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Written by Louay Safi   
Mar 18, 1999 at 02:00 PM
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Human Rights and Cultural Reform
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The notion of human rights represents a set of abstract values whose concretization is considered essential for ensuring a life of dignity. The process through which the abstract rights are given a concrete expression is far from being simple of straightforward. At issue is the impact of the historical and moral specificities of a particular culture on the way through which human rights are perceived and interpreted. This paper examines the literature addressing the question of human rights in the Middle East and points out discrepancies in analysis and presentation. The paper proposes an alternative approach to studying human rights across cultures that could help researchers overcome the distortions produced by the faulty approach currently favored by leading Middle East specialists.

Cross-cultural dialogue is a recurring theme in international human rights literature.  Some human rights scholars underscore the need for a cross-cultural discourse for transmitting human rights concerns and practices to non-Western societies, while others dismiss the call for engaging non-Western cultures in a dialogue as counterproductive, since it can only lead to compromising the universality of human rights.[1]

The purpose of this paper is to point out inconsistencies in the work of some leading human rights scholars, involved in assessing human rights trends in the Middle East, who advocate a cross-cultural approach to understanding human rights in non-Western cultures.  I argue that a close examination of what is referred to as a cross-cultural dialogue reveals unmistakable elements of hegemonic discourse.  It is quite evident that many human rights scholars specializing in the study of Islam and the Middle East are not engaged in a two-way communication with Islamic reformers, so that a better understanding of the context and direction of Islamic reform may be attained, but rather in a hegemonic discourse whose effect has been the overshadowing of a reformist discourse rooted in Islamic worldview.

            I stress, however, that the distorted picture that comes out of this hegemonic discourse does not stem out of any malicious intent to mislead, but rather is due to conceptual and methodological reasons.  Methodologically, the approach to studying human rights situations in the Middle East is ahistorical and static, failing to detect actual developments in discourse and practice, and unable hence to reveal the vigorous cultural reform currently underway in the Muslim world.  Conceptually, the distortion in the picture of the human rights debate in the Middle East is due to the fact that observations are filtered through an absolute-universalistic outlook, oblivious to the importance of the notions of culture, cultural variation, and cultural dynamism on understanding human rights situations.

            I further contend that while Islamic reform has a long way to go before it can ensure individual liberty and equality for all, it has been moving slowly but consistently toward a vision of an open, egalitarian, and tolerant society, and that it has already embraced international human rights as defining principles of its vision of future society.  I conclude by identifying the preconditions for a genuine cross-cultural dialogue, and cautioning against attempts to subvert human rights by employing human rights as a tool to justify imposition of external values and choices, rather than an instrument for fighting coercion and imposition.



The value of scholarship derives from its ability to bring meaning and enlightenment to the lives of people, and to sharpen their understanding of the complex world in which they live.  All scholars realize that in order to bring about clear understanding, and to explain actions and events in the complex world of humans, this world must be reduced into a managable set of concepts.  However, for a complex world to be reduced without distortion, scholars must take special care to maintain balance among the various elements and componants that constitute it.  The failure to maintain balance, say by failing to reflect the size and significance of the various forces locked in an intellectual or political struggle, is bound to bring about misunderstanding rather than understanding, and to create an ugly image out of the most beautiful object of understanding.  Distortion is thus the most fatal act a scholar can commit.

The importance of human rights lies in the instrumental role they play to protect the weak against the powerful, and to liberate the oppressed from their oppressors.  It is widely accepted by human rights scholars that the right to free speech is needed not to protect those who celebrate the praise of the established power, but to make room for dissending views and opinions.  It is therefore embarrassing, even disheartening, to see human rights scholars siding with oppressive regimes against their oppressed subjects by ignoring the actual abuses of the former, while condemning the latter on the ground of an immaginary legal system they supposedly intend to resuscitate as soon as they shack off their yokes, and obtain commanding power.

