To Liberate or not to liberate? Universalism, Islam and Human Rights (Part 1)

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Arzu Merali

Sha'ban 05, 1424 2003-10-01


by Arzu Merali (Features, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 13 2003-10, Sha'ban, 1424)

The Islamic Human Rights Commission held a one-day conference on ‘Islamic and Western Percentions of Human Rights’ in London on September 12, 2003, in cooperation with the Islamic College for Advanced Studies and other bodies. This is the first part of the presentation to the conference by ARZU MERALI of the IHRC. The remainder will be published in the next issue.

This presentation seeks to discuss some of the issues that pertain to the idea of rights – in a legal and moral sense – and universalism. This enquiry is usually framed around the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and its (lack of) universal applicability. In this context there are two types of critique that have been well-rehearsed elsewhere, which I shall be briefly examining and using in support of my contentions, i.e. communitarian and post-modern. However I shall also be arguing that for Muslims these are inadequate and ‘un-Islamic’ responses (and I stress ‘responses’ as it highlights the nature of the power relationships in this discussion) to a disingenuous question. By answering negatively, we i.e. those of us who do not feel that the UDHR is a universally applicable document, open ourselves to the charge that we do not believe in human beings’ equal worth and potentiality. For Muslims at least, I shall argue that the latter contention is untrue and does not necessarily follow from the first.

Discourses that utilise the language of, or claim to represent, the aspirations of human rights theory and activism suggest that inherent within them is the idea of liberation: liberation of the individual vis a vis the group: the right to choose, the right to choose not to, and the liberation of the individual through the group: the right to self-determination and do on. I feel that a closer examination of this assumption will reveal that liberation is neither inherent in UDHR nor indeed in recent theory regarding it.

UDHR, Universality and Oppression

The following checklist of problems with the concept of universality with specific reference to the UDHR, is also indicative of an anti-liberation trend that inheres within UDHR – not out of some grand conspiratorial plan, but as the result of the societal constraints on individual and group freedoms that informed the sources of the document. In this regard I refer to the patriarchal world of empire and colonial mastership that gave birth to the Rights of Man, the Declaration of Independence etc. I have been greatly assisted in compiling this list by reading Michael Ignatieff’s essays Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry (Princeton University Press, 2002), as he as a liberal or cosmopolitan tries to salvage the idea of the universality of the document from its critics. I will deal with his approach later, but first a fresher’s guide to what’s wrong with the Declaration.

1. It is a practical, almost mundane point, but the drafters of the document were not representative of the various cultures and creeds of the world at the time of drafting. As a result it lacks even that degree of minimal credibility. While the fifteen drafters, it is often argued, came from as far afield as China, India, Iran and France, it should be noted that they were all nominated by the countries that sent them as experts in their field, not as national or cultural representatives.

2. As a result, and indeed by referencing the texts claimed to be source documents, or writers that are claimed to be influential to its drafters, we see only the dead white European male represented as a very specialised or (dare I say it?) elitist category.

This Eurocentrism is a not-too-subtle undercurrent of universalist discourse when it comes to human rights. Constitutive theorists of human rights see the culmination of the rights of the individual in his or her citizenship in the liberal democratic state, and by so doing subscribe to a depressingly Fukuyaman teleology of world progress, leading to its final liberation by the West.

In this world of "West ahead of the rest", neo-realists and neo-liberals, even communitarians of the non-PC kind – now I’m talking about theorists like Jack Donelly, Samuel Huntington; indeed almost any Western scholar (if you can call Samuel Huntington a scholar) take for granted this supposed progress to freedom.

Even a "politically correct" universalism as espoused by Ignatieff falls prey to inadvertent Eurocentrism. When talking about American exceptionalism, Ignatieff refers to the growing rifts between the US and Europe over the International Criminal Court, saying that "Britain and France…can claim descent from the same family of rights traditions." (Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry). Descent, family, traditions: this may just be an unfortunate metaphor, but the language imbues the same sense of hierarchical power that inheres in human rights talk about the perennial them that need liberation by those of us espousing the universal validity and application of Western generated concepts.

