Humantrustees.org aims to foster understanding and cooperation between Muslims and Christians so as to empower them to live up to their God-given calling as “trustees of the earth.” This Christian initiative seeks to accomplish this goal through scholarship, teaching, news commentary, and networking between scholars, members of both communities, and with anyone else who is passionate about peace and human flourishing.
David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

16 September 2014

Things Not As They Seem

The above title could be said about much of life. As St. Paul writes, “We see through a glass darkly.” Here I want to discuss current events in the Mideast, first in Egypt, and then the issue of the Islamic State. Looking through the eyes of western media outlets and consulting insider sources yield quite a different picture. Consulting the insider views put us in a better position to see how progress can be made and then join others – especially people of faith, Muslims and Christians – to make that happen.


President Sisi’s Egypt

Two points should be made here. First, Sisi’s Egypt is even more authoritarian and repressive than Mubarak’s was. Egyptians haven’t forgotten the “January 25, 2011 Revolution” and it’s just a matter of time before the people rise up again. Second, the military coup that toppled President Morsi in July 2013 was not about secularism versus islamism (spelling it as it is, a political/religious ideology). Those two ideologies are indeed opposed, but their opposition does not come close to explaining the current political dynamics in that country.

Professor Mohamad Elmasry of the University of North Alabama rightly called Sisi’s policy one of “elimination” – but not just of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). I covered the facts about how the army and police in concert massacred about one thousand MB followers (Aug. 14, 2013) in my third blog on the post-coup realities.

Elmasry’s opinion piece came on the heels of the MB leader Mohamed Badie’s death sentence along with 682 of his followers on April 28, 2014. This was after 529 others had received a similar sentence the month before – in spite of Badie’s public words calling his followers to remain peaceful and not to respond to violence in kind. He declared himself ready to die for his own convictions as a peaceful protester.

Though most of the more than 1,500 protesters who were killed in the following months were MB-affiliated or at least sympathizers, some of those were not. Likewise, the 16,000 jailed political opponents since then were not all pro-Morsi activists.

In reality, the post-revolutionary situation of non-Muslim religious groups has not improved under Sisi, as New York Times correspondent David Kirkpatrick attests. “Nothing has really changed,” said Christian Kameel Kamel, whose 26-year-old son had been jailed for blasphemy against Islam and who still hasn’t appeared in court since the appeal to his first sentencing.

The “culture of sectarianism” has continued unabated, asserted human rights activist and researcher Ishak Ibrahim. Yet, amazingly, Christians remain mostly pro-Sisi. As a fellow Christian, I think they will likely come to regret their hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood. Hatred (or even fear) does not become followers of Christ; what is more, there are plenty of other Muslims advocating a greater role for Islam in Egypt (i.e., “islamists”) who don’t like the MBs; finally, when some day greater democracy is restored (as we all pray it will), this could come back to bite their community.

Beyond Christians, there have been two high-profile cases of people imprisoned for atheism, and at least three Shiite Muslims have been condemned to the legal sentence (five years in prison) for blasphemy as well. Religious freedom is badly lacking in today’s Egypt.

Ironically, the 2012 presidential election saw massive numbers at the polls. Morsi won with only a three-percentage-point lead and the electoral process was considered fair by international observers. By contrast, the 2014 election saw little participation, as the outcome seemed inevitable. As a Middle East Report article makes it clear, even with an artificial two-day extension of the voting period, the state’s declared 30 percent participation seemed inflated. The pro-regime media badgered and pressured people to vote with slogans like this, "Any woman who goes shopping instead of voting should be shot or shoot herself." To no avail. Only a few came out to vote.

Also like Mubarak and Sadat before him, Sisi portrays himself as the defender of “true” Islam and has found, as they did, the al-Azhar establishment (perhaps still the most prestigious Islamic university in the world) very obliging and supportive of his cause. For instance, when al-Azhar condemned the recent Noah film as “a clear violation of the principles of Islamic Sharia,” the official state censorship board upheld the ruling. Emad Shahin, a well-know political scientist who left the country in protest of Sisi’s policies (barely escaping his own imprisonment), President Sisi has made “extensive” use of religion to bolster the legitimacy of the “coup leaders.”

Though manipulating religion for political gain is as old as the world, it is likely that Sisi is playing with the same dynamite that blew up Mubarak’s regime (see also Elmasry’s piece, “Egypt’s ‘Secular’ Gov Uses Religion as a Tool of Repression”). The so-called “Islamic Revival” has been transforming Egypt since the late 1970s and shows no signs of abating. The best book to read on this is still journalist/scholar Geneive Abdo’s masterful No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam.

A veteran liberal opposition leader, Ayman Nour (he ran against Mubarak in 2005 and is now exiled in Lebanon) recently said in an interview that Sisi was a one-sided president. He isn't representing all Egyptians, but only following his own anti-Brotherhood path. In the end, he quipped, "Mubarak took us many years back, and what Sisi is doing will not push us to the front. Sisi's actions will bring us to the abyss."

Just to give you an idea of how serious the human rights situation is, have a look at this article explaining why the Carter Center decided to pull out of Egypt. Jimmy Carter and his advisors believe that "the upcoming [parliamentary] elections are unlikely to advance genuine democratization."

Considering some of his other writings, I was pleasantly surprised by a recent piece by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, entitled “ISIS and SISI”. Taking his cue from Israeli analyst Orit Perlov, Friedman contends that two governing styles now dominate the Mideast: the radical Islamic ideology of ISIS and the absolute power of the (secular?) state under Egypt’s Sisi. Yet neither “hyper-Islamism” nor “hyper nationalism” will deliver what the people desperately need – “the education, freedom and jobs to realize their full potential and the ability to participate as equal citizens in their political life.”

Friedman is right to label Sisi’s regime as “hyper-nationalism” and so is Elmasry in putting “secular” between quotation marks. Egypt’s top clerics (ulama) and Pope Tawadros II regularly appear on Egyptian TV to sing the regime’s praises and heap blame on the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet, as I said earlier, this is to play with fire, at least with regard to the vast Muslim majority of Egyptians. Sure, Muslims gladly spilled into the streets to call for Morsi’s resignation, but many of them, and not just the ultra-conservative Salafis, yearn for a more authentically “Islamic” regime, as anthropologist Yasmin Moll has discovered in her research on the Egyptian media industry (“Islamism beyond the Muslim Brotherhood”).

Moll’s fieldwork was conducted between 2010 and 2013 among some leading media producers who worked for a “transnational Islamic channel that defined itself primarily against the Salafi television channels that were closed down by the military following the coup.” Most of these “saw themselves not just as muttadayinin (religious) but also as islamiyin (‘Islamists’). Yet, they were highly critical of the Muslim Brotherhood’s year in power, with many of them joining the massive June 30 protests against Morsi.”

This is not how the tensions in Egypt are generally portrayed in our Western media. We usually read that Sisi leads the existential struggle for a secular state against the arrayed forces of militant Islam led by the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s much more complicated than that, writes Moll. In the social milieu in which these producers move, there are no “secular liberal elites.” Rather, these people “explicitly believe that secularism cannot be legitimately justified or reasoned from within an Islamic frame.” She explains,


“This is because, for them, Islam guides and makes normative claims on every aspect of human life, including political life. They were not against the Muslim Brotherhood because of its similar commitment to the “comprehensiveness” (shumuliyyat) of Islam, but because they perceived the organization as arrogant and incompetent, nepotistic and exclusionary. That the Brotherhood claimed to be acting in the name of religion while behaving badly made its actions much worse, but their support for Sisi’s removal of Morsi in no way hinged on seeing the military as a bastion of secularism.”


Unlike the Salafis, however, this islamist orientation involves in some fashion “creating a shared space (masaha mushtarika) between Egyptians of different political orientations and moral sensibilities, including between those who identify themselves as pious and those who do not.” This is not unlike the AKP ruling party of Turkey some call “soft islamism,” which is comfortable functioning under the umbrella of a secular constitution. But above all, it’s about a democratic politics that could be adapted and adjusted for use in a Muslim-majority country like Egypt.

No, things are not what they seem in Egypt from watching the news on mainstream TV or reading about them in Western news outlets. Might the reality look more hopeful from another vantage point? Maybe not. But knowing it in more detail and in a more balanced way politically makes it more interesting. And, who knows, we might be able to influence our lawmakers and politicians to take a more constructive path in relating to this part of the world.


The unhelpful “Islamism” prism

Dennis Ross, a diplomat with a wealth of experience in this region under several US administrations, wrote an OpEd on the heels of President Obama’s speech outlining his strategy to defeat the Islamic State. Unfortunately, Ross takes a manichean view of the Mideast: the islamists versus the non-islamists. The latter are “our friends,” he argues, the others our enemies. But these "friends" also happen to be “the traditional monarchies, authoritarian governments in Egypt and Algeria, and secular reformers who may be small in number but have not disappeared.” We might have worked more closely with Turkey and Qatar, but both these Sunni states support the Muslim Brotherhood.

But this also means, Ross asserts, “recognizing that Egypt is an essential part of the anti-Islamist coalition, and that American military aid should not be withheld because of differences over Egypt’s domestic behavior.” Forget human rights, or at least turn a blind eye to them in light of more pressing issues. Why partner with these “non-Islamists” states? His answer is simple:


“These non-Islamists are America’s natural partners in the region. They favor stability, the free flow of oil and gas, and they oppose terrorism. The forces that threaten us also threaten them.”


