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'Muslims Must Realize That There Is Nothing Magical about the Concept of Human Rights'
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[html] Interview with Ab dul l ahi An -Nai m

Professor Abdullahi An-Naim is the Charles Howard Chandler Professor of Law at the Emory University School of Law. Originally from Sudan, he was forced to leave his country under the most difficult of circumstances. After the execution of his close associate and teacher Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, he chose to continue his work abroad, where he has been an active campaigner for human rights in the Muslim world.1 Over the years he has written extensively on the subject of reform of Muslim law and has been an active campaigner for the protection of human rights in Islamic societies (especially the rights of women), constitutionalism and democratization in general. He is also the author of Toward an Islamic R e f o r m a t i o n, where he argues for a critical understanding of the s h a r i ‘ a as a “historically conditioned interpretation of Islam”, and called for reinterpretations in the light of present-day realities. Here he speaks about the need for a reformation from within the traditional discourses of Islam and the need for a synergy between Islam and secularism.


F a r i s h: In your book, Toward an Islamic Reformation, you spoke at length about the need for Muslims-ulama and laypersons alike-to seriously consider the need for a re-evaluation and reinterpretation of the s h a r i ‘ a. In particular you were concerned to promote an Islamic approach and understanding to the thorny question of human rights and fundamental liberties. Why do you think


1 . The reformist thinker Mahmoud Muhammad Taha was regarded as one of the leading intellectuals of Sudan and he led the movement for reform in his own country. As an Islamist scholar, well versed in matters related to Islamic law and governance, his critique of the government soon earned him the reputation of a dissident. In 1985 he was accused of apostasy and was executed. In the wake of Taha”s execution the movement he led was banned and many of the books he wrote were destroyed. Taha”s execution also prompted a number of Sudanese scholars and intellectuals like Abdullahi An-Naim to leave the country and go into exile abroad.


Islamic scholarship is still at this impasse? What prevents us from taking the question of human rights seriously, and why has the debate been so Byzantine in character?


A b d u l l a h i: Part of the problem stems from the historical roots of the debate itself, and the geo-political circumstances that shape the parameters of the struggle as we see it today. The Muslim world and the ulama in particular have been unable and unwilling to embrace the debate for the simple reason that so much of it has been dominated by external actors and agents. From this perspective, there is the impression that this is a debate that has been hoisted on the Muslims against their will.


One cannot deny that there is some truth in this. After all, the issue of human rights really became politicized in the post-war era and it intensified during the Cold War in particular. What complicates matters even further is the fact that when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was first promulgated, it was done among the Western powers-many of which were not so keen to promote human rights in their own colonies. The rest of the world, and the Muslim world in particular, was still living under colonial rule. The proclamation of the UDHR by colonial powers and their continued domination and exploitation of the peoples of Africa and Asia is one of the ironies that remains with us till today.


