• Islam;
  • human rights;
  • R2P (Responsibility to Protect);
  • duty


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. References
  4. Biography

In this response to Johnson, Oh reaffirms the scholarly vision of Kelsay and Twiss, elaborates upon Muslim perspectives on human rights, and questions the emphasis on violent humanitarian interventions as part of the Responsibility to Protect mandate. Oh suggests that, in light of the historical relationship between Muslim and non-Muslim states and the aftermath of the second Iraq War, more consideration be given to the rebuilding of Muslim-majority societies. Oh also highlights the concept of duty as a religiously based ideal to which governments of Muslim nations ought to be held.

WHEN JOHN KELSAY AND SUMNER TWISS took over as editors of the JRE in 2001, few of us could have anticipated how appropriate the choice of two scholars whose work focused on comparative religious ethics, human rights, and Islam would be. In addition to their generous mentorship to future generations of scholars, their leadership of the top journal in the field of religious ethics has shaped the way that we, their colleagues, think about how to do what we do in a responsible way. There is little doubt that one cannot do religious ethics today without some consideration of global influences, and without thinking about ethics as both a theoretical and a practical philosophy. As James Turner Johnson notes, the “connections among human rights, religion, and the use of armed force are quite complex and always developing” (Johnson 2013, 1). While Johnson has provided an informative view of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) mandate and its deep historical ties to religious, and specifically Christian, political values, I would like to consider briefly these topics in relationship to views on human rights in Muslim-majority countries.

Not surprisingly, there has been much attention given to the topic of religiously sanctioned violence since 9/11. Many questioned if and how scholars of Islam legitimated war, a topic John Kelsay explored in his book Arguing the Just War in Islam (Kelsay 2007). The conclusions reached by Kelsay and others are varied, but in the past decade, the collaborative work of scholars of religion on the topic of religious motivation for war has resulted in a wealth of scholarship in the field of human rights and Islam. This recent scholarship is characterized by a more refined discourse—one that attends to important distinctions among types of religious violence, different legal and religious sources, and levels of state and non-state involvement.

The field of comparative religious ethics has sharpened our understanding of subject matters such as religion and violence by forcing us to look at topics from multiple perspectives. A much more finely tuned sense of these complex subject matters offers intellectual and practical benefits: not only can we better comprehend other persons and communities, but the process of dialogue whereby we discover what we agree and disagree about involves a type of diplomacy that precedes just and peaceful relations. We cannot, and indeed we ought not, take for granted the assumption that people in varied contexts understand terms like “human rights,” “sovereignty,” and “protect” in the same way. Each of these terms is deeply intertwined with religious and political histories of particular communities, and while I am no moral relativist, I am also convinced that we have quite a bit of work ahead of us in defining these terms, especially because how we define them can have such severe consequences. A wide range of human rights is valued differently by different communities; one need only look to the ever evolving debates over women's rights to observe the continuum of perspectives. Although many have debated whether Muslim governance can support human rights, the more astute questions that emerge ask which human rights take precedence, how Muslims define those rights, and how much sovereignty ought to be granted to communities that claim to be in the process of establishing human rights.

Since the emergence of the idea of human rights in the middle of the twentieth century, a wide range of Muslim clerics and intellectuals has embraced this concept, although there are varying opinions as to the specific details. Even thinkers whom we regard as radically conservative, such as the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, supported the notion of representative democracy and the human rights such a democracy implies. Several interpreted the Qur'anic idea of shura (political consultation) to apply to modern democracy. In their minds, Islam was indeed compatible with democracy. For most of these thinkers, the greater concern was not whether Islam supported democratic forms of government, but rather how to overcome the devastating legacy of Western colonialism so that they could, eventually, develop stable polities. They were concerned that without first establishing economic stability, infrastructure development, and food security, a democratic state would never rest on a proper foundation (see Oh 2007).

Whether or not Muslim-majority nations had sufficient infrastructure to support democracy, the Arab Spring of 2011 seemed to indicate that the time had come, throughout the Middle East, for rule by the people and for the people. In the exciting context of these popular revolutions, the world was swept up by the possibility of democracy in this region. The powerful images of thousands of protesters, young and old, sometimes joined by members of the military and police, captured our collective imaginations. Upholding others' right to democratic governance, which was declared a human right in 1993 at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna (on the heels of the downfall of the Communist Bloc), became a major impetus behind the humanitarian intervention in Libya. In stark contrast to the other nations of the Arab Spring, whose protests were largely peaceful, Libya's death toll likely reached into the thousands.1 The attacks on civilian protesters in Libya were rightly viewed by the international community as, in the words of R2P, “large scale loss of life … which is the product either of deliberate state action, or state neglect and inability to act, or a failed state situation” (ICISS 2001a, 6). The military intervention, led by the United States and NATO, and sanctioned by the UN, was in all likelihood necessary to prevent further loss of human life.