Ross had astutely explained why in his opinion the “Arab Awakening” of 2011 had failed to produce democracy in the region. Three reasons:


“The institutions of civil society were too weak; the political culture of winner-take-all too strong; sectarian differences too powerful; and a belief in pluralism too inchoate. Instead, the awakening produced political vacuums and a struggle over identity.”


Still, Ross feels the Obama Administration is too squeamish about “about appearing to give a blank check to authoritarian regimes, when it believes there need to be limits and that these regimes are likely to prove unstable over time.” Obama, like Carter long before him, actually cares about issues of human rights and people having a say in how they are governed (though not enough so, in my opinion). Ross retorts that Egypt and the UAE are already bombing the islamists in neighboring Libya without asking for our permission. Don’t discourage them, he warns, but work with them in the hopes of harnessing this energy in the right direction and more effectively.

My question to Ross is this: isn’t running roughshod over people’s convictions and lending support to regimes (like Egypt and Saudi Arabia) who ignore their people’s basic human rights a bad strategy in the long run? It seems to me that the US already has such a lamentable record in the region for arrogant and blundering interventions that this will just reinforce widespread anti-American feelings among these peoples. If “stability” is just another word for “political repression” – which it is in practice – then this is just as shortsighted as the neo-conservative-inspired 2003 invasion of Iraq.



What about ISIS, you say? Well, first of all, to get a good feel for its territory on the two rivers see this interactive map. Then read this piece by Shane Harris in Foreign Policy: “Obama’s Mission Impossible”. A New York Times editorial concludes about the same thing, just looking at the challenge of training “moderate” Syrian rebels in the fight against ISIS. The US has a pitiful record when it comes to training troops, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan. And then, these rebels’ only focus is on bringing down the Asad regime. Channeling their energies to effectively fight IS is truly a long shot.

Finally, read the transcript or listen to Terry Gross’s recent interview of the New York Times Baghdad bureau chief Tim Arango on Fresh Air. He details how the US poured $5 billion into training the Iraqi army that simply crumbled when confronted with ISIS and shows how ISIS is the de facto creation of American adventurism in Iraq.

Much more could be said, but let me end with this thought. President Obama likely has no political alternative to pursuing his announced combination of Sunni coalition building and bombing to “degrade” the Islamic State’s military capabilities – though the most logical neighbor with the most goals in common happens to be Iran. Too bad he “can’t go there” (politically)! But we should have learned our lesson by now. Particularly in this part of the world, war is always counterproductive.


Things as they should be

Jim Wallis speaks for many Christians and people of other faiths too when he writes that “War Is Not the Answer”. He reminds his readers that before the 2003 invasion of Iraq US church leaders offered a peaceful alternative that would still meet the stated goals of the war – in six points. In fact, it was seriously discussed in Tony Blair’s cabinet meeting. “The American church leaders’ plan,” the UK Secretary of State Clair Short told Jim Wallis, really was an attractive alternative to war because it showed how Saddam Hussein’s regime could be brought down and his WMD’s dismantled (it turned out they didn’t exist).

I agree with Wallis. The American president should have waited another couple of weeks when the US chairs the UN Security Council meetings in New York. His idea of coalition building is good, but it needs to be widened. Will it take longer with UN involvement? It will, but that’s the only way to recover some legitimacy for its actions in that region and for a much greater amount of pressure globally to be put on the Islamic State for seizing vast territories by force and all the while committing untold crimes against humanity. In the end there will have to be some force applied against IS, but applied on the basis of a wider coalition will more likely empower the local Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, Christians and others, to rally around plans for more transparent, broad-based and efficient governance. That’s the only stability that will last.

It’s time people of faith, and particularly Muslims and Christians, speak out for peace and work together as local and global civil society to see these kinds of goals implemented in the region. Instead of looking at how things seem from the vantage point of the powerful, both insiders and outsiders of the Mideast, they could help each other see how the world should look like – more just, peaceful and compassionate – and find ways to move in that direction.

 A couple of weeks ago Duke University Arabic professor Mbaye Bashir Lo attended Friday prayers at the Grand Mosque of Niamey, Niger. Originally from Sudan, he’s doing research on militant Islam in West Africa this summer. What he heard the preacher say startled him: “These are troubling times: there is killing everywhere, and certainly, these are signs of the end of time.” This was followed by a hadith of the Prophet, “At the end of time neither the killer nor the victim will know the reason of the killing.”

Lo’s article that inspired this blog was published in al-Arabiya online, the Saudi/Emirati-owned news service, based in Dubai and al-Jazeera’s closest competitor in the Middle East. [At least at this writing the article has several mistakes, and even one in the title; I’ve never seen that on al-Jazeera!]

One point he makes is that since the 1991 Gulf War (First or Second, depending on whether you count the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s), no war has been fought between two national armies. George H. W. Bush’s international coalition was composed of armies contributed by those nation-states fighting Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army. But the Balkan wars of the 1990s, for instance, had to do with the breakup of former Yugoslavia. I think he’s right, but if you can think of a counter-example, please post a comment below.

When the US and Britain invaded Iraq in 2003 they quickly routed its army and then followed nine years of fighting mostly Sunni militia, with an increasingly organized al-Qaeda branch on the side. Think too of the Russian “rebels” fighting the central Ukrainian government forces in Donetsk and other eastern provinces. This is a proxy war, with Russia clearly involved, of the same type that has been raging in Syria for three and a half years now.

That said, as Lo recognizes, most of the violent hot spots today involve at least some Islamic militants:


“Look at the news highlights of the past week: a suicide car bombing killed 21 in Baghdad; gunmen killed 21 security forces on Egypt's western border; in Gombe, Nigeria, Boko Haram militants killed 32 villagers in different towns; in Libya, 38 were killed as the Libyan Army and Islamists clashed in Benghazi; in the Chaambi mountains of Tunisia, gunmen killed at least 14 Tunisian soldiers. The list goes on, to say nothing of what is occurring in Syria, Somalia, and Yemen, among other places.”


To say the least, this is depressing and even bewildering for the vast majority of Muslims worldwide. Why is jihadism on the rise, anyway? After all, and by far, Muslims remain the majority victims of this systematic slaughter of civilians.

I want here to discuss Lo’s answer in three parts. First, it seems that militant Islam is feeding on both favorable ideological and geopolitical conditions. Second, as I alluded to above, we might be seeing the “fading of an old order,” that is, the international order the foundation of which go back to Swiss political philosopher Emerich de Vattel’s The Law of Nations is being seriously shaken. And finally, as I’m (slowly) writing my book on justice, I’ll comment on how “justice” might relate to this topic, especially in the way Lo ends his piece.


Jihadism, dying and victory

Lo thought that the imam’s sermon was “very relevant in the current discourse of militant Islam.” Muslims generally believe that the Prophet Muhammad was victorious because he was “right.” In other words, his was a righteous and just cause and so he prevailed religiously, politically and militarily. Lo explains, “There is a right reason and a wrong reason to die. The right reason is associated with victory, while the wrong reason is associated with peril and defeat.”

The converse is that if your cause is unjust, you cannot prevail. That of course posed a cruel dilemma for Muslims under colonial rule. How could these plundering conquerors have the upper hand? The same logic, adds Lo, buoyed ISIS founder (IS from now on, The Islamic State) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in his bid to break off from al-Qaeda and declare himself caliph of all Muslims. Had he not, unlike Ayman al-Zawahiri, proved his mettle by conquering a territory larger than that of Great Britain? IS fighters took control of a quarter of Iraq while chanting, [We are on] “the righteous path, and the sign is self-evident.”

Sayyid Qutb (executed by President Nasser in 1966) glorified martyrdom (shahada) for martyrdom’s sake, continues Lo (on him, see my blog, “Jihad Revisited”). This mindset prevailed until the Muslim Brotherhood actually came to power in Egypt in 2012. Jihad now is all about achieving victory. Lo continues:


“The new leaders, Al-Baghdadi in Iraq, Muhammad al Zahawi (the leader of Ansaar al-Sharia in Libya), Ramadan A. Shalah, (the military leader of Islamic Jihad in Ghaza,) and Abubakar Shekau (the leader of Boko Haram in Nigeria), are not interested chiefly in shahadah. They want tangible evidence of victory: bondage, ransoms of war, estates and Khilaafah [caliphate]—for them, these are the hallmarks of real power. According to the Yemeni singer Abu Hajir al-Hadrami, through jihad, al-Baghdadi is ‘re-wiring the Muslim land.’”


That's a few words about the ideological vacuum the jihadis have filled. Regarding the favorable geopolitical conditions, I'll only state the obvious: jihadism finds its home in any territory (under)ruled by a weak state and thrives when instability turns to chaos -- like Sudan for bin Laden after Afghanistan, then Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover; then post-US invasion Iraq; then the Syrian civil war and Iraq in the last eight months.


The fading of an order?

Vattel penned The Law of Nations (the French original, “Droit des Gens,” could also be translated “The Right of Peoples”) in 1758 a century after the horrific religious wars known as the Thirty Year War. For me there’s an eerie parallel with today. Sure, nation states were involved in the fighting, but at bottom it was Christians fighting Christians.

