Saad Eddin Ibrahim
Countries which have poor human rights records are frequently the same countries that have poor records in other aspects of economic, social and political development. This assertion applies equally to Muslim as well as non-Muslim countries. Many scholars and political observers who question the compatibility of Islamic and democratic values, argue that the essentialist and communalistic nature of Islam leaves no place in Muslim societies for individual rights, including basic political and civil rights. However, a closer look at the realities in the ground demonstrates that the record of human rights in Muslim and Arab countries is not as poor as it is often assumed. Rather the record is mixed. In fact, when these countries are measured along the United Nations Development Indicators, their record correlates very well with their rank on the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index. Thus, countries that are performing poorly on that index also have very poor human rights records. The Freedom House index also shows a similar correlation as does the Transparency International index. These correlations apply to all Third World countries including Arab and Muslim ones. In other words, a country's human rights condition reflects the state of its general economic, political and social development.
Much of the history of the evolution of human rights in the West is not all that different from what is currently happening in the Muslim world. Some may have forgotten a century-long debate among the U.S. founding fathers over the definition of who is a complete human being worthy of any rights at all. Or that it took another century entailing a civil war before slavery and its aftermath were eradicated. Equal rights for women are still being contested. Some Western women such as the Swiss obtained their voting rights after their counterparts in several Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia.
Having questioned the assertion of incompatibility of Islam and human rights, the fact remains that the human rights record of many Muslim majority countries leaves much to be desired. My competing hypothesis is that the state of human rights is mainly a function, not of religion, but of the overall level of socio-economic development. How else could we account for the marked variations in respect to human rights among countries sharing the same religion namely Islam?
After having established that the human rights record of Arab and Muslim countries is not inferior to that of other Third World countries, one can concentrate on identifying the reasons behind the Arab and Muslim worlds mediocre record on human rights, a situation which creates a divide between them and the West and causes tensions in their relations.
Reasons for the Human Rights Divide
Three factors explain the existing limitations in respect for human rights in the Arab and Muslim countries. The first factor is the differences between despotic and non-despotic regimes; the second is the difference between textualists and contextualists. And finally, the third is the very troubling challenge for democracy activists and civil society advocates whose message gets entangled in the process of resistance to Western hegemonic policies in the Third World.
Despotic VS. Non Despotic Regimes
In recent years several countries in the Muslim world have undergone democratic transitions. Even within the Arab world, countries such as Morocco, Qatar, and Jordan have taken cautious but steady steps on the road to political liberalization and democracy. Other regimes such as those of Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Egypt have grown more despotic in recent years in order to remain in power. In the 1950s and 1960s these regimes maintained a social contract based on withholding political and civil liberties in return for the provision of basic services, employment and social justice. Today these regimes are no longer capable of fulfilling their part of the social contract and yet are not willing to democratize and share power. Thus civil and political rights and liberties are severely repressed, and these despotic regimes utilize both legal and extra-legal means to maintain their power.
Textualists VS. Contextualists
For Muslims, the Holy Quran is the divinely revealed book containing the words, and commandments of Allah (God Almighty). Some Muslims take this sacred text of the Quran literally to live by, and hence are referred to as "textualists." Others take the spirit, broad guidelines, laid down in it and adapt them to different and changing conditions of Muslim communities, and hence are referred to as "contextualists." The outcome of this debate between the textualists and contextualists will determine the direction for the future state of human rights in Muslim countries and, consequently the future of political development of their respective communities.
In answer to the question of who speaks for Islam or Muslims or what is typically an Islamic perspective on any issue, I would argue that what makes any matter Islamic is rooted in the text. I would further argue that in order to be defined as Islamic a notion must be rooted in the two essential texts in Sunni Islam: the Quran and the tradition as enunciated by the prophet Muhammad and later by his successors. A return to these fundamentals renders a notion, a theory and a perspective Islamic. However, what makes the above mentioned concepts Muslim – not Islamic – is not the text rather the context. A multitude of parties have utilized Islam as a religion to justify their ideological leanings or political aims. While these parties might claim that their actions or beliefs are grounded in Islamic notions, I would argue that they are not based on Islam as a religion but rather depend on an array of social, political, and economic conditions pertinent to the specific Muslim context. A prime example of textualist Islam and Muslims is the Wahabi movement of the 18th century in Saudi Arabia, of which Osama Bin Laden and other followers consider themselves the legitimate heirs, and are contesting similar claims by the Saudi Royal family. In contrast to the Wahabis most Muslims elsewhere in the world, from Indonesia to Morocco, either willfully or de-facto subscribe to a variety of contextualist interpretations of Islam.
