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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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McCarthy’s reformulation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative, inspired by Habermas’s Communicative Action, reflects an implicit realization of the increasing cultural fragmentation of modern consciousness.  If the stipulation of explicit agreement for the fulfillment of communicative action is relevant to cultures that share common intersubjectivity, it is more urgent in a cross-cultural dialogue.  Needless to say that agreements and disagreements in the context of rational dialogue requires rational justification, and not simply the assertion of preference and choice.

            A cross-cultural dialogue has two aims.  First, it helps reduce apprehension, which may result from excessive speculation and extrapolation from one culture to another, and clarify cross-cultural misreading and misunderstanding.  Secondly, it enriches internal debates in a particular culture by communicating different experiences, and the critical insights of   outsiders.    The value of a Tocqueville’s critical insight into democracy in America, or a Schacht’s critical analysis of Islamic law cannot be overstated.  However, for a true dialogue to take place and to be maintained with a reasonable degree of objectivity, the interlocutors should recognize the moral autonomy of other cultural groups.  This means that the solidarity of external groups with the substantive views of one of the internal groups locked in moral and political struggle should not be allowed to take priority over the principle of justice. 






For human rights principles to take hold in the social and political practices of a political community, these principles must be rooted in the cultural outlook and moral commitments of its members.  In societies where human rights violations are rampant, such violations may partially be attributed to the lack of cultural sensitivities and commitments, and partially to authoritarian regimes which have little or no respect to human rights.  In these societies enforcement of human rights requires a vibrant cultural reform and vigorous political struggle.  It follows that human rights, cultural reform, and political participation are locked forever in a three-sided dialectical relationship.[57]  Each of the constituting components of the above relationship does influence, and is in turn influenced by, the others.  This process has been working slowly but surely in Western societies since the Protestant Reformation took place few centuries ago.  The democratization process should go hand in hand with cultural reform and increased sensitivity to human rights.

            As I argued earlier, a similar process has been going on in Muslim societies for little over a century now.  However, the reformation process in Muslim societies has been complicated by both direct and indirect influences of the outside world.  Intervention of Western powers in the internal affairs of Muslim countries, whether in the form of colonialism and direct military intervention, or in the form of unlimited support to authoritarian regimes, has disturbed the historical process of cultural reform and political liberalization and democratization.  During the Cold War, military dictators received tremendous financial and military support allowing them to become completely independent from the influence of internal politics and popular support.  And as long as these regimes cooperated to advance the national interests of their respective patrons they could act with impurity against their people.  The human rights of the people were considered secondary to the interests of superpowers.  They were invoked only insofar as they could be used to advance the national interests of the power that be.

            In the Muslim world, cultural reformation is facing stiff resistance from authoritarian regimes, intent on suppressing the egalitarian and liberating ethos of reform movements.  The suppression of freedom of expression and association by authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world is responsible, not only for the stifling of cultural debate essential for reform, but also for the rise of Islamic radicalism.  It is not uncommon for radicals to point to the selective application of human rights ― popularized as double standards — to justify their rejection and to foster public cynicism.

            International human rights are articulated as a means for protecting individual dignity against an arbitrary power, and to allow a distinct minority to exercise self-determination.  Any attempt by external powers to bring about legal change contrary to the moral values of a people through the agency of an authoritarian regime in the name of human rights amounts to a coercive act of moral imperialism, and would make mockery of the very notion of human rights.  Human Rights scholars who are concerned about cultural practices which are in contradiction of human rights should engage indigenous cultures through an open dialogue to both effect change and understand the source of limitations.  It should also, and perhaps in the first place, focus on exposing efforts by external powers to maintain authoritarian regimes so long as the latter are willing to protect their “national interest”, even when the support extended to anti-democratic regimes amounts to inflicting great pain and suffering on countless human beings crushed under the abusive schemes of their rules.






[1]      The works of Abdullahi A. An-Na’im represent the views of the proponents of cross-cultural dialogue, while the writings of Rhoda Howard represent those of its opponents.

[2]      For an excellent discussion on strategic formation, see Edward Said, Orientalism, (N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1979).

[3]      One such example of an openly prejudicial argument against Islam’s capacity to recognize human rights can be found in the following argument by the eminent Italian scholar Lurgi Bonanate, who suggests that a non-Muslim is automatically considered an enemy in an Islamic state: “That the state may recognize other states as different from itself is one thing: the protection of the wellbeing of a human being who, regardless of his flag, is entitled to the same guarantees that the state offers its nationals is another. (The only exception to this idea of the state in the contemporary world is the Islamic one, in which the foreigner is an enemy in so far as he is an infidel, not because he was born under a different sky!)”  See Lurgi Bonanate, Ethics and International Politics, trans. John Irving (Cambridge, UK: Polity press, 1995), p. 108.  Emphasis added.

[4]      Ann Elizabeth Mayer, Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Practice, 2nd. Ed. (Westview Press, 1995).

[5]      Ibid. p. 70.

[6]      Ibid.

[7]      Ibid.

[8]      Ibid., P. 11.

[9]      Muhammad bin Ahmad al-Sarakhsi, Sharh Kitab al-Siyar al-Kabir (Pakistan: Nasrullah mansur, 1405 A.H.), Vol. 4, p 1530.

[10]     Ibid. p. 1531.

[11]     Bassam Tibi, “Islamic law/Shari’a, Human Rights, Universal Morality and International Relations”, Human Right Quarterly 16 (1994) p. 284.

[12]     Ibid, p. 286.

[13]     I return to examine Tibi’s arguments more closely in subsequent section.

