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Human Rights and Cultural Reform PDF Print E-mail
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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 above argument is unmistakably paternalistic, even presumptuous, as it in effect accuses Muslim women of false counsciousness.  Because Muslim women have internalized the “androcentric norms of the culture”, Afshari contends, their assertion of moral autonomy is an empty claim.  He further goes on to claim that in addition to being sub-consciously misguided, Muslim women have another reason for wearing hijab, viz. to avoid “those sanctioned practices that permit harassment of women in public, forcing them to comply with repressive norms and rewarding them by according them a marked difference in the ways men treat women in public”.[16]  The problem of this second argument is not that it has not been substantiated by facts, but that it is totally contrary to actual practices in most Muslim societies that have experienced Islamic resurgence.  Afshari seems completely oblivious to the fact that in countries, such as Syria in the early eighties, and Turkey today, the harassment is indeed practiced against those who wear hijab, rather than those who choose otherwise.[17]

            Afshari’s appeal to human rights as the ground to condemn those who voluntarily assert their moral autonomy is troubling, not only because of its peculiar logic, but more so because it draws its strength from the strategic positioning of its author within a hegemonic culture, and from the strategic formation of a hegemonic discourse on which the author’s arguments feed.  Indeed, Afshari is clear as to the intellectual source that gives him the philosophical ground to deny to Muslims any claims to cultural authenticity.  The philosophical ground, he tells us, is furnished by Rhoda Howard’s conception of human dignity.[18]  The question arises, therefore, as to what conception of human rights and human dignity that drives someone to boldly deny to Muslims the capacity of experiencing cultural authenticity, and to use international human rights to prevent Muslim peoples from enjoying their moral autonomy?

            Howard has consistantly defined dignity in such a way so as to denote submission to “society values, customs, and norms”.[19]  Thus Howard’s conception of dignity – reads community’s respect of the individual – stands at odd with the notion of human rights, and is no more the ground for its justification.  As she puts it: “Dignity frequently means acceptance of social rules and norms: human rights implies challenge to precisely those norms.  Dignity is often associated with social constraint, whereas human rights are associated with autonomy and freedom”.[20]  According to the above conception, human rights are not an expression of human dignity, but its negation.  No more does dignity rest on the subjective feeling of self-respect and moral autonomy that motivate a person to demand that others respect his or her moral choices, but has become completely dependent on the acknowledgement and respect of others.

            Haward’s conception of human dignity, which places it at odd with the notion of universal rights, strikes us as being disingenuous.  For the very notion of individual rights, advanced first by natural rights scholars, is derived from the notion of human dignity.  Kant thus argues that human beings may claim dignity because they are the origin of all values.  Unlike the objects of the natural world that serve as means, and hence have a relative value (or price), human beings are ends in themselves and have “an intrinsic value – that is, dignity”.[21]  Human dignity derives from the fact that the human being is a “rational being who obeys no law other than that which he [or she] at the same time enact himself [or herself]”.[22]  The rational volition individuals possess, which imputes relative values to all objects, and enacts universal laws to guide action, is the source of dignity the moral person may claim.  Human rights thus represent mutual recognition among rational, and morally autonomous, human beings, and affirm the capacity each of them has for moral self-determination.

            Because human dignity denotes the moral autonomy of the individual, it can be best observed not under favorable social circumstances, when the individual’s moral choices are agreeable to the established power, but under adverse conditions, when the individual choose to stick to his/her moral choices even at the peril of invoking the wrath of the power that be.  A person who refuses to change his testimony against corrupt authorities despite a serious threat to his/her life, or a promise of substantial monetary reward, acts with dignity because he/she choose to act pursuant to moral principles and universal laws, rather than succumbing to the arbitrary will of others, or agreeing to sell themselves to the highest bidder.  To say that human dignity “is often associated with social constraint,” as Howard does, is to miss the point.  The respect society shows to those who abide by its moral code signifies reciprocity rather than dignity.  That is, people tend to reciprocate by respecting those who show respect to their moral choices, and by showing contempt to those who disregard and violate their moral code.  Of course different moral systems demand different levels of conformity, and tolerate varying degrees of dissent.

            In homogenous societies ― such as a tribe or a religious community ― the moral autonomy of the individual is subsumed in the moral autonomy of the group to which he/she belongs, and hence his/her dignity lies in observing the tribal or communal norms, and their refusal to deviate from them under pressure of an arbitrary will of a powerful individual or group.  Reciprocity here lies in ensuring the uniformity of action, and in treating with respect those who respect the established norms, and with disdain those who ignore and violate common morality.  However, as soon as we move from a homogenous to heterogeneous societies, where different moral communities live side by side, it becomes obvious that moral differences have to be normalized and incorporated into the normative system that govern the heterogeneous whole.  Under such circumstances individual autonomy cannot be obtained unless the moral autonomy of the group to which one belongs is ensured.  Under heterogeneous conditions, which are the conditions of postmodern society, human rights should aim at protecting the moral autonomy of weaker moral groups against the possibility of forced moral penetration by powerful groups.  Similarly, reciprocity requires that each moral group recognize that the other groups are entitled to the same moral autonomy they wish to enjoy, and that they should not insist on imposing their own moral principles, even when they truly believe that these principles are universally valid, as they would naturally dread that such imposition be directed against them.  The danger of Afshari’s argument that Muslim women who voluntarily choose to express their notion of Islamic modesty are guilty of having unconsciously succumbed to “the andocentric norms of the culture” is that it can be easily turned against the self-expression of women of any culture, including Western culture.

            It should not be difficult, then, to see why the arguments of those who fail to recognize the autonomy of non-Western moral communities, and who insist to use international human rights to impose their moral vision on others run contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of international human rights, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).[23]  If human rights are meant to protect the human dignity and moral autonomy of individuals, one cannot appeal to human rights to force Muslim women to abandon their voluntarily adopted hijab under the pretext of false consciousness, as Afshari does.[24]  I am sure that the Turkish generals and secular fundamentalists would be glad to adopt the argument of false consciousness to justify their authoritarian and anti-democratic decree to prevent Muslim women from adopting their dress style in accordance with their religious conviction, a decree that is tantamount to religious persecution.


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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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