Islam, the Human Rights Discourse, and Muslim minorities & majorities

Islam, the Human Rights Discourse, and Muslim minorities and majorities

[The above is a short clip summarising one of the key concerns I have in the interaction between the human rights discourse, securitisation, and Muslim communities. We discussed such topics in the context of the multi-year project on the Islamic tradition and the human rights discourse at the Atlantic Council.

The below is an edited version of one of the chapters in our book on the subject. An Arabic version of the chapter is here.]


Some years ago, I found myself in the midst of a conversation with a mix of Malay, Yemeni, Albanian, and Western Muslims, discussing a new “Islamic car” in a particular country with a Muslim majority. The conversation became rather caustic, because the Islamic car had a rather dubious “Islamically ethical” set of features. This Islamic car’s key features included a compass that directed the passengers toward Mecca for prayer; when the car door opened, the Islamic greeting of peace was electronically uttered; and a space on the dashboard was reserved for the written text of the Quran.

Those presented noted that the “Islamic car” emitted as much pollution as any other car; it consumed the same amount of fuel, and so forth. Inadvertently, it struck an apt metaphor for literati referring to much of what passed for modern versions of “Islamization.” When discussions around contemporary rejuvenation of Islamic discourse arise, it appears that this may often be what is described: a type of discourse that is essentially similar to contemporary hegemonic discourse, whatever that might be, but with a veneer of Islamic vocabulary. If the notion of “Islamic values” is somehow meant to be an ethical one, then where are the ethical changes that take place when Islamization occurs? Or are ethical values, whether in Muslim communities or otherwise, often co-opted, resulting in political partisanship, where religious establishments are likewise co-opted, and thus the disconnect between rejuvenation and identity politics is complete?

That notion of rejuvenation is deeply held within the corpus of Islamic tradition—and is often referred to as tajdid (renewal) or islah (reform). That, in itself, is hardly a revolutionary concept. Indeed, it is constantly raised by governments, political movements, and non-state actors when considering how to advance toward more holistic and beneficial modes of governance and human development in the Arab world in particular, but among Muslims of majority and minority communities more generally. Indeed, the very word tajdid has been instrumentalized in a variety of fashions—usually in ways that are overtly political, at the expense of intellectual and scholarly rigour—which then fails to satisfy the popular authenticity requirement of Muslim communities.

The question, then, is to identify questions that needed to be asked in order to move forward with sustainable change within Muslim communities. The subject of “Islamic rejuvenation” is an interesting one to consider—and perhaps there is no better place to raise the question than within the theme of modern human rights discourse.

But, and this is particularly evident today – it is also where the most challenging questions are asked. Because, all too often, the priority of upholding fundamental rights is placed to one side, and either ‘security’ or ‘Islamic rights’ are constructed in a way to create a false choice. That only emboldens and empowers authoritarians and autocrats – whether where Muslims are minorities or where they are majorities.

The human rights discourse (HRD) is particularly relevant to Muslim communities worldwide—because it touches on the situation of Muslim communities where they exist as majorities, and it touches on the situation of Muslim communities as minorities. It affects Muslims on every continent in the world and is not limited to one ethnic or racial group. And as the HRD is indelibly intertwined with international discourse more generally, it has an intrinsic effect on policies ranging from public governance to health services, and far beyond.

The focus on faith-based responses to such primordial human concerns may seem somewhat unusual for different audiences, particularly western ones. But while it may be understandable that such reticence exists, and such reticence ought to be engaged with, it does not necessarily follow that such inhibitions should define or frame discussions. Like many communities, Muslim communities, whether as demographic minorities or majorities, take religion seriously—sometimes as identity markers, sometimes as ideational cognitive frames, and at times as both. In discussions with opinion leaders in majority Muslim communities and minority Muslim communities, it was consistently reinforced that if change within Muslim communities takes place, it needs to be presented convincingly as congruent with their ethical frameworks in order to be sustainable. This project took that imperative particularly seriously. After all, if the rights discourse claims universalism of any kind, it ought to then follow that all who would engage with it have the competency to do so irrespective of what power they possess, rather than be forced to communicate in the language of those who have hegemonic political power.