But the point I wish to emphasize is that we cannot afford to abstain from this debate for our own purposes, and not simply as a response to Western agendas or priorities. We need human rights to protect ourselves against local and global forces of oppression because, like it or not, we are affected by their actions and omissions. The truth of the matter is that the Western model of the nation-state, with its expansive powers, has been “universalized” through colonialism itself. It would therefore follow, in my view, that constitutional protections against the abuse of those powers should also be adopted by the formerly colonized peoples to protect themselves against the same sort of dangers of the nation-state. An obvious irony to note here is that the same .lite who are protesting the Western origins of human rights are keen to control the nationstate and manipulate its powers to oppress their own people, despite the exclusively Western source of this form of political and social organization. Once we choose to engage in the global human rights debate for our own purposes, we are in a position to challenge any aspect of it that fails to respond to our own concerns and priorities. For instance, we can assert our religious or cultural justification or foundation of these rights, instead of the “take it or leave it” attitude of Western secular advocates of human rights. From a pragmatic point of view, the most serious objection to a purely secularist foundation to the universality of human rights is its inability to inspire or motivate believers who happen to be the majority of the world population. If we take a broad overview of human history at large, it is clear that religion, and not secularism, has been more influential and effective in the process of shaping world events, building social and political institutions and altering the course of history itself.
F a r i s h: But this is a highly controversial debate and there are many conservative leaders in the Muslim world who argue that the question of human rights does not arise at all simply because the very notion of human rights as it is understood today is a Eurocentric invention. Surely you are not saying that we should dispense with such universal standards of human rights altogether simply because of the narrow cultural perspective that is evident in their compositi o n .
A b d u l l a h i: Not at all. My objective is the realization of genuine universality of human rights, instead of presenting believers with a false choice between their own faith and commitment to these rights. There is nothing in the language of the UDHR and subsequent documents that precludes multiple religious as well as secular foundations of the legitimacy of human rights. The fact that the UDHR does expressly mention a divine or metaphysical source of these rights does not mean that Muslims or other believers cannot assert a religious justification of human rights for themselves. The key point here is that one cannot claim religious justification of human rights while rejecting the essence of the universality of these rights by insisting on discrimination on such grounds as sex, religion or belief. In other words, Muslims cannot claim that Islam respects and protects human rights while discriminating against women and non-Muslims. The reason human rights advocates tend to avoid any religious (Islamic in our case) discourse about human rights is the perception that religion is necessarily parochial, exclusivist, sectarian and even irrational. In contrast, secularism is seen as a means of ensuring the possibility of a pluralistic society and political community that can still accommodate different religious, cultural and belief communities (including atheism). The key feature of secularism is its claim to be able to safeguard pluralism and difference by creating a political culture where all groups and competing interests are treated equally. While these views of religion and secularism may be true of certain historical and current experience, the reverse can, and has in fact been, true of both of them. After all, different religious communities have co-existed in peace and solidarity in many parts of the world, despite flashes of violent conflict. In contrast, the most horrendous and systematic violations of human rights have been committed by Nazism and Soviet Marxist-Leninism, which were exclusively secular regimes. Instead of false absolutist claims, I call for a synergy and interdependence of religion and secularism so that public policy can benefit from the moral guidance of religion, and pluralistic societies can enjoy peace and stability by regulating the relationship between religion and the state through secularism.
F a r i s h: You are, in a sense, calling for a mutual understanding between the proponents of both camps in this case.
A b d u l l a h i: That”s right. For me the challenge is to somehow reconcile the claims of both religion and secularism. The question is how to make an understanding of human rights equally valid and legitimate from the perspectives of a wide variety of believers as well as non-believers all over the world. What needs to be done is to convince fervent secularists that those who believe in religion as a powerful foundation for morality have as much right to claim their human rights as others. Related to this is the need to convince those who believe in their respective religions that secularism is a practical and useful way of creating a working form of pluralism that accommodates difference without diminishing it. But this is not going to be easy, and it certainly will not happen without an internal reform of religious discourse and religious tradition as well. That is why I am calling for a synergy between Islam and secularism.
F a r i s h: It is interesting that you take this approach of asking Muslims to work with and work through a culture of secularism in order to reach the protection of their basic human rights. Why do you think the concept of human rights in particular gets us-and the ulama in particular-into all kinds of complicated political problems and doctrinal clashes?

