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the human rights commitment in modern ISLAM
Of all the moral challenges confronting Islam in the modern age, the problem of human rights is the
most formidable. This is not because Islam, as compared to other religious traditions, is more prone
to causing or inducing behavior that disregards or violates the rights of human beings. In fact, the
Islamic tradition has generated concepts and institutions that could be utilized in a systematic effort
to develop social and moral commitments to human rights. But the cause of the formidable
challenge to the Islamic tradition pertains to the particular historical dynamics that Muslims have
had to confront in the modern age. Here, I am referring to the political realities that have plagued
Muslims, especially since the rise of the hegemonic power of the West, and the destruction of the
traditional institutions of authority and learning in most Muslim polities. As discussed below,
political realities such as colonialism, the persistence of highly invasive and domineering despotic
governments, the widespread perception, and reality, of Western hypocrisy in the human rights
field, and the emergence and spread of supremacist movements of moral exceptionalism in modern
Islam have contributed to modes of interpretation and practice that are not consistent with a
commitment to human rights.1 These political developments, among others, have led to an
aggravated process of moral disengagement, and even callousness, toward human suffering, even
when such suffering is inflicted in God’s name. Put simply, there has in the contemporary era been a
systematic undermining and devaluing of the humanistic tradition in Islam, and a process of what
could be described as a vulgarization of Islamic normative doctrines and systems 21 the human
rights commitment in modern Islam Khaled Abou El Fadl 302 rights and religious traditions of belief.
Therefore, exploring the relationship of Islam to the concept of human rights implicates the crucial
issue of Islam’s self-definition: What will Islam stand for and represent in the contemporary age?
What are the symbolic associations that Muslims and non-Muslims will draw when it comes to
thinking about the Islamic tradition? A corollary issue will be the relationship between modern Islam
and its own humanistic tradition: To what extent will modern Islam associate with and develop the
historical experience of Islamic humanism?2 In recent times, and well before the tragedy of 9/11,
Muslim societies have been plagued by many events that have struck the world as offensive and
even shocking. Morally offensive events, such as the Satanic Verses and the death sentence against
Salman Rushdie; the stoning and imprisoning of rape victims in Pakistan and Nigeria; the public
flogging, stoning, and decapitation of criminal offenders in Sudan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia; the
degradation of women by the Taliban; the destruction of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan; the
sexual violation of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia; the excommunication of writers in Egypt; the
killing of civilians in suicide attacks; the shooting in 1987 of over four hundred pilgrims in Mecca by
Saudi police; the taking of hostages in Iran and Lebanon; the burning to death in 2002 of at least
fourteen schoolgirls in Mecca because they were not allowed to escape their burning school while
not properly veiled; and the demeaning treatment that women receive in Saudi Arabia, including the
ban against women driving cars, as well as many other events, seem to constitute a long Muslim
saga of ugliness in the modern world. For many non-Muslims around the world, Islam has become
the symbol for a draconian tradition that exhibits little compassion or mercy toward human beings.
When one interacts with people from different parts of the world, one consistently finds that the
image of Islam is not that of a humanistic or humane religion. This has reached the extent that, from
Europe and the United States to Japan, China, and Russia, one finds that Islamic culture has become
associated with harshness and cruelty in the popular cultural imagination of non-Muslims. This saga
of ugliness has forced Muslims, who are embarrassed and offended by this legacy, to adopt
apologetic rhetorical arguments that do not necessarily carry much persuasive weight. My purpose
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in this chapter is not necessarily to explain the sociopolitical reasons for the pervasiveness of acts of
ugliness in the modern Islamic context. In addition, although, admittedly, I discuss the Islamic
tradition as an insider, I do not aim, so to speak, to vindicate or defend Islam by proving that Islamic
beliefs and convictions are consistent with human rights. For reasons explained below, I think that
adopting such an approach would be intellectually dishonest and ultimately not convincing or
effective. Rather, the purpose of this chapter is to discuss the major points of tension between the
Islamic tradition and the human rights system of belief and to explore the possibilities for achieving a
normative reconciliation between the two moral traditions. There is an initial difficulty with the
discourse on human rights that warrants some cautionary comments. In the West, the issue of
human rights has become the subject of an extensive philosophical, theological, legal, political, and
anthropological discourse that defies citation.3 The origins, nature, and meaning of human rights as
well as the relationship between human rights and religion have been widely debated in the West,
to the point that human rights has become a fairly developed and sophisticated field of inquiry. This
poses something of a challenge because, considering the broadness of the subject in the West, it is
necessary to specify the particular concept of human rights to which we refer. For instance, in
speaking about Islam and human rights, it is important to specify whether we are addressing a
scheme of individual rights or of collective or communitarian rights.4 Furthermore, there is a
material difference between schemes of human rights based on natural law conceptions and notions
of human rights derived from positivist and contractual premises. In addition, human rights as
identified and defined by international law instruments, and contractual obligations applicable to
nation-states, pose their own particular sets of issues and challenges. Finally, another fairly complex
issue is whether conceptions of universal human rights can accommodate any degree of cultural or
indigenous variation without undermining the very rationale for universal rights.5 It will not be
possible to address, let alone resolve, these various multi-faceted issues in this chapter, but in order
for a coherent discourse to emerge on Islam and human rights, these issues do, in fact, need to be
engaged in a rigorous and systematic fashion. Otherwise, Islamic discourses on the subject will
remain very partial, and largely unconvincing. What I can hope to achieve in this chapter is to
identify some of the main obstacles that hamper a serious Islamic engagement with the field, and
analyze potentialities within Islamic doctrine for realizing a vision of human rights. In essence, this
chapter will focus on potentialities I. e. the doctrinal aspects in Muslim thought that could
legitimize, promote, or subvert the emergence of a human rights practice in Muslim cultures.
