In President Obama’s meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao this week, should discussion of human rights and religious freedom be on par with economic and environmental issues, or should human rights and religious freedom be secondary matters?
When President Obama meets with Chinese President Hu, he should not only address economics and environmental affairs, but also human and civil rights, including freedom of religion. Economics plays several vital roles in human welfare — it provides jobs and income, and products that we need both to survive and to enjoy our lives. But without basic human rights, all of these remain at risk. When discrimination on the basis of religion is allowed, jobs and incomes become matters of whim, and worker security, comfort and satisfaction decreases. When political opinions can land one in jail, products will fail to give us the agency we desire over our own lives, and will fail at keeping us happy. When labor conditions are unregulated, the lives of workers all too often become miserable as corporations try to optimize their profit and reduce costs.
Clearly unfair business practices, unjustified currency manipulation, and environmental degradation threaten the stability of the global economy and the welfare of the entire planet. They have direct impact upon Americans, and must be addressed by President Obama.
Chinese officials claim that human rights are China’s internal business. But the human race is one race, we are each others’ keepers, as all holy books affirm*. We in the US should not feel comfortable and happy enjoying our freedoms and our lifestyles knowing that our shoes, clothes, computers, and cellphones were made by underpaid, overworked employees laboring in unsafe factories across the ocean. We should not happily feast on opinion pages and the blogosphere knowing that some of the people we so enjoy hearing from may end up in jail because of what they have written. To do so is to fail in our duty to our fellow humans.
It is also short-sighted. As Martin Luther King Jr. whose life we have just commemorated earlier this week, said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When we are complacent about injustices in China, how long will it be before we are complacent about injustices in our own country? When we tolerate abridgment of human rights, of freedom of religion, how long will it be before those rights seem luxuries we do not have to maintain in our own country?
As a Muslim, I am taught not only that every human is my brother, but that I should stand up against oppression and for justice across the world. “O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to truth before Allah, even though it be against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, be he rich or poor, God’s claim takes precedence over [the claims of] either of them. So follow not your own desires, lest you swerve from justice.” (4:135) and again, “O believers, be you securers of justice, witness for God. Let not detestation for a people move you not to be equitable; be equitable-that is nearer to God-fearing.” (5:8) As a Muslim, I cannot but want justice and equity for all human beings, not just for my own people, my own country. I believe this ideal is universal, just as the brotherhood of humankind is universal. As such, I can only encourage President Obama to address human rights along with our economic and environmental concerns.
* see for instance, the Qur’an: “O Mankind! We created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other. Verily, the most honored of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted with all things” (49: 13).