HUMAN RIGHTS AND ISLAM
Throughout much of their early mutual histories, Islamic civilization
represented a relatively tolerant society when compared with the Christian West.
It provided refuge to the Jews expelled from Catholic Spain; it sheltered the
Classical and Byzantine cultural heritage; and it generally contributed to the
development of Western thought.1 Nevertheless, Islamic fundamentalism
in its various modern forms poses a challenge to international human rights
norms. Many voices have been raised in recent years asserting that human rights
concepts are Western and, therefore, do not apply to Islamic countries. The
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister stated, after the 1993 Human Rights conference
in Vienna, that "human rights has come to mean Western culture and that
human rights is a tool [for Western powers] to whitewash their intervention and
aggression against the weaker countries."2 Similar comments were
made by the Saudi Arabian Minister of the Interior just before the Conference.
The democratic system that is predominant in the world is
not a suitable system for the peoples of our region. Our people's make-up and
unique qualities are different from those of the rest of the world. We cannot
import the methods used by people in other countries and apply them to our
people. We have our Islamic beliefs that constitute a complete and
fully-integrated system. . . . In my view, Western democracies may be suitable
in their own countries but they do not suit other countries.3
In fact, the debate has often been cast in terms of a
major confrontation between Islam and the Western world. After receiving
criticism from Amnesty International concerning the Saudi Arabian government's
human rights record, a news report from Jeddah included the following:
Amnesty officials are secularists and atheists. They could
not infiltrate into the Kingdom to spread their venomous ideas. Now they wanted
to tarnish the image of Shariah. The enemies of Islam are using Amnesty in their
worldwide anti-Islam campaign . . . They say at international forums that they
respect Islam and Muslims but hide their hatred and vengeance against Islam and
Muslims. We have to take precautions against these enemies. And all Muslim
countries should implement Shariah. Let the enemies of Islam die of rage.4
While discussing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Josiah A.M.
Cobbah stated in 1987, "[t]here is no doubt that the Declaration was a
product of Western liberal ideology."5 Cobbah raises the
following question, "Can we really expect non-Western peoples to embrace
the international human rights instruments which are by and large Western in
character?"6 This is essentially the argument which is now often
made in reference to Islam. This paper will attempt to address Cobbah's question
by, first of all, challenging its core assumption, that the instruments are
"Western in character" and, secondly, by examining the compatibility
of Islam with the norms embodied in these instruments.
The focus of this paper is exclusively on civil and political rights,
and, therefore, it does not address economic, social or cultural rights.7
This paper begins by accepting Cobbah's assertion that civil and political
rights, as embodied in the instruments, embrace liberalism and democracy. While
accepting the fact that liberalism and democracy developed first in the West,
this paper considers the possibility that the conditions leading to this
development may be largely independent of cultural considerations and may have
more to do with economic changes and human nature. It will go on to assert that
the ideas of liberalism and democracy are finding fertile soil in the Islamic
world since they seem to be required by modern conditions.8
It is important to note that liberalism and democracy are two separate
concepts.9 This paper adopts a very narrow definition of liberalism
which is similar to, though not necessarily identical with, Francis Fukuyama's.
He defines liberalism as "a rule of law that recognizes certain individual
rights or freedoms from government control."10 These are the
rights which fall within the classical view of liberalism. In the Anglo-American
world they would most commonly be referred to as “civil liberties.” This
paper assumes that civil liberties can be divided into two basic categories. The
first category is that of liberty of conscience and expression. It includes such
liberties as the freedoms of speech, religion, press, assembly, association,
etc. The second category contains due process protections in the event that the
state threatens an individual's life, liberty or property. It includes the right
to a fair trial, protections against unreasonable searches or seizures, just
compensation for the taking of property, etc. This paper will generally use
Fukuyama's definition of “democracy.” He views a country as democratic
"if it grants its people the right to choose their own government through
periodic, secret-ballot, multi-party elections, on the basis of universal and
equal adult suffrage."11
Furthermore, since the human rights instruments almost exclusively list
individual rights, one cannot accept them without embracing some form of
individualism. Nevertheless, it should be noted that this does not presuppose a
radical or egoistic form of individualism. Similar to the minimalist version of
liberalism embraced by this paper, only a minimalist version of individualism is
required to accept the necessity for maintaining certain basic protections for
the individual against the state. For example, Charles Taylor, in his The
Ethics of Authenticity, attempts to describe a form of individualism where
the individual is not expected to find the fundamental meaning of his existence
within himself, but rather in something greater than himself.12
The assertion that the ideas of liberalism and democracy are Western in
character is premised, first of all, on the assumption that all human beings
belong to a culture, and, therefore, ideas are always the product of a
particular culture. Since no ideas can stand outside of a cultural context, we
must find the cultural context in which the ideas of liberalism and democracy
make sense. This leads one to the connection between these ideas and Western
culture. Therefore, to challenge this view, one has to take the position that
there is something like a human nature at work, which causes all of us to act
similarly under similar conditions, regardless of the culture in which we find
ourselves. This paper
will entertain the view that human nature seems to be particularly well suited
to liberalism and democracy. Therefore, it will explore the compatibility of the
latter with Islam.
