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New Texts Out Now: Ann Elizabeth Mayer, Islam and Human Rights

[Cover of Ann Elizabeth Mayer, [Cover of Ann Elizabeth Mayer, "Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics"]

Ann Elizabeth Mayer, Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics, Fifth Edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2012.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Ann Elizabeth Mayer (AEM): Many things have changed in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region since the first edition of this book, published in the mid-1980s, examined proposed “Islamic” versions of human rights. I wanted to update the earlier versions of this book to take into account new developments in the ongoing contention about Islam and human rights, which has intensified in the wake of the crushing of the Green Movement by Iran’s ruling theocrats and the ascendancy of Islamist factions after the upheavals of the Arab Spring, both of which have intensified the current debates about the merits of including Islamic provisions in constitutions.

Among the recent events meriting examination is the intense international controversy engendered by the Danish Cartoons case and related attempts by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in the UN to win support for injecting a principle in international law criminalizing “defamation of Islam,” which would turn international law into a tool of religious censorship. Also deserving of scrutiny are current efforts in the UN human rights system to expand international human rights law to protect people regardless of their gender identity and sexual orientation. These have been met with fierce opposition by MENA states, which in this, as in some other areas, have managed to forge opportunistic alliances with non-Muslim countries like China and Russia in efforts to stifle plans to strengthen human rights. In consequence, Islamic grounds for challenging human rights are now being combined with others that can appeal to non-OIC members.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

AEM: It assesses the policies and strategies of regimes and Islamist ideologues as they engage in selectively wielding elements of Islamic law to construct supposedly Islamic versions of human rights in efforts to dilute and restrict the human rights that have been guaranteed to all people in international law. The book dissects the often obscure and misleading formulations that are employed in the literature advocating Islamic human rights and in the various models of Islamic human rights that are designed to cloak their retrograde features. Far from being pure outgrowths of the Islamic tradition, Islamic human rights schemes are shown to constitute politically charged, hybrid mixtures of ideas from different sources. These so-called Islamic human rights are compared with their international counterparts, showing how they relate to the aims of anti-democratic forces that are wedded to upholding traditional hierarchies. These anti-democratic forces seek to wean Muslims off international human rights law and consign them to a set of enfeebled rights that accommodate inequality and restrictions on freedoms—all in the name of upholding the primacy of Islamic law. My assessments demonstrate the setbacks that this entails for the human rights, including setbacks for the rights of women and minorities and for the principle of freedom of religion. Critiques by progressive Muslims, including Islamic feminists, are cited to prove that people working within the Islamic tradition dispute the notion that Islam mandates relegating Muslims to a status where they are deprived of human rights protections.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

AEM: The fifth edition builds on the previous material while highlighting new trends. It documents how Muslim human rights activists have increasingly emerged as forceful proponents of human rights universalism, speaking out to denounce appeals to cultural particularisms that would deny Muslims the protections of international human rights law. It also examines recent developments at the UN that illustrate how the strategies of wielding Islam as a tool to subvert human rights have become more complex, and their proponents more disingenuous, than they were decades ago. One used to hear spokesmen for MENA countries invoking Islam to justify non-compliance with international human rights law. In tribute to the prestige that human rights have acquired over the last decades, regimes that formerly squarely denounced UN human rights instruments as contravening Islamic requirements have changed tactics. They currently prefer to speak as if they were supportive of human rights and are merely asking for reasonable accommodations of certain cultural concerns. This shift has entailed particularly striking hypocrisy with regard to women’s international human rights, with MENA countries like Saudi Arabia now making claims that their laws embrace full equality for women—but at the same time making vague appeals to the need to respect cultural differences.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AEM: The book aims to enlighten readers with an interest in the conflicts over human rights in contemporary MENA countries about how Islam fits into the politics of human rights in that region and to disabuse them of the notion that a monolithic Islamic tradition governs attitudes and behavior there. There continues to be a tendency in the West to misapply cultural relativism and also to give far too much weight to the claims by undemocratic governments—like those in Iran and Saudi Arabia—that Islam stands in the way of allowing their citizens to enjoy human rights. It hopes to prompt reconsideration by people who believe that calling for upholding the human rights of people in Muslim countries violates the principles of cultural relativism and is disrespectful of Islamic beliefs. Ideally, this study would encourage readers to rethink and reject stereotypes about Islam as an obstacle to accepting human rights and to recognize the importance of the vital human rights culture that has managed to emerge, against great obstacles, in the MENA region.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AEM: I am examining the campaign by the OIC to persuade the UN to accept the principle that defamation of Islam constitutes a violation of human rights and that it must be criminalized in international law. I dissect the flawed justifications for including in the human rights system a principle that amounts to the criminalization of blasphemy. I propose that the regimes behind this campaign are both endeavoring to justify repressive domestic policies that harshly penalize expressions of dissent, and are also trying to establish a basis for pressuring Western countries to follow their policies of censoring discussions of Islam and the politics of human rights in the MENA region.