Vattel’s central thesis is that only a sovereign can declare a war and only troops can fight troops. Civilians should both stay out of the fray and be protected from harm. Are we witnessing the end of that order? Over 70 percent of the recent Gaza war’s victims were civilians, with almost 500 children killed.

By the way, Vattel’s Swiss editor Charles Dumas sent Benjamin Franklin three copies of the French book just before American independence. Franklin in his letter of thanks included this phrase, “It came to us in good season, when the circumstances of a rising State make it necessary to frequently consult the Law of Nations.”

So is that order passing? Lo might be overstating his case. Vattel’s book fed into the wider current of Enlightenment philosophy that also inspired the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the French Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, and eventually the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the body of international law that followed. Should the UN fall apart (heaven forbid!), yes, that would mark the end of the era of international law – contested as it is. But Lo is raising an important issue, that of justice and how it works out on a global scale.


Justice and legal theory

Having published a good amount on Islamic law in the 2000s, I wanted to write a small book on justice that would incorporate some of that research, as well as some of the work Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff completed in the same period (see my blog Jesus and Justice for a taste of Justice: Rights and Wrongs). Knowing I needed some input from legal theory, I turned to Raymond Wacks’ Philosophy of Law: A Very Short Introduction. I was not disappointed.

In 128 pages Wacks offers an intellectual history of “justice.” At the risk of oversimplifying, let me say that there are three basic ways to look at law and justice:


1. Law and morality are intertwined. In fact, human laws in their general principles flow out of natural law. This is the heritage handed down by the Greeks, and especially the Stoics, for whom “natural” was derived from human reason. This is the current too that impacted the Muslim rationalists, the Mu’tazilites, and also Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). This current was in turn passed on, at least partially, by Muslim Spain to European theologians like Thomas Aquinas. Humans know good and evil, because through creation God imparted this knowledge of objective moral truth to humankind. Any law enacted by humans that goes against natural law (and divine law as revealed in the Scriptures) is not law. The good precedes the right, and this is the current that fed into the Vattel, Hugo Grotius and human rights tradition.


2. Law is man-made and morality is not relevant. This is legal positivism. There are no legal norms outside of humanity and, what it more, law and morality are two different things. For “exclusive” legal positivists like Joseph Raz (b. 1939), law is a social fact and hence, autonomous. It is also the only source of authority in a society, outside of any moral considerations. Other positivists, so-called “soft” positivists, like H. L. A. Hart (d. 1992), see law with a minimum content of natural law; and yes, this content does have moral implications. That said, the law is a system of rules people make to ensure that a human society can function and not be destroyed by people’s selfishness and inclination to violence.


3. The field of “critical legal studies” questions the validity of all formal schemes of human progress, and even the notion of utopia, noting that, above all, law is about power. The history of the Western world is replete with Western states conquering and subjugating other parts of the world, and forcing them to submit to their laws. Globalization for them is mostly a form of neo-colonialism, by which Western economic power – through its multinational corporations and a neoliberal form of capitalism – subverts and drains developing countries from their economic and therefore political potential. Extreme partisans of postmodernism even doubt that there are any possible basis for moral agreement among humans. So much for human rights . . .


Mbaye Lo’s conclusion

Lo has given us a useful snapshot of the jihadis’ mindset about military jihad, but nowhere does he offer a critique of their tactics or theology. I’m sure he has done so elsewhere, or he wouldn’t be teaching where he is. Further, his pedestrian tone seems to dismiss the jihadi threat by saying it’s simply part of a general breakdown of the international order (civilians are killing civilians everywhere) and that, according to his Niamey imam, these are the signs of the end times.

What is more, though he admits that the roots of jihadism are complex, he basically concludes it’s America’s fault:


“I agree with the imam: this is the end of time, scary times, and troubling times. Many factors have contributed in its making. But I still blame the U.S. for abandoning the moral high ground when confronted by militant Islam. It has failed to lead by example, by its moral ideals. A Wolof proverb states, “if the father is a drummer, then no child should be scorned for dancing.” In this instance, the U.S. has led by policy and actions, and the rest of the world has followed its example.”


I am definitely recommending the first position above: law and morality must go hand in hand, and justice is about treating all human beings with respect and dignity. The partisans of critical legal studies certainly have a point about law and power. The United States has reacted to militant Islam in ways that have clearly skirted international law and violated human rights, including a clampdown on the press at home (see Dowd’s column). It all started on Sept. 14, 2001, with the AUMF, which gave the executive branch carte blanche in pursuing the "war on terror." But I would say that if you want to be called “leader of the free world,” then you should lead by example. True, there are many reasons why jihadis do what they do, but foremost among them is their theological orientation.

Plainly, the jihadi movement is now on steroids with the dramatic expansion of the “Islamic State”in Syria and Iraq, with dire consequences for the whole region. I applaud the coalition of British imams (“Imams Online”), representing Shias and Sunnis, who issued a 4-minute video strongly condemning the Islamic State and its tactics of terror. In fact, it seems that this crisis sparked the formation of the coalition in the first place. According to their website, “Senior British imams have come together to emphasize the importance of unity in the UK and to decree ISIS as an illegitimate, vicious group who do not represent Islam in any way.”

Make sure too to read this gut-wrenching piece of soul-searching by an American imam, "Lunacy in the Levant: Deconstructing the ISIS Crisis."

To sum up -- Justice demands the rule of law and the opportunity for all nations to continue the process of hammering out “international law” based on the respect for the “natural” (and I add, “God-given”) rights of all human beings. Yes, the United Nations organization does need reform so that all nations can feed into this process in a just manner. But one way or another we will have to work together to make sure that no group can drive people out of their cities and exterminate others, all in the name of religion. It’s our moral duty to struggle for justice, even until the end of time!

If you’re like me and plan to enjoy a cup of coffee tomorrow morning, we will be in the company of 1.6 billion others across the globe. Coffee is one of the most traded commodities on the planet – at more than $100 billion a year! Still, 70 percent of that coffee was hand picked and processed by small farmers who remain dirt poor. Thankfully, that is changing, thanks to the Fair Trade movement.

I have to add, though, that my cup of coffee tomorrow morning will remind me of the poor farmers I just watched on the screen. They were picking those red beans on the stem, dropping them in a basket tied to their waist, probably doing this all day, and then brought home several large burlap sacs for the next stage of a long, work-intensive process before the coffee beans are ready to be exported.

Just for the record, that cup of coffee is made from 70 of those red berries picked in the forest of Central America’s highlands (or in Africa, or Indonesia, or elsewhere).

That both moving and delightful documentary film I just watched was called, “Connected by Coffee.” Two American coffee roasters take us along on a 1,000-mile trek from southern Mexico to Guatemala, and from El Salvador to Nicaragua, visiting the small farmers – mostly indigenous peoples – who have supplied them with coffee for over a decade. These coffee growers are all organized into cooperatives (the one in Nicaragua was all women) and our two hosts are truly their friends, through thick and thin, dancing with them and, in one instance, crying with them. For the sad fact is that, largely due to global warming, a deadly fungus (“coffee rust”) has destroyed virtually 70 percent of their crops in the last two years. Yet they carry on with their friendship, because “it’s about a lot more than coffee.”

“Connected by Coffee” introduces us to the Fair Trade idea – an amalgamation of the environmental movement, the human rights movement, the feminist and peace movements, and more. Here it’s defined it as “an approach to business that strives to replace exploitation with direct, long term relationships based on dignity, respect and equality.” On a subcontinent where coffee powered most of the economic growth for over two centuries, it has mostly been the symbol of shameless abuse – large plantations run by the rich who treat their workers hardly better than they would treat slaves.

Fair Trade, then, is an encouragement to small farmers to pool their resources and leverage their selling power, to invest in the machinery that enables them to bypass all the middle men, fetch a higher price for their product and export directly.


Revolutions and social justice

I had written about “the fourth world” in my book, Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, and showed how the indigenous peoples of the earth are so often forgotten and shoved aside as the poorest of the poor. I also gushed about how the indigenous uprising in the southern tip of Mexico was launched on the very date the North American Free Trade Agreement was to come into effect, January 1, 1994. The Zapatista movement and especially the nonviolent branch Los Abejas (The Bees), which included 48 different indigenous groups, fought against unfair government policies, violence on all sides of the current conflicts, and the predatory practices of the multinational corporations that effectively crippled their already weak economic potential. Yet their weapons of choice were fasting and prayer, and peaceful marches, including one that ended up in Mexico City.

The Zapatista revolutionary movement caught the imagination of the world as the Internet was just getting underway. Thousands of websites were launched to support their agenda and they became a cause célèbre for the anti-globalization movement, which spread dramatically after the 1999 Seattle WTO protests.

The very first stop in “Connected by Coffee” is to the small village of Acteal, in the southern most Mexican province of Chiapas. That’s where in 1997 a band of paramilitary fighters aligned with the Mexican government mowed down in cold blood – and most of them while worshiping in church – 45 men, women and children. The film shows you a heart-wrenching clip of the funeral, pictures of some of the victims and then you meet Antonio, one of the survivors, who since then helped to start the Maya Vinic coffee cooperative.

Fair Trade is about justice for all, and as Martin Luther King, Jr. liked to say, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

That idea of social justice runs through the whole documentary, and if you didn’t know this before, these countries are still barely emerging from revolutionary movements that fought for equality under the law for all, women, workers, and indigenous peoples alike. So many innocent people disappeared in this caldron of torture and death, with the USA, sadly, almost always backing the wrong side.