Among universalists there are a variety of different philosophies. The
most famous expression of this idea is found in the “UNESCO Statement by
Experts on Race Problems.” It was written by a group of social scientists in
1950 and starts with the science of biology and, therefore, claims to look at
man outside of any cultural context. This leads the authors to conclude with an
endorsement of a type of political universalism:
All normal human beings are capable of learning to share
in a common life, to understand the nature of mutual service and reciprocity,
and to respect social obligations and contracts. . . . Lastly, biological
studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood; for man is born with
drives toward cooperation, and unless those drives are satisfied, men and
nations alike fall ill.13
One can identify at least two main currents of universalist thought. One
current views political science as largely independent of other fields of
knowledge and analyzes political events in this context. This view was expressed
by The Federalist and has most recently been eloquently restated by James W.
Ceaser in his Reconstructing America. While in principle this view allows for
liberal democracy to be applied in any culture, it sees no historical
inevitability.14 In this regard Ceaser states:
The Federalist's position: in rejecting the category of biological
varieties as the starting point in the study of human differentiation, The
Federalist makes free use of the concepts of mankind, the human race, human
nature, human reason, and the constitution of man. Its universalism also
supports the argument, rejected by proponents of the idea of human varieties,
that the peoples of any race on any continent possess the potential to develop
The second current is the Hegelian view which assumes that
one can find progress in human history and that this progress culminates in a
particular political system, such as liberal democracy. Francis Fukuyama has
recently breathed new life into this idea.16 A recent alternative
Hegelian view might be that of Charles Taylor, concerning a series of
hyper-goods which supersede prior, less adequate views.17
The cultural relativists obviously come in various shades, but they can
be roughly divided into two groups. First of all, there are those who talk of
the “right” cultures having to choose their own values. Ceaser notes that
for this group "a recognition of different cultures in their particularity
constitutes the highest value or standard — a kind of philosophical and
ethical absolute — leading to the commandment that all cultural differences
should be respected."18 However, this position has an obvious
weakness since it embraces the value of tolerance, a liberal idea. Therefore,
the viewpoint represented by other cultural relativists declines to make any
value judgments outside of cultural contexts, so it, also, does not prescribe
any ethics of tolerance of different cultures and, therefore, is not in any
position to arbitrate cultural disputes. Samuel Huntington is a representative
of this view.19 This paper will attempt to examine Islam in light of
As Seen from within Islam
To truly evaluate whether liberalism and democracy are incompatible with
Islamic culture as a whole will require a more careful analysis. First of all,
we need to appreciate the perspective of a devout Muslim. According to Joseph
Schacht, "Islamic law is the epitome of Islamic thought, the most typical
manifestation of the Islamic way of life, the core and kernel of Islam
itself."20 If this is true, then it presents a difficulty in
setting aside the dictates of Islamic law in favor of secular law. The early
Christians separated the realm of God from the realm of the Emperor. While Islam
began largely as a legal code. Furthermore, the Islamic world lacks the
experience of the Protestant Reformation and the resulting religious wars, which
forced Western civilization to make the distinction between religious and
secular law. David Westbrook presents the dilemma in the following manner:
"Islamic scholars, who locate legal authority with God, cannot so easily
separate law and belief. The public international law solution of order without
shared belief is not available to Islamic scholars, insofar as their work is
informed by Islam."21 As a result, for the Islamic scholar,
Westbrook continues, "international law is a continual attempt to reconcile
Islamic authority and Western category. . . . The arguments they make within
Western categories are not authoritative to a Muslim. The arguments they make
from Islamic authority do not confront the political organization of the
However, as Westbrook points out, "[T]he Qur'an does not constitute
a legal code."23 Therefore, we need to look beyond the Qur'an in
our search for authentic Islamic law. Again, Westbrook writes: "The text of
the Qur'an is supplemented by reports (ahadith)
of the speech and actions of the Prophet and his companions. Collectively these
reports form the second body of revelation and the second source of Islamic law,
the sunna."24 However,
this is exactly where the confusion begins. As Westbrook writes:
"Unfortunately, the opinions of scholars vary regarding both the
authenticity and the meaning of individual hadith.
Moreover, subtleties of meaning abound, as do questions of application."25
As a result there is a tremendous opportunity to find in Islamic law what one is
looking for, often motivated by reasons totally unrelated to Islamic culture.
