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Islam, Human Rights, and Sociopolitical Praxis

Human rights and Islam can (and do) coexist, but not in a manner that equates culture with legal rights or Islam with political norms and insists that to be justifiable rights must be Islamicized for the Muslim world. This exclusivist conception runs contrary to everyday political realities. We have already noted the irrelevance of Islam to most rights violations and the political basis of both rights violations and arguments regarding the relevance of rights. For a complementary analogy from a different sphere that illustrates how Islam is not all-defining, one notes the preeminence of non-Islamic economic models in the Muslim world. This is not doctrinally justified by detailed, sophisticated reformist theories in which ‘‘Western’’ and ‘‘Islamic’’ economics are reconciled. To the contrary, it simply flows from trends set in place by economic realities that make no pretense of being Islamic. In fact, it is the ‘‘Islamic’’ economic model pushed by some Islamists that still remains peripheral, even in Islamist states themselves. Coexistence (or, more precisely, the irrelevance of a notion of coexistence) has taken place due to economic and

political context, not some sort of theoretical reconciliation. Similarly,

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in the course of the twentieth century, Muslim family law has fluctuated widely depending on historic context, region, country, locality, custom, and political and social pressures.15

An even simpler example can again illustrate the manner in which social, political, and economic circumstances can override even norms embedded in Islamic justifications. The Saudi ban on women drivers has attracted a great deal of attention. Leaving aside the question of whether such a ban is valid in Islamic law, the reality is that it was validated—in a country that claims the Qur’an as its constitution—as a stipulation of Islam.16 Over the last decade, however, there have been repeated whispers that the ban would be overturned. Among the first of these, for example, was a report that noted ‘‘a powerful rumour spawning hopes and fears that women in the conservative kingdom may soon be allowed to drive.’’ And why would such a change be made?

Economic concerns make the move—which would end the need for half a million foreign chauffeurs—credible. . . . With weak oil prices slicing some $15 billion off the income of the world’s top producer this year and unemployment put near 20 percent. . . . ‘‘The average Saudi family finds it pretty hard to afford a driver,’’ a top diplomat said. ‘‘Men often leave work to take kids to the doctor or school.’’17

There have been recurrent renewals of this rumor, though no change has yet been made and, currently, much higher oil prices have reversed the economic dynamic that was pushing movement toward change. Nonetheless, both discussion of this point in Saudi Arabia and, simultaneously, the inconceivability in most Muslim countries of laws banning women from driving concisely affirm two key points: the variability of shari'a interpretation and the manner in which political, social, or economic context can quickly affect such interpretation. A change in Saudi Arabia’s driving statute, if it ever comes to pass, would undoubtedly be given some sort of shari'a-based justification, just as was the law’s original promulgation. The reason for this law’s existence, however, lies in Saudi Arabia’s tremendously conservative social structure, which is far more severe than that of most Muslim countries (also explaining why these laws do not exist in other Muslim states), and was reinforced by the defensive political position Saudi authorities found themselves in after allowing the presence of U.S. troops during the Gulf War.18 If this law is overturned, it will be, again, for non-Islamic reasons—this time economic and technological.19 In other words, for all the invocation of shari'a, the determining factors have little to do on either side with religious arguments and everything to do with historical context.

Be it in driving laws, economics, family law, or human rights, political,

economic, and social context is the primary variable. In regard to

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human rights, if they are perceived as relevant and necessary, they will consequently become contestants in public debate—indeed, they already have. Arguments to be made regarding rights should be waged around their relevance and aptness. It is this, not elaborate Islamic justifications, that will or will not lead to greater integration of human rights norms into the Arab world’s politics. As Reza Afshari elegantly states, ‘‘one may argue that the ways of the future will appear through the exigencies of sociopolitical praxis and not necessarily by means of persuasive theory.’’20 To focus on theoretical justifications as though they will impel change is to focus on the tail wagging the dog. The place of human rights will not be established by reforming or transforming Islam but by opening state-societies to political changes that reflect sociological realities within those states and participatory demands of Muslim populations. Such openings as one has seen in the Muslim Middle East reflect political, social, economic, and cultural demands, not a movement for a rereading of Islamic theology.

This is not to argue that placing rights concepts in culturally diverse language is unhelpful to gaining greater currency for human rights. Rights are not an autonomous legal system, imperially above culture and society. There does need to be societal legitimacy for rights, as they are not simply an abstract, apolitical legal concept. While rights neither flow from nor attack culture (though they do provide specific protections of certain cultural rights, including language, religion, and traditional practices of indigenous peoples), opportunities for their expansion are certainly greater if they can be justified in a manner that coalesces with both local political concerns and cultural language.

The challenge for those who discuss the place of human rights in the Muslim world, however, is to show how human rights respond to the political situations and structures of its diverse and particular locales, not to dress human rights up in a false Islamic suit of armor. Islam is neither the source of human rights nor (usually) the cause of rights violations. The variability of shari'a does not mean that lonely reformist interpretations are likely to overturn established norms; rather, it means that as social and political contexts change, so too can the manner in which shari'a is (or is not) applied and human rights is (or is not) integrated into politics and law. The important point is making clear the relevance of rights to issues of day-to-day concern (the right to work to Palestinians denied that right; the right to food to Sudanese facing forced starvation; the right to education for minorities and women systematically denied that right; the right to political participation for those not permitted to engage politically in so many Arab states, and so forth), as well as broader issues of peace and security, rather than the focus one

too often finds on abstractions such as rights’ cultural DNA.

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