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The Discovery of Human Rights in Arab Debates

The Crisis of the Nation-State

In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the nation-state received praise in both traditional and modern political projects in the Arab world either as the agent for securing stability for society or as the impetus for change. It was hoped that the nation-state would either consolidate the existing state or humanize, liberalize, democratize, or Islamize it. In the political discourse of the postindependence era the centrality of the nation-state was sacralized, especially under the dual influence of the modernization paradigm and Marxist ideology. Thus the rather violent implementation and expansion of state power in many Arab countries was often unquestioned. In the first half of the 1980s, the severe social and economic problems exacerbated the state’s apparent inability to fulfill its normative agenda regarding development and the preservation of national independence. The acknowledgment of such problems led a number of Arab intellectuals to criticize the politics of existing governments and predict their ultimate loss of legitimacy.

These criticisms, however, did not lead to a discourse that questioned the role of the state but resulted in further enthusiasm for the nationstate, which was reflected in the articulation of alternative state models. The reformed nation-state, the Islamic state, the pan-Arab state, the secular state, the democratic state, the socialist state, and the modern state—such terms dominated the language of politics at the time. Hidden behind these catchphrases, however, were a range of societal conflicts concerning the foundations of the political organization of society and the place of religion in modern Arab societies. The goal, once again, was to use the state to introduce change and reform. Given that the majority of Arab countries remained unaffected by this wave of criticism—with the exceptions of a few minor liberal concessions in Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Tunisia—liberal elites and other opposition forces started in the second half of the 1980s to shift the discursive nexus of their discussions to democracy. By moving to underpin this through concepts such as human rights and civil society, these groups distanced themselves from their reliance on the state.

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