Based on Political Science
Therefore, one may begin from the perspective of political science and
look for political motivations behind certain assertions of incompatibility. Ann
Mayer begins with such a standpoint. She argues that the formulation of
so-called Islamic human rights schemes, such as the Cairo Declaration of Human
Rights in Islam in 1990, "are products of the political context in which
they emerged. Their Islamic pedigrees are dubious."26 Mayer
further indicts the authors of the Islamization policies by arguing that these
policies may be "no more than a strategy adopted by beleaguered elites in
an attempt to trump growing Muslim demands for democratization and human
rights."27 For instance, Mayer notes that "[t]he most
extensive conflicts between past interpretations of Islamic requirements and
international human rights norms lie in the area of women's rights." Muslim
feminists support her position when they argue "that it is actually
patriarchal attitudes and misreadings of Islamic sources, not Islamic tenets,
that inspire the patterns of discrimination against women."28
Clearly, it is difficult to accept the proposition that the women who
participated in the demonstrations for the right to vote in Kuwait believed that
for them to vote would violate God's law.29
Mayer raises the issue that the two regimes -- Iran and Saudi Arabia,
that have been the loudest proponents of the view that Islamic values are
inconsistent with international human rights norms -- refuse to recognize each
other as legitimate voices of Islamic government. She writes: "Neither
Iran's clerics nor the Saudi royal family recognize each other's claims to
constitute an Islamic government, even though each regime is by
self-proclamation Islamic; indeed, Iran's and Saudi Arabia's rulers routinely
anathematize each other in the name of their respective Islams."30
Due to the growing influence of international human rights norms, those
states in the Islamic world who were opposed to such norms felt a need to
respond to them since it was impossible to ignore them. Therefore, there were
several attempts to develop alternative human rights schemes which were not
objectionable to those concerned. The most prominent is the Cairo Declaration of
Human Rights in Islam in 1990, described by Mayer as follows:
The central feature of the Cairo Declaration is its implicit conception
of international human rights in the civil and political arena as excessive --
with the concomitant need for Islamic criteria to restrict and reduce them.
After asserting that "fundamental rights and universal freedoms in Islam
are an integral part of the Islamic religion," the authors proceed to
enumerate rights and freedoms on which "Islamic" qualifications have
been imposed, indicating that in reality the authors saw in Islam justifications
for restricting or denying rights and freedoms. Article 24 provides that:
"All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to
the Islamic Shari'ah" -- without any attempt at defining what limits the
Shari'ah would entail. No added clarity is provided by Article 25, which states:
"The Islamic Shari'ah is the only source of reference for the explanation
or clarification of any of the articles of this Declaration," because there
is, as previously noted, no settled jurisprudence on the question of how
reference to overriding Islamic criteria should affect modern rights norms.31
Mayer then proceeds to critique these schemes as follows:
Such Islamic versions of human rights have tended in most respects to
fall far below the standard of protections for civil and political rights
guaranteed under the International Bill of Human Rights. Protections of
religious freedoms and guarantees of full equality and equal protection of the
law for women and religious minorities have been notably absent.32
While Mayer acknowledges that, concerning religious
freedom and equal rights for non-Muslims and women, these schemes are consistent
with "principles found in traditional interpretations of Islamic
requirements,"33 she notes that some of the provisions have
highly questionable Islamic roots. She states that these provisions "have
either a tenuous or nonexistent connection to the Islamic sources or Islamic
tradition." She points out that in areas where modern human rights
provisions address issues "not prefigured in the Islamic legal legacy,
these schemes may resort to outright borrowing from selected international human
rights provisions -- but with a distinctive twist. They subordinate the borrowed
international human rights provisions to newly fashioned Islamic derogation
clauses, circumscribing them by subjecting them to `Islamic' conditions."34
In probably the most devastating critique of the so-called Islamic human rights
schemes, Mayer notes that:
because the permissible scope of the Islamic qualifications was left
undefined by the authors of the new Islamic human rights schemes and because
there were no settled historical guidelines for how to integrate Islamic
conditions with modern human rights norms, the Islamic qualifications in
practice left governments free to determine the scope of the rights provided and
potentially to nullify the rights involved.35
She then questions "why granting the government of a
modern nation state, an institution borrowed from the West and unknown in
Islamic tradition, such great latitude in defining the grounds for denying and
restricting rights should be deemed appropriate in a system based on
At the second World Conference on Human Rights, in Vienna in June 1993,
there were various challenges to the universality of human rights by Asian and
Middle Eastern states. Samuel Huntington argued in a subsequent article that his
paradigm of a “clash of civilizations” was substantiated by the
confrontation at the conference between “the West” and “a coalition of
Islamic and Confucian States rejecting Western universalism.”37
U.S. Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, asserted that "we cannot let
cultural relativism become the last refuge of repression."38
Another major advocate at the Conference for the Universality of Human Rights
was U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian Copt.39
The countries allied in opposition to the universality of human rights all had
problematic human rights records. The countries included Iran, China, Cuba,
Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Syria, Indonesia, Pakistan and Yemen.40
One could, of course, argue, as Mayer does,41 that all of these
governments had political reasons to take the positions they took, independent
of their native cultures.
