Liberal polemic highlights the west’s confusion and hypocrisy about ‘human rights’

Islam, liberalism and human rights by Katerina Delacoura. Pub: I B Taurus, London, UK, and New York, USA, 1998. Pp: 238. Pbk: (UK)14.95.
Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Laila Juma

Jumada' al-Ula' 20, 1420 1999-09-01

Book Review

by Laila Juma (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 13, Jumada' al-Ula', 1420)

Liberalism and human rights are two of the major ideological sticks the west uses to beat Islam. They represent, we are constantly told, universal values based on humanity’s collective experiences and mature rationality. They are presented as the measure of modernity and maturity, the yardstick by which civilization is measured. And because Islam and Muslims insist on their own values, divinely inspired rather than rationally formulated, they are presented as inherently un-modern and - this is always implied, never explicitly stated - uncivilised.

Islam, liberalism and human rights is written by Katerina Delacoura, an international relation academic specialising in human rights, who has taught at the University of Essex and the London School of Economics, and is now at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, London. It would be reasonable, therefore, to expect an ‘objective’, academic discussion of the issues. Such a work is long overdue and would be welcome indeed.

But this, unfortunately, is not it. Despite the academic presentation, it is in truth a liberal polemic designed to promote a particular understanding of human rights and, even more dangerously, a particular understanding of Islam itself, an understanding designed to fit comfortably and unthreateningly into the present, western-dominated international order. The good news is that few intelligent, open-minded readers are likely to be taken in; rather than achieving its purpose, the book serves more to highlight western liberals’ confused thinking.

After an important introduction which outlines the book’s objectives - among other things, “to buttress support for the concept of human rights, primarily through discrediting the cultural essentialist thesis” - the book consists of six chapters. The first two are on ‘Human Rights and Authenticity’ and ‘Islam and Human Rights’. The next three look human rights in the Arab world at particular times (Egypt 1920s-1930s, Egypt 1970s-1990s, and Tunisia 1970s-1990s). The sixth chapter, before a short conclusion, is on ‘The Prospects of Islamic Liberalism in the Middle East’.

Delacoura’s argument can be summarised very quickly: Human rights are a universal value, and an essential element of modernity. Liberalism represents the only political context in which human rights can be guaranteed. Islam is traditionally regarded as inherently illiberal. This is not true. Islam can be adapted to fit liberalism, and thus made compatible with human rights, and thus modernity. To quote from her conclusion:

“... it is possible, at an abstract level of ideas, to incorporate the concept of human rights within an Islamic world-view... Such an exercise requires a revision of the traditional understanding of Islam, an emphasis on some elements of the Koran that are conducive to a liberal spirit (and a constructive engagement with those that are not), and a firm acceptance of the historicity of the text... Islam and human rights cease to be a contradiction if a liberal impulse precedes this intellectual exercise.” (p. 200.)

This quote alone is all the answer anyone needs against Muslims who claim that they can work with western liberals to promote Islam.

What merits highlighting, however, is Delacoura’s confusion in explaining her own position, which reveals much about western liberals generally. In her explanation of human rights, she is at pains to distinguish between the ‘concept’ of human rights and the ‘conception of’ human rights. By the former, she means the idea that human have certain basic rights simply by virtue of their humanity. By the latter, she means people’s understanding of what those rights are, which has developed and is continuing to do so even within western liberalism. She acknowledges that it is recognition of the former which is essential.

This is important, for Islam does recognise that humans have rights ( the ‘concept’ of human rights. But our ‘conception’ of them is different to that of western liberals because of our different understanding of the nature of man and our belief in a Divine presence. According to her own definitions, Delacoura should accept Islam as recognising ‘human rights’, and the debate should be about definitions thereof.

But this she cannot do. Instead, she proceeds to confuse the abstracts she has so carefully defined; the western ‘conception of’ human rights, based on the secular world-view and western historic experience, and laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the UN in 1948, becomes “the full list of human rights”, inseparable from the abstract concept. Thus, accepting the western liberal world view is made a prerequisite of modernity.

Delacoura’s inability to see this simple point is indicative of the tunnel-vision of western intellectuals. For all their claims to ‘rationalism’, they cannot even see - let alone accept - any argument that threatens the basis of their political domination. If this book helps some Muslims to see this simple truth, it will have served some useful purpose after all.

Muslimedia: September 1-15, 1999

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