Islam, Liberal Islam, and Human Rights

This is not to imply that human rights are incompatible with Islam or Muslim societies. While acknowledging that Islamist religious nationalism is problematic for human rights—both empirically and theoretically—this must be kept distinct from an argument that Islam is incompatible with rights. More broadly, it should be kept distinct from the temptation to conceptualize Islam and human rights as being in a direct relationship.

Scholarly activity starts with posing the right questions. Asking if Islam and human rights either clash or are reconcilable implicitly makes the profound assumption that these two normative systems are jousting opponents. This is, in my view, the wrong question and leads to skewed and unproductive analysis by prompting many observers to conceptualize Islam and human rights in a competitive dichotomy. Islam is often seen as controlling the content of politics and law in the Muslim world— the core Orientalist and Islamist assertion—while human rights tends to be inflated in terms of ambition and impact, and to be seen as blocked

or in need of reconciliation because it is contradicted by an all-defining

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Islamic monolith. Disentangling Islam and human rights from intellectual conceptions and political ideologies that simplify them into competing dichotomies is essential to understanding their interrelation. Just as a cultural system’s dynamism ensures that it does not a priori delineate and define acceptable constructs of law and politics, Islam does not place a box around the political-legal possibilities that exist in Muslim societies. It is imperative not to assume intellectual constructs that superimpose such boxes.

One side of this dichotomous debate is epitomized by Jean Baudril- lard’s statement that ‘‘Islam is the quarters of the centered Absolute, the ultimate face of the anti-modern.’’2 Islam is here starkly designated the role of opponent to all that an equally undifferentiated modern ‘‘West’’ supposedly represents, including human rights. The portrayal of Islam as fundamentally opposed to human rights depends on this type of essentialist, ethnocentric view of the Muslim world as alien to modernity, and is at the heart of conceptions such as that in Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld in which Barber directly counterpoises Islamic and human rights norms and portrays them as mutually exclusive.3 This conception leaves Muslims—ignoring what they might say themselves— voiceless and alone to suffer the oppressions of their governments. They are theoretically unconcerned with international standards regarding issues such as the right not to be tortured or not to be denied the opportunity to work, or the right to education or self-determination—all issues prominently featured, in fact, by populist and human rights groups in the Arab world that have sought to integrate these international norms into domestic practice. This sort of rhetorical caricature of the relationship of Islam and the international human rights regime as a simple clash sets up a false opposition that is destructive to understanding their political dynamics, which are shaded with far more subtlety and variety than these harsh oppositions allow.

Fuad Zakariya summarizes a common response by those critical of viewing Islam as a clashing monolith by saying, simply, that ‘‘Islam is what Muslims make of it.’’4 This critical response (cited here in the grossest possible shorthand, of course) emphasizing the constructedness of Islam is undoubtedly more theoretically sophisticated than Baudril- lard’s or Barber’s opposition between Islam and the modern world,5 and is the bedrock position of many who argue that Islam can be reconciled with human rights norms. What Muslims make of Islam is, indeed, quite changeable, but that does not mean Islam is so malleable that it can always be reconciled to other normative structures. Nor does it mean that Islam needs to be malleable in order for Muslim societies to accommodate norms from non-Muslim sources. Islam does not need to be malleable in this manner because it is not necessarily an obstacle directly

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counterpoised to human rights, thwarting their implementation and surmountable only by remaking Islam in a human rights-friendly manner. This conception of Islam and human rights as direct counterparts is the basic theoretical framework which, despite their different conclusions, a Zakariya shares with a Baudrillard or Barber. This common theoretical premise is troubling in its privileging of a monolithic conception of Islam’s political role.

Many liberal Islamic reformers work within this same framework. In terms of human rights, this premise results in arguments that rights can only resonate in the Muslim world by being reconciled with Islam and advanced in religious, culturally appropriate language. For example, perhaps the best known and most sophisticated reformer of Islamic law in the United States is Abdullahi an-Na‘im. Many of An-Na‘im’s premises are akin to those of other liberal Islamic reformers, but he works specifically within a human rights framework, attempting to reconcile it to Islam. It is fair to say that An-Na‘im is among those who have most contributed to breaking down stereotypes of Islam and highlighting its historic diversity and textual openness. Nonetheless, there is one element of his early writings that epitomizes a liberal Islam trope that, I would argue, is contradictory to his aims. An-Na‘im argues that human rights will only be applied in the Muslim world if rights are made to coalesce with Islamic public law (his term for a reformed shari'a), as shari'a-based law is the only legitimate form of law to Muslims. This seems to implicitly accept a vision of the Muslim world as governed by religion. An-Naim surmises that public law ‘‘will have to be Islamized in recognition of the Muslim right to self-determination.’’ An-Na'im’s reform project is entirely informed by and committed to international human rights, but he accepts the axiom of the centrality of Islamic edicts to Muslim political life—that is, that there is no other comparably legitimate form of political or legal discourse in the Muslim world. While An-Na'im is critical of any notion that Islam and human rights clash, he accepts their juxtaposition and that human rights can only be implemented via an Islamic channel. Thus the necessity that his envisaged ‘‘version of public law would be as Islamic as shari'a has ever been because it will draw on the same basic sources of Islam from which the relevant principles of shari'a were constructed by the early jurists.’’6 This radical reform is done in an Islamic context because, in An-Na'im’s words, ‘‘unless such challenges and modifications have religious legitimacy, they are unlikely to change Muslim attitudes and practice.’’7

