26 June 2014

Muslims Debate Human Rights (2)

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“Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im (left) and Provost Earl Lewis.” Here, An-Na’im receives the 2006 Marion V. Creekmore Award for his internationalization of human rights at the Emory University Center for the Study of Law and Religion. “Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im (left) and Provost Earl Lewis.” Here, An-Na’im receives the 2006 Marion V. Creekmore Award for his internationalization of human rights at the Emory University Center for the Study of Law and Religion. http://cslr.law.emory.edu/news/news-story/headline/an-naim-honored-for-human-rights-scholarship/

As I turn to the “Muslim” side of the equation in this two-part blog that summarizes some of the findings in my article for the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, we have to ponder the rapid advance of the jihadi group ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and ash-Sham, or “Levant”) in Iraq, as they are now within striking distance from the capital and have erased the border between Iraq and Syria.

As veteran Middle East correspondent David Kirpatrick astutely observes, jihadist forces have been on the rise, and especially after the crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood by the military government in Egypt since July 2013. Shortly after those events, ISIS, one of two powerful jihadist groups fighting in Syria, declared that islamists (Muslims wanting a more robust role for Islam in the public sphere) should now have learned their lesson – they must choose “the ammunition boxes over the ballet boxes.” Should we negotiate with the powers-that-be? Yes, but “in trenches rather than in hotels.” The Muslim Brotherhood, said the document, were merely “a secular party in Islamic clothing”; and because of that, they embody “more evil and cunning than the secularists.”

To say the least, we are witnessing spirited debates among Muslims (and especially islamists) on the issue of human rights and democracy!

That said, before we look at three Muslims on the other end of the spectrum, I have to point out a very insightful article byJocelyne Cesari (Harvard and Georgetown universities) on why some form of political Islam is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Leaning on the thesis of her recent book, The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity and the State, she argues that the Muslim states that arose out of the ashes of Western colonialism were founded by secular leaders who turned Islam into a modern nationalist ideology. This is what happened in Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Tunisia, and Turkey. As a result, Islamic symbols have been and will continue to be bandied about by both political elites and their opponents.

Keep this fact in mind as we look at some of the conservative push back on the UDHR after the 1970s “resurgence of Islam” and then briefly fly over some of the writings on human rights by three key Muslim scholars based in the US.

 

The 1980s flurry of Islamic Human Rights Schemes

In the first blog I signaled a movement in Asia and in Muslim states more generally to question the universal application of the UDHR and the International Bill of Rights. From a more secular perspective too – mostly from within the social sciences – the objection of cultural relativism was beginning to erode what for many had been the perceived stellar nature of human rights standards.

This too was the time when Muslim societies were becoming more religiously observant – across the board. On the heels of the shocking Arab defeat in the 1967 “Six Day War,” the secularist, nationalist and socialist ideology of Egypt’s influential leader Gamal Abdel Nasser started to ring very hollow among the masses. Instead, people started to pay more attention to religious leaders preaching every Friday from the mosques that the reason God had allowed them to taste poverty and defeat was because they were no longer following his Straight Path. His Shari’a must once again be the law of the land (for more on this, see my two blogs on Islamism and the veil). Of course, added to this was the windfall of petro-dollars that enabled Saudi Arabia to spread its arch-conservative Wahhabi ideology far and wide.

It was in this atmosphere that the following “Islamic” versions of the UDHR came into being – what Ann Mayer calls “human rights schemes”:

 

- conservative European Muslim leaders issued the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR, 1981);

- then, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) issued the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (1990);

- finally, the Arab League’s Arab Charter on Human Rights (ACHR, 2004).

 

To different degrees, these documents pay lip service to the UDHR and the concept of human rights (and democracy), but with regard to religious freedom and family law they add that nothing may contravene what has been established by the Shari’a. In essence, the idea of human dignity and all the rights that flow out of that are praised, but only within the framework of the traditional jurisprudence of Islam’s five main schools of law. That said, there are plenty of internal Muslim debates – even in conservative circles, which represent the majority I must add – about many of the details involved. There is a growing consensus, for instance, that capital punishment for apostasy and the duty of women to stay in the home, are outdated rules not in line with the “real” teachings of Islam.

Still, there is a discrepancy between the general aspiration of Muslims worldwide for civil and political freedoms, for equal rights for men and women with regard to education, the workplace and politics, and the conservative discourse of Muslim scholars standing behind those documents mentioned above. For the masses, Shari’a remains both a symbol of social justice and accountable government, and a symbol of the high standard of God’s rules to which the believer submits – from the “Five Pillars” to inheritance laws, from the modalities of divorce to the treatment of apostates.

