Looking for real Human Rights
By Arzu Merali, Q-News, October 2003, Issue 350
We forget. In the daily trials and tribulations of life, our purpose in life is lost or mistaken to be something else. When we do pause for thought we often think of our personal prosperity or that of our community. Perhaps our goal is education for our children, something better than we had. The more adventurous of us seek the political liberation of our nation, the more religiously inclined may seek the unity of the ummah.

This opinion will be generalised and angered. Deliberately so. As a human rights activist who sees cultural imperialism in current human rights discourses, I am at ease with the various arguments generated by western academia to deconstruct the problems that surround the (lack of) universality of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its inherent racism and cultural bias, how it really doesn’t assist the most oppressed peoples of the world and so on. I am frustrated by Islamic responses. I can tell anyone at a hundred paces what’s wrong with the current human rights regimes – I can not find people who can pose an alternative ethic. As a Muslim I want to scream out loud, that Islam fits that mould. However the following is what I find.

As the myriad Islamic groups and Muslim nations, when not fighting virulent and inevitably violent internecine wars, we seek to promote Islam – our Islam – above all others. Whether its Islam diluted with historical materialism, or Islam as a human rights discourse, or modern Islam, moderate Islam, or of course Islam proper – the true and authentic, the most close to the time of the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) and his companions or family, or the four (or five) major schools of thought or the most sublime tarika and so on and on and on. Ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

It is this combined with the gargantuan lack of ability to form a constructive relationship with any of the other secular, religious, gendered or liberal pandered movements exposes us to charge that we have no concept of human rights – in its basic analysis no concept of how to treat each other as human beings. Some, be they scholars like Saeed Bahmapour or secular fundamentalists like Michael Ignatieff (please note the inversion of language, it’s deliberate) declare human rights to be a “modern religion” (Bahmanpour), “humanism worshipping itself” (Ignatieff). The rest of us tend to use it to campaign for those we feel akin to and who are being oppressed, whether Muslims interned in the UK, or Islamists (of whatever hue) in the many prisons world-wide, not because we particularly accept the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (or maybe we do) or the very many academic and social notions of what human rights actually are, but largely because if we tried to use any other language, and in particular the argument that we are doing our Islamic duty, we would probably be laughed at not just by the non-Muslim world, but probably large chunks of the more Muslim world as we know it.

What does that mean? That Muslims worldwide, either sitting in governments or as individuals and communities don’t care about other Muslims? It’s a crude and over simplified statement but yes that’s part of the reason. In the meantime, human rights is used by the ‘west’ (yes, I am demonising the ‘other’) as a stick with which to beat Muslims and actually (though we tend to imagine we’re the only demonised and oppressed people of the world) many other cultures and belief systems.

UNHCR has already confirmed that 80% of the world’s refugees are Muslims, yet (or perhaps because of this) Europe’s asylum regime is catastrophically diminishing the rights of refugees to stay within its borders despite falling within established international legal criteria. Just as these rights disappear, new ones which feed into age old anti-Muslim paranoia and stereotype appear. New types of refugees in particular Asian women (aka Muslim) fleeing abusive husbands and homosexuals from homophobic (aka Muslim) countries are currently being integrated into the definition of refugee for the purposes of human rights law, regional, national and international.

The European Muslim response to this has been just that. A response. It’s either a, “Yes we need to meet the challenge of homophobia within our community,” (I have heard these exact words from a conference platform by a hijab-ed and highly respected muslimah) or the flyer-favourite, ‘homosexuality is a disease in Islam, therefore we reject, reject, reject…’ (since when did Allah s.w.t. punish someone for a disease rather than a deviation?). Living in the illusion that we alone need to get ourselves sorted out, as the rest (here meaning the west) have their own house in order (whether we like all or some or none of its facets) has reduced us to particularists or worse still Muslim nationalists. Whether we harp on about Arab (led) Islamism, or European Muslim identity or pan-Islamic brotherhood, or replacing a Zionist lobby with a Muslim one, we only believe in Islam (however we figure it) as having any relevancy to ourselves alone.

Of course this is a grotesque caricature of Muslim thought at the moment. But how far off the mark is it? We rush to either deny that there is such a concept of human rights (it’s not part of the Islamic lexicon) or argue that Islam and human rights are synonymous. We too grotesquely caricature our current selves and Muslim history and Islamic thought. If you asked any man, woman or child, anywhere in the world right now what they thought about interpersonal relationships, some may say each to their own, life’s a bitch etc. others (we hope the many) would say we need to treat each other with respect.

If individuals, groups or governments with the Muslim or Islamic tag fail to deliver, yes, they should be accountable. So should the individuals, groups and governments of other faiths and none. My own organisation like so many others is quick to point out that the west consistently fails its own human rights standards: the ‘illegal combatants’ held in cages in Guantanamo Bay, the rising rate of under age sex and teenage pregnancies in the US and UK, institutionalised racism and Islamophobia from Fortress Europe to US penitentiaries. However this itself belies the loss of vision that Muslims suffer, and with it the loss of confidence, esteem and direction.

