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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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            Absolute (or radical) cultural relativism cannot be theoretically maintained, given the fact that one can hardly find today a society that still maintains a homogenous culture.  Besides, considering the dynamic nature of culture no community can claim that the cultural tradition it espouses is either eternally static, or is not involved in a process of cultural exchange with outside cultures. Absolute cultural relativism is often advanced by authoritarian regimes to shut off external criticism of the excessive use of power to silencing internal opposition. Absolute moral universalism, on the other hand, is oblivious to the fact that moral values and legal systems are the outcome of the rationalization of a specific charismatic vision or worldview.[40]  Practically, radical universalism could be turned into an instrument in the hands of hegemonic cultures, and could be used for imposing the morality of one culture on another, as Donnelly explains:

            The dangers of the moral imperialism implied by radical universalism hardly need be emphasized.  Radical universalism is subject to other moral objections as well.  Moral rules, including human rights, function within a moral community.  Radical universalism requires a rigid hierarchical ordering of the multiple moral communities to which individuals and groups belong.  In order to preserve complete universality for human rights, the radical universalist must give absolute priority to the demands of the cosmopolitan moral community over all other (“lower”) moral communities.[41]


The radicalism of the two positions discussed above can be avoided by recognizing that for legal reform to succeed, it must coincide with cultural reform.  That is, one must recognize that culture is the only mediating milieu for restructuring individual and social consciousness so as to make them receptive to, and supportive of, international human rights.  Yet even when cultural reform results in acknowledging the universal validity of human rights, a reasonable degree of cultural relativism must be allowed so the universal principles are interpreted from within the specific socio-political context of society, and are brought to bear on the particular circumstances of the various communities.[42]  An absolute universalism that ignores the essential role played by culture for the moral development of the individual suffers from “normative blindness” and is detrimental for both the dominant cosmopolitan culture, and the indigenous cultures it intends to reform.  The devastating effects of the experimentations undertaken in Australia, Canada, and the United States to assimilate the aborigines illustrate the impossibility of achieving moral development apart from the cultural tradition to which an individual belong.  They also illustrate the arrogance of the developmentalist outlook that equates moral superiority with economic and technological advancement.

            The devastating consequences of the “normative blindness” of absolute universalism advocated by numerous human rights scholars is not limited to non-Western traditions, but extend to the tradition of modernity itself.  That is, by attempting to globalize Western modernism in the name of international human rights, the West runs the risk of preventing, or at least delaying, the development of alternative cultural forms which could enrich the culture of modernity itself, and help it overcome some of the acute problems it currently confronts, including the problem of “normative blindness”.  It seems, though, that for the latter problem to be overcome, a major reform in the dominant Western schools of jurisprudence is needed.  As Richard Falk notes, neither in positivist nor in naturalist jurisprudence “does culture enter into the deliberative process of interpreting the meaning, justifying the applicability, and working for the implementation of human rights.”[43]

            A cultural reform aiming at liberating the individual from traditionalist interpretations of Islam is already underway, as noted earlier.  Reformers are appealing to the values and ethos embodied in the Islamic sources to restore the moral autonomy of the individual, and to develop an egalitarian political culture.  The reform is therefore Islamic in nature and intent, and cannot be otherwise.  All reform movements that have brought about profound cultural reform have been religious.  The essentially secularist and individualistic modern West owes its genesis, as Weber reminded us in his Protestant Ethic, to the Religious Reformation that took place in the Occident at the dawn of the modern West.  The Orient should be allowed to undertake its own reformation, which would inevitably result in the reorientation and rationalization of the religious values and beliefs of the people of the orient, and must hence take the form of a Confucian, Hindu, or Islamic Reformation.

            Islam is a religion which has historically given rise to a variety of cultural forms.  Like all divine revelations, it emphasizes individual responsibility, and admonishes its followers to adhere to its moral code even if that would dismay the larger society to which they belong.  While it values social cooperation, it by no means places the collectivity above the individual.  Historically, Islam has given rise to unmistakably individualistic forms of philosophical, literary, and artistic expressions.  It has in the past inspired individual creativity that can be seen in the work of eminent figures, such as al-Farabi, Averros, Avesina, and Ibn Khadun, to cite just a few names well known for their contribution to Western scholarship.  What is described as collective orientation of the “Islamic Culture” is a relatively new phenomenon in Muslim society, resulting from the rational and moral decline of Muslims in the last two centuries, and effected by the ascendancy in the post-colonial era of authoritarian regimes, demanding total individual conformity in the name of developmentalist ideologies.

            Despite a heightened interest in the notion of cross-cultural dialogue, there are very few Western scholars who are engaged in a real dialogue with the advocates of Islamic reform.  There are many reasons for this, including the legalistic orientation of the two dominant schools of legal jurisprudence in the West, and the defensive and apologetic approach of Islamic traditionalism.  But a true and meaningful dialogue is a must if human rights scholars, who are strategically based in the West, were to have positive influence on the growth and maturation of human rights reform in Muslim societies.  It might be worthwhile to quote in this regard the insightful words made by Leonard Binder little over a decade ago:

            It may nevertheless be questioned whether any sort of exchange between Western scholarship and the current Islamic movement is actually taking place, since the development specialists seem to be talking to one another while the leading exponents of the Islamic revival have decided to break off the dialogue.  In point of fact, the dialogue has not yet been broken off, and most of the present work is devoted to an analysis and critique of some of the more interesting texts in which this cultural conversation is still being pursued.  This is not a completely open and reciprocal form of discursive interaction, if only because Western intellectuals read very little of what Muslim intellectuals write.  Still, insofar as these [Muslim] thinkers explore Western ideas and confront them with the hegemonic forms of Muslim thought, they carry out the dialogue in their own works.  I believe that the further strengthening of Islamic liberalism and the possibility for the emergence of liberal regimes in the Middle East is directly linked to the invigoration and wider diffusion of this dialogue.[44]


The words of Binder are as true today as they were little over a decade ago when he uttered them.  Still, it might not be too late for the advocates of Western universalism to abandon their radical universalist position, which has ironically strengthened the radical relativist position taken by Muslim traditionalists, and to embark on a meaningful dialogue with Muslim reformers.  However, for a meaningful cross-cultural dialogue to take place, a number of conditions must be observed; the elaboration of these conditions is the main concern of the next section.




Proponents of absolute universalism premise their arguments on either of the following two presuppositions: (1) that the notion of culture ― i.e. a normative system supported by a set of values and beliefs commonly accepted by a group of people ― is irrelevant to the debate on the meaning and desirability of human rights, or (2) that human rights are compatible with a set of moral values commonly shared by all cultures.  I argue in this section that the first premise is erroneous, and contend that for the common values to be universally valid, a non-hegemonic cross-cultural dialogue must take place among representatives of various moral communities.


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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