J: In what ways do you address the potential for further advancements in human rights under Islamic law?

AEM: As I indicate at many points, emerging from environments where civil and political rights are blatantly violated, Muslim human rights activists in the MENA region now figure among the most courageous and eloquent supporters of human rights, finding support in their religious heritage for asserting that, far from being in conflict, Islam and human rights propose similar visions of human dignity and equality. At the same time, in the turbulent political settings left after the overthrow of brutal dictatorships, the programs of Islamist leaders have gained traction—a troubling trend, because Islamists have not been the friends of human rights in the past. As the book discusses, the upheavals of the Arab Spring have created a complex dynamic, both unleashing the potency of Islamist parties that appeal to Islamic criteria to curb rights and instilling in the populace a heightened appreciation of the value and importance of democratic freedoms. As one sees in Iran, repressive government policies that consistently invoke Islam have managed to alienate much of the younger generation, prompting calls for secularization as the necessary precondition for realizing human rights. Whether Islamists in Arab countries will emulate Iran’s ruling theocracy and wield their growing political clout to deploy official Islamic rationales for crushing aspirations for human rights will have momentous implications for the prestige and authority of Islamic law.

J: What makes the fifth edition particularly timely?

AEM: The stunning political upheavals of 2011 in the MENA region revealed how calls for human rights and democracy could mobilize the populace to revolt against ingrained despotisms in the same way that the thwarted Green Movement had done in Iran in 2009. As the fifth edition shows, unresolved tensions in sorting out the relationship of Islam and human rights mean that this topic will continue to preoccupy societies that are struggling with difficult transitions. The current contention over proposed Islamic provisions in new constitutions is foreshadowed in the problematic formulations utilized in Islamic human rights schemes. Moreover, the discussion of the human rights dimensions of the Danish Cartoons controversy provides background for appreciating the stakes involved in the international crisis over the posting of the trailer for the offensive film Innocence of Muslims and in the widespread Muslim demands for US authorities to undertake criminal prosecution of those responsible for the film.

Excerpts from Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics

From Chapter Nine:

In the years since the Rushdie Affair, the OIC has honed its diplomatic skills and has radically changed the way that it represents its human rights positions, making strained attempts to convince the international community that it does respect freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Nonetheless, careful examination of its UN resolutions on the duty to combat defamation of religions reveal that these continue to embody the same mentality that the OIC exhibited in the Rushdie Affair, an attitude that human rights should be sacrificed where preserving Islamic sanctities is concerned. This is consistent with the basic premise of Islamic human rights schemes, that Islam must be treated as the overriding concern.

Since 1999, the OIC has repeatedly sponsored resolutions on combating defamation of religions in the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly and has tried to convince the international community to accept the idea that all governments are bound to punish such defamation….The fact that in votes in the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council these resolutions have repeatedly won majority support is emboldening the OIC to claim that its position has now become part of international law….

The lack of protections for freedom of religion in Islamic human rights schemes is one of the factors that most sharply distinguishes them from international human rights law, which treats freedom of religion as an unqualified right. The refusal to guarantee freedom of religion reveals the enormous gap between their authors’ mentalities and the philosophy of human rights.

Despite their records of routinely violating the right to freedom of religion, Middle Eastern governments are loathe to make candid avowals of their policies of persecuting people because of their religious beliefs, realizing that their practice is indefensible.

It would be simplistic to blame Islam per se for the lack of religious freedom in the Middle East. In each country, the violations correlate closely with the specific political objectives of the regimes involved. Non-Muslims and persons who convert from Islam are not necessarily the main victims. After all, in the Middle East, believing Muslims live in a climate of intellectual repression where they are regularly exposed to prosecutions for religious crimes merely for expressing ideas at odds with whatever religious doctrines that the local authorities currently endorse. Muslims are exposed to charges of heresy, blasphemy, and apostasy for what is actually political or theological dissent from officially mandated orthodoxy—or for having offended powerful figures. It seems fairer to assess the egregious violations of religious freedom regularly perpetrated in the Middle East as resulting from such factors as states’ determination to monopolize religious authority as part of their monopoly of all fonts of power, a disposition to crush all dissent and suppress all critical thought, the wish to placate influential clerics or Islamist factions, and a pattern of pandering to popular prejudices in hopes of shoring up faltering popular support.

There have long been efforts to politicize the international human rights system and to inject bias and selectivity into deciding which countries’ human rights violations warrant condemnation. In this respect, the OIC’s attempts to get the UN to focus on alleged defamation of Islam occurring in the West while deflecting attention away from OIC members’ own egregious human rights violations do not stand out as exceptional. Nonetheless, the OIC campaign to insert in the list of UN human rights principles the duty to combat defamation of Islam does stand out in that it potentially involves a major alteration to the substantive rights set forth in international human rights law. This alteration will introduce a principle that is on its face incongruous, being designed to protect an institution, not the rights of human beings, and that also clashes with long-established human rights principles in areas like freedom of expression and freedom of religion, which will have to be compromised to accommodate it.