An-Na'im does assert the ability to reread Islamic law in terms of historical circumstance and it is, of course, his aim to reform shari'a. With this privileging of Islam and insisting it must be the basis of all political

constructs, however, the question remains whether this does not implic-

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itly reaffirm the same basic paradigm as Islamists and Orientalists: that Islam defines the Muslim world’s politics and that Islam and human rights are competing and in need of reconciliation if rights are to be implemented. Islam is a determining monolith in both conceptions, albeit a more flexible monolith in the liberal version. Even in the liberal version, however, if Muslims hope to advance human rights, they need to construct an Islam that can be rights’ vessel: it is this that is problematic.8

One need not deny the importance of Islam in the Muslim world to also point out how this can lead to reductionist conclusions. It is not reductionist because Islam is unimportant; indeed, Islam plays a prominent role in many Muslim societies. It is reductionist because, contrary to an assertion ‘‘of the interdependence between [Islam and human rights],’’9 the respect and protection of human rights is not interdependent with Islam. Is Islam stopping Palestinian self-determination, or impelling torture in Egyptian prisons, genocidal campaigns against Iraqi Kurds and Marsh Arabs, or slavery and forced deprivation of food in the Sudan? Of course not. Most rights violations have no plausible basis for even referring to Islam as a justification. To assume as fundamental the interdependence of human rights and Islam and hence the need for their reconciliation diverts attention from the real causes and solutions to the vast majority of rights violations in the Muslim world. Only rarely are these directly connected to Islam. In this sense, the human rights justified via Islam paradigm is a theoretical excursion that avoids facing the central issue: the political structures that explain most human rights violations.

In short, then, Islam has little relation to human rights—human rights being a legal-political discourse that responds to the power of the modern state, not a religious-spiritual discourse. At the same time, most rights violations have little or no relation to Islam. Even rights violations that are justified by an interpretation of Islam need to be understood in the context of the shifting, constructed nature of Islam and how it interacts with human rights and, more broadly, the public sphere.

In regard to the public sphere in the Muslim world, the shari'a has never been as all-defining as is often assumed. The place of religious norms in the Muslim world’s public sphere is historically quite ambiguous, opening space—depending on historical context—for references to human rights. For legal and political structures to change, a change in normative context has often been sufficient. In the course of the twentieth century, for example, a variety of non-Islamic-based ideological trends have been dominant in the Arab world, including variants of Marxism, social democracy, monarchism, and nationalism. While

human rights is a very specific legal regime, the language of human

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rights can be and is invoked by many ideological trends, Islamic and secular. In the Arab world, for example, its language is commonly used by liberal secularists. It is also adopted, however, by Islamic liberals and, with no necessary contradiction, more radical religious nationalist trends which, it is worth remembering, are often most directly faced with the sort of arbitrary state repression to which human rights is meant to respond.

Wild swings in Islam’s role in the public sphere have been documented by Nathan Brown. Brown notes that the deemphasis on shari'a- based law during the first part of the twentieth century occurred with remarkably little opposition or protest.10 In fact, it is worth reflecting on the fact that this process went virtually unremarked at the time. This points to the importance of political context in defining Islam’s impact and contradicts cliches of state and religious institutions being united in Islam.11 Indeed, even in those cases where shari'a-based law is currently applied beyond a very narrow range, this is done with politicized selectivity.12 There is such a bewildering diversity of political movements justified by reference to Islam that it is clear that, although political motifs and imagery may be Islamicized, there is no defined Islamic basis of politics. Thus, even in cases where there is an intersection between Islamic and human rights norms, it is up to Muslim political societies to negotiate this in terms of their internal political dynamics. The sole requirement from a human rights perspective is that this be done via participation and with the consent of concerned individuals and groups, rather than imposed by the state.13 Despite the protests of Islamists and Huntingtonian neo-Orientalists, and the demurrals of liberal Muslim reformers, there is little evidence that this is problematic for most Mus- lims—in fact it is the historic norm that the state is not the arbiter of traditionally decentralized Islamic legal structures.

The most important objection to the reformist methodology is that its use of Islam is not just a diversion but that it actually undermines rather than legitimizes human rights norms. It is neither theoretically neces- sary—as discussed above—nor strategically promising to justify human rights via Islam. The move from a political to a religious justification (making rights a “theological question,’’ in An-Na'im’s appropriate phrase14) is also likely counterproductive—indeed, I would argue that its privileging of Islam has already been damaging in distorting discourse on this subject.

It is strategically counterproductive to a human rights project because liberal Muslim reformers change the paradigm for a consideration of the relevance of rights. Instead of whether the rights regime makes sense given the political and legal context of Muslim states, the question

becomes whether or not there are convincing doctrinal arguments

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regarding the place of human rights in Islamic law. This accepts, in essence, the need for literalist religious justifications for human rights, making an argument for rights a dispute over religious doctrine—a dispute that takes place on an Islamic field of meaning on which reformers have little claim to institutional authority and human rights scant normative power.

Rights arguments made in Islamic language lack institutional authority, and hence do not resonate as legitimate Islamic interpretations; they are sometimes contradicted by explicit Qur’anic verses and hence are not theologically convincing; and they are often delegitimized by appearing to be deployed strategically as a pragmatic ploy rather than being religiously based and hence lack political weight. Attempting to justify rights via Islam has not been successful and will not be for logical reasons. While there are strong political, social, and legal justifications for human rights in the Muslim world, the religious-theological argument is a losing position for those endowed with neither conclusive doctrinal arguments, nor religious authority. Justifying rights in the language of Islam is usually irrelevant to the core causes of rights violations and is not only a theoretical diversion but an unconvincing one. The arguments for human rights are political, legal, economic, social, and cultural and must be justified on their own terms and on the basis of their relevance to the Muslim-Arab world, not on the basis of a ‘‘theological’’ argument.

 
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