Nevertheless, there is another important reason to examine the human rights discourse (HRD) and its engagement with the Islamic tradition: the human rights discourse has its own broader philosophical claim. The HRD is not one bereft of philosophy or ideational frames—it has a wider cognitive frame at its root, which is based in a modern moment, particularly in the mid-late twentieth century. That raises pertinent questions and queries for Muslim communities more widely, large swathes of which, as noted above, have their own historical tradition when it comes to cognitive frames.

Engaging with that worldview is not a zero-sum game. There is often a false choice provided, where Muslims are called to either uphold their own religio-worldview, or be firm guarantors of the rights of all. When the choice is presented in such stark terms, it really has only one main impact: to safeguard autocrats and dictators, as they use and abuse religion in the name of power politics. That has been seen many times, particularly in the last decade, in Muslim majority contexts, as well as Muslim minority contexts. There are other routes that can be pursued.

When it comes to Islam and the contemporary, since the beginning of the Prophetic community in the seventh century, Muslim communities have had various internal processes to “update” and “renew,” according to the changing circumstances of the age. Much has been made of the need for Muslims to engage in a “reformation” exercise of sorts—without understanding that such a framework is woefully lacking. The word ‘reformation’ in this regard originates in the Christian Reformation – and that operated according to a certain set of assumptions and circumstances. Very little of that history and background is applicable to Muslim communities.  For example, there is no equivalent to a hierarchical ecclesiastical church-like structure for Muslims. Religious authenticity is mediated by expert-peer review—scholastic diversity continuously and consistently engaging in debate and conversation. More nuanced observers raise the notion of ijtihad (independent reasoning), but too often even that discussion devolves into the mistaken assessment that the “gates” (i.e., the ability to engage in ijthihad) are closed.

Ijtihad of various kinds has continued, at different levels, as circumstances and conditions changed. The question is not whether ijtihad exists—it is whether it operates at a level that is comparable to the efforts of the likes of scholars such as al-Muhasibi, al-Ghazali, and others in Islamic history. Al-Ghazali, for example, engaged deeply in understanding the intellectual challenges posed by Greek-inspired philosophers, followed by scholarly refutation in part, and incorporation in part, according to the standards and processes established and continually revised by the specialist communities of sages and intellectual dons. Today, it is practically undeniable that such an engagement is sorely lacking in contemporary Muslim discourse—and that has been the case for a considerable amount of time.

Reflections and Ruminations

Over the course of the project, it was incredibly clear that for a substantial number of Muslims, Islam has a serious intellectual history and “worldview.” Reflecting the contribution of Professor S. M. Naquib al-Attas of Malaysia—and that such a worldview may well be distinctive as compared to the worldview that the international human rights discourse is originally based upon. Or to put it another way: Islam has an intellectual history that ought to be engaged with and which ought to engage the HRD seriously, in order to establish where the convergences and syntheses can take place. In that regard, Muslims, more generally—and normative Islam, in particular—are not particularly exceptional, even if they might make legitimate claims to distinctiveness, as other worldviews might well make similar, if not identical, claims.

Engagement between those different worldviews is important and vital—and should be pursued as an interaction, as opposed to a Huntington style “clash.” Indeed, none of the many interlocutors across the religious establishment, activists, or public intellectuals that were involved, contradicted this opposition to such a “clash”. On the contrary, they consistently called for that kind of nuanced engagement; an engagement that neither caricatured nor “essentialized” Islam or the human right discourse. Rather, a type of arrangement that was far deeper in essence, and far more understanding of the types and levels of differences that we were all trying to understand. And to that end, it was rightly noted that the human rights discourse and the philosophical worldview it emanates from within contemporary liberalism is not without its own internal contradictions. Nor is it a static discourse—the year of 2018 marks the seventieth anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights, after all. The world changes—especially seventy years on.