I am not about to start a digression on the various histories of various civilisations, including of course the various Muslim civilisations of the last fourteen hundred years. If anyone is interested in anything like that but not into heavy academic reading, I strongly recommend something like Crusades by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira. It provides an interesting comparison between Islamic and European worlds for the duration of the crusades, and supports Gandhi’s famous comment when he was asked what he thought about Western civilisation: "It would be a good idea."

Indeed the movements for freedom of various peoples in the last half-century are attributed by Ignatieff to the articulation of international norms by human rights language in the form of UDHR and the subsequent conventions. I find it deeply patronising that various colonised peoples are regarded as needing their colonisers to educate them about their wretchedly unfree state and galvanize their opposition to it. Anyone familiar with the writings and thought of Steve Biko will join me in fits of laughter at the thought that "Black Consciousness" was actually inspired by Eurocentric concepts of freedom. For those of you in any doubt, I quote the great inspirer of resistance to apartheid:

"I am against the superior-inferior white-black stratification that makes the white a perpetual teacher and the black a perpetual pupil (and a poor one at that). I am against the intellectual arrogance of white people that makes them believe that white leadership is a sine qua non in this country and that whites are the divinely appointed pace-setters in progress." (Steve Biko,I Write What I Like: A Selection of his Writings, Heinemann 1979, p.24).

When talking about Biko you are talking about the polemicist who brought down apartheid. Between him and Gandhi, the contentions of Ignatieff et al jar in the expressions of the idealists of two of the greatest liberation struggles of the last century.

3. Whilst visiting the UNIFEM website some three years ago I saw on the front page the banner: "Human Rights are Women’s Rights". Why this should need to be clarified, except when universality is considered in the context of UDHR: women were not considered to be part of the equation. Human Rights discourse is basically gendered, with women as usual marginalized somewhere in the outer realms – an afterthought to matters in hand.

Usually when I state this, I am taken to task on the basis that Eleanor Roosevelt, no less, pushed this document at the UN and led the whole drafting process. This to me is like arguing that the British Conservative Party was a feminist model because Mrs Thatcher was prime minister. If we take a look at some of the discussions which Eleanor Roosevelt was in involved in after UDHR e.g. UN Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1953), we find that she led the charge against Soviet criticisms of the US. In particular she berated the USSR for trying to get women to work by providing childcare. With regard to the criticism that the US poll tax prevented black women in particular from registering as voters, Roosevelt proclaimed that to abolish that form of tax would mean that the US would be guilty of discriminating against men! She rejected the insertion of provisions requiring the implementation of legislation within the convention, rendering it ineffective. With regard to economic discrimination against black women she said: "I have not answered certain charges against the United States as to the economic situation of women – Negro women especially– because…I have not wanted to take the time of this Committee for irrelevant matters." (

Detractors of human rights generally, as well as many forgotten victims of abuses, often argue that the West is highly inconsistent its application of human rights norms; that it effectively uses human rights discourse as a lens through which to view the non-Western world, and neglects any form of self-scrutiny. I would take this further and charge that parts of the provisions of UDHR have been used selectively and perniciously against women. Before I start on the subject of the demonisation and dehumanisation of Muslim women by the human rights discourse, I would like to draw attention to Suzanne Kappeler’s stunning condemnation of human rights by the example of the Anti-Pornography Ordinance issue that took place in 1983 in Minneapolis. The drafters of this ordinance sought to explain how pornography denies women equal respect and stature within society, or (to put it another way) how pornography violates women’s civil rights. The ordinance was eventually voted down with the support of feminists who saw it as a violation of human rights, in particular the right of free expression. As Kappeler put it, human rights violate women’s civil rights.

