Can Faith Substitute for Human Rights?
Yasmine Mahmoud Fakhry
“While the international community and human rights activists emphasize that human rights are universal, inalienable and imprescriptible, the truth is that human rights are inherent only in places where the culture of human rights exists.”
Through my work as a human rights educator, I sought to bring hope to young people and motivate them to be agents of change. I lived the happiest days of my life teaching, especially because I maintained a good rapport and a positive relationship with my students. I have been blessed by the warmth and respect of my students, which gave me strength and motivated me to work hard and be the best I can to deserve their love and admiration. Although my passion for human rights grew even more over the years, my students did not share my enthusiasm and strong feelings about the human rights course and many didn’t see any point in learning about human rights even while they were being denied of many of their basic rights.
Talking about human rights was like talking about fairy tales, something which they knew never existed. It sounded like the promise of Heaven, something they considered to be beyond their imagination and probably unreachable. The negative reactions and attitudes of some students did not stop me from carrying on my mission or from dreaming about educating the coming generation for a better future. I was excited that I managed to touch the lives of many other students who started dreaming themselves and becoming more engaged in civil work. On the other hand, the workplace environment was hostile and discouraging, and although I battled every year for more facilities and better service, things would only get worse. So after four years of struggling with corruption, structural violence, underpayment, and inhumane working conditions, I became emotionally drained and I started to lose interest and hope in change.
After a long period of involvement in human rights issues, my inner peace was replaced with anger, rage, and resentment because when I opened my eyes wide and looked closely around me I saw how people are suffering from degrading treatment and severe inhumane conditions. I saw that even what we took as the good things in our lives turned out to be violations of human rights, and what we considered luxurious or secondary needs turned out to be basic human rights. Knowledge of human rights can be depressing in a country where only violations of these rights can be witnessed on the ground. The knowledge of human rights has made me resistant to happiness without dignity and without my rights. I began to understand why my students were resistant to learning about human rights – because they did not want to lose their inner peace.
The reason people have put up with oppression and the severe conditions under which they lived is because they had Arab values called reda and sabr. The former means to find satisfaction, contentment, and pleasure in everything, including finding inner peace during the hard times and look at the bright side of all the misfortunes and troubles that we face in our lives. The other value is sabr, which means to have patience, tolerance, and strength to face the difficulties at all times. Both reda and sabr help people accept the things that cannot be changed.
Faith helped us in the last few decades to maintain our inner peace without which violence would have taken place and the inner beast unleashed. When I visited the apartheid museum in South Africa, I came across an interesting quote which was Desmond Tutu’s “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” South Africans survived on faith and they clung to the Bible to find hope and inner peace despite all the pain that they had to live through. Old Egyptian black and white movies portrayed poor people as more decent and happier because they were not greedy and they were thankful for everything God had granted them. They tried to be happy despite all the circumstances, and sometimes the rich even envied them for their courage in the face of all challenges and their fearlessness of tomorrow.
While the international community and human rights activists emphasize that human rights are universal, inalienable, and imprescriptible, the truth is that human rights are inherent only in places where the culture of human rights exists. There are millions of people who have lived all their lives without having ever tasted what human rights are like. Instead, they have survived on hope, drawing their strength from spiritual beliefs and finding happiness by appreciating small things. Awareness of human rights for them is a means to sabotage their happiness and take away the peace they have found for themselves. To tell them you have human rights and you can’t live without them is like telling them “You are fooling yourself and you will never be happy.” These people have lived to tell the tale of how they bravely faced appalling hardships and overcame their grievances.
I wish I didn’t know much about human rights; I have fought daily battles and struggles and I found my happiness in believing in myself and believing that I can make my own happiness. Having traveled a lot, I came to see how indeed it is greener on the other side and how it is not green at all where I stand. I had faith and hope while being denied my human rights, but now I am losing hope and faith too? Is there any chance I can survive?
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