The history of human rights, albeit fragmented, is a long and often honourable expression of religious and civic endeavour. The scriptures of most religions refer to the ways in which we should treat our fellow man, from the Bible in antiquity to the broadly liberal Baha’i scriptures written in Persian and Arabic in the late nineteenth century. Religious precepts have served to protect human beings from arbitrary mistreatment in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faiths.
Modern human rights declarations and legislation developed in a secular context, above all as an expression of democratic values, and informed by Judaeo-Christian ethics. The earliest formulations of secular human rights legislation are to be found in the 1789 French Declaration on the Rights of Man and the Citizen and the 1791 US Constitution, the first 10 amendments of which form the Bill of Rights.
It was not until after the Second World War, however, that an even wider formulation of human rights came into being. Like the French and American declarations, these fresh formulas had much to do with the notion of individual rights: rights that were lodged in the political and legislative strategies of modern democratic states. Prior to that, rights tended to be located in communities, with individuals being subject to the laws and pressures of the tribe – as in the limitation of rights for Jews and Christians within Muslim societies, or for Jews in Europe, notably in ghettoes. This new construction of rights — through religious or ethnic identity — has, for some decades now, found expression in democratic states in “multiculturalism”.
The Swiss academic Elham Manea has identified this new denial of individual human rights as “essentialist multiculturalism”, in her book Women and Shari’a Law. This “Essentialist Multiculturalism” is defined by the notion that individuals must be understood through their culture, not as independent citizens.