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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Muslim communities need to find a new way to join international discourse on human rights

Engagement has been minimal because the colonial and postcolonial period, when contemporary human rights discourse began to develop, was a severely stifling one for most Muslim communities worldwide, writes HA Hellyer

Rohingya refugee Jalal Ahmed holding his old house number plate in Jamtoli refugee camp in Ukhia, on the Bangladesh border near Myanmar. Munir Uz Zaman / AFP
Rohingya refugee Jalal Ahmed holding his old house number plate in Jamtoli refugee camp in Ukhia, on the Bangladesh border near Myanmar. Munir Uz Zaman / AFP

Some years ago, I found myself in the midst of a conversation with a mix of Malay, Yemeni, Albanian and western Muslims, discussing a new “Islamic car” in a particular country with a Muslim majority. The conversation became rather caustic because the "Islamic car" had a rather dubious set of features claiming to be compatible with Islam, including an inbuilt compass that directed passengers towards Mecca for prayer, electronically broadcasting a peace greeting when the car door opened and inscribing the text of the Quran on the dashboard.

Those present noted the “Islamic car” emitted as much pollution as any other car and consumed the same amount of fuel. Inadvertently, it struck an apt metaphor for much of what is passed off as a modern Islamic discourse. When we see arguments around how Muslim intellectual discourse might be rejuvenated, this is where things lead to. There are scores of efforts to “Islamise” contemporary international discussions – but all too often they’re the equivalents of the Islamic car. The internal logic of all those discussions stay exactly the same – but with a veneer of Islamic vocabulary. But a car is still a car.

Over the course of the past year, I’ve been looking into that question, with particular reference to the human rights discourse among Muslim communities, be they minority or majority communities. Next month I'll be releasing an edited volume on the subject, published by the Atlantic Council in Washington DC.

It’s been a delicate and intricate journey because Muslims face abuses in so many different ways around the world. As minorities like the Uighurs of China or the Rohingya of Myanmar, Muslim communities are the subject of huge cruelties. As majorities, they often live under brutal regimes, autocracies and dictatorships, in Africa, in Asia and elsewhere.

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Read more from HA Hellyer:

We are witnessing the birth pains of a new and vile authoritarianism in Syria

In Gaza, life in an open-air prison or being shot is no choice at all

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But even when they do not benefit from the human rights discourse in practice, Muslim communities often do benefit from it in principle – because the discourse is used as a standard by which oppressive rulers can be judged. I held discussions and events with Muslim opinion-formers in North America, in Europe, in the Arab world and in southeast Asia to discuss this very question. And time and again, it was clear: the principle of the human rights discourse was one that Muslim communities constantly benefited from, even if in practice they often failed to see those benefits materialise.

But there were two more additional points that I saw constantly raised. The first was the issue of authenticity. The colonial and postcolonial period, which is really where the contemporary human rights discourse begins to develop, was a severely stifling one for most Muslim communities worldwide. This was certainly true of their main intellectual centres – and as a result, Muslim engagement with international human rights discourse was far less than it might have been, had such communities not still been reeling from the colonial and postcolonial experience. And engagement was deeply necessary if the discourse was to be viewed as authentic within those societies, as opposed to being akin to intellectual interloping.

That intellectual argument, though, could often be used and abused because many in positions of authority – whether in Muslim majority countries or where Muslim minority communities might reside – often have very cynical motives in mind when they raise the authenticity argument.

The purpose, put frankly, is simply to justify the restriction of rights and freedoms for Muslim communities or citizens of Muslim majority states.

In that regard, it’s really an extension of the infamous age-old argument of the autocrat: “They’re not ready for democracy”. Of course, no-one is “ready” for democracy. There hasn’t been a country on Earth that became democratic that was ready for it. They learnt how to practice democracy through its fundamental principles – and the same is true for those other pesky things like the rule of law and respect for fundamental rights.

The final and crucial point that I saw raised repeatedly, which is especially pertinent for us in 2018, was about security. How much of our discourse now – particularly in this region, but more widely around the world – prioritises an interpretation of security that dominates over all other considerations? Such that there is no longer really much talk of balancing between security and fundamental rights. Certainly, at least since 9/11 and far more emphatically in recent years, that security focus has become predominant.

But, in retrospect, it is perhaps our own fault that is the case. When we opted to create the notion that there could be a balance between rights and security, we opened the doorway to rights always taking a magnificently low position in relation to security. And it is a false argument – because the reality is that the upholding of rights is very much a part of a comprehensive notion of security.

The discussion around human rights in Muslim communities will undoubtedly continue, for a variety of reasons – but one reason why it is so unlikely to end is that no alternative to this discourse exists. Autocrats might wish it were otherwise – but thus far, they’ve only succeeded in providing more evidence as to why a rights-based approach is so vital.

Dr HA Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London

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