without the counterbalance of articulated responsibilities toward others is just as problematically
exclusivist. Moreover, religious worldviews, while producing a communal solidarity in their specifics,
can take a non-exclusivist outlook regarding other communities. Two non-exclusivist views of the
relationships among the world religions which have been well articulated and which counter
exclusivism are: • religious inclusivism: only one world religion is fully correct, but other world
religions participate in or partially reveal some of the truth of the one correct religion. • religious
pluralism: ultimately all world religions are correct, each offering a different path and partial
perspective vis-à-vis the one Ultimate Reality. To these two traditional positions, I would add
another: • henofideism: one has a faith commitment that one’s own world religion is correct, while
acknowledging that other world religions may be correct.24 Exclusivism simply does not take into
account the degree to which all religious truth-claims are human constructs, subject to the
limitations and fallibility of the human mind (a point which is fundamental to Abou El Fadl,s analysis
of Islam and human rights). For it is largely a matter of history, geography, and genetics whether one
grows up as a Hindu or Sikh, Buddhist or Christian, Muslim or Bahá’í. Consequently, religious
exclusivism makes a religious elite of those who have privileged knowledge, or who are socially
fortunate, or who benefited from the historical serendipity of the age into which they were born.
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And, as is so often the case, when religious exclusivism is conjoined with the political power of the
state, the result is religious egoism the idea that what is right for a particular religious community
in a society is right for all members of society. Global justice requires that humans be freed from the
tyranny of religious egoism as much as from the tyranny of non-religious forms of ideological
exclusivism. Of the alternative ways to respond religiously to the conflicting truth claims of the world
religions, religious exclusivism, especially in the form of religious egoism, would be actively opposed
to attempts to achieve a concurrence among diverse religious and non-religious ethics. Inclusivism,
pluralism, and henofdeism are more conducive to the possibility of a universal religious ethic, and so
the possibility of a universal ethic, and they support article 18.3 of the proposed Universal
Declaration of Huma

Unformatted Attachment Preview

• the human rights commitment in modern ISLAM Of all the moral challenges confronting Islam in the modern age, the problem of human rights is the most formidable. This is not because Islam, as compared to other religious traditions, is more prone to causing or inducing behavior that disregards or violates the rights of human beings. In fact, the Islamic tradition has generated concepts and institutions that could be utilized in a systematic effort to develop social and moral commitments to human rights. But the cause of the formidable challenge to the Islamic tradition pertains to the particular historical dynamics that Muslims have had to confront in the modern age. Here, I am referring to the political realities that have plagued Muslims, especially since the rise of the hegemonic power of the West, and the destruction of the traditional institutions of authority and learning in most Muslim polities. As discussed below, political realities – such as colonialism, the persistence of highly invasive and domineering despotic governments, the widespread perception, and reality, of Western hypocrisy in the human rights field, and the emergence and spread of supremacist movements of moral exceptionalism in modern Islam – have contributed to modes of interpretation and practice that are not consistent with a commitment to human rights.1 These political developments, among others, have led to an aggravated process of moral disengagement, and even callousness, toward human suffering, even when such suffering is inflicted in God’s name. Put simply, there has in the contemporary era been a systematic undermining and devaluing of the humanistic tradition in Islam, and a process of what could be described as a vulgarization of Islamic normative doctrines and systems 21 the human rights commitment in modern Islam Khaled Abou El Fadl 302 rights and religious traditions of belief. Therefore, exploring the relationship of Islam to the concept of human rights implicates the crucial issue of Islam’s self-definition: What will Islam stand for and represent in the contemporary age? What are the symbolic associations that Muslims and non-Muslims will draw when it comes to thinking about the Islamic tradition? A corollary issue will be the relationship between modern Islam and its own humanistic tradition: To what extent will modern Islam associate with and develop the historical experience of Islamic humanism?2 In recent times, and well before the tragedy of 9/11, Muslim societies have been plagued by many events that have struck the world as offensive and even shocking. Morally offensive events, such as the Satanic Verses and the death sentence against Salman Rushdie; the stoning and imprisoning of rape victims in Pakistan and Nigeria; the public flogging, stoning, and decapitation of criminal offenders in Sudan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia; the degradation of women by the Taliban; the destruction of the Buddha statues in Afghanistan; the sexual violation of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia; the excommunication of writers in Egypt; the killing of civilians in suicide attacks; the shooting in 1987 of over four hundred pilgrims in Mecca by Saudi police; the taking of hostages in Iran and Lebanon; the burning to death in 2002 of at least fourteen schoolgirls in Mecca because they were not allowed to escape their burning school while not properly veiled; and the demeaning treatment that women receive in Saudi Arabia, including the ban against women driving cars, as well as many other events, seem to constitute a long Muslim saga of ugliness in the modern world. For many non-Muslims around the world, Islam has become the symbol for