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Conclusion

Three points must be kept in mind which, in summary, underscore the Islam versus human rights paradigm’s underlying misconceptions and dangerously misleading implications, and point to a more appropriate conception of their interrelationship. The first of these points is the paradigm’s tacit overemphasis on Islam’s centrality in Muslim societies, reflecting a common tendency in neo-Orientalist commentary on the politics and law of the Arab world. Islam is the subject of almost obsessive academic and media focus which affirms its place—despite the caveats sometimes made—as the defining aspect of predominantly Muslim states.21 This has its roots in the much criticized Orientalist model, but it continues even among many critics of Orientalism. This sort of stereotype has led to a degree of attention to Islam that has largely drowned out discussion of other political and social currents in a diverse region that extends from Morocco in the west to Iraq in the east, and whose majority is in non-Arab states such as China and Nigeria. It is important to place political Islam in perspective by remembering that it is a minority phenomenon—often a rather small one—in most parts of the Muslim world, including theArab region.22 The danger is that a discourse of a ‘‘resurgent’’ political Islam and of a totalist Muslim political culture will reinforce and legitimize trends that share these traits and delegitim- ize other trends. The political impact of an Islamic heritage is quite diverse, often indefinable and fluctuating in its impact on both internal politics and international relations. Islam—like other normative sys- tems—is neither necessarily an obstacle nor a foundation of rights; in fact it is essentially indifferent as a factor in comparatively analyzing state records of human rights abuse.23

Without dismissing the presence of an Islamic metanarrative, it is equally important to bear witness to the evident historic and contemporary diversity—cultural and political—in the Muslim world which makes clear that there is no singular cultural construct decisively determining political-social outcomes. Simply put, within any state (including ‘‘Western’’ states, which have mixed human rights records and regularly face the same culturally justified opposition to rights) is a plurality of cultures and subcultures and diversity of political belief and ideology within these cultures. Identifying a single culture with a particular form of discourse is historically untenable, theoretically implausible, and empirically unsustainable. This is particularly true in the face of the contemporary world’s increasingly fluid, interconnected political and cultural realities. Culture is not a unified ‘‘thing’’; it is a field of meaning that defines and redefines particular world views in social, political, and

economic context. It is never static or fixed.

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Accepting at face value the claims of Islamists and cultural relativists that Islam represents the sum total of the values of these societies is to uncritically accept a corporatist conception of Muslim societies that insists on a monolithic construct of culture. A critical perspective on Islamist movements must cast a wary eye on stereotyping their members as ‘‘fanatics.’’ It must also, however, be equally wary of a corporatist, communitarian perspective that reifies them as the only culturally authentic representatives of Muslim political society and, therefore, stereotypes those who might dare disagree as inauthentic or unrepresentative. If the repetitive invocation of Islam versus human rights is a distraction from insightful dialogue on key intellectual and political issues, and if this distraction is also a practical impediment to intellectual thought on forms that better reflect contemporary social realities, then it is an urgent task to critique this paradigm.

The second point regarding this paradigm is that human rights is also often exaggerated in ambition and impact. Critics of international human rights law, for example, sometimes portray it as an enormous instrument designed to impose uniform cultural and political practice on the world, attacking indigenous normative systems such as Islam to which it is unsuited. An example of this is Winin Pereira’s misinformed caricature of human rights as a ‘‘huge and gargantuan structure [that is part of] a universal culture proposed during the past fifty years [that] was nothing more than an elaborate Westernisation proposal.’’24

There is no doubt that invoking solidarity with anti-Western politics has an understandable political resonance in regions that have suffered under colonialism and the continued imbalance of global power, and thus have felt the need for ideological unity against the West. Unfortunately, this all too easily flows into intellectually reductionist assumptions about human rights as a Western projection. This helps sustain the nationalist claim that there is an absolute opposition between a particular cultural tradition—such as Islam—and international norms, caricatured as alien and invasive. Not only is this reductionism objectionable on purely scholarly grounds, but it also has the political effect of justifying insular, xenophobic political practices and ideologies that thrive on notions of a cultural clash.