[14]     Reza Afshari “An Essay on Islamic Cultural Relativism in the Discourse of Human Rights”, Human Rights Quarterly 16 (1994) pp. 235-276.

[15]     Ibid., p. 254.

[16]     Ibid., p. 253.

[17]     See John O. Voll, Islam: Continuity and Change in the Modern World, 2nd ed. (Syracus University Press, 1994), p. 339.

[18]     Ibid., p. 256.

[19]     Rhoda Howard “Dignity, Community, and Human Rights”, in Abdullah An-Na’im, ed., Human Rights in Cross-Cultural Perspectives (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), p. 83.

[20]     Ibid., p. 94.

[21]     Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 96.

[22]     Ibid.

[23]     Haward, “Dignity, Community, and Human Rights”, p. 94.

[24]     Afshari, “An essay on Islamic cultural Relativism in the Discourse of Human Rights”, p. 256.

[25]     Daniel Pipes, Oliver Roy, and Fuad Ajami are well-known representatives of this approach.

[26]     See Fuzlur Rahman, Roots of Islamic neo-Fundamentalism, Fred Halliday, The Politics of Islamic fundamentalism, John Epositio, Islam and Politics, Lineard Binder, Islamic Liberalism.

[27]     Mayer, Islam and Human Rights, p. 177.

[28]     See, for instance, Muhammad Abduh, “Islam, Reason, and Civilization”, in John J. Donohue and John L. Esposito, Islam in Transition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 24-8.

[29]     Muhammad Rashid Rida, Huquq al-Nisa’ fi al-Islam [women rights in Islam] (Beirut, Lebanon: Dal al-Hijra, 1987), pp. 12-4.

[30]     Abdul-Rahman al-Kawakibi, Um al-Qura in Al-a’mal al-Kamila, ed. Muhammad ‘Imarah (Cairo, Egypt: al-Hay’ah al-Misriyah al-ammah, 1970), p. 261-4.  For discussion of the views of early contemporary Muslim reformists, see Louay M. Safi,  The Challenge of Modernity (Leham; Maryland: University Press of America, 1994), pp. 111-132.

[31]     See for example, Muhammad Al-Ghazali, Huquq al-Insan fi al-Islam.

[32]     Fahmi Huwaydi, Muwatunum La dhimiyun (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1985).

[33]     Rashid al-Ghanoushi, al-Huriyyat al-Ammah fi al-Dawah al-Islamiyyah [Public Rights in the Islamic State (Beirut, Labenon: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihdah al-Arabiyyah, 1993), p. 135.

[34]     Ibid., p. 132.  The list of eminant Muslim scholars and leaders who have adopted reformist views includes, just to cite few highly influencial people, Fahti Osman, Muhammad Salim al-Awwa, Tariq al-bishri, Ridwan al-Sayyed, Ishaq Farhan, Anwar Ibrahim, Khalisnur Majid, and  Chandra Muzaffar.

[35]     See Zaki Milad, “al-Fikr al-Islami wa Qadayyah al-Mar’ah” al-Kalimah 21 (1998), pp. 9-24.

[36]     Jack Donnelly, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), p. 51.

[37]     Al-Mawardi, Al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyyah, (Cairo, Egypt: Dar al-Fikr, 1983) p. 53.

[38]     Ibid., p. 71-2.

[39]     See Ann Belinda S. Prais, “Human Rights as Cultural Practice”, Human Rights Quarterly 18 (1996) 288; Also Donnelly, Universal Human Rights, p. 109-12.

[40]     See Max Weber, Economy and Society (University of California press, 1978) , Vol. 1, pp. 1121-1156; also Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice?  Which Rationality? (London: Duckworth), 1990.

[41]     Donnelly, Universal Human Rights, p. 110.

[42]     See Ibid, pp. 117-8; also Abdullahi An-Na’im, “Toward a Cultural Approach to Defining International Standards of Human Rights,” in A. An-Na’im (ed.), Human Rights in Cross Cultural Perspective (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), p. 25.

[43]     Richard Falk, “Cultural Foundation for the International protection of Human Rights,” in Abdullahi An-Na’im (ed.), Human Rights in Cross Cultural perspectives (University of Pennsylvania, 1992), p. 44.

[44]     Leonard Binder, Islamic Liberalism (The University of Chicago Press, 1988) p. 9.

[45]     The unilinear conception of history derives its intellectual force from Hegel’s Philosophy of History.

[46]     Haward, “Dignity, Community, and Human Rights,” in Abdullahi An-Na’im (ed.), Human Rights in Cross-Cultural Perspective, p. 99.

[47]     For an excellent discussion on the impact of social context on the implementation of human rights, see Daniel A. Bell, “The East Asian Challenge to Human Rights: Reflection on an East West Dialogue, “Human Rights Quarterly” 18 (1996) 641-667.

[48]     Bassam Tibi, “Islamic Law/Shari’a, ….”, p. 280.

[49]     Ibid., p. 280.

[50]     Ibid.

[51]     Ibid., p. 293.

[52]     Binder, Islamic Liberalism, p. 9.

[53]     See Jurgen Habermas, Moral Consciousnes and Communicative Action, trans. Chistian Lannardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity press, 1990), P. 58.

[54]     In stipulating objective universalism as a preconditon of a true dialogue, I am drawing on Habermas’s argument for Discourse Ethics.  See Habermas, Moral Consciousness, p. 68.

[55]     Immanuel Kan, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 84.

[56]     Thomas McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jurgen Habermas (Cambridge, mass., 1978), p.326.

[57]     Richard Falk, “Cultural Foundations for the International Protection of Human Rights”, p. 57-9.

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