Why not simply say – with true belief and conviction – these all fail our Islamic standards, let’s do something to change their situation. We are feared for wanting to spread our religion – in France the hijab is regularly banned from schools, ID cards et al as encouraging proselytism. We stay silent to stop the charge being made. But is grabbing converts the primary aim of an Islamic movement? South Africa’s Qibla movement is a pertinent example. It fought apartheid with an Islamic ethos for the benefit of a majority population that are not Muslim. Some of its members gave their lives in the process. When asked now what they as an Islamic movement stand for today, Qibla’s leader Imam Achmad Cassiem responds, “We’re asking for everyone to have the right to a guaranteed meal a day. That’s what this Islamic movement is. We’re not asking for an Islamic state of South Africa.”

In the meantime the imaginary, Technicolor posters are on every street corner in our global village: ‘Catch up to the marvelous standards of the western world. Buy modernity and get human rights thrown in for free.’ Between the internet, satellite TV and the ever nefarious Multinationals, the posters are up whether we wish to see them or not. Iranian TV stations based in LA broadcast to Tehran, CNN feeds news to hungry Meccans and BBC News online will translate its patriotic blurb into just about any language any Muslim might speak.

If modernity meant just technology Muslims would be the caped crusaders of the modern. You only need to walk in the poorest districts of Karachi or increasingly impoverished villages in India to see the largest satellite dishes (size does matter) declare our adherence to the creed of the consumer. The price however is not just the rupees, riyaals or ringits we save up to buy the impossibly enticing images of liberal democracy beamed into our hearts and homes with every news anchor’s phoney smile and every counterfeit commercial. It’s a loss of vision. It’s a loss of the ability to imagine reality that is anything other than the illusory world we imagine to be of the ‘other’. This illusion is not ours alone. We imagine London’s streets to paved with gold – the economic rights we deserve to secure room for our individual growth. San Francisco has come to signify individual self-determination – a place we can all realise both wealth and individuality. We partake of a universal delusion, one that even some of the inhabitants of these places share: that liberal democracy ensures individual freedom and choice and communal affluence.

It is a legacy of Islamic sentiment that we are able to understand that where we sit as Muslim nation states or Muslims in minority situations, we are in a mess. The ability to be witness against our own injustices is one we retain. However, with our illusion of the other’s supposed realisation of their own dreams, we fail to see how we as Muslim have any relevance beyond the remit of our own disheveled and disillusioning lives. Even when we see beyond the fantasy and like Chomsky see in liberal democracy, manufactured consent and actual individual disempowerment from political processes, we find no other solution than Chomsky’s. We buy into another illusion.

Just as we cry over the Holocaust (and we should) we forget the many other crimes that equal in measure to it. Muslims do remember Srebrenica and the massacre of 8,000 or more Muslims by Serbs, but how about the Australian Holocaust of its indigenous peoples? Likewise the American genocide of its native peoples? And what about the slave trade that saw some Muslims assist white slave traders in securing African flesh of many confessions for new world markets?

Human rights or the idea that we as Muslims treat each other and ‘others’ abominably and that left to our own religious devices we would be unable to do little else, is an idea that has permeated Muslim thinking, even those deemed traditionalist or anti-modern, fundamentalists or whatever. But think – laterally and not exclusively. The fourteen year old girl brought up in social housing, the child of a single parent, and friend of many other single mothers her own age. What rights has she got in this liberal democracy from whence human rights, the religion, was born. In its crudest analysis it is as barbaric as any Pakistani girl of the same age forced into marriage. If the child of liberal democracy decides to run off and marry the Turkish waiter she met on holiday, whatever else we may think or expect, we should understand that she feels she’s escaped an oppressive life. To allow her to be repatriated back to her old world, and then jail her husband for statutory rape, is not just a failure of Muslim vision, but a failure to protect this girl’s dream of freedom.

In our apoplectic desire to fulfill our Islamic destiny, we forget both our history and our thought. If human rights seem alien to Muslims, perhaps it’s because we already had a concept of how to treat each other. By either trying to play ‘catch up’ with the west or forge our own path away from it, we have failed to grasp the universal message of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was a mercy to creation. We cannot simply want, as some activists want to save Muslims only.

Gardens under which rivers flow are what we are promised in return for following this universal message. It’s a Quranic concept – outdated for the modern world? Maybe. But that is our aim and its one open to all. It’s time to stop answering questions, and set our own agenda based, if we really do believe in it on that goal.

Arzu Merali is one of the founders of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, based in London, UK. She studied English Literature at Cambridge University before completing post-graduate studies in Law and International Relations. She has had various articles on Islam, human rights and less important issues published in various journals from the academic to the popular. Her hobbies include complaining and annoying European academics.

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