The three men whose views I touch on here all believe that any contradiction between current human rights standards and traditional interpretations of Islamic law should fall away when Islamic law is applied according to the ethical and theological norms put forward in the Qur’an and Sunna. Here I brush over the bulk of my article only to highlight two themes that all three men develop – human dignity emanating from creation and the priority of values over man-made rules. [I will make the whole article available after it’s published in January 2015].

 

Human rights flow out of God’s creation

All three of these men are eminent scholars whose writings touch on Islam and human rights. Two of them are activists as well. Khaled Abou El Fadl directs the Islamic law program at UCLA but is also a practicing human rights lawyer in the US who frequently speaks to Muslim audiences around the Muslim world. Granted the Oslo Human Rights Award in 2007, he was also nominated by President George W. Bush to serve on the US Commission for Religious Freedom.

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im directs the Islam and Human Rights Program at Emory University’s School of Law, which is specifically designed to support and train Muslim human rights activists in various parts of the world. Originally from the Sudan, he was a disciple of the Sufi sheikh, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, and his Republican Brothers party in the Sudan in the 1970s and 1980s. Because of his inclusive interpretation of the Qur’an, Sheikh Taha was executed for apostasy in 1985 by the military strongman, General Numeiri.

The third scholar, Abdulaziz Sachedina, professor at George Mason University, is originally from Iran and hence, a Shia thinker. For that article I looked at his 2009 book, Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights. He had already done much work on Islam, democracy and pluralism (see his 2001 book).

In a 2004 book, Islam and the Challenge of Democracy, Abou El Fadl explained – what I frequently mention on this website – that God called Adam his trustee on earth (Q. 2:30) and that alongside other verses using this root in its two plural forms, this means all of humanity is called by God to peacefully manage together creation’s bounty on earth. This trusteeship of humankind on earth (or “vicegerency,” an older a more awkward English term Muslims often use) also has implications for human rights:

 

“1) Human beings are God's vicegerents on earth; 2) this vicegerency is the basis of individual responsibility; 3) individual responsibility and vicegerency provide the basis for human rights and equality; 4) human beings in general, and Muslims specifically, have a fundamental obligation to foster justice (and more generally to command right and forbid wrong), and to preserve and promote God's law; 5) divine law must be distinguished from fallible human interpretations; and 6) the state should not pretend to embody divine sovereignty and majesty.”

 

Notice too that points 5 and 6 draw a distinction between “God’s law” and “fallible human interpretations” of it (the distinction Sharia/fiqh, or the applied jurisprudence of the five main Islamic schools of law – see this blog of mine).

He makes the creation connection in other writings, even tying it to the image of God in human beings (which, by the way, is mentioned in some authoritative hadiths). Here in a 2005 book chapter in Does Human Rights Need God? he explains how the divine origin of humanity grounds its sanctity: “. . . there is no question that [in Islam] human life is sanctified . . . There is also a recognition that the sanctity of human life creates demands that, in turn, create duties, which become compelling rights.” In other words, it is only just and right that human persons are treated with the dignity they deserve as human beings.

In fact, argues Abou El Fadl, the human rights concept at its core is the idea that a human person’s life is inviolable and sacred. Each human being is inherently precious – precisely because he or she is a human having been created by God to be his deputy on earth. If that is so, then we must do everything to make sure people’s basic demands are met, so they can live a decent life and flourish.

Sachedina too builds his case around the creation of humanity, but he concentrates on the notion of fitra – the good nature God instilled in humans at creation (Q. 30:30), which acts as a moral conscience for all people, regardless of their religious or non-religious background. He, like Abou El Fadl and An-Na’im, insist that a democratic government be “secular” in the sense of granting all its citizens equal civil and political rights – again, by virtue of God’s good creation:

 

“The rights-based discourse is not a religious one, though the ethical claims it makes are universal in nature and share with religion an evaluation of innate human worth . . . The process and progress of secularization is critical because to a great extent most Western ideas of universal human rights rest on a secular view of the individual and of the relations between such individuals in a secularized public sphere. The idea of individuals as bearers of something called rights presupposes a very particular understanding and reading of the self essentially as a self-regulating agent (2009:148).”