At this stage we should return to Mayer, who argues that both Iran and
Saudi Arabia represented particular forms of Islam and could not be said to
speak for all of Islam. Furthermore, China, in Mayer's view, was not
well-qualified to speak on behalf of traditional Asian culture or religion due
to its extensive record of suppressing the same. Therefore, Mayer argues that it
is more appropriate to see the confrontation as representing oppressive states,
attempting to find cover for their human rights abuses rather than as a clash of
civilizations.42 Mayer also points out that "the Dalai Lama, one
of the most eminent Asian Buddhist leaders, emerged as one of the most forceful
spokespersons for universality."43
Mayer's point that these regimes seem to be using cultural relativism as
a cover to preserve their autocratic forms of government obviously casts
considerable suspicion on the sincerity of these regimes. Therefore, considering
the probable motivations of the advocates of cultural relativism in this
instance, the Islamic-Confucian connection looks much less like a confirmation
of Huntington's thesis.
Nevertheless, we cannot stop with the assumption that Islamic opposition
to the international human rights norms is exclusively originated by state
leaders who wish to preserve their political position. There is clearly an
Islamic popular movement well outside the confines of established Islamic
regimes. The assertion of an Islamic identity seems to continue to challenge the
notions of a secular democratic state in much of the Islamic world. The Civil
War in Algeria, which began with the cancellation of the 1992 elections when the
Islamic Salvation Front appeared likely to win, seems likely to continue.44
Islamic fundamentalists led a democratically elected coalition government in
Turkey for a time, beginning what may be a fierce struggle for the soul of the
Turkish state between the fundamentalists and the followers of the secular
vision of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk with periodic interference by the military.45
Islamic fundamentalists continue attacks on Westerners in their attempt to
destabilize the Egyptian regime. Therefore, it would be difficult to argue that
the only advocates of Islamic fundamentalism are the rulers of autocratic
We need to further explore Mayer's point that "there is no real
consensus on the part of Muslims that their religion mandates a culturally
distinctive approach to rights or that it precludes the adoption of
international human rights norms."46 Without such a consensus it
is difficult to make the argument that the conflict over human rights is between
the West and Islam, it appears more reasonable to assume that the conflict is
within Islam itself.
There is considerable evidence that pressures for liberal democracy have
been appearing in much of the Islamic world alongside of the Islamic movements.
While the elections that have taken place throughout this geographic region,
with various degrees of fairness, are examples of the continuing influence of
democratic ideas, the elections in Kuwait (October 1992) and Yemen (April 1993)
represent something of a turning point.47 These elections seem to
have, at least, been partially responsible for the forming of a human rights
committee in Saudi Arabia, called the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate
Rights, by conservative elements of society on May 3, 1993.48 While
the Committee indicated that it intended to realize "the difference between
human rights as decreed in Islam and human rights in other countries,”
indicating a relativist position on human rights, nevertheless, it called for
human rights, democracy, the right of both men and women to vote and change in
the judicial system and labor laws.49 The Committee claimed that its
actions were inspired by Islamic law, which indicates further dissent in Islamic
ranks. Despite the fact (probably because of the fact) that more than 10,000
Saudis had signed a petition supporting the Committee, it was banned after 13
days, and about 400 supporters were arrested.50 It is interesting to
note, that while the Saudi government secured a ruling from the Council of
Senior Religious Scholars to support the banning, these scholars offered no
evidence to support their finding in favor of the ban.51
The Kuwaiti elections of 1996 have helped to cement the foundations of
democratic values in that country. However, the stipulation that only Kuwaiti
men born to Kuwaiti fathers are eligible to vote clearly shows that we are not
dealing with universal adult suffrage. Also, the limited power of the parliament
indicates that this is something short of popular rule. John Lancaster of The
Washington Post sums up the limitations of Kuwaiti democracy as follows:
By Western standards, democracy still has a long way to go in a country
where women cannot vote, political parties are banned, broadcast media are run
by the government, and criticism of the emir, who appoints the cabinet and under
the constitution shares legislative authority with the parliament, is forbidden.
And the parliament, which is heavily influenced by Islamic fundamentalists, has
little to show for its efforts, with its internal disunity keeping it from
mounting a united challenge to the ruling family.52
Nevertheless, Lancaster argues that freedom of expression
in Kuwait is in marked contrast to other states of the region. He cites an
example of how a National Assembly candidate in the 1996 elections
"delivered a scorching attack on government officials, including members of
the royal family, charging corruption and other misdeeds."53 He
then describes the even more surprising response from the audience.
Afterward, a man stood up and proposed, "We should get them and beat
them with sticks." Applause rippled through the audience.