However, in comparison to the other crises that fall under the domain of R2P, the international resources spent on Libya seem disproportionate to the amount of suffering found in its southern neighbor, the Sudan, where there have been an estimated 1.5 million (mostly civilian) deaths since 1983, 4 million internally displaced refugees, and a half-million refugees beyond Sudanese borders (ICRP, n.d.). Although elections have taken place, peace between North and South Sudan remains fragile.

The contrast between international responses to Libya and the Sudan raises important questions about the precise meaning of responsibility. What does responsibility in the political sphere entail, to whom are we responsible, and how might such responsibility be received by Muslim states? The original R2P report states that:

The responsibility to protect embraces three specific responsibilities:

  1. The responsibility to prevent: to address both the root causes and direct causes of internal conflict and other man-made crises putting populations at risk.
  2. The responsibility to react: to respond to situations of compelling human need with appropriate measures, which may include coercive measures like sanctions and international prosecution, and in extreme cases military intervention.
  3. The responsibility to rebuild: to provide, particularly after a military intervention, full assistance with recovery, reconstruction and reconciliation, addressing the causes of the harm the intervention was designed to halt or avert. (ICISS 2001b, XI)

The focus of R2P thus far in both academic discussion and international relations seems to be upon the second of these: the responsibility to react, and specifically to react with military force. However, the experience of the second Iraq War points to the need to focus upon the last of the enumerated responsibilities, that of rebuilding. This responsibility is not an easy one in the case of Libya, since its social, economic, and political cultures are not well known outside its borders. With little information, the challenges faced by those who want to help rebuild are daunting. To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that the UN coalition ought not to have intervened in Libya, as the large loss of life there justified drastic intervention. However, with the second Iraq War in hindsight, intervention without careful consideration of what the responsibility to rebuild entails is potentially far worse than no military intervention at all. Moreover, when it comes to previously colonized nations, implementing R2P entails walking a razor's edge between compensating for past wrongs and dangerously misguided paternalism. The brutal legacy of colonization by Western nations remains a fresh memory for many in Africa and the Middle East. However good the intention of Western nations may be in the present day, interventions will be viewed suspiciously given this past history.

The movement toward responsibility in the contemporary international community resuscitates the old notion of “duty” within the new world of rights. While one might think of an irresponsible state, such as Libya or the Sudan, as a government that fails to meet the most basic human rights of its people—the right to life, to food, to security—one might also think of an irresponsible state as a government that fails to meet its duties to its own citizens. Within Islam, the concept of obligation or duty has far deeper roots than the concept of rights. Hadith, or recorded sayings of the Prophet, attest to the obligation of rulers to be just to their peoples, and for people in turn to obey their rulers (except, of course, if the ruler asks them to commit a sin). This turn toward responsibility awakens new possibilities for studying the intersection of religion, politics, and the state. By appealing to traditional Muslim sources of authority on the duties leaders have towards the people, nations in a position to protect can move away from “reacting” and “rebuilding” to the far more effective, but less publicized, role of “preventing” crises.

  1. 1

    The death toll in Libya ranges from 2,000 to 20,000. The wide discrepancy in figures can be attributed to a number of factors. For additional information about the controversy surrounding this statistic see Nordland 2011.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. References
  4. Biography
  • International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRP) n.d. “The Crisis in Sudan.” Available at: (accessed July 5, 2012).
  • International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) 2001aResponsibility to Protect—Engaging Civil Society: Summary of the Responsibility to Protect.” New York: World Federalist Movement.
  • International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) 2001bThe Responsibility to Protect.” Co-chaired by Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun. Ottawa, Canada: International Development Research Centre.
  • Johnson, James Turner 2013Religion, Violence, and Human Rights: Protection of Human Rights as Justification for the Use of Armed Force.” Journal of Religious Ethics 41.1 (March): 114.
  • Kelsay, John 2007 Arguing the Just War in Islam. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Nordland, Rod 2011Libya Counts More Martyrs Than Bodies.” The New York Times, September 16. Available at: (accessed July 5, 2012).
  • Oh, Irene 2007 The Rights of God: Islam, Human Rights, and Comparative Ethics. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. References
  4. Biography
  • Irene Oh is Associate Professor of Religion and Director of the Peace Studies Program at The George Washington University. She is the author of The Rights of God: Islam, Human Rights, and Comparative Ethics (Georgetown, 2007), and has published in the Journal of Religious Ethics, the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, and the Journal of Church and State. She is currently working on a book on the ethics of motherhood. Prof.