The flip side is invoking human rights on behalf of all manner of causes that have little or no relation to the texts of human rights instruments. In reality, human rights are a relatively circumscribed band of international law with a specific scope and restricted implementation and enforcement procedures—far from the fantasies of both uninformed opponents and exponents. Human rights instruments provide increasingly important fora for monitoring actions that arbitrarily violate restrictions on the use of state power, are a legal-political authority

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that can be invoked to supersede state-defined legal norms, and are—in short—a powerful tool that can inject protection of individual and group rights into international law and international relations.25 As such, they can play a positive role in protecting individuals and groups that are confronting the reality of the powerful, intrusive modern state, and for this reason local, regional, and transnational groups expend considerable energy seeking to have rights implemented at the domestic level. They are, in essence, a legal regime that reacts to the political structures and needs of postcolonial modernity, far from a project for a ‘‘universal culture,’’ as opponents claim.26 In the Arab world, they can play a role in establishing structures that permit the sort of participatory politics and economics which can facilitate the emergence of alternatives to the status quo.

A reductionist perspective on ‘‘Western’’ human rights appears in both the Muslim world and Europe and the United States, but in conflating rights with a history of Western imperialism the harm falls predominantly on the Muslim world. A focus on the Western ‘‘Other’’ can be all-defining, risking constructing the Muslim self as a mere echo of the West. One of Mohammed Arkoun’s central themes is that colonialism brought supposedly Western values to the Muslim world in the context of aggression.27 The dilemma of the Muslim world is how to get beyond this negative association of‘‘Western’’ human rights and ‘‘Western’’ imperialism, which risks a form of entrapment in a never-ending colonial discourse. This negative association is intensified when it is identified with countries such as the United States and France which have the habit of not allowing human rights rhetoric to interfere with support for states that are noted for their rights violations. Accepting or rejecting a rights discourse because of its cultural pedigree or because of the hypocrisy of that pedigree, however, is to simply play the echo to another’s tune.

The fundamental question is not whether the genesis of human rights is the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, Declaration of the Rights of Man, the UN General Assembly Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the expanding body of hard law treaties acceded to by a broad range of states. Nor is the fundamental question whether the United Kingdom, the United States, and France have double standards. They do, as do all states. The question that may be more productive is of what utility human rights as an international legal regime may be to the states of the Arab-Muslim world and to the individuals and groups who live under the political rule of these states.

The third point, consequent to these misconceived exaggerations of both Islam and the human rights regime, is that the Islam versus human

rights paradigm’s evocation of a clash (or a need for reconciliation)

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between Islam and human rights is vastly overstated, as previously outlined. Just as often—if not more often—Islam and human rights function on fundamentally distinct religious-cultural and political-legal planes that make talk of clash or reconciliation an irrelevant diversion from the true issues of importance. One way to ameliorate the self- perpetuating perception of such a clash is to place discussion of their relationship on a theoretical basis—as described above—that avoids overly monolithic conceptions of both Islam and human rights and includes the practice of politics in the Arab world. It is this practice that puts the empirical lie to theories that privilege a clash between Islam and human rights.

The motor of change in the Muslim world is an ever-shifting political and social context—in driving laws as in family law, in economics as in human rights. A dynamic, cross-cultural justificatory strategy that brings states and peoples to rights out of a sense of self-interest and normative appropriateness is what has allowed the global consensus on rights to form. It may also allow it to take on deeper roots in areas where the rights regime has been more controversial, as in some parts of the Muslim world. Strong internal voices finding political space to articulate support for human rights is the most effective manner of advancing a rights agenda, but until now such political space has been rare in many parts of the Arab world.

The importance of both transnational Islamic and human rights norms in contemporary Muslim societies is real, as are some particular complications of their interrelationship in discrete, contested areas. What is also clear, however, is that these complications do not signify a direct clash between two monoliths. What they do indicate are varying areas of friction in diverse ideological environments in a relationship which, overall, is characterized by distinct fields of concern. An uncritical juxtaposition of Islam and human rights is dangerous. Its propagation in popular and academic discourse feeds into a reductionist pigeonholing of Islam and human rights both inside and outside the Muslim world. Islam is not a discrete entity that must dominate, be reconciled, or be excluded from the political world. It is entangled in social and political structures in a complex, differentiated manner. It is at times of paramount importance, at times of no importance, and most often somewhere between the two extremes. It is primarily a religious discourse, but its impact on politics and society is indeterminate—defined in historical context rather than by eternal essence.

Exploration of these practical imbrications is crucial if the debate around topics that implicate human rights and Islamic law is to escape

their current stalemate. More important, dialogue on these issues can

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open up points of view on alternative models that more realistically reflect the complex, interwoven ideological fabrics of the Muslim world and more properly appreciate the scope and limits of both Islam and human rights and their status within varying political, economic, and social contexts.

 
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