In sum there are two perspectives on what is Islamic. One is based on the text and the other on the context. The text is always present: rigid, changing very slowly or never changing; whereas the context is constantly evolving. This difference between the text and context poses a dilemma not only for the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims or between the Islamic world and the West, notably the United States, but also for Muslims themselves. It creates a divide between the textualists vs. the contextualists and between them and the secularists who are opposed to both. The debate between the textualists and the contextualists has a long history in the Muslim world. Great 19th century Islamic reformers such as Muhammad Abduh and Jamal ed Din al Afghani focused on the importance of interpreting Islam in accordance with the logic of the temporal and spatial contexts. In recent years, the Muslim world has been placed between an immense extremist and at times, militant Islamic current and the rigidity and inflexibility of the official religious establishment (such as the Al Azhar University in Egypt). Yet a few promising signs have appeared on the horizon, such as rare calls by Islamic scholars to reopen the door to Ijdihad, or interpretation of the religion drawn directly from its sources. These calls resonate throughout the Muslim world.
US Foreign Policy and Democratization Efforts in the Arab and Muslim World
Certain aspects of US policy towards the Arab and Muslim world makes the task of those working for democracy and human rights difficult as they are perceived to be propagating a Western agenda at a time when there are many misgivings towards the US and its political aims in the Muslim world. The first is the double standard applied to Arab and Muslim countries. The second is the one sided US support for Israel and the third is US unilateralism. In so many hotspots in the Arab world, such as Iraq and Palestine, the United States has acted alone without the collaboration of European powers, especially those that have positive images in the Arab world. This phenomenon has deepened Arab misgivings regarding US unilateralism.
In my own work for the advancement of democracy and human rights in the Arab world I have experienced first hand the adverse consequences of these misgivings. As a result of these suspicions human rights and democracy activists like myself are often accused of carrying out a Western agenda. Ironically, autocratic regimes that are allies of the United States are cynically using this argument to discredit activists. The violation of human rights of other political activists, including Islamists, by various governments also has a deleterious effect on the advancement of democracy and human rights. Again, my own experience supports this contention.
As an academic my early work on Islamic extremists was done some 30 years ago. This association has given me three perspectives on them. My first encounter with them was when I conducted some of my fieldwork in prison. Then some 15 years after my initial research I revisited them as a human rights defender, and finally, ten years later, the third time when I joined them as a fellow inmate, as a prisoner of conscience.
When I returned 25 years later as a fellow prisoner I found many of them still in jail, a human rights abuse that should have been investigated as some of them had completed their sentence and the government of Egypt, a close ally of the United States, had refused to release them. This disregard of the rule of law was justified by the argument that as Islamists they continue to be potentially dangerous terrorists.
Furthermore, there is an ambivalence in American foreign policy vis-à-vis the Arab and Muslim world that persists at a deep level. While the official US foreign policy and discourses towards Arab and Muslim countries call for the promotion of democracy and better governance, the US continues to collaborate and maintain in power through its financial support and trade relations a multitude of corrupt and despotic regimes, including those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and even that of Saddam Hussein's Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War.
The United States intervened militarily in Latin America twenty times in 100 years, while it has intervened militarily in the Middle East ten times in the course of the last 50 years. Seventy-five percent of the world's refugees are Muslim victims of these wars. Unfortunately, most American citizens are unaware of these facts.
Moreover, not a single intervention has been on behalf of democracy. The last intervention in Iraq was supposed to usher in democracy not only there but also in the rest of the Arab world. But the chaos that has followed has obscured this democratic message. Rather, it has made that message one more example of the American double standard. No matter how intrinsically benign it may be, the message is often dismissed because of the suspect messenger.
The Impact of September 11
The events of September 11 had a tremendous impact on the thinking of the Islamists and my dialogue with them in prison. Interestingly, other Islamists outside prison requested that we continue the dialogue that was started in prison.
An important part of the dialogue included the following dilemma: why has the world made so much fuss about you and has said nothing about us? This was a legitimate question to which, as I explained to them, I did not have an answer because I was in prison with no access to those who demonstrated their support for me. However, I added that I could guess why the world is reacting more strongly to my incarceration. The reason I gave them was that rightly or wrongly, activists around the word see me as someone sharing the same core universal values that human rights defenders around the world cherish. Furthermore, I was a human rights defender myself, which led to my imprisonment. By contrast, largely due to common misconceptions and the influence of the media, most Western activists view Islamists as opposing human rights by calling for the establishment of a social, religious and political system that is inherently exclusionary to minorities, and discriminatory to women and non-Muslims. Moreover, on some occasions, Islamists in the past rejected non-Muslim human rights defenders struggling on their behalf.
In response, Islamists with whom I engaged in dialogue told me that they too believed in most of these values. I responded by saying: “if you believe in these values you have failed to communicate your conviction to the world outside” and advised them to do so by writing and speaking out. The events of September 11 made these Islamists aware that their radical discourse had been partly responsible for this event by affecting the minds and thoughts of young people.