4. Human rights as envisaged by UDHR give women the right to be pornographers or to be used by pornographers, but not to be protected from pornography. It is the ultimate indictment of individualism. More pertinently, the example of pornography highlights an epistemological problem with UDHR’s much-feted individualism. It is argued by the likes of Ignatieff that Islam sees the sovereign and discrete individual as blasphemous. Let’s leave aside for one moment the somewhat ridiculous correlation between blasphemy and human autonomy, and look again at the underlying assumption (or, if you like, the spin). Ostensibly the UDHR offers empowerment to the individual, but does so at the expense of other individuals and groups. It pits individuals against each other and individuals against groups, as if rights can only be determined by the victory of one party over another. While we have now second and third generations of human rights supposedly dealing with economic, cultural, heritage and environmental issues (I read a while back that a fourth generation debating women’s rights is pressing for recognition), there remains a hierarchy of rights, whether we like it or not, that places individual civil and political rights at the top. It is a classic hierarchy of values, in which those that subscribe to the top tier as most important (stereotypically those deemed western) determine their subjectivity by objectifying those lower down in the hierarchy. Therefore collective economic and cultural rights suggest the failure of non-westerners to constitute themselves fully as individuals. The situation is analogous with the ‘male gaze’ as described by Laura Mulvey as: "In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining (human) male gaze projects its phantasy onto the (human) female figure which is styled accordingly…" (Laura Mulvey: Visual and other Pleasures, Indiana University Press, 1989, p. 19).

In this analogy, the passivity of the objectified includes women and the non-western, non-individual. In contrast the advocates of individualism are active, indeed are activists, who traditionalise the objects over and through which they define their subjectivity, so women and others are:"…displayed,.. so that they can be said to connote "to-be-looked-at-ness." (Mulvey, ibid)

Again the connection with pornography and gender pertains as Mulvey states: "Pornography, like much of culture, enacts this "to-be-looked-at-ness." By replicating the epistemology of objectification, human rights discourse displays the classic anti-Enlightenment charge of arrogance and racism that combine to enact violence, both physical and psychological, against non-Enlightened others. At its most extreme this argument undermines the universality of the document by particularising the individualistic cause of the west over the rest.

To return to the case of pornography, gender and human rights, this epistemological problem highlights the requirement that I shall discuss briefly later that Islam requires for systematic or group or societal rights to be enshrined in legal and moral constitutions. The harm of pornography cannot be accepted as a result of supposed free choice, because it perpetuates oppression. That choice cannot be described as one that empowers because it also has the effect of disempowering others.

5. Marxist and structuralist critiques have picked up the use of human rights language by governments and even MNCs, and labelled it as the vanguard of globalisation and capitalism. Although many universalists have tried to argue that the two are not necessarily linked, it is hard to refute the many instances where the two collide. The EU’s favoured trading-partner status, its PHARE and TACIS programmes, all offer financial rewards for adoption of human rights practices. No bad thing, I hear you cry – except that we see within this narrow and/or choice a discriminatory conception of what human rights are. As we see a rising intolerance of Muslim women’s adoption of the hijab in Europe, so we see a Turkey that had consistently persecuted women who don the hijab being invited to negotiate for EU membership. Given the stringent human rights conditions laid down for Turkey to become a member of the EU, we can only conclude that the EU promotes as policy as well what it connives at in its internal practices: the exclusion of Muslim women who dress Islamically. Likewise the ruling by the ECHR that the banning of the Refah Party in Turkey was legal indicates that human rights mean what a very particular European elite means them to mean.

6. Whilst I have stressed the individualism of the document, there are provisions which superficially appear to concede group rights, in particular the right to self-determination. However, on closer inspection this again is a contradiction of the idea that the document has some form of universal validity. Self-determination of a people based on their ethnicity, as we saw in the inter-war period last century, did little to liberate the peoples in whose name it claimed to be a right. Instead we saw what Hannah Arendt aptly described as the "transformation of the state as an instrument of law into the instrument of nation". The process requires once more the determination of the self against the objectified other / ethnic minority. Ignatieff calls such democracies "ethnic majority tyrannies". I would argue that this is a legacy we are stuck with from the present-day Balkans to Rwanda, but more shockingly also in the discourse of a British Labour government in its hysterical ravings about asylum-seekers, and Britain’s "mediaeval" Muslim minority. Where ethnicity is the driving basis of rights, then particularism is the result, and this form of particularism is unadulterated racism.