From Chapter Ten:

Contrary to what their authors would claim, the Islamic restrictions placed on human rights, which are so central to Islamic human rights schemes, are not compelled by unimpeachable Islamic authority; the idea that Islam acts as a constraint on rights is vigorously contested. If the authors’ aim had been to advance protection for human rights, they could have located ample raw material in the Islamic heritage, which is replete with values that complement human rights, such as concern for human welfare, compassion for the weak, social justice, tolerance, respect for diversity, and egalitarianism. These and other core principles could provide the basis for constructing a viable synthesis of Islam and international human rights law, as the work of Muslim proponents of democratization and the philosophies of many Muslim human rights activists amply demonstrate.

From an array of options in the Islamic heritage that include principles friendly to rights, the schemes deliberately select those elements that present obstacles to the accommodation of international human rights law—obstacles that are then attributed to Islamic requirements. In reality, it is more accurate to say that the obstacles lie in politics. The authors are interested in rationalizing governmental repression, enforcing social and religious conformity, delegitimizing and even criminalizing dissent, censoring critical perspectives, and perpetuating ingrained hierarchies that include discriminatory treatment of women, non-Muslims, and Muslims belonging to what are locally disfavored sects.

Authors of Islamic human rights schemes seek to convince the world that they constitute valid counterparts of international human rights law. This constitutes a misrepresentation because their objective is inimical to rights—cutting back on the civil and political rights that are afforded by international law. Careful comparisons with international documents inevitably reveal the deficiencies of the Islamic schemes. The latter assert the supremacy of vague Islamic criteria in all areas relevant for the protection of human rights, but these Islamic criteria are left so malleable that they leave those in power with unlimited discretion to interpret them in ways that crush rights.

Even though they are in no sense definitive statements of Islamic positions on human rights, Islamic human rights schemes deserve attention because of their proliferation and their real-world impact. State policy in the Middle East and the ongoing demands for Islamization mean that models embodying the idea that Muslims do have human rights but only subject to significant Islamic qualifications will continue to be promoted and may influence laws and constitutions. Added to this, one observes the proactive roles increasingly assumed in the UN human rights system by the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and its members in efforts to inject ideas taken from Islamic human rights schemes into the fabric of international human rights law….

The OIC and its members have dramatically altered their official stances on human rights in the course of the last two decades. Instead of regularly pressing the idea of Islamic cultural particularism being at odds with human rights and boldly asserting that their commitment to Islamic law entails violating international human rights law, they now hypocritically affirm their support for international human rights law and claim that their projects are aligned with its philosophy. Having altered their rhetoric so that it fits better in the human rights mainstream, Middle Eastern countries have been able to make strategic alliances with countries from outside the region, such as Russia, that also want to employ stealth tactics to undermine human rights. In Russia’s case, it is elevating “traditional values” to a concern of human rights. Working in such alliances has given OIC members expanded influence in the UN human rights system but has also necessitated adjusting their tactics.

Thus, when rejecting proposals at the UN that are designed to advance human rights of sexual minorities, they make only occasional objections grounded in Islamic law, for the most part condemning such proposals on grounds that their non-Muslim allies would also endorse….

The Islam and human rights nexus has been in a state of acute tension for decades. Every indication is that we are far from having seen the last chapter in Muslims’ efforts to settle on the optimal relationship of these two vital factors in contemporary Middle Eastern political life. In the wake of the popular uprisings and mass protests of the Arab Spring, which manifested both a great hunger for democratization and the disposition on the part of many to assume that Islamists offered the best prospects for good governance, one can anticipate debates on Islam and human rights to intensify. In Tunisia in December 2011, one observed the spectacle of Moncef Marzouki, the prominent human rights activist, assuming the office of president, while Hamadi Jebali, a leader of the Islamist Ennahda Party, took the office of prime minister. How they would sort out their respective perspectives on what policies a country that was embarking on a new venture of democratization should adopt would be just one of many experiments with achieving the right balance. And, in Yemen, in the person of Tawakkul Karman, the dynamic pro-democracy activist whose championing of women’s rights won her a share in the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, one had a woman with Islamist ties who was also a foe of interpretations of Islam that would limit women’s role. Obviously, Karman aspires to combine her Islamic loyalties with a fight to ensure that the end of dictatorship opens the door to women’s full participation in society and politics, seeing no necessary opposition between Islam and women’s rights. In the wake of the Arab Spring, hers will be only one of many struggles to spread of vision of Islam as supporting aspirations for human rights, difficult struggles that have momentous implications for the future.

[Excerpted from Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics, by Ann Elizabeth Mayer, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2012 by Westview Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, please click here.]

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