In most Western societies the political language is that of liberalism, and the individual is at the centre of the liberal worldview. Liberalism acknowledges and celebrates individual choice because it recognizes the individual over the collective. This has given a new model of freedom to society, along with a new social order where religion no longer holds such an elevated role.

The rise of democratic rule, the concept of civil society, the recognition of all kinds of human rights – including gender and sexual rights – are all part of this new political and moral consciousness. Here, society emphasizes dignity and democracy as integral to human flourishing, even though these concepts remain contested in meaning and scope. Around the world, the language of human rights, including its international dimension through the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has captured our imagination and shaped global politics and law.

If the language of human rights appears culturally modern, religious language, often pointing to a world beyond the earthly struggle for rights, appears non-modern. This means that religion in all its diversity doesn’t always find a meaningful place constitutionally and politically, even if it does so socially. Yet we also live in a world of growing diaspora communities, in which all religions are everywhere, often governed by largely secular regimes. Religious faith hasn’t dwindled alongside the emergence of the nation state, mass migration and globalization, even if traditional clerical structures and hierarchies have gradually been eroded.

Religious traditions have in fact undergone the most radical transformation in recent times to adapt to our altered world, giving rise to multiple and marginal voices. Many argue that modern notions of egalitarianism and justice are already present in their scriptures and that it is in fact politics and patriarchy that have denied people full dignity and moral agency. Others claim that a person’s duty is first and foremost to the eternal laws of God, whereas modern human rights are culturally relative ideas that only pretend to be universally valid. People vary in their interpretation of their religion and its ideals. There is no one understanding of the relationship between religion and human rights.

But if human rights are held to be more important than religious edicts, where is the place of religious faith in public life? Religion expresses itself in practice as well as in thought. It is one thing to say that our religious convictions must not adversely affect the political framework or the greater good of society. It is quite another to argue that the universal norms of human rights should leave no room for religious conscience. Yet this is precisely what is happening in many parts of the world, where religious communities feel that their voices are being silenced or dismissed.

Can the state protect religious freedom, when there are different ways of defining religion and different ways of practising the same faith? Can lived religion in all its manifestations really always be protected by the law? However we approach this, we must be careful not to polarize the debate between religion and human rights.

To the extent that modern politics employs the language of rights, ideological principles are central to it. As the anthropologist Talal Asad has argued, “civil rights and human rights are not merely neutral legal facts, they are profoundly moralistic values constantly invoked to guide and criticize modern politics.” Human rights are a struggle and an aspiration in many parts of the world where there is poverty, inequality, violence and degradation. Thus, it seems to me that if religion wants to tell a different story from the one told by the state, it cannot dismiss human rights as optional or irrelevant. Religious ethics must complement, not clash, with the rights-based discourse using a language that is meaningful, not just authoritative. Only then will religion surface forcefully and justly as a public good rather than simply a private passion.

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Author: Mona Siddiqui is Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at Edinburgh University and is Vice-Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith.

Image: A child looks at candles in a church in El Salvador REUTERS/Roberto Escobar.