Kevin Dwyer, Arab Voices: The Human Rights Debate in the Middle East (Routledge, 1991).

Ann Elizabeth Mayer, Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics (Westview, 1991).

The human rights debate in the Arab and Islamic worlds is a recent phenomenon. The absence of a settled doctrine of human rights in pre-modern Islamic intellectual history and the special emphasis placed on political independence during the period of Western colonial domination delayed that debate, even beyond the immediate aftermath of World War II, when international instruments were being drafted. At that time, the Arab world was preoccupied with finding solutions to the social and economic ills of society and issues of national security. Ruling elites posited that individual freedoms must be subordinated to the pursuit of social and economic progress as well as national honor.

This “exchange” still lies at the heart of the human rights debate of the 1980s and 1990s throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds, and constitutes the major concern of the studies of Kevin Dwyer and Ann Elizabeth Mayer. Now that militaries have failed to achieve their objectives, and neo-colonial penetration has reached new heights, some in the region are advancing Islamization programs as a kind of panacea. The debate is assuming new and unprecedented dimensions, as Islamic societies undergo rapid change and are being forced to cope with issues of dependency, foreign domination and loss of international leverage.

Mayer deals with the philosophy and practice of Islam in general, while Dwyer approaches human rights in terms of sociology, anthropology, literature, Islamic jurisprudence and journalism in the Arab world specifically. Dwyer, a former Amnesty International researcher and an anthropologist specializing in North Africa, allows the words of intellectuals from Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco to convey the social experience in the Arab world, and to elaborate their own visions of society. Their discussion of human rights in the Arab world is framed in terms of everyday events, economic development, religious doctrine, political thought, individual freedoms, women’s and minority rights, and ideological conflicts.

Mayer, a legal scholar at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, draws on her broad knowledge of Islamic law and international human rights to evaluate the political significance of Islamic rights schemes. She argues that the proposals put forth largely by Muslim conservatives as alternatives to the international declarations are not necessarily grounded in Islamic tradition or jurisprudence “as if there existed one settled Islamic human rights philosophy.” She analyzes the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, the Islamic Constitution of al-Azhar University and the 1979 Iranian constitution, and finds them to be generally incompatible with human rights standards. Mayer demonstrates persuasively that these hybrids of Islamic and international legal principles rest on the premise that Islam is a comprehensive ideology, and they fail to acknowledge that there are major gaps in the shari‘a with regard to human rights — gaps which are filled “with newly minted Islamic rules.” Muslim conservatives emerge as the principal legal apologists for repressive regimes that, in the name of cultural nationalism and legal decolonization, reject Western legal models and claim that unimpeachable Islamic authority lies behind their violations of human rights. Mayer argues that these conservatives lack any clear theory of what rights should mean in an Islamic context or how to derive their content from Islamic sources in a consistent and principled manner.

The liberal reformist trend in Islamic thought, in contrast, considers the Islamic tradition as open to methodologies that can resolve where Islamic law stands on human rights. It also considers that Islam, when properly understood, calls for equal rights for men and women. Representatives of the liberal trend, such as Abdullahi al-Na‘im, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, Mohammed Arkoun and Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, maintain that the applicability of legal rules in various Quranic verses must be rethought, and are critical of the unscientific quality of contemporary Islamic discourse. Mayer contrasts their work with that of conservatives such as Mawdudi, Tabandeh, Ayatollah Bahonar and others, which assumes that an explicit Islamic model of rights exists.

Mayer’s major contribution is her meticulous analysis of the principal Islamic documents such as the Universal Islamic Declaration, the Iranian constitution and the al-Azhar draft, which unmistakably reveals the ways that religious criteria are invoked to justify restricting basic rights. She pays particular attention to discrimination against women and non-Muslims. Her thorough and detailed comparisons between the English and Arabic versions of these documents reveal inconsistencies and misleading assumptions about the meaning and application of basic human rights and civil liberties. Mayer also critically assesses the use of Islam as a rationale for retarding progress toward reconciling Islamic law with international humanitarian standards. Her cogent historical account does not ignore imperialist exploitation of non-Muslim minorities to advance Western hegemony over Muslim countries, and her sympathetic attitude toward the Third World renders accusations of Orientalist bias frivolous.

Historical analysis plays a major role in the work of Kevin Dwyer, who also treats Arab society from a non-Orientalist perspective. The two books complement each other. In both, the written and spoken words of conservative Islamic theologians appear at length, but whereas Mayer offers analysis and commentary, Dwyer provides a convenient platform and a framework from which a fairly representative sample of intellectuals address the reader directly. Dwyer’s work, which includes the justifications of secularists and non-legal scholars, demonstrates that opposition to political democracy and civil liberties, as construed in the West, is not limited to Islamic clerics and conservative legal scholars. Whence the dilemma.

Mohamed Sid Ahmed, for example, explains how Nasser’s concept of democracy was defined in terms of social and economic rights rather than political pluralism: “This idea meant improving the human rights of the community, even if the individual’s right had to suffer as a result.” Kamal Abu al-Magd, a former Egyptian minister and legal scholar, explicitly endorses the notion that duties take precedence over rights: “Rights and obligations are two sides of the same coin…the chance for the effective protection of human rights should be greater if you have a community of individuals competing to fulfill obligations rather than having a community of individuals fighting selfishly for their own rights…. People would be trying to give rather than trying to take.” For Muhammad ‘Amara, “The umma’s interest takes precedence,” unlike in Western democracies where the ruling class interest predominates or in totalitarian systems where the state interest prevails. This line of reasoning parallels the many rationalizations discussed by Mayer.

Dwyer and Mayer both deal with questions of social and cultural identity. In the 1950s, identity was defined in terms of the anti-colonial struggle and nation-building; in the 1960s and early 1970s, it was sought in terms of capitalist or socialist options and, from the mid-1970s on, in terms of religion. Secular intellectuals draw a clear relationship between the dilemma of identity and the resurgence of religious movements. Latifa Zayyat, for example, tells Dwyer that in Egypt people are “seeking in religion a new identity, and using religious identity to protest against a disintegrating society.”

This context provides a common ground for the two books. Conservatives exploit the insecurity of many aspects of life in the Middle East, and treat Islam as a monolith and the shari‘a as immutable, opposed to any form of ijtihad (logical reasoning) when it comes to human rights. These scholars and the repressive regimes which rule their societies agree on the need to curb the scope of freedoms offered under international human rights accords. Arab Voices and Islam and Human Rights are must reading for anyone interested in the changing order in the Middle East and Islamic societies in general, and certainly for human rights activists with interest in the Muslim world.

How to cite this article:

Naseer Aruri "Islam and Human Rights," Middle East Report 179 (November/December 1992).

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