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Approaches to Globalization and Human Rights

The current Arab discourse on modernity, authenticity, and human rights has its origins in the intellectual repercussions of the Six Day War of June 1967. The naksa (setback) meant the political end of the nationstate-led pan-Arab project and was followed by a process of questioning and rethinking the normative and political foundations of modern Arab societies. From this, three main currents of Arab thought crystallized: secular, religious, and reformist discourse.7 From this point onward talk was either of the dangerous revival of Islamically based, retrogressive ideologies or of the crisis (or failure) of the transfer of Western modernity to the Arab world and the necessary search for authenticity.8 With the growing polarization of the intellectual community between these secular and religious positions, the reformist tendency has been marginalized, but some of its representatives have considered the possibilities of a theoretical compromise between secular and religious approaches.9

In order to cast some light on the common features and differences within and among these currents of thought, we will examine whether

they are clearly distinctive or if there are ways in which they coincide. If

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the latter, does this pave the way toward new forms of normative and political consensus?

Secular Approach

In terms of ideal types, secular thinkers emphasize that global processes of modernization and secularization lead to the inevitable destruction of common traditions and styles of life and to an erosion in religious worldviews. Religious institutions and discourses are everywhere losing social relevance as a result of the acceleration of processes of change. From a secular point of view, Arab culture is not an exception. The religious body of thought is referred to as intellectually primitive and socially reactionary, and its current upsurge is regarded as an irrational expression of deep existential crises in modern Arab societies.10

Typical of the secular approach are the writings of the Syrian historian ‘Aziz al-‘Azma. He understands modernity as a worldwide, all-encompassing reality that has put an end to Islamically dominated medieval continuity in the Arab world, and has initiated a process of secularization in all areas of society. Consideration of concepts of cultural heritage and authenticity are at the center of his analysis. Thus he refers to all forms of intellectual or political expression that deny the realities of global modernity and secularization as a pathological rejection of the present. The contemporary variants of this “irrational thought,’’ in particular the Islamist discourse on turath (cultural heritage) and asala, are for him a “reactionary flight from the here-and-now’’ in the name of an imaginary continuity and a newly found religious identity.11

In his secular approach, al-‘Azma stylizes modernity as a model for historical developments worldwide, unaffected by time and space, and defines it mainly by negative associations with its counterpart, tradition. Whereas the modern is generally understood to be future oriented and constantly subject to change, traditions are typified as exclusively backward looking and static obstructions to progress or change. The central importance attached to the secularization process explains why for al- ‘Azma the concept of modernity is enriched by its normative undermining of tradition and, at times, religion. In this way the terms ‘‘modern’’ and ‘‘tradition’’ are constructed as opposites just as many in this debate associate human rights with the term ‘‘modern’’ and therefore see the implementation of these rights as oppositional to Arab culture’s values and traditions. Largely because of these types of positions, the ongoing authenticity discourse is intellectually discredited, from this perspective, as an irrational remnant of a primitive religious worldview.

carrier of imperialism—embrace the notion of the universality of human rights and further trust that the historical and contemporary influence of the West both politically and culturally on the Arab countries enables its applicability.

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