Almost anywhere else in the Arab world, such open disdain for the
government would be an invitation to arrest, or worse. But it hardly raises an
eyebrow in Kuwait, where freedom of expression is among the most striking
aspects of a fledgling democracy that is sowing envy
and, some say alarm among
its autocratic neighbors.54
Lancaster then cites the case of Lubna Abbas, who, in an effort to
protest the lack of voting rights for women, organized a day-long work stoppage.
Abbas works as an advertising executive for the state television network and is
a graduate of American University in Washington, DC. According to Abbas:
"If we had been in any other country in the Middle East, we would have lost
our jobs like that."55 Clearly, given time, these democratic
developments will have a dynamic of their own and will multiply just as they
have in countless other places.
In fact, Kuwait is already spreading democratic ideas beyond its borders.
Lancaster writes: "To the irritation of its neighbors, Kuwait likes to
trumpet its relatively democratic system: Earlier this year, for example, a
group of Kuwaiti legislators infuriated Bahrain by calling on its leadership to
refrain from human rights abuses."56 Another indication that
democracy may be having an impact in the Gulf states is that Qatar may be moving
Yemen is another good example of democratic evolution on the Arabian
Peninsula. Its civil war a few years ago appeared to have spoiled this promise.
However, its elections in 1997 seemed to have brought it back on track. Its
broad franchise clearly is a contrast to the more limited electoral process in
Kuwait.58 Further evidence of dissent within the conservative Gulf
states is the existence of the Gulf National Forum, a movement set up in 1992 to
promote democracy and freedom of expression in the Gulf region. Members
representing states from all over the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, have met in
A significant dissenting voice has come from within the Iranian Islamic
revolutionary movement. Mehdi Bazargan, was the first Prime Minister of Iran
after the 1979 revolution. Bazargan was one of the founders of the Liberation
Movement of Iran (LMI), which advocated human rights and democracy using Islamic
references. However, Iran's clerical regime refused to grant the organization
legal recognition and persecuted its members. Bazargan then complained of the
silencing of dissenting voices, the elimination of all opposition, the lack of
freedom of assembly and association, asserting that the Islamic revolution had
been betrayed by Iran's clerics.60
The Iranian presidential election of 1997 again reinforced the notion of
a seemingly organic process which pushes societies in a more democratic
direction in all parts of the globe, including within the Islamic world. The
council of guardians did approve of the candidacy of Mohammad Khatami, but it
may not have realized that he would be able to overcome the lead of the
heir-apparent, the speaker of the parliament, Nateq-Noori. Nevertheless, by
campaigning for more personal freedom, Khatami managed to galvanize women and
teenaged voters and win the election.61 While Khatami's hands are
still largely tied by Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his
election clearly represented a popular endorsement of greater personal freedom.
Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous state and its largest Islamic
state -- after a period of sustained economic growth -- is now experiencing the
effects of a popular democratic revolution.62 Forces which have
nothing to do with Islam are still attempting to subvert the popular will.63
Furthermore, it seems that these democratic forces have a resonance in the
Islamic world alongside the Islamic resurgence.
Turkey clearly represents a society where democratic forces, Islamic
forces and a military committed to upholding the secular state through draconian
suppression of Islamic elements have all been competing to determine the destiny
of the country. Significant elements of society, notably women, have showed
consistently that they do not approve of any radical curtailment of individual
rights justified by reference to Islam.64 While religious forces have
campaigned largely for greater freedom to express their Islamic beliefs, the
military has curtailed democracy largely to prevent Islamic fundamentalists from
gaining the upper hand.65 However, democratic forces in Turkey,
including business groups, have argued for full democracy.66 This
turmoil in this predominantly Moslem country shows that there is still
significant debate within Islam about its proper role in government.
A similar battle is playing itself out in Pakistan, where there is
tremendous resistance to the move to amend the Constitution by giving blanket
powers to the government to institute its interpretation of Islam. The provision
would override "anything contained in the constitution, any law or judgment
of any court."67 While there is clearly public support for
embracing the moral teachings of Islam, it is not clear that this should take a
form inconsistent with liberal democracy.
Culture Has A Right to Its Own Values?
The Taliban takeover of Kabul in September 1996 is another graphic
example of a fundamental problem for those advocates of cultural relativism who
claim that all cultures have a “right” to determine their own value system.
The Taliban, an Afghan rebel group formed in Pakistan, imposed a strict form of
Islamic law in the areas which they controlled. Their seizure of the Afghan
capital was to prove no exception in this regard.
The Taliban have forbidden all women and girls to go to work or to
school. This included nearly all of the 30,000 widows of Kabul, who often were
the sole support for their families.68 Women have been required to
wear traditional clothing concealing their entire bodies, with even their eyes
covered by mesh cloth. Men have been forced to wear turbans and to grow beards.