This is only the second blog I’ve written on Fair Trade on this website. The first one dealt at length on the issue of Free Trade versus Fair Trade, so I won’t go over that here. But notice the connection once again: the Zapatistas launched their revolution on the day NAFTA came into effect . . .


Closer to home

You also know from my first blog that when my family and I moved from Connecticut to Media, PA in 2006, Media had just declared itself North America’s “First Fair Trade Town.”  Fair Trade towns was the brainchild of Bruce Crowther in Garstang, Lancashire, UK. It became a reality in a town meeting in April, 2000. Since then, we count more than 1,500 Fair Trade towns and cities around the world, many small like Media, but others like London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Oslo, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco.

The American story begins with Hal Taussig, the inventor of a new way for Americans (first for teachers like himself) to spend a vacation in Europe. Connect them to local people and immerse them for a short time in their lives and customs, Hal said. That was the birth of Untours. Hal was always much more than a creative vacation planner. A 2011 article in the Huffington Post called him the “UnMillionnaire” – and for good reason. He literally gave away all his income, lived very simply, and invested everything in the Untours Foundation that lends to innovative social projects that have the best potential for solving problems of poverty.

In 2005 Hal told Elizabeth Killough who was now managing the Untours Foundation that he thought Media should become the first Fair Trade Town on the continent. Understandably floored, Elizabeth looked into it, however, and discovered Bruce Crowther’s movement that was starting to pick up momentum. They contacted Bruce and a year later the Media borough voted to implement the requirements for being qualified “a Fair Trade Town.”

Yesterday I went to visit Elizabeth at the Untours Foundation. I know her well, since I have been a member of the Media Fair Trade committee since 2008 and she has been its coordinator from the beginning. But this time I wanted her to tell me how she felt about all her efforts to promote Fair Trade over the last eight years. Here’s my summary of her main points:


“I’m thrilled with how the movement has mushroomed and attracted so much enthusiasm. The Fair Trade Campaigns movement now has over 1,000 towns, but also a growing number of schools, universities and even religious congregations. Here locally we now have a Fair Trade elementary school; the local high school is Fair Trade and so is the local branch of Penn State University. My one disappointment is that Fair Trade sales haven’t followed. It’s like the organic movement: 40% of respondents will tell you in a survey that they support organic foods, but only 10% actually buy them. Our job is to put ourselves out of business. But we have a long way to go before we can reach a critical mass of consumers who will systematically buy Fair Trade products over all other choices.”


Exactly. Fair Trade is about connecting coffee drinkers to coffee growers. It is about me asking, “where was this garment made? In a sweatshop or in a factory that cares for the welfare of its employees – keeping them safe, paying them a living wage, and allowing them to organize.” Fair Trade is also a commitment to social justice – leveraging my buying power as a consumer in a rich nation in an ethical manner so as to ensure that the producer is paid fairly. So if people pay only lip service to Fair Trade, the concept of a “Fair Trade town” is meaningless.


Dreams coming true in Paraguay

I end with a story I find very heartening. It’s not about small farmers, but about the Fair Trade concept applied just as judiciously in another context. I tell this too, because, as Elizabeth made clear to me, the global success of Fair Trade (over $5 billion in yearly sales) has spawned a lot of debates and disagreements. Part of this comes from large corporations like Starbucks who have jumped onto the FT bandwagon. As a result, there are now many certifying agencies and two main philosophical positions on Fair Trade – those who limit FT to small farmers or small factories co-owned by their workers, and those who accept plantations and larger factories that seek to apply more ethical standards. I say, all of this marks progress over the old oppressive status quo!

Now to my story, which you can read on the website of the most influential FT certifier, now called FLOCERT (I recommend you browse that site for any FT questions you may have).

The small town of Manduvira, in a district inauspiciously called “swamps and streams” about 40 miles from the capital Asuncion, just saw the inauguration of a new sugar mill with – amazingly – the presence of the vice-president and several government ministers. This was a big deal, for several reasons.

It garnered national attention mostly because of the economic model it showcases. In the article, “Sugar Farmers in Paraguay Realize their Dreams,” we read about their humble beginnings:


“Founded in 1975 by a group of teachers and agricultural producers as a savings & credit cooperative, Manduvira’s objective was to help members gain access to credit and, through the creation of projects that would benefit the community and create mutual support. Then activities were widened into crop production and Manduvira received Fairtrade certification in 1999.”


But their one great obstacle was that farmers had to transport their sugar cane 100 kms to the nearest sugar mill. Lots of money was lost in transport and milling costs. Worst of all, they had to collect the finish product there in order to get the organic and FT sugar exported. Hence, the idea of their own sugar mill.

That idea became a reality thanks to their FT connections. Another article puts it this way:


“Manduvira’s new mill will be a boon for the 1,750 member-strong farmers’ organization, which will no longer have to pay to rental and transport costs to another mill, 100 km away along dirt roads. This $15 million project was funded through a combination of national and international loans, contributions from the Fairtrade Premium, and the Fairtrade Access Fund . . .

“The Manduvira Cooperative exports certified organic and Fairtrade sugar to almost 20 countries, including most of Europe, Canada, Latin America, New Zealand and South Korea. Fairtrade staff have worked with the producer group helping it to achieve organic certification and long-term relationships with international clients.”


Several restaurants in Media where I live serve organic FT sugar and coffee. If you poke around you may discover more of those products where you live too. And if not, I urge you to ask questions and prod local businesses to look into this. Who knows, you too might start a FT movement in your town! At least, I hope we all become a lot more curious about where our products come from . . . and even travel to develop some relationships with small producers.

By the way, one of the loan recipients of the Untours Foundation is the amazing cocoa cooperative of New Koforidua, Ghana, now the proud owners and producers of Divine Chocolate. What that story doesn’t tell you is that Christians and Muslims are members of that cooperative – yes, you can imagine how happy I was to discuss this with one of the four farmers who came to Media on a tour of the US East Coast!

Oh, and I forgot to tell you. I walked out of Elizabeth’s office with a Divine Chocolate bar . . .

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.”

The Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram, with links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), recently rocketed into global infamy after their abduction of over 250 school girls and their threat to sell them into slavery or forced marriage in exchange for the release of their jailed companions. They’ve also been known to kill scores of policemen and civilians in the northeast of Nigeria, Muslims and Christians. Less publicized were their latest brazen attacks on villages, in which, dressed as soldiers or policemen, they gather everyone in the center square and systematically massacre men, women and children.

Then some of you might have read a NY Times Op-Ed, about how Junaid Hafeez, a young poet, Fullbright scholar and English professor, was arrested on the charge of blasphemy against Islam, and how Rashid Rehman, the special coordinator of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, had courageously undertaken to defend him in court. Rehman was soon gunned down in front of his colleagues and the attackers have still not been apprehended.

With items like this in the news daily, no wonder many westerners assume a fundamental contradiction between “Islam” and human rights. Much of this comes, of course, from a western media bias against Islam since 9/11, and also, let’s be honest, from news services eager to increase their profit margins by publishing (in print or on TV) what is most extreme and sensationalist.

You probably would never hear stories like this one published last week in Pakistan, “Ulema’s Council Fatwa Declares Honor Killing Un-Islamic”. Yet these issues are being debated among Muslims all the time, and even here in Pakistan, which has witnessed countless suicide bombings (with fellow Muslims by far the most numerous victims, both Sunni and Shia), the highest ranking Muslim clerics are condemning all politically and religiously-motivated violence. No young single woman in particular should ever be killed. What’s more: “No Muslim sect will be declared non-Muslim and no Muslim or non-Muslim will be declared worthy of being killed.”

That’s Pakistan and its religious establishment, and that’s newsworthy. But all mainstream Muslim institutions and scholars have been condemning violence in the name of Islam long before, and especially after 9/11 – in the west, of course, but also most everywhere in the Muslim world. You might ask, “Why is there still so much violence that seems to be motivated by religion?” There are many reasons beyond the jihadis’ simplistic yet terrifying single mindedness. Social and political unrest account for most of it, but explaining violence isn’t my topic here. If you’re wondering about the topic though, just look at this one frustrated Pakistani-American Muslim's article shortly after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing (“Do You Even Hear Muslims When We Condemn Violence?”).

My task in this and the next blog is to unpack the main points of an article I just finished, which will appear in January 2015 in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, “Islam and Human Rights: A Growing Rapprochement?” In this blog I deal with the contested nature of religion and human rights – along with the fuzzy concept of “human rights” itself! Then I’ll turn to the special case of Islam and human rights.


What on earth are “human rights”?

With so many agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world purporting to further the cause of human rights (like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch), this may seem like a silly question – something scholars would ask, because their livelihood seemingly depends on making everything more complicated than it really is! I assure you, though there is some truth to this (though I would add too that reality is really a lot more complicated than appears on the surface!), the notion of human rights is quite slippery. Here are just a few thoughts you might pursue:

*** Philosophically (and theologically): the dominant current has been the idea of “natural law,” that is, human beings have an innate sense of justice, which posits that laws in society ought to respect the dignity of each human person. This idea can be traced back to the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and then to the Stoics, who taught that the universe is purposeful and that human reason applying itself to virtue can discover these natural laws. Natural law was then forcefully articulated by Cicero (1st century BCE) in a Roman context – so much so, that these ideas endured and were passed on to the Muslim philosophers (like Ibn Rushd, or Averroes in the 12th century), then to Thomas Aquinas, often called the “Father of Roman Catholic Theology,” then to the Renaissance and finally to 18th-century Enlightenment.