 

Values should trump man-made rules

Abou El Fadl’s The Great Theft is no doubt his most popular one to date, but not simply because it’s written for a more general audience, but too because in it he confronts the religious extremists head-on. The problem with the “textualists” (those who are adamant about applying the texts literally), he says, is that they’ve bought into the mainstream of Islamic jurisprudence that has been “voluntarist.” That means that ethical values have no existence in and of themselves; they only exist as attached to God’s commands in the texts. So an act is good or bad only if it is qualified in that way in the Qur’an or Sunna. What is more, since ethical values like justice, kindness, mercy and righteousness don’t have any objective existence (the position of ethical objectivism), they can only be known from the text and extrapolated from there to new situations arising only with the greatest care. So by definition, a non-Muslim political entity could never deliver a just or righteous society.

Abou El Fadl writes, “In my view, God’s moralities and virtues are inseparable from God, and they are unalterable because God is unalterable. As such, God’s morality is binding upon all, in the same way that God is present for all.” Then this statement, which aims to undercut the textualists: “Divinity is approached, in my view, through studying the divine moral imperatives rather than the rules of law, because morality is prior to law [my emphasis], in the same way that God is prior to anything, including the text or law.” Human rights, therefore, flow out of God’s creation of humanity and, as a result, are inherent to them. Equally, people can grasp the truth of their own dignity by looking beyond the sacred texts. Doesn’t the Qur’an in dozens of places call its readers to meditate and reflect on the signs of God’s creation?

Peace, justice and goodness, then, are values that all people share, though they can disagree on how they apply in different contexts! But that does mean that the ethical ideals expressed in all the holy books are common to all. The Qur’an itself explicitly recognizes the divine origin of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, though there has been some disagreement among Muslim scholars about whether or not they were corrupted, or to what extent.

Add to that the distinction Abou El Fadl makes between the ideals in the sacred texts (Shari’a) and their human interpretation in works of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Picking up on these themes in the very first sentence of his book, Islam and the Secular State, An-Na’im announces his book’s main point:

 

“In order to be a Muslim by conviction and free choice, which is the only way one can be a Muslim, I need a secular state. By a secular state I mean one that is neutral regarding religious doctrine, one that does not claim or pretend to enforce Shari’a – the religious law of Islam – simply because compliance with Shari’a cannot be coerced by fear of state institutions or faked to appease their officials.”

 

In other words, no religion can survive if it’s imposed by the state. And if the state imposes some particular version of a religious tradition, it will doubly betray the tradition – by imposing it (“There is no compulsion in religion,” Q. 2:256), and by potentially forcing people to act against their own conscience by following a particular human interpretation of their faith with which they disagree.

But how do you convince a majority of Muslims worldwide, who are mostly conservative and believe in some kind of literal application of the texts, that God holds out an ideal of justice and goodness for societies, which people should follow, even if that means going against certain commands in the scriptures (because, presumably, circumstances are vastly different today?

Muslims need to see that human rights norms are basically in harmony with Islamic principles, writes An-Na’im. Apart from “some specific and very serious aspects of the rights of women and non-Muslims and the freedom of religion and belief,” “Shari’a principles are basically consistent with most human rights norms.” That’s important, because if any Muslim is confronted with the choice between Islam and human rights, he or she will have to choose Islam. So what is called for is negotiation, not confrontation.

But more than anything, concludes An-Na’im, what needs to change is Muslims’ perception of Shari’a. That’s a tall order, though many seem to intuit that Shari’a actually includes the ideals embodied by human rights standards. According to the most substantial polling ever conducted in 35 Muslim nations from 2001-2007, large majorities of Muslims believe that women should have . . .

 

. . . the same legal rights as men

. . . rights to vote

. . . the right to hold any job for which they are qualified outside the home

. . . the right to hold leadership positions at cabinet and national council levels.

 

The conversation about Islam and human rights is ongoing, just as the sociopolitical landscape in Muslim nations is evolving and the opinions of Muslims living in the West are becoming increasingly influential. I’ll just end with this fascinating piece of research by two Muslim scholars at the Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies, Hossein Askari and Shehrazade Rehman, called the Islamicity Index. First published in an article in 2010, they have now included a variety of political, civil and economic factors to match what they consider “Islamic” values. What is striking is that according to this scale Muslim countries score very low: the top two, Malaysia and Kuwait, are respectively in the 38th and 48th position. The first ten in order are, Ireland, Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Singapore, Finland, Norway, and Belgium.

Perhaps this quip by the lead author, originally from Iran, best summarizes some of the tensions and debates among Muslims raised in this blog:

 

“We must emphasise that many countries that profess Islam and are called Islamic are unjust, corrupt, and underdeveloped and are in fact not ‘Islamic’ by any stretch of the imagination.”