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Overview of Goals and Themes

We will be pleased if Human Rights in the Arab World accomplishes three goals. First, and most simply, we want to allow readers unmediated access to important writings by a vanguard of thinkers on the place of human rights in the Arab world. What are the different viewpoints on the relevance or irrelevance of human rights to the Arab world’s politics, and what are different ways of conceptualizing how rights interact with the particulars of the region’s internally differing political, economic, and social contexts? This will give the reader a sense of the diversity of viewpoints engaged in shaping the contours of the Arab world’s human rights debate. This is particularly important in a region whose governments have some of the most dismal human rights records in the world and have made a particular effort to repress this diversity and marginalize dissenters as a means maintaining their power.2 The argument

throughout the book, to be clear, is that human rights are on the intel-

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lectual and public agenda, not that they dominate it. In expressing theoretical agreement or disagreement, or in expressing anger at violations or defensiveness about accusations of violations, the human rights debate is part of the Arab world’s everyday political conversation. It is featured in newspapers, journals, books, and—where given political space—the flourishing of civil society associations that have organized to pressure governments to address human rights.3

Second among these goals is to allow for the expression of a range of opinions on controversial issues of regional and global interest. By placing theoretical debates about the relevance of human rights in the difficult context of Arab politics, the dramatic stakes of this discourse are made clear—they are far from the world of theory for the sake of theory. Academic discourse is often criticized for being disconnected from issues central to public intellectual and policy discourse; placing theoretical issues in the context of dynamic current events is one response to this criticism.4

The third goal is to give the reader insight on several theoretical issues, beginning with the much-debated question of whether or not human rights—paired with expanding civil society and democracy— represent a structural alternative to the region’s currently authoritarian politics. An underlying theoretical question regards the cultural applicability of human rights standards—is there reason to think the Arab world is uniquely different such that rights’ standards are irrelevant to it? A second underlying question regards the domestic and regional impact of a regime of international norms—a central concern of both contemporary international relations and human rights scholarship. One of the indicators of such impact is the invocation of the relevance of such norms at the domestic level, and the chapters in this volume either explicitly or implicitly bear directly on this key issue for those who study global politics.

Though often neglected in Western academic and media commentary, voices discussing and debating human rights in the Arab world have an increasingly prominent niche within the Arab world’s intellectual life. The chapters are disparate in context and range across countries and historical periods, but each chapter explicitly addresses the relevance of human rights to the political, social, and economic context of the Arab world and, in so doing, rebuts a notion of the irrelevance of human rights to the region’s peoples. Beyond this general connecting tissue, the chapters are marked by the specific themes they address, and are thus divided into four inter-connected sections.

The book’s first section treats in a theoretical and practical vein the relationship of human rights to Islam. Anthony Chase begins by deconstructing monolithic conceptualizations of both human rights and

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Islam, and the notion that they are in a direct interrelationship. This is an argument against privileging Islam such that human rights must be justified in Islamic terms in order to be deemed relevant. In this sense it is critical of both Islamist assertions of an all-defining Islam and liberal Muslim assertions that human rights can and must be justified in Islamic terms. The relevance or irrelevance of human rights to the Arab world, to the contrary, is determined in shifting political, social, and economic context—not predetermined by a putatively unchanging cultural context. At the level of practice, Bahey el-Din Hassan’s ‘‘A Question of Human Rights Ethics: Defending the Islamists’’ begins by relating the interactions of the author—currently chair of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies—in an Egyptian prison with members of Islamist groups. This neatly exposes both the shared consequences of rejecting Egypt’s political status quo, but simultaneously the differing implications of an opposition based on political inclusiveness in relation to one that implies an assertion of ideological superiority. It is clear there are no easy choices available to those advancing a human rights agenda, but rather a confusing mixture of ideological and coercive pressures. Hassan goes on to detail the moral and strategic debates that have taken place among Egyptian human rights groups regarding these pressures, debates that get to the heart of the viability of human rights discourse in the region.