A b d u l l a h i: Since you have mentioned the ulama a couple of times, let me say that the so-called ulama are one of the main obstacles in the face of the development and stability of Islamic societies everywhere. From an Islamic point of view, no body of persons or institution has a monopoly on valid and relevant understandings of Islam. In my view, Islamic discourse is radically “democratic” precisely because no group of persons or institution has a monopoly on “permissible discourse”, or the authority to exclude dissident voices. Otherwise, what do we mean when we say that Islam is not premised on any form of institutionalized “Church” or concede a special position for a so-called clergy? Like many other religious and ideological communities, Muslims have often failed to live up to this ideal, but that is reason for more concerted efforts in this regard, rather than a rationale for abandoning the effort. That is precisely why I am calling for the Islamic legitimization of human rights in order to expand and sustain the widest possible “space” for freedom of opinion and expression for all points of view as the only way Muslims can address all issues of fundamental and immediate concern. Regarding human rights in particular, the real problem is that Muslim intellectuals and political leaders concede too much authority to the so-called ulama, who are incapable of appreciating the nature of human rights discourse, and why it is imperative for Islamic societies today. This abdication of moral and intellectual leadership by the more enlightened segments of our societies has created the false impression that human rights are intrinsically alien to us, to our culture, history and beliefs. In fact, the struggle for human rights has always existed in practically every major religious and cultural system in the world. Human history is full of examples of communities and individuals struggling for their rights, often under extremely difficult and trying circumstances. For me, human rights basically imply a struggle for human dignity and self-determination. The struggle is one against all forms of structural and institutionalized oppression. There is nothing magical about the current formulation of human rights, as it is simply the expression of that ancient struggle for human dignity and social justice in the present situation of nation-states in their global context. Some Western governments, NGOs and donor agencies are wrong when they turn the concept of human rights into some kind of fetish-as if the mere mention of the term “human rights” was the magic formula that will correct all the wrongs of a given society. But Muslim groups and governments are also wrong when they reject human rights per se, as if they were some magical thing that could somehow undermine the faith of Muslims or contaminate their r e l i g i o n .
F a r i s h: We all know that Islam and Islamic discourse are, or should be, beyond the exclusive control of particular groupings and interested parties like the ulama. But the fact of the matter is that Islamic discourse, like the discourse of human rights, has come under the exclusive purview of groups with their own agendas. And these groups do not simply co-exist; they exist within highly stratified power structures and hierarchies and their relationship is often antagonistic. Power is at work here, as well as contestation. So how do we overcome these power differentials between various groups that try to dominate their respective fields of discourse and impose their will on others?
A b d u l l a h i: Here we have to get involved in challenging those groups concerned. I am therefore challenging those who insist on an exclusively secular foundation of human rights, as well as those who claim the same for their own religion. In relation to Islam, the problem is that there are obvious conflicts between human rights standards and historical understandings of s h a r i ‘ a, especially regarding the rights of women and non-Muslims. This is probably the main difficulty facing Islamic scholarship because of the common confusion between Islam, as a religion, and s h a r i ‘ a as a human understanding of the Qur”an and s u n n a of the Prophet. It is not possible to discuss this fundamental difficulty here, but I have explored possible Islamic ways out of this impasse in my book, Toward an Islamic Reformation.

F a r i s h: There are obviously many progressive Muslim scholars, activists and political leaders who will support you on that point. But nonetheless the recent history of the Muslim world will show that Muslims have been reluctant when it comes to engaging in such global debates and the struggle to promote human rights in the Muslim world has been painfully slow in particular. Why is this?

A b d u l l a h i: Human rights, as the term is defined today, can only be protected when there are certain crucial legal and political institutions at work. Partly due to our experiences with colonialism and post-colonial global trade and political relations, our countries and societies lack many of the necessary conditions for the effective protection of human rights. But we cannot continue to blame external forces and actors for our own problems. It is in fact because we still live with a “colonized mentality” that we keep looking to the West to solve our problems. You need the basic fundamentals of democracy and democratic institutions to be in place at least-an open and democratic government that is genuinely representative, a working judiciary that is credible and independent, a security and law and order apparatus that is not politicized, etc. Without such institutions and political norms in place, it is hard to imagine human rights being promoted and protected by anyone. But while understanding the role of external forces and actors, we must rely on ourselves for realizing these conditions for ourselves. We in the developing world need to gradually diminish what I call “human rights dependency”.


In the developed North we see that the protection of human rights is achieved through a dynamic interaction between the institutions of the state and civil society. This interaction ensures that the state is able to create a political climate where tolerance and pluralism can flourish and there can be the mutual respect for difference in society, and is an effective guarantor for the rights of all. But in the developing world many countries are in a state of flux and upheaval. The sad fact is that for millions of people in the world, there simply is no state apparatus that can protect their rights and fundamental liberties. Under these conditions, human rights are supposed to be protected by foreign agencies and transnational bodies like NGOs, donor or funding agencies, etc., instead of national governments responding to the demands of their own civil society.


F a r i s h: Surely this leads us to a vicious circle. The more such societies depend on foreign agencies for the protection of their rights, the more they help to weaken their own states and deprive their local institutions of law and government of the credibility and influence they desperately need.



