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Islamism

The first distinction to make is between Islam and the political project that goes under the name of, variously, Islamism, fundamentalism, political Islam, and/or integralism. In regard to the former, as a social force Islam inevitably has a political impact, just as do other powerful religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, or Judaism. But Islam’s history as a discourse predominantly has kept a certain distance from politics and only rarely advanced the Islamist claim to monopolize the public sphere of law, society, and politics. Whether historically or over just the last century, Islam as an evolving and differentiated set of religious beliefs and social practices has a pattern of coexistence with multiple political structures and ideologies. Islamism, however, does indeed have a history of conflict with human rights, and conflating Islam with Islamism is one reason for the misperception that Islam clashes with human rights.

Thus, before directly addressing Islam, it is worth taking a moment to

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address the Islamist political movement that mobilizes constructs of Islam in apparent opposition to human rights.

The record of Islamists shows how distinct—and modern—their construct of Islam is from what has predominated throughout the Muslim world’s history. Islamism is a political project defined by assumptions that have often contradicted the human rights regime’s foundation in nondiscrimination, toleration, and human agency (as a generality, Islamism, too, has its variations). Empirically, this contradiction has become apparent when Islamists have taken state authority. The Sudan, for example, has had the Arab world’s only Islamist regime and, as with Islamist regimes in Iran and Afghanistan, the results were starkly contrary to democracy and human rights. Power was seized in the Sudan in collaboration with leaders of a military coup and maintained thereafter by nondemocratic means. Repression against non-Arab-Muslim minorities included a bloody, genocidal campaign against African animists and Christians in the south. Dissent has met with retribution, including death or asylum for many—such as, for example, the hanging of liberal Islamic reformer Mahmoud Taha. This repression of democracy, minorities, and dissenters has exact parallels in the practice of Islamist regimes outside the Arab world—Taliban Afghanistan and Iran’s Islamic Republic being notable examples of precisely this same pattern of flagrant abuses.

In opposition, as well, Islamists have had a markedly negative effect on human rights in the Muslim world. In particular, in the Arab world they have frightened, intimidated, and physically attacked public figures who dare to critically engage in the civic sphere of culture or politics. In Egypt, for example, a revered literary figure such as Naguib Mahfouz and an imaginative scholar such as Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid have both been subject to physical and legal attacks that have had the broader effect of chilling the general intellectual environment in both the country and the region. This is not to mention, of course, more egregious acts of terror—transnationally by an al-Qaida, or domestically by groups such as Egypt’s Islamic Jihad.

This pattern of repressive practice does not flow out of Islam but out of the theoretical foundations of religious nationalist ideologies—be they putatively based in Islam or in the power of some other set of religious symbols. The identification of power with a religious ethnic group and, within that ethnic group, with a privileged elite with access to defining God’s law is inherently antidemocratic and impels violations of human rights, including the repression of minorities, dissidents, and democracy.1 Regimes that ideologically legitimize rule based on exclusi- vist religious identity cannot tolerate affirmations of equality of other

ethnic communities, as evidenced by the status of Muslims in BJP

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(Hindu nationalist) India, Palestinians in Israel, or non-Muslim minorities in the Sudan, Iran, and Afghanistan. ‘‘Outside’’ groups may be more or less tolerated but, by definition, if national identity is made coterminous with a particular religious identity, nonmembers are not full citizens. This is the conundrum of nationalist politics in general, one that is exacerbated when the national community is defined in inherently exclusivist and emotively powerful religious terms.

This is even more problematic in cases where the ideological justification for rule moves beyond religious identity to the Islamist project of applying a literalist construction of that religion’s sacred texts as temporal law. In this case, rule according to sacred texts means that even within the privileged community dissent is not easily tolerated. Such dissent contradicts not just a political position but a position that constructs itself as representing a transcendental truth. A religious nationalist ideology such as Islamism inherently implies violations of human rights by theoretically defining its hold on power as justified by religious identity and faithfulness to a literalist interpretation of religious texts. It rules according to an elite’s construction of eternal truth, not a participatory democratic process; minorities are implicitly disenfranchised as foreign to the dominant cultural community; and dissent is a challenge to religious dogma rather than merely a competing policy preference and is therefore intolerable. This theoretical opposition has been evident in Islamism’s practice both in opposition and in power.

 
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