“Islam is the religion of true unspoiled nature. It is prohibited to exercise any form of pressure on man or to exploit his poverty or ignorance in order to force him to change his religion to another religion or to atheism.”

Once again, words like “pressure” and “force” are susceptible to very broad interpretation.

Apostates in Iran

The punishment for apostasy is not mentioned, but the four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence agree with Shi’a scholars that apostasy is treasonous and must be punished by execution. Some contemporary Islamic jurists argue for a more humanistic approach. Nevertheless, the reality is that accusations of apostasy are heard again and again in Islamic societies and executions for it—both judicial and extra-judicial—are disturbingly commonplace. The Cairo Declaration could have sided with the more humanistic interpretations of Shariah on this matter, but instead it gave wide latitude to radical Islamists.

In contrast to the CDHRI, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has this to say about religious conversion: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief.”

* * *

The Cairo Declaration needs to be either scrapped or massively amended. Its deficiencies are in its unconditional deference to Shariah law, its confusions about human rights principles, its obsessive concern with protecting Islam, and its abject failure to fully address human rights abuses that are so rife in countries with majority Muslim populations. Conditions inside the Islamic Republic of Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Syria, Bangdalesh, Iraq, and Afghanistan call for a bold declaration of the rights to free expression, privacy in personal relationships, religious dissent, and freedom of conscience. These are cornerstones of all other human rights and cannot be subordinated to Shariah, which recognizes none of them.

The Cairo Declaration is a symptom of the Muslim world’s inability to achieve an “enlightenment” of its own—not necessarily like the “Aufklärung” of 18th-century Europe, but something more like what some Muslim sages have called an ishraq (“illumination”). What form this might take is not for non-Muslims to suggest, but its effects will be seen in a greater openness to the modern world and less fear about maintaining the fiercely “tribal” integrity of Islam and its traditions.


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One Response to “The Trouble With the Cairo Declaration”

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