            Now, combine the above two scenarios in the discourse of human rights scholars who are, wittingly or unwittingly, involved in distorting reality and using human rights to justify cultural imperialism and penetration, and you end up with a potentially devistating discourse entitled “Islam and human rights”.  To be fair to the participants in this discourse, the debate over the compatibility of Islam with human rights is still far from reaching the state of affairs described above, and it is not difficult to see that there are few hopeful signs, which, if pursued seriously, could shift the direction of the current debate towards more fruitful and promising ends.  Among the promising signs is the notion of cross-cultural dialogue on human rights, and the notion of human rights based on international morality.  But unless such notions are pursued seriously, it is only a matter of time before we arrive at the dreadful scenario described above, whereby scholarship and human rights become instruments for subjugation and control, and the hope of a more caring world in which might is truly restrained by right is completely dashed.

Indeed, even at this relatively early stage of the discourse on Islam and human rights, one can see that a strategic formation of an essentially hegemonic discourse is already in the making.  Central to any hegemonic discourse – or strategic discursive formation – is the recasting of the subject of the study (in this case the attitudes and values of the adherents of Islam) in such a manner that the strategic interests of the hegemonic culture are advanced vis-à-vis other cultures.  That is to say, the main effect of the formation of a hegemonic discourse is not understanding the other, but justifying actions that aim at its subjugation or elimination.  The other is presented in such a negative image that the discourse recepients resign to the idea that it is utterly useless to listen to it, or engage it in any meaningful dialogue.[2]  As I argue below, the negative presentation of the other does not necessarily stem from a malicious intent to distort the facts.  Rather, distortion is often the outcome of the strategic positioning of the scholar in a particular culture, which makes him or her more susceptible to the particular interests and historical experiences of the social group to which he or she belongs, and the tendency to evaluate other cultures and groups though notions and theories derived from these particular experiences and interests.

            While there is no shortage of academic works that display a clear pattern of hegemonic discourse, I have made a careful decision to exclude the works of scholars who have openly advanced a prejudicial arguments,[3] and to focus my analysis on examples taken from the writings of moderate scholars who have presented relatively more balanced views on the subject.  One such an example can be found in Ann E. Mayer’s highly acclaimed work on Islam and human rights.  The main thesis in her work is that contemporary Islamic human rights schemes borrow their substance from international human rights, but use shari’a to limit human rights applications.  Since historical shari’a discriminates, she argues, against women and non-Muslims, limiting human rights by shari’a rules is tantamount to canceling out the protections they intend to ensure.

            To demonstrate her thesis, Mayer examines four documents (the Iranian Constitution, the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, al-Azhar’s model constitution of an Islamic state, and the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights) and two works by Muslim traditionalists (Mawdudi and Tabanda).  Mayer discusses in detail the views of Muslim traditionalists, and shows that they have wholeheartedly accepted historical shari’a, opposing any efforts to reinterpret Islamic sources in ways that would lead to recognizing the right of all people — regardless of their religious, gender, or ethnic distinctions — to equal freedom.  She rightly concludes that Islamic human rights schemes are effectively undermined when read through the eyes of traditionalist spokesmen of Islam. By relying extensively on the traditionalist interpretations of shari’a Mayer is, therefore, able to make a persuasive case to support her thesis.   Her persuasiveness is attained, however, at the expense of sacrificing clarity, and omitting crucial facts.  One such a crucial fact missing in Mayer’s work is the intense debate currently underway between Islamic reformers and traditionalists on the relevance of pre-modern shari’a to modern Islamic society.  Indeed, Mayer herself realizes, in the context of criticizing the use of shari’a for defining the scope of individual freedom in the Iranian Constitution, the slippery nature of her arguments, and poses an important question that goes into the heart of her contention:

            Could it not be the case, one might ask, that the Islamic qualifications on rights might be narrower than the ones permitted under international law, that these clauses could be interpreted to mean that the government would have to produce much stronger justifications for curbing human rights than it would under secular criteria?  That is, one might say that the assumption that broad Islamic qualifications on rights imply the erosion of rights protection is only that — an assumption.[4]


The Qur'anic Narrative
The Qur'anic Narrative

Leading with Compassion
Leading with Compassion


Tensions and Transitions
in the Muslim World

Peace and the Limits of War

The Challenge of Modernity 


Blaming Islam

Foundation of Knowledge

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