With the total collapse of the Soviet Union in the nineties, Cold war that divided the world into the western and eastern blocs has finally ended. Consequently, United States of America being the potent rival of the Soviet Union in the contest for world domination has stand out as the sole super power nation in the world. However, with “the rise of Islam as a political movement has convinced the West particularly the United States of America that its mission is not yet over, seeing Islam as inevitably opposed to democracy, pluralism and human rights”(Strawson, 1997) is an enormous challenge for the West to face. As perceived by many contemporary thinkers that Islamic ideology will soon arise and will serve as the “only obstacle in the face of today’s empire under American hegemony” (Najjar, 2005). Indeed, the time has come for the West to overcome this challenge and confront Islam making it to the point that at the end of the day it is the western ideology that will prevail.
On the issue of human rights alone, there are already underlying variations between the Western and the Islamic concept of human rights. It is noted, “the idea of human rights is a recent legal transplant” (Mayer, 1995:xiii) and that “the concept is Western in origin” (Tibi, 1994), and so obviously, it is subject under rigorous scrutiny especially by the fundamentalist Islam who have an extreme interpretation of the Islamic tenets. More to the point, since the idea is a new phenomenon introduced by the West to the Islamic state and societies up until recent days “Islamic thought has had not produced any concept of human rights” (Humphreys, 2005). The idea still appears to the Islamic world as vague and obscure especially most of the Muslims have completely different line of understanding and approach to human rights. More importantly, the concept “requires many adjustments to accommodate within the framework of premodern Islamic legal doctrines” (Mayer, 1995:xiii).
Besides, there are issues relating to human rights that of controversial in nature. It is therefore the purpose of this essay to look at some of these theoretical issues relating to human rights, which have been the subjects of discourses in the Arab world. Evidences of these discourses are the numbers of available literatures and seminars, workshops and conferences on Islam and human rights that have been conducted both by public and private institutions in the Middle East. Specifically, this essay focuses on three interrelated issues in the current debates on human rights: the universality of human rights; the question of national sovereignty vis-à-vis the observance of the human rights standards; and the impact of the application of Islamic law/Shari’ah on human rights.
Firstly, on the issue of the universality of human rights, it is widely acknowledged that from the very inception of the idea of human rights the Arabs have already lucid apprehension about its incompatibility with their local cultures. Arab human rights advocates through their spokespersons have reported to argue in many occasions “the ‘universality’ of the concept of human rights does not apply to Arabs due to their cultural uniqueness” (Mustapha, 1997). Hence, some Islamists governments like Sudan and Afghanistan “reject, explicitly or implicitly, the universal applicability of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)” (Afshari, 1994) which eventually made these defiant Muslim countries under the black list of the United Nations as among those countries who have gross violations of human rights.
For some Muslims, universality of the human rights is only workable within the Arab context under certain condition and that is to take into account some specific cultural norms of the Arabs. Mustapha identified some of these conditions “such as the right of every Arab citizen to work in any Arab country, or the right to fight against Zionism” (Mustapha, 1997). Unless such conditions are met, the problem of acceptance of the concept of the universality of the human rights among the Arab peoples is far from being resolved. Furthermore, the inflexibility of the attitudes of the Arabs toward western policies coupled with their long experience of western hegemony made the West difficult to infiltrate their concept of human rights into the mainstream Arabs discourse.
For Bassam Tibi, who is very much concern about the issue, view “human rights as a cultural concept parallel to the idea that there is and there can be no world culture” (Tibi, 1994). He argues that there can be a sense of international morality related to human rights should the international system of states possess clear conviction and consistency in observing such morality. But the problem he claims that “the international system of states lacks such morality” (Ibid) that is why it appears that despite of the concerted efforts of the international communities to introduce the idea of the universality of the human rights, most Arab peoples remain unconvinced of its viability in their societies.
Believing that there is a sense of international morality related to human rights, Tibi poses a question on how to reconcile this universal morality with the existing cultural diversities specifically among the Arab peoples. Indeed, this is a question that still left un-answered by many. However, for Tibi, this all draws back to the characteristics of the Muslims for being intolerant and create an environment of seclusion and thus, difficult to reach out and be brainwashed by new ideas no matter how indispensable those ideas are. As a possible resolution to this problem of Islam and the Muslims, Tibi puts his words:
Aside from the underlying need for legal reform in Islam, Muslims are basically required to distinguish between the dominance of the West and the universality of international human rights law standards. It is possible to criticize one aspect (hegemonic rule) while accepting the other (the achievements of cultural modernity). Confusing both aspects can only contribute to a further politicization of the clash between Western and Islamic civilizations” (Tibi, 1994).