The Taliban have also carried out criminal punishments such as amputations and
executions.69 In one instance, Taliban fighters threatened to hang
any Afghan women whom they found working at a Red Cross compound.70
The Taliban have also forced people to attend mosque at gunpoint.71
Music,72 photography, video recorders, white socks, soccer and
kite-flying have all been banned.73 Women have been banned from
public baths,74 and windows of the bath buildings have to be painted
black to a height of six feet.75
However, they were imposing their own values on people who had been
living a quite different life. According to Kenneth Cooper, of The Washington Post, prior to the Taliban takeover of Kabul, women
made up "70 percent of the teachers, half of all civilian government
workers and 40 percent of physicians."76 Furthermore, in most
relief agencies, such as the U.N. refugee agency, about half of the work force
was female.77 The economic and basic humanitarian consequences of the
ban on allowing women to work are problematic; moreover it is not an instance of
“Western Values” being imposed on a native culture. In this case the urban
society of Kabul, with its recognition of some basic rights for women,
represents an established culture, while the introduction of the cultural values
of the Taliban represents the imposition of a foreign, or external, set of
values. This view is reinforced by the rejection of the changes by the
population, evidenced by the mass exodus following the Taliban takeover.78
The Taliban will, of course, counter by arguing that traditional Islamic culture
in the capital had been corrupted by “Western Values,” and all they were
doing was reintroducing what had been lost. However, this view ignores the
reality that cultures are continually changing, even as urbanization changed
parts of Afghanistan.
Compatibility with Human Rights
Arguments can clearly be made that some of the reasons for opposing
liberal democracy can be traced to motivations by autocratic political forces
which desire to cling to power. Furthermore, if one casts the argument in terms
of the rights of cultures to have their own values, one finds a difficulty in
determining exactly which culture has this right. However, we still have not
addressed the issue of the compatibility of liberal democracy with Islam. In the
beginning, we noted that an Islamic scholar would have difficulty accepting a
legal system, international or otherwise, unless it is consistent with Islam
itself. Therefore, an appeal to a secular legal system which would provide room
for different religions is not an option. As a consequence, we still need to
examine Islam itself to determine its compatibility with liberal democracy.
Mayer states that "[t]he principles of freedom of religion --
notably the right to convert from Islam to another faith -- and equality for
all, regardless of religion or sex, seemed to pose particular problems for many
Muslims, and in these areas they could point to Islamic authority, albeit
contested authority, for their resistance to international standards."79
Mayer then notes that "[i]n the past, Islamic sources have been construed
as barring conversions from Islam, requiring apostates to repent and return to
the fold or face the death penalty, for males, or imprisonment, for
females." However, she counters this, stating that "[c]ontemporary
Muslims have questioned such interpretations, pointing out that there are
principles in the sources that also ban compulsion in religion."80
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im is a figure worthy of inclusion in any review of
Islamic culture. He cannot be described as either an Islamic modernist or an
Islamic fundamentalist. Unlike the modernists, he is not trying to integrate
Western and traditional Islamic thought, and, unlike the fundamentalists, he is
not trying to return to pristine principles. An-Na'im appears to be attempting
to change our understanding of the foundations of Islamic law.81 An-Na'im
notes that Shari'ah does not represent the whole of Islam, but rather an
interpretation of its fundamental sources, which must be understood in their
historical context. He allows for the possibility of an Islamic Reformation
since, in his view, Shari'ah was simply constructed by its founding jurists,
which would permit certain aspects of Shari'ah to be restructured. He
recharacterizes Shari'ah in terms of a social system similar to Western
positivist ideas of law as a juristic structure.82 He further asserts
that the power politics of the Medinan tradition of Islam should be abandoned in
favor of the Meccan tradition of Islam, as a model for a humane international
Another figure, who is attempting to work from within Islam within the
same general framework, is Abdol Karim Soroush, a lecturer at Tehran University.
Soroush argues that there is "no authoritative" interpretation of
Islam and claims that "all believers are entitled to their understanding of
Islam."84 This comes reminiscent of the ideas of the Protestant
Reformation. However, this comes from a scholar who is working within the
Iranian academic world and "was an ideologue of the Islamic regime in the
1980s."85 Soroush makes the significant point that "[s]uch
issues as democracy and human rights did not exist in early Islamic
society."86 He goes on to argue that "today, they are
popular ideas that are compatible with Islam, . . ."87 Saroush
notes that "the language of religion is the language of obligation, . .
."88 He attempts to make the transition by asserting that
"we need a paradigm shift . . . a shift that makes a synthesis from
obligations to rights."89
There is even considerable evidence that individualism is not as alien to
Islam as is sometimes asserted. According to Kamal Abu al-Magd, an Egyptian law
[I]n Islam there is of course the general principle of individual
responsibility before God and before the community. . . .