a draconian tradition that exhibits little compassion or mercy toward human beings. When one interacts with people from different parts of the world, one consistently finds that the image of Islam is not that of a humanistic or humane religion. This has reached the extent that, from Europe and the United States to Japan, China, and Russia, one finds that Islamic culture has become associated with harshness and cruelty in the popular cultural imagination of non-Muslims. This saga of ugliness has forced Muslims, who are embarrassed and offended by this legacy, to adopt apologetic rhetorical arguments that do not necessarily carry much persuasive weight. My purpose in this chapter is not necessarily to explain the sociopolitical reasons for the pervasiveness of acts of ugliness in the modern Islamic context. In addition, although, admittedly, I discuss the Islamic tradition as an insider, I do not aim, so to speak, to vindicate or defend Islam by proving that Islamic beliefs and convictions are consistent with human rights. For reasons explained below, I think that adopting such an approach would be intellectually dishonest and ultimately not convincing or effective. Rather, the purpose of this chapter is to discuss the major points of tension between the Islamic tradition and the human rights system of belief and to explore the possibilities for achieving a normative reconciliation between the two moral traditions. There is an initial difficulty with the discourse on human rights that warrants some cautionary comments. In the West, the issue of human rights has become the subject of an extensive philosophical, theological, legal, political, and anthropological discourse that defies citation.3 The origins, nature, and meaning of human rights as well as the relationship between human rights and religion have been widely debated in the West, to the point that human rights has become a fairly developed and sophisticated field of inquiry. This poses something of a challenge because, considering the broadness of the subject in the West, it is necessary to specify the particular concept of human rights to which we refer. For instance, in speaking about Islam and human rights, it is important to specify whether we are addressing a scheme of individual rights or of collective or communitarian rights.4 Furthermore, there is a material difference between schemes of human rights based on natural law conceptions and notions of human rights derived from positivist and contractual premises. In addition, human rights as identified and defined by international law instruments, and contractual obligations applicable to nation-states, pose their own particular sets of issues and challenges. Finally, another fairly complex issue is whether conceptions of universal human rights can accommodate any degree of cultural or indigenous variation without undermining the very rationale for universal rights.5 It will not be possible to address, let alone resolve, these various multi-faceted issues in this chapter, but in order for a coherent discourse to emerge on Islam and human rights, these issues do, in fact, need to be engaged in a rigorous and systematic fashion. Otherwise, Islamic discourses on the subject will remain very partial, and largely unconvincing. What I can hope to achieve in this chapter is to identify some of the main obstacles that hamper a serious Islamic engagement with the field, and analyze potentialities within Islamic doctrine for realizing a vision of human rights. In essence, this chapter will focus on potentialities – I. e. the doctrinal aspects in Muslim thought that could legitimize, promote, or subvert the emergence of a human rights practice in Muslim cultures. without the counterbalance of articulated responsibilities toward others is just as problematically exclusivist. Moreover, religious worldviews, while producing a communal solidarity in their specifics, can take a non-exclusivist outlook regarding other communities. Two non-exclusivist views of the relationships among the world religions which have been well articulated and which counter exclusivism are: • religious inclusivism: only one world religion is fully correct, but other world religions participate in or partially reveal some of the truth of the one correct religion. • religious pluralism: ultimately all world religions are correct, each offering a different path and partial perspective vis-à-vis the one Ultimate Reality. To these two traditional positions, I would add another: • henofideism: one has a faith commitment that one’s own world religion is correct, while acknowledging that other world religions may be correct.24 Exclusivism simply does not take into account the degree to which all religious truth-claims are human constructs, subject to the limitations and fallibility of the human mind (a point which is fundamental to Abou El Fadl,s analysis of Islam and human rights). For it is largely a matter of history, geography, and genetics whether one grows up as a Hindu or Sikh, Buddhist or Christian, Muslim or Bahá’í. Consequently, religious exclusivism makes a religious elite of those who have privileged knowledge, or who are socially fortunate, or who benefited from the historical serendipity of the age into which they were born. And, as is so often the case, when religious exclusivism is conjoined with the political power of the state, the result is religious egoism – the idea that what is right for a particular religious community in a society is right for all members of society. Global justice requires that humans be freed from the tyranny of religious egoism as much as from the tyranny of non-religious forms of ideological exclusivism. Of the alternative ways to respond religiously to the conflicting truth claims of the world religions, religious exclusivism, especially in the form of religious egoism, would be actively opposed to attempts to achieve a concurrence among diverse religious and non-religious ethics. Inclusivism, pluralism, and henofdeism are more conducive to the possibility of a universal religious ethic, and so the possibility of a universal ethic, and they support article 18.3 of the proposed Universal Declaration of Huma Name: Description: ...
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