So, for instance, the American Declaration of Independence declares the following: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

“Creation” is mentioned there. Even in the United States today, this is controversial. The dominant ideology is secular – because of the (not-so-clear) "separation of church and state" – and, though most Americans are at least nominally Christian and would agree with Muslims and Jews that human rights accrue to all humans by virtue of creation, many others are agnostic or atheists, or Hindu, Buddhist or of some other faith that does not believe in a Creator God.

This was the case of the United Nations General Assembly’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which begins with this phrase,

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, …”

This is the assumption that seemed to capture the consensus of a wide variety of people from many ethnicities, religions and nationalities, who at the time were reeling from the horrors of two world wars. True, as you can read in the text from which I took the above picture, the formulation comes straight out from the European Enlightenment. Still, this quasi-natural law formulation (the UDHR studiously avoids any reference to the divine) won the approval of all nations present in 1948, including the Muslim states of Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Turkey (only Saudi Arabia abstained).

Since that time, however, much has been written from many angles to find some kind of philosophical backing for this notion of inalienable human rights. Do they stem from “nature” (another contested term), or are they a logical imperative, much as Kant would have argued? Also in terms of ethical theory, you can read many articles and books published in the past decades seeking to ground human rights theory from either positivist or utilitarian positions.


*** Legally – how do you establish a universal right binding on all states?

So then, what about the nature of “rights”? One influential theorist, Wesley N. Hohfeld, has pointed to a number of complexities in this area. Does “having a right” mean one is entitled to something, and does this not also impose a duty on another person to give it us? Or is it simply an immunity for keeping one’s legal status safe? Or is it the privilege to do something (like voting)? Or is it the power to alter existing legal relationships? This might all sound abstract or too theoretical, but it creates some real conundrums in practice, particularly for the “right to life.” Of all the rights, this one seems the most likely candidate for “an absolute right.” Yet, while the European Union has banned the death penalty, the United States and many other countries still have it on their books. Definitions and boundaries related to human rights are routinely disputed.


*** The list of rights – the so-called “generations of rights”:

Since the eighteenth century the drawing up of constitutions in the West is seen as a way to curb government power and enhance individual rights. The UDHR, despite its great moral authority was not a legally enforceable document, though it is the first of three main documents in what is now called the International Bill of Human Rights. The other two documents were signed in 1966, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESC). The ICCR represents what many call the first generation of rights, based on the notion of freedom and political participation. These are also called “blue rights,” meaning civil and political in nature. They are “negative rights,” in that they serve to protect individuals from the harmful incursions of the state.

Of all rights, those listed in the ICCR are the most legally enforceable, unlike the second generation of rights, those concerned with human equality, as spelled out in the ICESC – or “red rights,” so-called because they are “positive rights.” As opposed to the negative rights, these rights are claims on the government to fulfill people’s needs. Those include the right to health care, the right to employment, rights to science and culture.

Finally, the third generation covers group and collective rights (like minorities, indigenous rights, etc.), environmental rights (starting with the 1992 Rio Declaration), women’s rights (the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, or CEDAW) and intergenerational equity and sustainability rights. Naturally, these rights are even more difficult to enact in a legally binding way. Yet you can imagine that, from the perspective of this website and the views of many people of faith (and many very secular, left-leaning people too) these rights form the backbone of a sustainable human colonization of this planet. We can’t survive as a species in the long run if we don’t agree together on some basic ground rules for the way we treat one another and the "commons" we inherited from our ancestors.

That said, these rights are controversial and contested. The United States, for instance, took years to ratify the ICCR, and when it did, it registered several reservations; and it never ratified the ICESC, nor CEDAW, nor any environmental treaty to date. Muslim countries were much more involved in the committee work leading up to the International Bill of Rights than the US – something to keep in mind for the next section.


Some historical background

I want to make three quick points here. First, Muslim representatives to the UN at this stage were western-educated and rather liberal in their outlook. For instance, though Article 18 on religious freedom stipulates the right to change one’s religion and therefore directly contradicts traditional Islamic law, not one Muslim state voted against it. They didn’t see this as terribly important and would rather not go on record for opposing it. The Pakistani representative, for his part, Sir Muhammad Zafrulllah Khan, was adamant about the Qur’an supporting religious freedom – a position taken by all the more liberal-minded Muslim reformists today.

Surprisingly too, no Muslim nation in the end voted against Article 16, which requires equal rights for spouses in marriage. It was debated more passionately by Muslim representatives than Article 18, mostly because in all five schools of Islamic law a Muslim women is forbidden from marrying a non-Muslim man, and, additionally, her rights to initiate divorce are much more limited compared to her husband's. Interestingly, the United States did vote against this clause, as interracial marriages were still forbidden by law on its territory.

Second, according to Ann Elizabeth Mayer (her book on Islam and Human Rights is now in its fifth edition), this was the period of decolonization and though Muslim nations often voted differently on many issues, in general they all tended “to identify with the victims of human rights violations.” As many Muslim people groups were fighting (sometimes militarily) for their independence, Muslim nations in the UN often found themselves systematically opposing western nations that were holding out on minority rights and anti-discrimination laws. As she puts it,

“Coming out of periods of subjugation by European powers, they were naturally enthusiastic backers of the principle of self-determination and were united in denouncing the human rights violations that European colonialism had perpetrated as well as the hypocrisy of European states that gave lip service to human rights that they were unwilling to grant to subjugated populations in their colonies.”

Third, starting in the 1980s observers note a wave of resistance to the universal character of the UDHR and the International Bill of Human Rights. This push back came mostly from two regions, Asia and Muslim states, in the first case for reasons of cultural specificity (this coincides with the rise of cultural relativism in the social sciences), and in the second for religious reasons. In the Muslim case several initiatives emerged. First, conservative European Muslim leaders, mostly from Paris and London, 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).

This will be my starting point for the second blog. As it turns out, the world was becoming “furiously religious” at that time, as sociologist Peter Berger put it in his 1999 book, The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics.

[On this topic, I received this week my copy of Fundamentalism: Perspectives on a Contested History, to which I contributed the chapter entitled, “Fundamentalism Diluted: From Enclave to Globalism in Conservative Muslim Ecological Discourse”]

As human beings we are constantly navigating the multiple layers of our (fluid) identity. I am still a son, though my parents have been gone for a while. I am a husband and father, a teacher in several contexts, a former pastor in Algeria. For sixteen years I lived as a Christian in three different Muslim-majority countries. I’m a white American male, with all the power, pride, derision and guilt that you, the reader, might read into it. I inhabit many other personae, depending on where I am and what I’m doing. And so do you.

This is the story of an African-American man, Zain Abdullah, who was born to Christian parents and mostly raised along with two older sisters by his mother. My task is simply to whet your appetite, so you will read his story in the latest issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, “A Muslim’s Search for Meaning.” Here are several themes that struck a chord in me as I read.

A quick aside: I featured another convert to Islam (or “revert,” as Muslims like to put it – “Islam” for them is the natural state of creation) back in January, a white female American, G. Willow Wilson, while highlighting her fascinating book, The Butterfly Mosque. Why don’t you present Muslim converts to Christianity, you might ask? Of course, there are many examples there too, like my friend, Yale Divinity School professor Lamin Sanneh, born and raised in the Gambia (here’s the best introduction). My answer is this: I have more Christian than Muslim readers (I think), and because my aim is to break down barriers between the two communities, it is Muslims who bear the brunt of our western societies’ stereotypes and prejudice.


What is religion? What is Islam?

This is a question I challenge my students in “Comparative Religion” to grapple with throughout the semester. When one of them writes in her/his final essay, “it’s a complicated issue,” I breathe a sigh of relief, and say to myself, “mission accomplished.”

In this piece, Zain Abdullah opens up his heart to us. I’ll get to that more personal tone below. But for now, he also writes as a professor of Islamic Studies, whose research draws a good deal from the social sciences (his PhD is in cultural anthropology). Yes, he’s been an imam and a university chaplain, but this article is framed by his concern to articulate a view of Muslims and Islam that breaks the prevalent western stereotypes.

So I’ll skip the more confessional definition of “Muslim” you read on the second page. This is about the way it’s used in the Qur’an and how it’s only the first step in one’s personal spiritual development (muslim, “submitter”; mu’min, “believer”; muhsin, “perfected believer,” or literally, “one who does good”). But this does raise the vexed problem of how one might “translate sacred meanings properly from one religious context to another.” Unfortunately, that natural impulse to oversimplify and stereotype leads people to reduce Muslims to Sunnis, Shi’a, or Sufis.

But then Abdullah adds this, which I find very helpful:


“When we consider the deeper implications of words like Islam, din, Muslim, mu’min, and kafir, we find that the Qur’anic message is essentially a call to belief in a new worldview, or a way of envisioning a world that is different from the one we currently have. This approach will necessarily alter our sense of who Muslims are and force us to rethink their place in today’s world.”


I do think that “religion,” however else we may define the term, is about a comprehensive model of reality, a way of looking at the world and human experience that explains those basic questions that science can never answer: How did this world come into being? How do we humans fit into it? Where do we come from and where do we go after death? And, perhaps most importantly, how ought we to live? In one word, religion gives “meaning” to human experience.