If this first pair of chapters give a sense of some of the theoretical and strategic conundrums faced by those advocating rights, the book’s second section gives this context by identifying the global context in which the human rights regime has impacted the Arab world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) affirmation by the members of the United Nations General Assembly (with, notably, the lone abstention of Saudi Arabia among Arab states) in 1948 made rights a global political and legal force. Before that its precedents in all parts of the world were made up of murmurs more than crowning moments. These murmurs, nonetheless, set the stage for the post-World War II impact of the human rights regime. A similar timeline applies in the Arab world, with weak intellectual precedents preceding the UDHR formalization of rights into a discourse with identifiable political impacts in the region.

Amr Hamzawy, author of the first chapter in the globalization section, places this in broad context by examining contemporary intellectual discourse in the Arab world. He does this specifically in regard to globalization and how this has related to the articulation of notions of modernity and authenticity in the Arab world. As Hamzawy argues, this is the fundamental dynamic underlying debates over the place of human rights in the region. Neil Hicks, in a more specific vein, moves into contemporary

international relations theory by applying Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink’s

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“spiral model’’ for explaining the spread of human rights discourse to Egypt. This is useful in that, by putting into global context the status of human rights in a key Arab state, it shows that the strategies used to advance or repress rights are not unique to the region, but rather part of global political processes. Last, Valentine Moghadam’s chapter notes how nationalism and Islamism remain the discursive frameworks that most directly contest the idea of human rights. Moghadam remarks on this in regard to equal citizenship rights for women, but it is a framework applicable to virtually all subject areas the book covers and, thus, its theoretical framework is particularly useful.

The book’s third section includes three chapters that delve directly into current challenges facing the Arab human rights movement, in both an empirical and a theoretical sense. Empirically, Hanny Megally details a strategy for advancing rights in the Arab world, albeit one that is decidedly pessimistic in that he is fully aware of how deeply embedded are structures of power that resist human rights implementation. Nicola Pratt takes a more explicitly theoretical perspective in regard to the on- the-ground challenges facing human rights in the Arab world, specifically, reasons for the suspicion that often greets human rights discourse. Eyad El Sarraj—head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme—articulates, on the other hand, both the hope and the hopelessness of those struggling for rights against the corrupt patriarchs of the Arab world. El Sarraj’s surreal experiences when imprisoned by Yasser Arafat (one of several times El Sarraj was imprisoned by Arafat, though Arafat alternated this with offers of high government positions) highlight the absurdities of the patrimonial systems of governance that predominate in the Arab world.

The book’s final section focuses on country-specific case studies. These cases are both historical, in regard to Yemen, and contemporary, in regard to Egypt and Morocco. They attempt to move beyond the countries and topics on which there is most commonly a focus in media and academic writing. Sheila Carapico’s micro-study identifies in the context of Yemen some of the ideological diversity that characterizes the Arab world, and how monolithic portrayals of its intellectual currents risk being caricatures unless they recognize this diversity, including currents advancing a rights agenda. In the context of twentieth-century intellectual history, Carapico traces Yemen’s diversity of ideological expression, projection of political alternatives, human rights confrontations with nationalisms, and the importance of transnational connections. It is from these precedents that one can talk about the development of a distinctly Arab engagement with international human rights, as well as an engagement within the divergent histories of different locales in the Arab world, such as Yemen.

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In a more contemporary vein, Tamir Moustafa and Susan Waltz and Lindsay Benstead explore human rights ‘‘moments’’ in Egypt and Morocco, respectively. Both demonstrate the possibilities of human rights. Moustafa details how the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court aggressively moved to integrate human rights into its decisionmaking, and how the Egyptian government has contested this movement once it threatened to seriously constrain its authority. Waltz and Benstead’s more optimistic take on Morocco’s human rights movement sees its successes as part of a dynamic in which both domestic and transnational pressures—from allies, nongovernmental organizations, and international organizations—played the central role. This contrasts with the Egyptian high court’s experience in that, as they say, the ‘‘time will be ripe’’ for human rights only when there is a broader political and social basis for its advancement, rather than the activism of a single actor.

In his concluding discussion of the book’s contributions, Amr Ham- zawy returns us to contemporary intellectual discourse in the Arab world. He affirms the contested nature of rights discourse in the region, but simultaneously its continued resonance as structuring an alternative to current realities. The vibrancy of this alternative vision is reflected in the book’s appendices, which provide the reader with a number of reference documents that have emerged out of the global and Arab human rights movement.

 
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