Islamism and human rights: an impossible dialogue?
Filippo Dionigi 16 January 2008

The Middle East represents a severe benchmark for claims to the universalism of human rights, especially considering the recent rising influence of Islamist political thought. How can the Islamic factor be assessed in the process of the implementation of human rights? Despite the common belief that Islamism is hostile to human rights, its rise has been accompanied by the development of a literature and a set of documents that embrace the language of human rights and project it onto the Islamist political ideal. However, for a more thorough analysis, one must consider how human rights have become part of Islamist political discourse.

In order to frame this issue in a more familiar way, we may consider Islamism as a kind of communitarianism that recognizes the legitimacy of social institutions (human rights included) conditionally to their foundation on the constitutive values of the community of membership. This entails that the actual recognition of inalienable human rights has to be justified on the basis of the ethical communitarian principles relevant in the Middle Eastern context. Islamist thought claims that Islamist ethics are the source of these principles; hence “Islamist human rights” are considered the only legitimate extension of human rights in the Arab context.

In this sense, Islamist political thought can be understood as a kind of communitarianism since it reflects the contextualist critique of universalistic foundationalism and asserts the need for a local foundation of rights mirroring the contextual “conception of the good”. Another factor that indirectly supports the Islamist approach to human rights is that of Orientalism, which has produced an ethically monistic picture of the Middle East. As it has been said by Nadia Urbinati and Michael Walzer, Islamist communitarianism not only takes advantage of the rhetoric of the threat to Islamist values and the need to preserve Islamist identity, but it is also externally supported by the “paradigm of civilizations”.

Even though the Islamist approach to human rights represents a step forward in the process of universalization of human rights for the very fact of its existence, this does not exempt it from criticism, especially in relation to the kind of consequences of this approach on the concept of human rights itself. Islamism has had a relevant role in the affirmation of an Islamist way to human rights as can be drawn from examples such as: the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR, 1981) and the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI, 1990) which also influenced the Arab Charter of Human Rights (ArCHR, 1994, 2004). In fact, in these examples, human rights are considered a part of Islamic ethics and the sharī‘ā is mentioned as the source of the law.

However, this process is not without consequence for the concept of human rights but reshapes it according to the Islamic perspective. In this sense, Fred Halliday pointed out how such a process is more about an “appropriation” rather then an “assimilation” of the concept of human rights within Islamic political theory. Seyla Benhabib noticed how local foundations of human rights, in contrast with universalist approaches, entail a certain degree of selectivity regarding which rights can be recognized as human rights in a given context. This is what happens in the Islamic case as well: the recognition of human rights is limited to those rights that are not problematic for the kind of ethical conception that is endorsed by Islamists. Some examples can be provided with reference to the documents mentioned above.
Ann Elizabeth Mayer has shown how the UIDHR does not comply with international standards, particularly in relation to the principle of equality. Mayer claims that the UIDHR allows discrimination against women, especially in relation to their rights to marriage and family, and therefore does not guarantee equality for members of minorities (especially religious groups) and substantially limits freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Another example is that of the CDHRI, which diverges from international standards by allowing the possibility of corporal punishment (an absolute prohibition in international law) and, again, is ambiguous with regards to gender equality.

Therefore, since the 1994 ArCHR mentions the CDHRI as a source, it also reflects its inconsistencies with international standards. Equally, further evidence of the influence of Islamist politics in the process of the implementation of human rights in the Middle East is the conspicuous number of reservations to the treaty system of the protection of human rights. These reservations are often the result of (indirect and direct) political pressure from Islamist movements on national institutions and on the process of the ratification of human rights treaties. The aim of these ratifications is to assert Islamic ethics as the only legitimate source of law, with the added fact that Islamists claim to be monopolists in the definition of Islamic ethics. It is not accidental that the convention with the record number of reservations is the CEDAW.

Thus far, the most likely conclusion would evaluate negatively the Islamist contribution to the human rights implementation process, thereby endorsing the theorem of the incompatibility of Islamist political theory with human rights, or, more generally, of Islam with modern political institutions. However, even though this position has been very popular, this would be a partial conclusion characterized by a certain kind of historical determinism. In theory, this kind of conclusion has been widely spread and, in practice, it was adopted to justify foreign intervention and interference in internal politics in the Arab world.

However, an analysis of Islamism and its approach to human rights cannot be limited to what passes through the “filter of politics”, especially considering the democratic deficit of the Arab region. On the contrary, one must take into account the complex and pluralist nature of Islamist discourse, including the part of Islamist theory that claims the possibility of reforming Islamic social institutions in line with mutated historical circumstances. Too much credit has already been given to the theories of incompatibility – or clash – because of the favourable political conditions to this approach. The more “hospitable” voices for an Islamic foundation that does not alter the concept of human rights have been marginalised in the process of implementation in the Middle East.

Islamist thinkers such as Abdallahi Ahmed An-Naim or Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd have been excluded from the debate as apostates and are generally not considered representative in the West since they do not correspond to the Islamist stereotype. The voices of Islamism that claim the possibility of a reformation of traditional exegesis have a reduced margin of influence because of the neo-fundamentalist preponderance in the Arab context and of Orientalism on the opposite side. Thus, the thesis is that the distorted conditions of the dialogue determine the failure of the Islamist approach to human rights.

The flattening of the dialogue on one main position has altered the process of assimilation of human rights to the advantage of only one conception that deprives human rights of their meaning despite the adoption of human rights vocabulary. However, all human rights documents are the outcome of a process of confrontation between opposing perspectives and mirror the social and historical context in which they have been drafted. For example, the African Charter of Human and People Rights is influenced by the post-colonial social and historical context in which it was drafted and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes economic social and cultural rights also because of the influence of the socialist bloc in the drafting process.

Human rights are characterized by a semantic uncertainty that allows a margin of interpretation relative to particular ethical and historical contexts but that cannot be overwhelmed by logics of power inconsistent with the aim of protection of the dignity of the person. The actual condition of the debate in the Arab region prevents the possibility of a dialogic process of assimilation of rights since it is flattened by one main perspective. The possibility of an effective process of assimilation of human rights in the Arab world is dependent on an inclusive dialogic process reflecting the pluralism of this context.



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