And there are injunctions in the same direction by some of the best known
Islamic reformers. For example, Muhammad Iqbal argues that Islam doesn't ask
people to deny themselves, but to strengthen their egos by being strong, working
hard, undertaking difficult tasks. In one of his books he particularly focused
on strengthening the individual ego and the collective ego.90
He attributes the submissiveness of the people in some
Arab Muslim countries, not to Islam, but to a history of colonialism and
autocratic rulers.91 He also finds support in the Qur'an for freedom
of speech, as he quotes a passage from the chapter called "The Cow":
"No witness or writer should be made to suffer because of his
testimony."92 Clearly it would be difficult to find such a clear
endorsement of freedom of speech and press in Christianity as this.
We have seen that liberal democracy and human rights are not necessarily
inconsistent with Islam. In fact, interpretations of Islam compatible with
liberal democracy are increasingly being advanced. Furthermore, there is no
reason to believe that, as industrialization takes hold in Islamic countries,
they will be immune to the effects on culture that this development has had and
is having elsewhere. How long this movement will have to struggle to bring
democratic changes is uncertain, but it appears that democratic values have
taken hold of the imagination of much of the Islamic world.
In any case, the strong centralized state, which is a reality in most
Islamic countries, must be addressed. Traditional Islamic culture did not have
to deal with such an entity. The so-called Islamic human rights schemes fail to
provide any realistic check on its power. Therefore, a reexamination of Islam,
to reassess its compatibility with liberal democracy, may be the only realistic
1. Karl E. Meyer, "The West's Debt to Byzantium," The New York Times, March 30, 1997.
2. Ann E. Mayer, "Universal Versus Islamic Human Rights: A Clash of
Cultures or a Clash with a Construct?," 15 Michigan
Journal International Law 307, pp.
3. Ibid., pp. 319-320.
4. Ibid., p. 320.
5. Josiah A.M. Cobbah, "African Values and the Human Rights Debate:
An African Perspective," 9 Human
Rights Quarterly, pp. 309, 316 (1987).
6. Ibid., p. 309.
7. Liberalism and democracy are, of course, represented by the
instruments concerned with civil and political rights, rather than by those
instruments which are concerned with the so-called second and third generation
rights [economic, social and cultural rights].
8. See generally Francis Fukuyama, The
End of History and the Last Man (1992).
9. Ibid., p. 42.
11. Ibid., p. 43.
12. Charles Taylor, The Ethics of
13. "UNESCO Statement by Experts on Race Problems" printed in Ashley
Montagu, Race, Science, and Humanity 172 (1963).
14. James W. Ceaser, Reconstructing
America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought (1997).
15. Ibid., p. 61.
16. Fukuyama, op. cit., note 8.
17. Charles Taylor, Sources of the
Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, pp. 62-75 (1989).
18. James W. Ceaser, op cit., note 14, p. 34.
19. Samuel Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations," Foreign Affairs, pp.22, 33 (Summer 1993); Huntington expanded on his
essay in a book: see Samuel Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations and the
Remaking of World Order" (1996).
20. Joseph Schacht, An Introduction
to Islamic Law 1 (1964).
21. David A. Westbrook, "Islamic International Law and Public
International Law: Separate Expressions of World Order," 33 Virginia Journal International Law, pp. 819, 829 (1993).
23. Ibid., p. 825.
26. Ann E. Mayer, Islam and Human
Rights: Tradition and Politics, 207 (1991)
27. Ibid., p. 31.
28. Ibid., p. 323.
29. Inal Ersan, “Kuwait Women Stage Rare Demonstration for Vote,” Reuters World Service, March 12, 1996; see also John Lancaster,
"Hot Winds of Democracy Rustle the Gulf: Kuwaitis Campaign Raucously to
Elect On-Again, Off-Again, All-Male Parliament," The Washington Post, October 4, 1996, p. A25.
30. Mayer, op. cit. p. 320.
31. Ibid., pp. 328-329.
32. Ibid., p. 324.
33. Ibid., p. 325.
37. Samuel P. Huntington, "If Not Civilizations, What? Paradigms of
the Post-Cold War World," Foreign
Affairs, Nov.-Dec. 1993, p. 188.
38. Mayer, op. cit., p. 372.
40. Ibid., p. 373.
42. Mayer, op. cit., p. 373.
44. Jonathan C. Randal, "Algeria's War Refuses to Die," The
Washington Post, July 2, 1996, p. A10; however, voters in Algeria
overwhelmingly approved the countries fourth constitution in November 1996,
thereby approving the banning of Islam-based political parties, see Charles
Trueheart, "Referendum Results Strengthen Algeria's Army-Backed
Regime," The Washington Post,
November 29, 1996, p. A41.
45. Kelly Couturier, "New Turkish Leader's Islamic Vision Clouded by
Political Reality," The Washington
Post, July 25, 1996, p. A23.