But to this rather abstract definition, you have to immediately add the notion of community, taking into account the social nature of homo sapiens. This is where the idea of culture fits in. So on page 28 Abdullah reflects on the American mosque, shaped as it is by the individualistic ideology of American culture. Another way of putting it is “the Protestantization of Muslim life in the United States,” with the mosque structured on “an ecclesiastical model.” The imam, like his Protestant, Catholic (or Jewish) counterpart, is expected to run an administration that cares for the needs of his flock – often walking recent immigrants through the maze of American bureaucracy and translating new cultural idioms and practices. And they will also marry and bury all those entrusted to their care.

Further, you run into this paradox, says Abdullah, as both anthropologist and theologian. Having traveled to many parts of the Muslim world, one could lament (and he does) that “Muslims around the world tend to be somewhat balkanized. Most maintain strict parameters for socialization and only marry within their ethnic group.” On the other hand, Muslims globally share this ideal of “the single ummah.” That’s the community of Muslims, the “mother,” or literally “the womb.” So the paradox is, much like it is for any other global religious tradition, the belief in the ideal unity (ummah) of all Muslims despite the formidable variety of their beliefs, practices and identities. In his words:


“Muslim religiosity—in many respects, the whole idea of being Muslim—is centered on the notion that we share a type of communal globalism, which in reality is an imagined community. Still, the group sense of what it means to be Muslim constitutes an overlapping of three very distinct relationships: matrimonial, familial, and communal. The shape of these associations, however, varies and will result in multiple ways of understanding Muslims. But the tendency for both Muslims and outsiders to view Islam as a monolithic entity is clearly untenable.”


The challenge of conversion and identity

When Abdullah was twelve, he heard about the Nation of Islam. He wanted to know more about it. His older cousin's take on it was that being black was already one strike against him. Embracing Islam would be a second strike. That sounded “really bad,” he remembers thinking. That impression struck with him.

By chance – or so it would seem – his parents gave him a name that sounded nice to them. In fact, “Zayne” really comes from the Arabic for “good,” or “one who beautifies the believers.” Next, while in the eleventh grade, a female classmate dressed in the full Nation of Islam garb, asked him, “Do you know you have a Muslim name?” That was his first clue, though the young woman’s demeanor didn’t attract him in the least to her faith. Yet somehow that epithet dovetailed nicely with the cultural and ideological mosaic he grew up with – “Black and immigrant Muslims, Christian evangelicals, integrationists, Black nationalists, and a Black working and middle class.”

In my reading of the essay, I’d say two factors most favored his conversion to Islam. The first was a genuine spiritual interest along with an innate intuition that God was one, though not in the New Testament sense. Still, in college he would often read the Bible into the wee hours of the night. But he was also studying Daoism, Confucianism and Shintoism.

The second factor was his meeting a Black Muslim from Panama who was selling jewelry in the student center. After several conversations with him, Zayne found himself repeating the Shahada (the Arabic for “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his Messenger” and also the first of Islam's "five pillars"). He had just embraced Islam and would change his name to Zain Abdullah. In fact, the turning point had come through a human instrument, Abdul-Malik, a man with whom he could identify and hence could persuade him.

But that was only the beginning of a much longer quest – still continuing in some ways – to understand what it meant for him to be “Muslim.”


Islam, marriage, and young people

Abdullah opens for us a window into one fascinating characteristic of the Muslim worldview. Since “marriage is half of religion,” as Muslims are often taught, new converts in the US are often paired off as soon as possible. His own marriage lasted only two years and he never tells us whether he remarried or not. But he does point to this as a wider phenomenon -- particularly for converts in the west -- and an unfortunate pattern that “results in a high divorce rates and a succession of serial marriages.”

Since extra-marital sex is so strongly reproved, it leaves young people, the lion’s share of Muslim-majority societies, in a bind. As you can imagine, the high rate of unemployment and widespread poverty in many of these countries s create tough dilemmas for the youth, as is well documented in the sociological work by Linda Herrera and Asef Bayat, Being Young and Muslim .

This is a good example of a cultural practice nicely suited for traditional societies (arranged marriages in a strong extended family context) that is then reinjected with new religious meaning into an entirely different context (contemporary urban society). The result is not a happy one:


“If marriage constitutes half of our religion, what does being a Muslim mean for an expanding population of the perpetually unmarried? And since any prolonged celibacy is equally prohibited, there is a strong tendency that millions will fall into deep states of depression and guilt, especially if they are unable to reconcile the tension of being a single Muslim in a family-oriented religion.”


Being a Muslim today

Remember the older cousin’s quip about being black and Muslims as two strikes against you? That certainly turned out to be true, particularly after 9/11. But this piece isn’t all about Islamophobia, though he touches on it near the end. Again, it’s complicated, like when his own mother told him out of the blue one day, “You Muslims kill.” She had read the Qur’an and books by Muslims, but she watched the daily news on TV and a good many evangelical programs as well. Here is part of his reaction to that statement:


“Still, my mother isn’t entirely wrong. Muslims do kill. Christians kill. Jews kill. Sikhs kill. Buddhists kill. Hindus kill. States kill. God kills. And people kill in the name of God. This is one of the most perplexing points about religious terrorism: How can otherwise pious people, bent on being good, cause so much suffering in the world? . . .

Muslims do indeed kill. And they also kill fellow Muslims, as four Muslim suicide bombers proved in a Muslim section of London in 2005. Grappling with these realities is part of what being a ‘Muslim’ has come to mean today. Furthermore, the deployment of the term as a political category impacts us all, forcing a realignment of how we must now navigate our surroundings.”


But just like western Europe grappled for two centuries with the “Jewish Question,” they are even more preoccupied with the “Muslim Question” today. On the other hand, when one considers the overwhelming impact of western colonialism in Muslim lands, "the line separating Muslims and the West is more imaginary than real."

This is where Abdullah’s own spiritual pilgrimage is so indicative of much larger currents and trends in the Muslim world over the past decades. Yes, Abdul Malik did offer him compelling reasons to become Muslim. But he also discovered Abul A‘la Maududi's book, Towards Understanding Islam. That’s when he truly decided to convert. Maududi was by far the most influential islamist writer and activist of the twentieth century. Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, might easily clinch that title, except that he didn’t write much. The South Asian Maududi, as Abdullah experienced, had a knack for writing clearly, persuasively, and with the black and white certainty of the fundamentalist.

Also crucial to his formative years as a Muslim, Abdullah sometimes frequented a Newark mosque that was run by another South Asian movement (this one from the 1920s), the Tablighi Jama‘at. Tablighi men traditionally dress in long white robes, baggy white trousers and white skullcaps. They usually go door to door seeking to win other Muslims over to their more conservative doctrine and way of life. But don’t confuse them with Salafis, whose robes come down midway between the knee and ankle. Sociologically, however, both groups nicely fit into what French scholar calls "neofundamentalism" (more on this in my blog on religious fundamentalism).

During those years Abdullah practiced a very conservative, regimented and communalist type of religiosity. As he puts it, free will was not part of his vocabulary or worldview at that time:


“Then, when I became Muslim in the late 1970s, everything came under the command of divine will (qadr), requiring that all human behavior begin and end with the phrases insha’Allah (If God wills it) and masha’Allah (God has willed it).”


Graduate studies changed that, and he’s been finding his way as a Muslim ever since. So read this piece for yourself. And if you are a person of faith yourself, I think you’ll be able to identify with much of what he says. One thing is for sure. Abdullah’s “search for meaning” is a rich and delightful introduction to what it means to be Muslim today.


Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rose almost twice as fast in the 2000s than they did in the couple of decades before, says the latest report by the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Comprised of several hundred experts from all over the world, including scientists and economists, the IPCC regularly distills the latest and most authoritative scientific findings on global warming and its impact on our planet.

In other words, a combination of accelerated use of coal-fired power plants in rapidly emerging economies (especially China) and lots of foot-dragging on the part of rich countries in their commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions is pushing us dangerously close to the brink of severe disruptions to the life we’ve known so far as humans on this planet.

Yet there is both good news and bad news I want to share in this blog. The good news is that technological advances are quickly bringing down the production of renewable energy like wind and solar. The bad news is that the formidable barons of the fossil fuel industry (coal, gas and oil) are fighting back, desperately trying to resist the inevitable turn to clean energies.


The certainty of human-induced climate change

I’m sure you’ve been reading about the scientific consensus on global warming yourself for several years now. You can also read my own summaries of what’s been published in the “Faith and Ecology” section of my blogs. But in the last nine months the IPCC has produced even more convincing data on global warming and its human footprint.

The IPCC was born as an international body in 1988. Its first milestone was the famous Rio Summit of 1992, which brokered the first environmental global treaty, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This was the result of the IPCC’s First Assessment Report (AR1) in 1990, which pinpointed the rise of greenhouse gases as the cause of the Earth’s accelerated warming.

Three assessment reports followed, the fourth being published in 2007. Three years later, the US National Research Council published a report broadly supportive of the IPCC’s conclusions, saying that “Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for – and in many cases is already affecting – a broad range of human and natural systems.”

