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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Quest for Cross Cultural Perspectives to Human Rights

Receptor Meeting with Prof. Abdullahi An-Naim
On the 8thof March 2016, the Receptor Group had the opportunity of meeting with Professor Abdullahi An-Na’im, one of the most ardent and talented supporters of cross cultural views to human rights. An-Na'im, a Sudanese born scholar is currently  the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory Law, Associate Professor in the Emory College of Arts and Sciences, and Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion of Emory University. He is a recognized scholar of Islam and human rights and human rights in cross-cultural perspectives. An -Na'im’s work is of particular importance and relevance at this particular juncture in time, especially in light of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, including the radicalization of terrorist groups such as ISIS. He has recently written an opinion piece on this issue for The Conversation 

At the meeting that took place on the 8th An-Na'im shared some of his insights with the Receptor Team, mainly on his view on human rights, attaining  its effective implementation and cultural legitimacy, its monopolization by powerful states and the effective relationship it can share with Islam.

An-Na'im  is mainly concerned with questions of  legitimacy of internationally recognized human rights standards in different cultural and contextual settings, which he believes, is not solely the responsibility of states per se but also depends on the broader efforts of individuals and groups that come into contact with human rights issues. He takes the view that states are not the sole protector of human rights especially because they are prone and susceptible to promoting their own competing interests and goals. Furthermore, the state as an entity cannot effectively be held accountable by the international  system for its failure to adequately protect human rights, essentially because the human rights treaties that they sign up to, are without any without any real 'teeth' and therefore cannot  effectively guarantee a state’s commitment and resolve to upholding such rights. Many states as a result, end up taking these obligations lightly and in some cases start showing an indifferent attitude as a result.  

Relatedly another reason as An-Na'im puts, is that in almost every instance the state is hijacked by the market mainly because trade or business treaties carry more weight than human rights treaties do. Thus, he concludes, the state is essentially “a-moral” and that those who act on behalf of it mostly do so with their own interests in mind.  He therefore believes that human rights can be best achieved through moving away from a “state centered system to a more people centered system," one in which people or groups of people might be in the best position to promote and defend human rights.  Some of these actors would include civil society organizations, social scientists, lawyers and judges, as well as community leaders who are regularly in contact with human rights and are therefore in the best position to do so.

Specifically in this regard, An-Na'im has emphasized the value and need for dialogue. For example, he suggests that there should be more internal discourse and cross cultural dialogue to encourage goodwill, mutual respect and equality with other cultural traditions.  Internal discourse would naturally feature at a national level and would include scholarly works as well as political action. An-Na'im has stressed the importance of cross cultural dialogue and internal dialogue in order to reach consensus on a “body of beliefs” within the human rights framework. This, according to him is only achievable through dialogue and respect, and a common form of reciprocity between various cultures, which he suggests, is treating others in the same way as one would like to be treated. An-Na’im, therefore takes the position that human rights can only gain legitimacy and subsequently can only be observed if it is sanctioned through a person’s own cultural identity. This is what he believes is necessary and crucial for the cultural legitimacy of human rights.


On the relationship between the North and South and their prevailing power relations, An-Naim has observed that this is another area disenfranchising the effective spread and legitimacy of human rights. Here he spoke of the role of the international donor system and northern type NGO’s that continuously criticize the South and create a type of human rights dependency system indicative of neo-colonialism . Initially the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a treaty owned by all states but later subsequently became  hijacked by more powerful states to the detriment of weaker states, in his view. As a result, this created a top down system of human rights where a type of imperialism and domination is the resultant order of the day and where human rights are imposed rather than shared, agreed upon and genuinely believed in. This same ‘colonizer and colonized’ mentality which was internalized in the past by Africa through colonialism, continues to be internalized through the conduit of human rights nowadays, indicative of the current North South divide.

An-Na'im, as a result calls for agency and self-determination of disempowered groups that do not equally participate in human rights dialogue and debate. In his view “agency of the subject of human rights” is critical and necessary. Each society must struggle for their rights because transformation and liberation can only take place if there is struggle within and without one’s society for change to occur. In his view change is inevitable and will in each society, come with time, but it is necessary that people themselves lead it. It is therefore essential internally that people engage with their own communities as well as with other individuals and communities across cultures, so as to find common ground and consensus.

Lastly on the issue of human rights and Islam, An-Na'im observes that secularization and religion are currently part and parcel of Islamic tradition. This, in his opinion should not be the case as it creates friction. Rather, it is necessary to separate the state and Islam but only to the degree that the state allows an individual freedom enough to practice his/her faith without fetter. While it is essential is that this type of model of separation, should allow for neutral decision-making by the state, it should not resemble the French model of laicity, where religion is accorded lower rights than for instance freedom of speech. So, while An-Na'im believes that separation of state and religion is necessary, it is necessary that it be done is a culturally and religiously sensitive way. This is because rights are not absolute and therefore need to be properly balanced for the good of the society concerned. On the adjacent  issue of terrorism and radicalization and the rise of ISIS, An-Na'im suggests that the roots of Islamic violence needs to be re-traced in order to understand the emergence of radical terrorism. In his opinion only Muslims can defeat ISIS, by exposing the fallacy of their religious claims. So Islamic dialogue is not only necessary, it is essential in combatting terrorism. On a personal level and from the side of his activist fervor and passion for the effective spread of human rights An-Na'im  eventually hopes to see Islam become a catalyst for social justice, equality and human rights.

Posted by Ingrid Roestenburg-Morgan

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