Introduction. Human Rights and Agency in the Arab World_

Anthony Chase

Since the events of September 11, 2001 the notion of a clash between the West and the Muslim world has taken increasing hold, both explicitly in bellicose statements from many sides and implicitly in assumptions in academia and the media. Declarations of jihad1 have been met by declarations of war against absolute evil, confirming stereotypes of an essentialist clash. What has been lost in such mobilizations on the basis of ideological abstractions is precisely what extremists of various stripes hope will be lost: the articulation from within the Arab (and, more broadly, Muslim) world of a politic that directly responds to the particulars of economic, political, civil, social, and cultural rights consistently denied in the region.

Human Rights in the Arab World draws attention to the status of human rights as a key barometer of the Arab world’s political health. How is human rights’ relevance defined by the Arab world’s political, social, and economic context? What are the theoretical considerations that must be taken into account regarding human rights’ implementation or, more commonly, lack thereof? This is the first English language text to collect writings of intellectuals at the forefront of debating these key issues. It is telling—and regrettable—that until now there has not been an empirical or theoretical focus on those who work within a human rights framework, or who struggle to understand the historic and contemporary place of human rights in Arab politics. The Arab world’s discourse on human rights cumulatively contradicts the assumption by many—in both the West and the Arab world—that human rights have little relevance to the region. This assumption accounts, at least in part, for the relative lack of attention paid to discourse on this subject and has limited a robust internal, regional, and transnational dialogue around human rights in the region to a very narrow audience.

In the West the conversation often (too often) starts and ends with a discussion of whether human rights are relevant to the Arab world. This book shows how human rights have had and can have an impact on the region’s politics, both in broad terms and regarding issues of acute concern. Thus, both for those who are conversant with Arab politics and those with a more general interest, Human Rights in the Arab World fills a glaring need for an English language text that presents the distinct and varied voices of those who think and work on human rights in this region. The contributors are primarily but not exclusively from within the Arab world. As this discussion is not solely internal (indeed, in a globalized world, it could not be), other contributors are from the Arab diaspora, and still others are Europeans or North Americans who are in close touch with human rights currents in the Arab world.

My concern in this introduction is to cover three points. First is to give an overview of the book’s goals and the themes which structure its chapters. Second is to describe the politically and economically repressive realities that are the backdrop to the issues the chapters analyze and to argue for the relevance of human rights to structuring the possibility of alternatives. Third is to make a theoretical argument that supports the book’s collective repudiation of cultural relativism and conceptualizes the importance of human rights in sustaining a politics based on the agency of peoples in the region. These three points frame the book’s subsequent chapters that address more specific human rights issues.

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