A b d u l l a h i: That”s right, unless this vicious chain is diminished and eventually broken through internal initiative and action. The fundamental struggle is political and economic, as well as religious and cultural. The state of human rights dependency is predicated on other forms of economic and political dependency. The governments of developing countries have lost their credibility and ability to govern partly because of severe economic and political inequalities in the global political and financial structures and processes that must be addressed and rectified in order to diminish the human rights dependency of the South on the North. But the main thrust for that global change has to come from the developing countries themselves, as the developed countries are unlikely to abandon their privileged position voluntarily, without a struggle. What I am calling for is the return to a local tradition of knowledge and belief, which will help us understand the relevance and need for human rights from a local, indigenous perspective. What is needed is to diminish forms of intellectual and political dependency in order to have locally sustainable forms of protection of human rights and democracy. I am not being essentialist here; I am merely saying that all cultures and civilizations have developed these concerns that I talked about earlier. What needs to be done is to expand and develop these debates over human rights and democracy even further, starting from premises that we have forgotten and left behind ourselves. If, for instance, I want to talk about human rights, freedom of thought and rationality, why should I quote someone like Kant? Why can”t I as a Muslim quote Ibn Rushd, who said and wrote the same thing hundreds of years before Kant? This for me is a better way for us in the Muslim world to revive the debate over human rights, individualism, rationality and freedom of thought and speech. And this is what I mean by breaking away from the human rights dependency which has, in the past at least, forced us to discuss the meaning of human rights in terms that are not necessarily local or our own.


F a r i s h: On that note I have to push you one step further. Your critics may claim that you are offering an apology for regimes that have rejected the concept of human rights per se on the grounds that it is “foreign” or “alien”. We have all seen how so many governments and rulers in the Muslim world have rejected any form of constitutional or institutional reform on the grounds that such moves are un-Islamic and that they challenge the sanctity of Islam. They have also argued that the local understanding of politics does not leave any room for democracy or human rights. How would you counter such claims?


A b d u l l a h i: I hope that readers can already see elements of my response to such a charge in what I said earlier. There are two important points that need to be addressed here. Firstly, the concept of human rights, for me at least, is not a question of authorship. We know that the concept of human rights did not appear in the Western world until quite late, and even then it was (and still remains) a highly contested concept. So, this concept is not inherent to so-called Western culture as such, unless one also accepts that racism and colonialism (including post-colonial, capitalist imperialism) are also inherent to Western culture. But for me, human rights are of universal concern and are not confined to any specific people, culture, civilization or religion. This is why I reject claims that human rights standards are invariably and permanently bound with the historical experience of the West and that they carry the imprint of Western history and culture. But at the same time I also reject the claims of some Islamists who want to state that Islam “invented” the concept of human rights and that Islam embodies it in its totality. That is not true either. Like I said earlier, the concept of human rights is universal in the sense that the struggle for human rights and dignity has been part of universal human history. Secondly, I offer no compromise on the universality of human rights, as the immediate legal entitlements of all human beings, without discrimination on grounds of sex, religion, etc. The main issue I am raising is how to protect these rights in Islamic societies, without accepting any “relativist” demands to reduce the scope or effectiveness of these protections. I must state that I am categorically against any attempt to reject human rights on the grounds of alleged cultural authenticity or specific understandings of religion. As I noted earlier, if those who reject human rights in the name of so-called Asian values or shari ‘ a are genuine in their position, they should also reject the nation-state and its powers as Western inventions.


I have no problem with Muslims who reject certain outdated and narrowly Eurocentric conceptions of human rights if, in the process of doing so, they consciously and sincerely try to develop their own meaningful and practical norms and institutions for the universal protection of the rights, entitlements and freedoms of all. That would mean trying to revive the struggle for human rights from within the Islamic experience, via recourse to Islamic history, Islamic legal discourse and Islamic cultural norms. That would, in the end, help to create local systems and local understandings of human rights that are self-sustaining and understandable to millions of ordinary Muslims. But an all-out rejection of human rights on the grounds that they are un-Islamic, or are a move towards
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