2007 was also the year the Noble Peace Prize was awarded jointly to the IPCC and Al Gore for his documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

Many will remember too that there was a backlash, particularly in political circles on the right, alleging on the basis of emails made public that some of the top scientists had exaggerated some of their claims for political purposes. There was much talk of “Climategate.” But that also led to reforms of the IPCC structure and its work has been ongoing.

Finally, the Fifth Assessment (AR5) will be finalized this year in September. As always, there are 3 successive Working Group reports followed by a Synthesis report. The working groups have now issued their reports:


WG1 (Stockholm, September 2013): the probability that climate change is caused by human activity is now rated between 95 to 100 percent.

WG2 (Yokohama, March 2014): “Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger,” was one of the report’s most striking phrases.

WG3 (Berlin, April 2014): unless the international community can muster the political will to dramatically reduce its current level of emissions in the next decade, the window for achieving a tolerable level of global warming might well be closed.


The Synthesis report is scheduled to come out in September 2014.

Like I said, there is some good new as well. Justin Gillis, reporting for the New York Times, put it this way:


“The good news is that ambitious action is becoming more affordable, the committee found. It is increasingly clear that measures like tougher building codes and efficiency standards for cars and trucks can save energy and reduce emissions without harming people’s quality of life, the panel found. And the costs of renewable energy like wind and solar power are falling so fast that its deployment on a large scale is becoming practical, the report said.

Moreover, since the intergovernmental panel issued its last major report in 2007, far more countries, states and cities have adopted climate plans, a measure of the growing political interest in tackling the problem. They include China and the United States, which are both doing more domestically than they have been willing to commit to in international treaty negotiations.”


That last sentence about China and the US, the two greatest polluters on the planet, is good news indeed! But so is the fact of falling prices of renewable energy – a solar panel costs 75 percent cheaper today than it did in 2008!

Nobel Prize economist Paul Krugman wrote about this in his column last week, stating that sound environmental policy is good for business. Folks on the left and the right – for different reasons – are adamant about green policies shrinking the economy. They’re dead wrong, he asserts. The IPCC panel’s report about “decarbonizing” electricity generation is true, simply because clean energy is booming.

But there are some obstacles. As Krugman wryly concludes his piece,


“So is the climate threat solved? Well, it should be. The science is solid; the technology is there; the economics look far more favorable than anyone expected. All that stands in the way of saving the planet is a combination of ignorance, prejudice and vested interests. What could go wrong? Oh, wait.”


“Ignorance, prejudice and vested interests” are the topic of the next section. Sadly, the battle lines are clearly drawn.


A weakening Goliath fights back

For years now, billionaires Charles and David Koch, owners of the second largest private oil company, have been the target of environmentalist ire. Greenpeace USA published online a large file on Koch Industries – “still fueling climate denial.” I’ll let you peruse the list of think tanks and organizations they have funded in their bid to roll back state and federal incentives for clean energy development. From 1997 to 2011, they spent $67 million, and that pace has accelerated of late.

This past week, the New York Times published an editorial, “The Koch Attack on Solar Energy.” They’ve been funding initiatives, chiefly through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), to cancel or limit a mandate in twenty-nine states to increase renewable energy production by 10 percent or more by 2015.

In a particularly hard-hitting article, the Los Angeles Times painted the ongoing political storm in these terms:


The Koch brothers, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and some of the nation's largest power companies have backed efforts in recent months to roll back state policies that favor green energy. The conservative luminaries have pushed campaigns in Kansas, North Carolina and Arizona, with the battle rapidly spreading to other states.

Alarmed environmentalists and their allies in the solar industry have fought back, battling the other side to a draw so far. Both sides say the fight is growing more intense as new states, including Ohio, South Carolina and Washington, enter the fray.”


That the Big Carbon advocates worry about the renewable revolution is obvious. It’s really a battle of two paradigms. For over a century the US government has supported large power plants owned by capital-intensive corporations. In turn the utilities sell the power to their customers. But what if individual households that collect solar energy could sell their surplus to the wider grid? The new paradigm, one would think, should be a conservative favorite. Yet the Tea Party and the Koch brothers are its main opponents, and, of all things, want to add a tax for people using solar power!

That procedure is called “net metering,” which is practiced in 43 states and the District of Columbia. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Edward Humes explains it this way in an investigative article in Sierra magazine:


“. . . a policy that requires utilities to purchase energy from homeowners at retail prices. Investor-owned companies hate that; they want to pay the wholesale rate, or less.”


What’s been happening in Hawaii, for instance, is disheartening. Electricity there costs about five times what it costs in many other states, and as a result many have installed solar panels in their homes. In fact, it has a higher proportion of solar users than any other state (1 in 10 on the largest island, Oahu). The largest utility, Hawaiian Electric, resenting the loss of so many customers, has fought back. It simply stopped connecting new solar installations to the grid, under the pretext that these could wreak havoc with the whole system. They would first have to conduct a study, customers were told.

But six months later the study hasn’t been completed and people who’ve invested so much in their solar systems continue to pay exorbitant electric bills while in limbo. Meanwhile, the grid hasn’t shown any wear or tear . . .

You can find summaries for how this battle is shaping up in twenty other states in the Sierra Club article.

But there is one model that threatens utility companies even more than net metering. It’s taking shape in California, as SolarCity partners with electric car company Tesla to build specialized batteries enabling people to bypass the grid altogether. As Humes puts it,


“Even more than net metering, battery storage threatens the utility business model; it could, for instance, allow homeowners to form small, super-efficient neighborhood microgrids that huge, costly utilities could never outcompete . . . More than 300 California households are awaiting the commission’s decision [CA Public Utilities Commission] so they can flip the switch on the solar-battery systems waiting in their garages.”

Meanwhile, solar-generated electricity keeps becoming more reasonable, and citizens groups lobbyng for it are multiplying. One particularly effective one is the Solar Action Alliance.


A short theological postscript

When it comes to the issue of climate change, despite many challenges that vary from place to place, as inhabitants of our one planet we are all equally concerned. But whereas battles rage between Big Carbon, renewable initiatives and many American homeowners, research has shown that it is the poor worldwide who already suffer the most from a warming Earth.

People of faith should see this as a theological – and of course, moral – issue. For western Christians this year, Earth Day and Earth Week followed Holy Week. Jim Wallis of Sojourners wrote on that occasionthat “creation is not just a unique witness to God’s glory — it is, as the apostle Paul wrote, ‘groaning’, waiting also for its redemption.” Resurrection and renewal is not just our hope as people; it is also the hope of a creation marred by human greed and selfishness.

Though Muslims and Jews cannot identify with the “redemption” theme, they certainly buy into the theology of humanity as God’s trustees of creation, called to care for each other and for the beautiful creation we all share. And for this we will each give account on the Last Day.


[The day after I posted this, Justin Gillis was reporting on the National Climate Assessment prepared by a panel of scientists and just released by the US government. That report only brings home with greater urgency the message I was trying to convey above. Also of interest is an article that compares public opinion worldwide on climate change. Just to give you an idea, South Koreans are the most likely to say that climate change is "a major threat to their country" (85%), while Americans are the least likely (40%). In between you find Japan at 72%, Germany at 56%, France at 54%, and Britain at 48%.]

This is a short paper I delivered at the annual meeting of the Society of Vineyard Scholars (part of the Association of Vineyard Churches), held in Columbus, Ohio, in April 2014.

Herein I examine some of theologian Stanley Hauerwas' views in light of a wider discussion about the relationship between the Church and the Kingdom of God. Though I find much to sympathize with his positions, I conclude that, surprisingly perhaps, he ends up with a position similar to Calvin's "Two Kingdoms" theology. The Kingdom of God seems to merge with the Church and the kingdoms of human society seem depraved beyond any possible redemption.

Yale law professor Steven Carter addresses some of my concerns in an article he wrote on Hauerwas. For Carter, who published a book on war the same year as did Hauerwas (2011), Hauerwas' pacifism distorts the reality of violence in the liberal democratic state. Furthermore, his critique undercuts any meaningful role for social justice activism.

As I argued in my blog about Pope Francis, the new pope's discourse about Jesus and the Kingdom of God offers a more biblical view of the work of God's Spirit on the world. The notion of human rights, anathema to Hauerwas, connects organically to both creation and redemption in Christian theology, and it opens the way for Christians and people of all faiths (and no faith) to come together in a brave fight for human dignity wherever people are oppressed and beaten down.



This past week the world remembered with sorrow and a twinge of guilt the tsunami of carnage that descended upon Rwanda twenty years ago. In just 100 days, over 800,000 mostly Tutsi men, women and children had been massacred in cold blood.

A year or so later, Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed a mass rally brought together by Rwanda’s new leaders, challenging them “that the cycle of reprisal and counterreprisal ... had to be broken and that the only way to do this was to go beyond retributive justice to restorative justice.” Recalling this event in his book No Future Without Forgiveness, he lays out the central theme of his book:


“It is ultimately in our best interest that we become forgiving, repentant, reconciling, and reconciled people because without forgiveness, without reconciliation, we have no future” (p. 165).


I’ll come back to Desmond Tutu, but first, some words of hope about reconciliation and healing where genocide had torn society apart.