Secondly, on the question of national sovereignty in relation to the observance of the human rights standards, the Arabs have oftentimes used the provision in the international law on the non-interference of each other state’s affairs as an excuse in respect to their non-adherence to the international human rights standard. It is noted that Arab leaders share the same voice in “condemning what they called foreign interference in their countries’ internal affairs in the name of human rights, which they called a violation of their countries’ sovereignty” (Mustapha, 1997). While it is true that every country under international law is immune from external control, the issue of human rights is totally of different case. Looking more closely at the nature of the human rights, one may infer that the concept of global nature of human rights is really understandable, thus making it the concern of all states of the world as part of the international community. Furthermore, if the ground of the Arab countries in setting aside the provision embodied in the human rights’ charter is based on their national sovereignty then it is of no point to condemn those countries that inflict awful violation of rights upon their citizens because they can argue base on this explanation. However, the fact that human rights charter is unanimously declared by almost all nations of the world it is binding upon them and whoever violates one of its provisions is accountable for its repercussion.
One shortcoming that hampers the strict compliance of the Arab countries to the human rights standard is the inconsistency and the double standard of the West particularly America in its relation with the Arab peoples. It is of general knowledge that America has always been insensitive and unsympathetic to the cause of the Arab countries who do not adhere their policy. Moreover, America tends to be heedless about human rights when it comes to their policy of combating terrorism. For example, Iraq and Afghanistan are among the Arab countries which are dubbed by America as haven of the terrorists mainly because of their complete defiance of the US agenda in the Middle East. As a result, America has exhausted its efforts to convince the international communities to get rid of these countries and US-led attacked was carried out at the expense of the rights of the persons and property of the civilians, whom they suffered the most. At the same time, while condemning Iraq and Afghanistan of perpetuating violence in the Middle East, America is silent and takes no action on the continuous occupation of Israel (which is a clear violation of international law) of some territories, which do not under their area of jurisdiction. This is the reason among other inconsistencies of America for some Arab countries to adhere to some provisions of the human rights while neglecting others. Therefore, it is correct to say that there are still need more to be done by the West in order to persuade the Arabs to properly observe the international human rights standards.
Finally and perhaps the most controversial issue in respect to human rights is the application on the principles of Islamic laws or Shari’ah. Many are convinced that apparently there exists an “incompatibility between Shari’a and modern standards of international relations and human rights” (Tibi, 1994). This incompatibility is evident in some of the principles of Shari’ah such as death penalty, hand amputation and certain personal rights. Undoubtedly, countries like Sudan, Afghanistan and some other Islamic countries were labeled as among those countries that have high rate of human rights violations because Shari’ah is the basis of their laws. With the growing numbers of the Arabs believing in the mandate of the political Islam, there is a high possibility that those predominantly Muslim countries will soon follow the political trend of Sudan and Afghanistan wherein the Islamists are put in powers and Shari’ah is applied in all domains. Hence, in order to compensate the current resurgence of political Islam, there is likewise a need to empower the liberal Islam who has more progressive approach in the interpretation of the religious text otherwise human rights abuses and state tortures in the Arab territories would continue to be the order of the day in the Arab world.
In relation to the incompatibility between Shari’ah and the human rights standards, Kelsay points out: “Islamic culture is opposed to much of what is signified by the notion of human rights, in relation to Western culture” (Kelsay, 1988). However, what is claimed to be the Islamic culture nowadays is unlikely to be the replica of the culture which is taught in the Qur’an and portrayed by the Prophet of Islam. Islam as a doctrine is supposedly a complete way of life which is applicable and suit to answer the problem brought about by historical development. But as Islam moves towards the age of modernity, Islam appears to hardly cope up with the innovative characteristics of the structure of society as a product of time. The current dilemma facing Islam is basically due to the unbending and extremist approach of the Arabs especially the elites (political, economic elites and religious elites) who only wanted to satisfy personal gains more than the public welfare.
As a reflection, there is a strong possibility that the application of Shari’ah would create much more complex problem and would jeopardize the unity of the Arab peoples. There are uncertainties as to the way the leadership of the Arabs would carry out the principles of Shari’ah. What is afraid most if the political Islam is given a chance to be in power is that they will abuse their authority and cannot meet with the expectation of the many. The questions may arise: how certain is the political Islam to religiously implement the Shari’ah consistent with its tenets that justice, freedom and equality should always be prevailed? Or Shari’ah law is only true to the poor and the marginalized sectors of society who have no capability to influence the government whereas in the same vein, when the elites violate the law, it does not apply to them. Another interesting question is how does the political Islam treat for example the problem of Christian minority living in an Islamic state which is fighting also for self-determination? Are they going to grant them independence or just ignore what they are fighting and continuously violate their right in the name of state unity? Indeed, the aforementioned questions are great challenges for the political Islam.
By examining more closely the issues relating to human rights discussed in this essay one way that the Arabs will be able to put things in place is “through constant dialogue at all levels” (Mustapha, 1997). In this way, Arabs will be able to gradually develop a modernist interpretation of Islam because for the most part, modernists concepts of human rights are flexible and close to those in the West. The modernist approach of Islam tends to be indispensable in today’s world of increasing numbers of fundamentalists Islam because “unless Muslims change their world view and the cultural patterns and attitudes related to it, the conflict between Islamic human rights concepts and international human rights standards will continue to prevail as a source of conflict between civilizations. (Tibi, 1994).
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