As a result, they felt a special responsibility for this event and wrote a book about 9/11, disavowing and for the first time condemning their fellow Islamists’ actions and revising most of their previous convictions and stated principles and practices. They were also very intrigued by democracy and my challenge to them to declare their commitment to democracy.
Initially, they had reservations about democracy and about how one could be a good Muslim and a good democrat. My observation of Christian democrats was well received. And several European ambassadors, who were aware of this dialogue, provided the Islamists in prison with requested literature about Christian democrats and how their movement had evolved. This literature proved that abiding by a particular religious doctrine can in principle and has in practice been reconciled with democracy as a political system. Among the literature they read in prison was the Vatican's shifting stand on democracy. In 1838, Pope Gregory XVI issued an edict considering democracy a "sinful heresy." It was a reaction to the excessive anti-church/anti-clerical policies of the French Revolution and Jacobin style secularism. In the following century the Bolshevik Revolution the emergence of other authoritarian ideologies came to be seen as more detrimental to organized religion than democracy. If anything, in the long run, the Catholic church and its adherents fared better under democratic systems. Thus, following the trauma of WWII, Pope Pious XII issued a new edict in praise of democracy.
Impact of Events in Democratic Muslim Countries
A number of developments in some Muslim countries have also had a positive impact on Islamists’ thought regarding the issues of democracy and human rights. The most important was the Turkish election that took place in November 2002, and brought to power a party with deep Islamic roots and a leader who is an observant Muslim. This was preceded by parliamentary elections in Morocco in September 2002 that also saw the emergence of several winners with Islamic agendas. The outcomes of these elections made the Islamists realize that Islam and democracy are not incompatible and that they can accede to power through democratic means. Disappointment with the Islamic government in Iran has also contributed to some Islamists’ rethinking of their stance on democracy.
Consequently, after I was acquitted in March 2003, many of the Islamists that I had met in prison wanted to continue the dialogue in order to get in touch with Western diplomats and Western academic and intellectual colleagues. Some Western governments, notably the United States, refused to engage in this dialogue out of fear of offending the Egyptian government.
Another hopeful sign in terms of convincing the Islamists that they can be Muslims and democrats lies in the fact that two thirds of Muslims in the world today in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Turkey and India (whose population includes 150 to 200 million Muslims) are living under democratic governments. They are not Westminster style democracies or ideal democracies. However, thus far, no ideal democracy exists anywhere.
The results of the World Value survey conducted by the University of Michigan (2002) are also encouraging. According to this survey in 15 Muslim majority countries between 88 and 93 percent of those sampled declared their commitment to democratic values.
Conclusions and Suggestions on How to Address the Challenges
Three main obstacles prevent the consolidation of a better human rights record in the Arab and Muslim world. The first is erected by the discrepancy between the hegemon’s discourses and policy in the region, which results in the loss of credibility of the notions of democracy and human rights and their promoters because they are associated in the popular psyche as foreign and imported concepts. The other two impediments to an amelioration of the human rights record are domestic. Reluctance on the part of the governments to loosen their grip on power leads them to disregard human rights and resist all calls to democracy. Meanwhile, some Islamic opposition forces violate the rights of women and minorities and only allow for the principles of democracy to function within pre-defined and accepted boundaries. However, as outlined above several openings exist through which advocates of democracy and human rights can break through and surmount these obstacles.
One way to overcome these obstacles is by connecting very enlightened Islamic thinkers. These thinkers have existed throughout the times, but they have been marginalized by governments and by textualist and extremist Muslims.
The other way is by helping democratic forces in a nuanced, subtle way with the available tools. However, one needs to use these tools intelligently. The tools that could be used include aid, trade, technology and investment. One is not obliged to use force or be overbearing when approaching these regimes to help potential democratic forces such as women, young people, civil society and human rights organizations. Western governments can indicate to autocratic regimes that if they want aid, favorable trade agreements, and investment they should engage in sustainable democratic reform.
In order to avoid instability, a workable timetable is needed in the shape of a roadmap of expected positive developments. Aid, trade and investment will be conditioned to that schedule. These incentives worked after Helsinki, 1975 in Europe, and it has the potential to work in the Arab and Muslim world.
The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) has produced marvelous results in Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union. A similar process can do the same for the Arab world. Similar measures already have had some effect in Morocco, Bahrain, and Jordan. Ironically, it is the modernizing monarchies that are performing better in the Arab world – Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and Morocco; whereas - Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and of course Syria are reluctant to change and democratize.
Lastly it is important that Western governments demonstrate their commitment to democracy in the Arab and Muslim worlds and follow a consistent policy in this regard.
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