A Conversation with Karim Khan QC About Islam & Human Rights

Due to the increased media coverage of violent extremism that is conducted in the name of Islam, the relationship between the world’s fastest growing religion and modern human rights has become a central part of public and political discourse.

The 2017 Handa Center Annual Lecture on Human Rights this year was delivered by Karim Khan QC. Karim Khan is a specialist in international criminal law and international human rights law. In addition to being a Queen’s Counsel, he is the President of the International Criminal Court Bar Association (ICCBA). Presently, Mr. Khan is Lead Counsel for Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and is also lead counsel for Darfuri rebel leader Abdulla Banda before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Outside of his work with the International Criminal Court, Mr. Khan is also founding director of the NGOs, the “Peace and Justice Initiative” and “Global Victims Initiative”, and has published numerous leading texts on international criminal law. On November 30th, prior to his lecture, I interviewed Mr. Khan about the compatibility of Islam and human rights.

Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and length.


Melda Alaluf: When one thinks back to the chronology of the ‘war on terror’, it is evident that the September 11 attacks mark a pivotal shift in manifesting the concept of terrorism, specifically Islamic, in public discourse and policy. Unfortunately, post 9/11 media coverage tends to link terrorism to radical, violent Islam. This negative portrayal of Islam has caused some to question the compatibility of Islam and international standards of human rights. In your opinion, what is the status of Islam with respect to modern human rights conventions?

Karim Khan: It requires an objective observer to look at the evidence. One must look at the state of the world and the norms that were prevailing prior to the advent of Islam, and at the teachings of the prophet. At the time of Islam, the reality is that women were property to be owned, and daughters were killed, buried alive. There were blood feuds and massive killings. Islam forbade all of that. Islam is a religion whose name means peace. It means submission to the will of God. It does not talk about violence. It does not talk about hate.

Properly and fairly analyzed, without any ulterior motive, one cannot blame the crimes that are committed today by so-called “adherents” to a philosophy or religion whose name means peace anymore than one can blame what is happening to the Rohingyas on the teachings of prophet Buddha, or Hindu terrorism on the teachings of Krishna, or Pinochet on Christianity. So, I think one requires a degree of fairness and discernment to separate a teaching from the practice of people who supposedly espouse that belief. I mean, you do not blame Christianity for the abhorrent acts of the Klu Klux Klan or those extremists. In the same way, Islam should not be blamed for the very twisted, evil conduct of the Osama Bin Ladens of the world or the terrorists that contort a message of peace.

MA: You have mentioned lots of specific instances of people contorting peaceful ideologies to justify violence; yet, in most cases, people are able to separate a peaceful teaching from the wrongdoings of adherents. Why do you think Islam has this reputation? Why is Islam blamed?

KK: One factor is that the conduct of so-called Muslim countries is terrible, in terms of their obligations to uphold standards of morality, of fairness, of kindness that were enjoined by their prophet. The violent governance, spewed forth in the name of Islam, which we see in Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, is a million miles away from the meek and humble message of the prophet of Islam.People may disagree with me but I think it is also a result of a bit of historical unfairness. Why do we have certain language that we do not see elsewhere? Some years back, before Pakistan exploded its nuclear bomb, there was talk about the “Muslim bomb”. Why did we never hear the language of the “Hindu bomb” in India, or the “Christian bomb” in the United Kingdom or the United States, or the “Jewish bomb” in Israel? Why pick on the so-called scary image of the “Islamic bomb”? Why “Islamic terror”? Why not “Buddhist terror”, as I said earlier? What was Hitler or Pinochet? Was that “Christian terror”?

We do not use the same nomenclature equally. Within most contexts, we have the sophistication and the correct analysis to draw a clear line between the religions of prophets and millions of people and the practice of so-called adherents. Consider the burning alive of heretics in England, Catholics or Protestants, depending on if it was Mary or Queen Elizabeth in power. We do not characterize that today in those religious terms. We realize it was a political undercurrent.

MA: As a human rights lawyer, do you believe that “religion” has a place in modern human rights discourse? Does the idea of “religion” serve a useful purpose in the discussion and pursuit of human rights?

KK: I think human rights is a freestanding discipline now but one cannot ignore the history of the law. The common law that we see here in United States and that we have seen in the commonwealth system in England and Wales had some of its origins initially in cannon law, the law of the Bible. We have seen that in the civil law system as well. In terms of aspects of the law, there is actually common ground amongst the major religions of the world. The fundamental unity of all religions is really this idea of kindness and a belief in accountability. There exists a belief that there is a creation, and a purpose to the universe. I think that common ground can be a useful platform for different groups to come together. Human rights discourse is something that can be discussed in general terms in relation to certain international norms.