In fact contained within this concept is its own unravelling. Again the promotion of a negative particularism, in this case ethnic or national particularism, undermines the internationalism – the universalism – of the document. Indeed American exceptionalism justifies America’s continued distancing from international human rights provisions (the ICC just one its more notorious opt-outs), on the idea that its internally-driven consensus is the only legitimate base to derive its rights regime from. In effect, "One law for us and one for them".

7. Ignatieff refers to an enduring critique of human rights that I think Dr Bahmanpour will be dealing with in greater and better detail, so I shall quickly make reference to it here: that is the idea of human rights as a secular religion (eg. Ignatieff, ibid., p. 53). Indeed Ignatieff refers to it as "humanism worshipping itself" (ibid., p. 83). While relentlessly pursuing supposedly close-minded, intolerant religiosity, humanism admits of no reproof when human rights and in particular the sacred text of UDHR are mentioned. The text, its individualism and anomalies are taken at one and the same time to be the only aspirational model, and the only guarantee of liberty that the human race can have.

8. Post-modern critiques of universality pertain to the discussion of individual human rights as much as communitarian ones, insofar as their critique of the purported universality of concepts contained therein. There is a certain resonance in the contention that the epistemology of human rights determines the ontology of its subjects i.e. the white, western, male top tier of the foregoing value hierarchy is legitimised as the bearer and forerunner of the new morality. It is imperialistic not universal in nature, whatever its stated pretensions are. When Rorty debunks philosophy as a religion-substitute in which the intellectual seeks "the vocabulary and the convictions which [permit] one to explain and justify one’s activity as an intellectual, and thus to discover the significance of one’s life" (Rory, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature), he could have added that human rights activism is the outcome of the Kantian doctrine of individual sovereignty substituted for righteous action and moral rigour.

Defending Universality and UDHR: Defending the Impossible?

The items on this checklist have in their various forms chipped away at the mystification of human rights. Ignatieff in many ways concedes ground to all, in particular the charge that human rights have become the secular religion of the current era. His defence of human rights refocuses on the UDHR and rejects (alarmingly in my opinion) notions of the sanctity of human life as the justifying philosophical or moral imperative behind human rights discourse. Human rights exist not as a result of the inherent dignity of man (Ignatieff argues that the actions of men demonstrate their innate bellicosity, not their beneficence), but as regulatory concepts, contingent in their conception but immutable in their application. Whilst this obviates the clash of cultural relativisms in claiming what the good is (human rights are functional concepts that simply prevent the bad), it does little to justify its contention that UDHR should be applied without discussion, examination (or as I will argue) radical re-examination, despite this acknowledgement of their conditional nature.

It is not enough to argue that UDHR applies because some people in various parts of the world want human rights. Ignatieff uses Rawls’ idea that societies that organise themselves on non-democratic or un-Western lines, but which in other respects deliver rights to their minorities and their members agree on non-democratic systems of government, are legitimately able to opt out of international human rights regimes. Ostensibly appealing, particularly as the example cited uses Muslims and Islam, I feel that this example once more posits a hierarchy of values in which Muslims(specifically those whom we might call, for want of a better term, Islamists) are once more dehumanised and objectified. There seems little difference between this contention and that of Huntington, that human rights (and indeed their universal applicability) are indeed limited to a realm which is exclusively European, as other cultures simply cannot cultivate the liberalism which human rights exemplify. Universality by this definition applies to those within this realm. Those within this realm – i.e. the west – will then be classified as human. The rest, though ostensibly granted the right of non-interference, are left to their own devices because they lack proper status as humans. In fact Ignatieff bases the call for intervention on the call of individuals from within cultures rather than on a universal moral imperative.

In total these arguments undermine the notion of equality of the free and equal personhood implied in the first article of UDHR. If human life is not sacred because all human beings are innately noble, then universality is dead whichever way you look at it.

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