46. Mayer, op. cit., p. 309.
47. Ibid., p. 368.
48. Ibid., p. 365.
49. Ibid., p. 367.
50. Ibid., p. 365.
51. Ibid., p. 366.
52. Lancaster, op. cit. p. A25.
55. Ibid., p. A27.
57. Nora Boustany, "On a Mission From Qatar," The Washington Post, November 13, 1996, p. A18.
58. "Final Campaigning in Full Force in Yemen," The San Antonio Express News, April 27, 1997, p. 9A.
59. Mayer, op. cit. p. 365.
60. Ibid., p. 369.
61. Elaine Sciolino, "Guess Who's Giving the Voters a Choice," The
New York Times, March 22, 1997.
62. Ron Moreau and Tom Emerson, "A Test of `People Power': Can
Sukarno's daughter lead her country to democracy?," Newsweek,
August 26, 1996, p. 41.
63. Michael Richardson, "Indonesia Braces for Vote on Reforms, The
International Herald Tribune, November 9, 1998, p. 4.
64. "Turkish Women Protest against Islamic Code," The Washington Post, February 16, 1997, p. A39.
65. Kelly Couturier, "With Premier in Mecca, Secularists Issue Plan
to Rid Turkey of Radical Islam," The
Washington Post, April 20, 1997, p. A24.
66. Stephen Kinzer, "Business Press a Reluctant Turkey on Democracy
Issues," The New York Times,
March 23, 1997.
67. "Pakistan Deputies Back Islamic Law," The International Herald Tribune, October 10-11, 1998, p. 4.
68. Christopher Thomas, "Taliban Outlaws Women and White
Socks," The London Times, April
69. Kathy Gannon, "Taliban Rebels Take Hold As Streets of Kabul
Revive," The Washington Post,
September 28, 1996, p. A19; see also Kenneth J. Cooper, "Conquered Afghan
City Takes Good with Bad: Harsh Militia Rule Restores Order," The Washington Post, October 3, 1996, p. A1; see also Kenneth
Cooper, "Kabul Tests Islamic Limits: Stringent New Taliban Rule Is Rebuffed
Even by Iran," The Washington Post,
October 6, 1996, p. A27; see also Kenneth Cooper, "Kabul Women under
Virtual House Arrest: Afghan Radicals Bar Access to Jobs, School," The
Washington Post, October 7, 1996, p. A1; see also Rod Nordland and Tony
Clifton, "Afghanistan: The Islamic Nightmare: Zealots Take Over, Veiling
Women and Scaring Neighbors More Than Natives," Newsweek,
October 14, 1996, p. 51.
70. Associated Press, "Taliban Fighters Threaten to Hang Female
Workers," San Antonio Express-News,
November 4, 1996, p. 4A.
71. Associated Press, "Afghan Talibans Blasted for Forcing Mosque
Attendance," San Antonio Express-News,
November 3, 1996, p. 6A.
72. Michael A. Lev, "Kabul's Music Dies under New Rulers: Radical
Islamic Movement Imposes Strict Ban on Popular Culture," The Washington Post, December 6, 1996, p. A42.
73. Thomas, op. cit., p. 4.
75. Christopher Thomas, "Kabul Enters Dark Age As Windows Are
Painted over to Hide `Corrupting Women'," The
London Times, March 20, 1997.
76. Cooper, op. cit. The Washington
Post, October 7, 1996, p. A1.
77. Ibid., A16.
78. An estimated 250,000 residents fled Kabul following the takeover: see
Kenneth Cooper, "Taliban's Takeover of Kabul Spurs Educated Afghans to
Flee," The Washington Post,
October 8, 1996, p. A15.
79. Mayer, op. cit. p. 322.
80. Ibid., p. 324.
81. Westbrook, op. cit., p. 848.
82. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, Toward
an Islamic Reformation xiv (1990); see also Westbrook, op. cit., p. 849.
83. An-Na'im, op. cit., note 315, pp. 143-144; see also Westbrook, op.
cit., note 19, p. 854. It should be noted that Abdulaziz Sachedina disputes this
distinction between the Meccan and Medinan traditions, by pointing out that one
of the progressive strands of Islamic thought (e.g., "there is no
compulsion in religion") is actually of Medinan origin, see Westbrook, op.
cit., p. 855, footnote 97, see also Abdulaziz Sachedina, "Review of
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human
Rights, and International Law," 25 International
Journal Middle East Studies, pp. 155-156 (1993).
84 "Iranian Intellectual Says Islam and Human Rights Must Go
Together," The Boston Globe,
March 31, 1997.
88. "A New Iranian Era?" The
Washington Post, April 2, 1997, p. A14.
90. Kevin Dwyer, "Arab Voices: The Human Rights Debate in the Middle
East," p. 89 (1991).