The Tail and the Dog: Constructing Islam and Human Rights in Political Context

Anthony Chase

Looming over discussions of human rights in the Muslim world is the question of Islam: is it inherently contradictory to human rights, or somehow reconcilable? Whether it be in old debates on the Muslim world’s emerging postcolonial states, ongoing debates in Iran’s Islamic Republic, or fresh debates over Iraq’s constitutional future, this question is perceived as fundamental. This chapter’s argument is that Islam and human rights can be constructed as oppositional or supportive, but they are not inevitably one or the other, and conceptualizing them as necessarily in a direct relationship to each other is, in fact, an abstract diversion from the real issues defining human rights. In other words, Islam and human rights as a binary relationship must be problematized if debate is to move beyond a simplistic opposition between Islam and human rights or an equally misleading conflation (based on similar assumptions) that sees Islam as inherently supportive of human rights. It is political, social, and economic context that explains the status of human rights, for better or for worse; Islam is neither responsible for rights violations nor the core basis for advancing rights.

Focusing on the context in which Islam and human rights interrelation—or lack thereof—is constructed moves away from essentialized notions of how they inevitably conflict or correspond and toward a historically informed recognition of the variability in Islam’s relationship to human rights and, more broadly, the public sphere. Human rights will only be advanced when debate focuses on their political, economic, and social aptness, rather than irrelevant theological justifications that

are abstracted from contemporary context. It is, in short, the underlying

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politics that explain current realities and their alternatives, not an Islamic metanarrative.

Those who see Islam as oppositional or as supportive to human rights are privileging a theoretically distorted metanarrative at the expense of on-the-ground political dynamics. The shared theoretical assumption is that Islam is a defining discourse in the Muslim world and that human rights is a direct challenge to that discourse, therefore, rights either conflict or must be reconciled by being constructed as definable via an Islamic discourse. In terms of the latter, by conceding that human rights have to be justified on Islamic terms, nonreligious arguments for human rights are abandoned—even by those who are rights advocates. This retreat returns us to an assumption that secular norms are irrelevant because Islam is all-defining and all-controlling—the pernicious Orientalist stereotype. Therefore, playing on Islamic turf is not only a transparent, losing strategy, as I will argue, but, more dangerously, it also delegitimizes non-Islamic norms in predominantly Muslim societies and implicitly accepts their marginalization. This is critical at a time when Islamists are, similarly, pushing for this same type of marginalization. This push comes despite the fact that the history of Muslim societies and the contemporary existence of diverse political movements in the Muslim world explicitly contradict this project of marginalizing the importance of non-Islamic norms. It is for this reason that asking if Islam and human rights clash or are reconcilable is the wrong question and leads to a theoretical diversion away from the essential questions regarding the foundations of rights violations in the Arab world and the possibilities for advancing greater respect for individual and group rights.

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