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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Human rights in contemporary Islamic thought: Toward a cross-cultural discourse ethic

Human Rights in Contemporary Islamic Thought is an experiment in comparative religious ethics. I analyze the writings of Sayyid Qutb, Abul A''la Maududi, and Abdolkarim Soroush to show how a range of Islamic thought contributes to the cross-cultural dialogue necessary for the progression of universal human rights. The chapters of the dissertation, arranged thematically, offer a comparative understanding of the issues at stake. The first two chapters provide histories of the last century, focusing upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and colonialism in Muslim countries.

The inclusive process of drafting the Declaration sets an auspicious precedent for the incorporation of Islamic voices in human rights. Documented participation in creating the UDHR by representatives of countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia helps to ensure the acceptance of human rights in Muslim countries.

The effectiveness of cross-cultural dialogue becomes especially apparent in the writings of Qutb and Maududi, who despite their criticisms of the UN and wariness of cultural imperialism, readily accept the validity of rights language. Following these histories are three chapters that focus on the views of Qutb, Maududi, and Soroush concerning “democracy,” “toleration,” and “freedom of conscience.” These discussions reveal not only their beliefs about these aspects of human rights, but also their relevant epistemologies and attitudes towards the West.

The final substantive chapter examines the possibility of dialogue between Islamic thinkers and human rights theorists, including Michael Ignatieff, Jack Donnelly, and Henry Shue. Non-foundational human rights models, espoused by Ignatieff, or models based upon Western paradigms, as recommended by Donnelly, are likely to alienate Islamic thinkers in cross-cultural discourses.

Shue''s observation of correlative duties as complementary to rights, however, presents a potentially useful framework for engaging Islamic scholars in the human rights debate. Fears of the threat to human rights posed by religious difference need to be balanced by the ways in which religions, including Islam, have contributed to the acceptance and implementation of human rights. By acknowledging the complexity of Islamic thought and finding common ground, a universal human rights ethic becomes possible.

1 comment:

neo-anchorite said...

I am interested in the extent to which someone who is actively involved in protesting about human rights abuses can feel that Habermas's discourse ethic accurately reflects their moral stance. You don't mention Habermas here but you mention the discourse ethic in the title. Of course there needs to be greater dialogue, but there also needs to be a lot of action and that is what Habermas's theory seems to regard as meaningless.

For anyone not familiar with the discourse ethic, I try to sum it up at


simple thing to do....just say it.
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