If I went to Israel and started speaking about Islamic human rights law, or a Hindu came to Pakistan to discuss their version of human rights, you would wonder to what end people would sometimes stop listening. By the same token, however, I do think it is legitimate and sometimes productive, to not only to talk about international norms and conventions because people often reject that somehow as foreign law. If I was speaking to an audience of so-called Muslim extremists, I think it is a useful device to say: “Look, this is what the Prophet said”. How do they deal with that? How do they reject it? It is very difficult for them. They will twist and turn. People always find a way of justifying their extremism, but the argument really must be with the majority. How do you remove tendencies to go extreme? I think you do that by having a common touchstone, a common belief system to the majority of people. In that sense, the convergence between religious norms and fundamental essential human rights standards can be one of many ways of having a dialogue to bring people back to moderation, and moderation is the basis of all justice everywhere.

MA: With respect to the relationship between universal human rights norms and religion, could you discuss the often-heard claim that modern human rights are a “Western invention” and are therefore incompatible with Islam?

KK: I fundamentally reject that. Human rights is the inheritance of civilization. It is the byproduct of the march of humankind through millennia. Well before the 1948 Universal Declaration, or the Nuremburg principles, or the European convention, or the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, we had various charters of human rights. Look at the cylinder of Cyrus the Great that is outside the Security Council room in New York. It goes back to before Jesus Christ, peace be upon him, and it talks about freedom of religion, freedom of worship, certain rights that people have, and certain duties that people have. One considers the law of the Talmud, the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an. There are certain fundamentals that are human rights principles.

The art is to get those norms accepted. How to do that? I think that is a presentational issue. We need to speak the language of the people that we are trying to reach out to. We can do that effectively by reinforcing the idea that the international principles that have become established are consistent with the cultural, religious heritage of the people. If we can remove that possibility of a qualitative gap between an international norm and a religious or cultural practice, we remove the space that extremists can try to exploit, and increase the chance that those norms become owned by every man, woman and child. That must be the aims of human rights. They are not there to be on the library shelves. They are there to inform and empower every individual.

MA: In recent weeks, Robert Spencer, director of JihadWatch.Org, made a highly controversial visit to campus, in which he discussed the dangers of radical Islam. He has previously made the claim that “there are moderate Muslims, but there is no moderate Islam”. What is the main point you would reiterate to those who view Islam as an inherently violent religion?

KK: We need to honestly upraise our own histories and assess what teachings teach. When adherents fall down, do not ascribe that to a religion. As I said, how unjust it would be for me to falsely malign the teaching of Jesus with the genocide against the Jews and the Muslims during the Spanish Inquisition. That would be unfair and opportunistic of me. That’s the opposite of what Jesus Christ said. He said the meek will inherit the earth. Why not have the same compassion, the same objectivity, and the same understanding when it comes to all religions? I do not blame Prophet Buddha, peace be upon him, with the crimes that have been committed against the Rohingya. Buddha had a wonderful message of peace and humanity. I blame that on politics, and on opportunism. People seize and hijack philosophies and religion for rabble-rousing. This is what happened to the Jews of Nazi Germany. You scapegoat people. You distract people from fundamental problems and motivate them in a dangerous nationalist fervor. So, the question, really, for all of us is how do we deal with it? We deal with it by understanding and analyzing fairly, and pausing and looking back over history, and then commenting.

MA: You highlighted some of the key misunderstandings about the compatibility between Islam and human rights. Moving forward, what can be done to ensure public awareness about Islam’s compatibility with human rights?

KK: I think all sides need to be fair. There is an obligation on Muslims not to overreact, but to speak with reason, with knowledge, and within the bounds of what they are taught. They should present what they believe to be their Islam, and act accordingly. There is a responsibility of the press to listen to that moderate voice, which may not be as newsworthy as people burning flags, or burning books, or acting violently. It requires on all sides a degree of honesty, both of Muslims to act as Islam enjoins and on the media and leaders in religion and in politics, to try to bring people together, not divide. Ultimately, whatever religion we are talking about, if one believes in one God and the unity of God, one must believe in the unity of creation. The goal of religion must be to unite. I think that is the common theme of all religions. So, we need to, all of us, try to practice what we preach in that regard because it’s an antidote to the hatred and the ever-increasing polarization that we are seeing everywhere.