Portraits of reconciliation

I was inspired to write this blog upon reading the New York Times Magazine cover article (whence the picture above), “Portraits of Reconciliation.” Here we learn that, twenty years on, photographer Pieter Hugo spent several weeks in Rwanda in March 2014 capturing on film couples made up of perpetrator and survivor of the genocide, who had participated in counseling sessions over several months. Part of a national reconciliation campaign, these people had followed the curriculum offered by one particular NGO called AMI (French for “friend” and an acronym standing for “Association Modeste et Innocent”). They all had arrived at the point where the perpetrator asks the survivor for forgiveness and at least all seven survivors portrayed here (the rest are displayed in a wider exhibit in The Hague, Netherlands) had granted forgiveness in return.

To glimpse at these pairs is to peer into the both dark and luminous souls of fellow human beings, forcing us through their posture and words to confront our own demons of bitterness and resentment, while also catching a glimpse of hope and peace. How can we even imagine going through such a horrific experience ourselves? Yet, the collective portrait is all the more real as it is diverse. Each pair’s body language is different, and though likely a bit befuddled at the cultural cues (Americans would at least force a smile before the camera and they do not), we would notice too the spectrum along which people actually forgive. Some are obviously more at ease than others; some pairs even look like friends.

Considering that over 90 percent of Rwandans attend church regularly, I was surprised that the blurbs given by each person had precious few religious references. One person thanks God for the opportunity to be forgiven. Another, who had knelt down in prayer for her daughters whose bodies she discovered thrown into a latrine, decided to pardon the aggressor for two reasons – she could no longer recover her loved ones and she didn’t want to live a lonely life. Like most of the others, the reasoning was mostly pragmatic:


I wondered, if I was ill, who was going to stay by my bedside, and if I was in trouble and cried for help, who was going to rescue me? I preferred to grant pardon.”


But mostly, victims found that unforgiveness was an emotional ball and chain they could no longer afford. As this woman put it,


The next week, Dominique came with some survivors and former prisoners who perpetrated genocide. There were more than 50 of them, and they built my family a house. Ever since then, I have started to feel better. I was like a dry stick; now I feel peaceful in my heart, and I share this peace with my neighbors.”


There is more to this picture. Organizations like AMI have been able to thrive, thanks to a favorable political and social climate. There is no doubt that the ex-rebel Tutsi leader who came in with his troops to stop the bloodletting twenty years ago has done a remarkable job in rebuilding his country, though he’s also a strongman with a spotty human rights record. Alan Cowell writes that  “President Paul Kagame … has sought to project his land as a haven of stability and a magnet for investment in a turbulent region. He has taken credit for creating a functioning health care system, raising living standards and improving women’s rights.”

Kagame, to his credit, has facilitated the role of the UN in the work of reconciliation. The New York Times recently editorialized that “Rwanda has done an impressive job of rebuilding its institutions and economy. To bring perpetrators of the genocide to justice, the United Nations has conducted more than 70 tribunal cases, Rwanda’s courts have tried up to 20,000 individuals, and the country’s Gacaca courts have handled some 1.2 million additional cases. Incredibly, Tutsis and Hutus, survivors and former killers, now live side by side.”

But some of the credit for this work of reconciliation must surely go to the architect and engineer of South Africa’s post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) – Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.


The benevolent shadow of the TRC

Emerging from 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela’s heartfelt pardon for his captors fueled his vision and courage to rebuild a new South Africa. As he put it himself, "If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner." The hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began in 1996, as Mandela prevailed upon his friend the Archbishop Desmond Tutu to put off his retirement in order to preside over the proceedings. Tutu wrote about these experiences in his aforementioned book, No Future Without Forgiveness.

As Tutu sees it, the TRC was a deliberate choice in contrast with two other models for dealing with egregious crimes against humanity. The first model, “Victors justice,” as exemplified at the close of World War II at the Nuremberg Trials, was a travesty of justice, mostly because both sides had committed war crimes. On the other hand, the solution chosen by Pinochet, Chile’s dictator, as he handed over the state to civilian authorities in 1990, Tutu dubbed “national amnesia” – a magisterial wave of the magic wand to make past atrocities vanish in thin air. He was granted amnesty and served as Minister of Defense until 1998. Argentina in 1983 had done no better to prosecute anyone responsible for the 3,000 or so people who disappeared under the previous regime.

Instead, the TRC’s third way offered amnesty only to those who would confess their crimes publically. Tell the truth in exchange for freedom, make some reparations and the stage is set (hopefully) for forgiveness and reconciliation. Of course, in practice, it never was that easy. The white community, both Afrikaners and English descendants, consistently ranked it more favorably in the polls than did the indigenous population. In the end, only one out of twelve of those convicted in court was released. Still, South Africa’s TRC, though not the first of its kind, became the model for other such efforts in dozens of other countries since then.

Archbishop Tutu’s 1995 speech in Kigali (Rwanda’s capital) anticipated the actual setting up of the TRC. Retributive justice (victors punishing the loosers à la Nuremberg), as opposed to restorative justice, offers little hope for justice, and hence, for crimes to be exposed, solemnly processed in justice and in people’s minds, and potentially forgiven, one person at a time. After all, states can only do so much to create a climate conducive to reconciliation. There must be a personal dimension, in which individuals buy into the difficult yet highly rewarding task of forgiveness and healing.

I want to end with another important ingredient in the task of forgiveness. We saw that, at least in the limited testimonies provided in “Portraits of Reconciliation,” the faith element in leading to forgiveness was underrepresented. Most of the decisions in evidence was based on practical reasoning. Forgiveness and reconciliation bring both inner peace and foster greater harmony in society. But don’t be too quick to rule out faith!



From Rwanda to Israel-Palestine

Contrary to what is often portrayed in the media, Palestinian civil society (and among Israelis too) is brimming with NGOs dedicated to the practice of nonviolence. I’ve mentioned Sami Awad before, founder of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem where I used to teach. Sami’s organizational values are rooted in the belief that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is possible. More than that, HLT members “believe that the Holy Land will one day become a global model for peace, justice, equality and reconciliation between peoples.” Sami, a Palestinian Christian, wanted to understand what Jesus meant by “love your enemy.” He felt God told him that if he was serious about this, he would have to understand from within the suffering of the Jewish people.

So he bought an airline ticket to Germany and spent twelve days visiting several Nazi concentration camps. He even spent one night in a gas chamber. It was life-changing, to say the least! One should not throw around the words “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” lightly, he cautions.

Another Palestinian you should meet is the young Muslim man, Ali Abu Awwad, whom the New York-based Synergos Institute classifies among the most influential “Arab world social innovators”. Since 2005 this young man has spoken to countless groups around the world with a 65-year-old Israeli woman, originally from South Africa, Robi Damelin.

This pairing up, unlike the Rwanda portraits, was not about perpetrator/survivor reconciliation. Rather, it was about a Palestinian and an Israeli who had both lost immediate family members in the conflict. Ali’s brother was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier and he was himself badly wounded by a settler’s bullets. Robi’s 28-year-old son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper. That’s how they met. They had joined several hundred others like themselves in the Parents Circle Families Forum. Understandably, they don’t agree much about the politics of the conflict, but they all believe that there will be no peace without reconciliation between the two peoples.

I urge you to watch their 5-minute presentation at the Summerset House in London, then to read this 2009 article based on an interview of them at the same time. During that interview in a London coffee shop, they told the journalist that the first step toward reconciliation was “to recognize the suffering of the other side.” When you do that, then you are ready to compromise and allow some dreams to die for the sake of peace. Then Robi, as someone who personally struggled against the Apartheid regime in her native South Africa, offered the hope “that the Bereaved Families Forum could inspire a future Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Israel and Palestine.”

Yet more than just fellow campaigners for peace, Robi and Ali had truly adopted each other as mother and son. I tear up (and I smile!) every time I see that clip. In Ali’s words,


“I have found in Robi what I didn't get from my own mother," said Awwad. "She knows what kind of clothes I like, the people I like, and she advises me on all these things. She even knows what food I like.”

‘Shrimps,’ said Damelin, laughing. ‘He is addicted to shrimps.’”


I promised a religious dimension to reconciliation in this section. It was evident in Sami’s case, but not in Robi and Ali’s. Yet they spoke in many mosques together, including the London Central Mosque. As I’m trying to show on this website, a peace discourse rooted in faith is more likely to touch and impel a larger audience to action. As the Qur’an puts it,


“The repayment of a bad action is one equivalent to it. But if someone pardons and puts things right, his reward is with Allah. Certainly He does not love wrongdoers” (Q. 42:40).


I write this during the Christian Holy Week. This Friday we meditate on Jesus’ willing sacrifice on the cross. He who told his followers to love their enemies and forgive those who persecute them prayed these words during his own torture, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

Peace in Syria, the Central African Republic, Israel-Palestine and elsewhere will always be possible where people on both sides are willing to embrace each other’s suffering, to speak the truth about past crimes, to forgive and make reparations. Then reconciliation and peace will have a chance to flourish. Let’s commit to this ourselves and pray for God’s power to lead us in this grueling yet glorious task.


Adis Duderija, currently a Visiting Senior Lecturer at the University Malaya, Gender Studies, is the author of Constructing a Religiously Ideal “Believer” and “Woman” in Islam: Neo-Traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims’ Methods of Interpretation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011 -- see my two-part review of his book on this site).

I highly recommend his blog on issues of Qur'anic hermeneutics, particularly as it pertains to gender. You will also find other excellent blogs on issues pertinent to contemporary Islam. It is entitled, "Critical-Progressive Muslims: On Islamic hermeneutics, Gender and Interreligious Dialogue."