When considering criticism of the human rights discourse from within Muslim communities, there were and are further critiques. The first was that such criticisms were made using the frames of Western modernity themselves—rather than using intrinsically, authentically, and uniquely Islamic frames of references. In my own work, I have looked particularly at the “Islamic worldview project” of S.M. Naquib al-Attas, which is nothing if not a deep claim to an authentically rooted and contextually relevant Islamic approach in normative Sunnism. But generally speaking, the claims to creating modern and Islamic discourses have been quite wanting—and in the final analysis, bring us to the superficial “Islamic car” result, or worse.

These first considerations were more about framing and theory—but there was a deep practical theme that ought to be repeated again and again. Many in positions of authority—whether in Muslim majority countries or where Muslim minority communities might reside—often cite a note of criticism on possible divergences between the Islamic tradition and the HRD for a rather insidious purpose. That purpose, as identified by many of our interlocutors, was to justify abuses or limit rights for Muslims in majority or minority situations. The perpetrators in that regard might be authorities in Muslim majority states, articulating their opposition to fundamental rights and freedoms using religious vocabulary; or it might be authorities or political figures where Muslim minority populations exist, in order to justify other types of rights violations.

It might well be dictators or autocrats within majority contexts who use and abuse religion in that fashion – we have seen a lot of that in recent years, including from those that are openly opposed to a variety of types of Islamist politics, but are clearly authoritarian and autocratic. But it might be parts of the conservative right within the West, who might seek to utilise Muslim voices to justify their own narrow visions of what ‘rights’ ought to be – which, invariably, are bigoted ones.

When considering the development of the practical repercussion of these points in many Muslim countries, one person described this kind of phenomenon, quite aptly as, “the effort to Islamize the intrinsically un-Islamizable.” To give an example: torture and police brutality are still repugnant—even when they are sanctioned, unethically, and abysmally, by religious establishments.

That instrumentalization of religion for purposes of partisan politics exists in a variety of contexts—whether implemented by state establishments or by political opposition groups—and more than once, it has been suggested that doing so brings religion into disrepute. The irony, as one of my interlocutors reminded me, is that classical Muslim intellectual authorities of the past, often wrote that it was the duty of the scholastic class to find whatever interpretation of the Islamic canon that could be used to push against the ruler’s engagement in oppression and tyranny—even if there was a legitimate legal interpretation that could allow for that ruler to continue along his oppressive path.

On a practical level, we are also reminded that there is an overarching context in which this discussion is taking place. When it was posed to human rights defenders in a Muslim majority country that if we push aside the human rights discourse, abuses might be more easily enacted, the very clear retort was: “that argument doesn’t work. Since 9/11, the human rights discourse, whether in Muslim majority countries or otherwise, has been pushed to one side when confronted with the security argument. And since the Arab uprisings in 2011, that has only got worse within the Arab world and the broader region.” Any human rights defenders have now defaulted to using an appeal to security considerations even when making their arguments in support of human rights. Normative appeals to the ethical supremacy of, for example, not torturing people, are put to one side, and the objections are couched more in a counter-terrorism frame—because that is what works.

In trying to have a healthy interchange between the Islamic tradition and the human rights discourse, these candid discussions are solely based on ideas and theories—but in real life, there are consequences and repercussions for huge swaths of Muslims and for humanity in general. Perhaps all would benefit from recalling that looming background as the discussion proceeds. Or ethics can be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency—that is certainly a choice that many have opted for—although it is hardly a genuine one.

If we are to have a genuine discussion about the interplay between human rights and the Islamic tradition, then a recognition and realisation around the challenges philosophically speaking is key: but the potential for abuse by autocrats and the conservative right, is also critical. It is not whether nor we can do better. It is that we must do better.

A scholar and author in Politics, International Studies, and Islamic Studies, particularly in the West and the Arab world, Dr H.A. Hellyer is a senior associate fellow and scholar at the Royal United Services Institute in London and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC.  Dr Hellyer was also appointed Senior Fellow at Cambridge Muslim College, adjunct full Professor at the University of Technology’s Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Senior Scholar at the Zawiya Institute in Cape Town, South Africa.  

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