Human Rights: Colonialism, Orientalism & Islam

by Robert Hamilton

 

“In having to take up a position of irreducible opposition to a region of the world it considered alien to its own, Orientalism failed to identify with human experience.”[1]

It is that failure to empathise with humanity in its many skins, which is the focus of this essay. An unbiased investigation is endeavoured, especially concerning the disadvantaged and voiceless within communities. Also, an examination of the human rights paradigm as a predominantly western construct; and whether it currently has the epistemic humility and dialogical breadth to honestly encompass human rights from the perspective of Islam. It will be useful to define what is meant by ‘Islam’ and the terms: ‘religion’ and ‘culture’. It is all too easy to assume shared understandings of these broadly applied terms when discussing human rights: colonialism, Orientalism and Islam.

DEFINITIONS:

The term for ‘religion’ in Arabic is di︠n and it can mean: obedience and submission; custom; a law; and judgement and requital.[2] The word predates Islam and denotes, historically, an individual’s relationship with someone in ultimate authority.[3] Words are, often, representative of complex concepts and realities. Language itself presents an obstruction and filters the transmission of knowledge between cultures. Edward Said in his philological study, published as Orientalism in 1978, captured and surveyed this cultural conundrum for both the scholarly world and a broader audience.[4] Said, primarily, focused on the occidental conception of the Islamic Middle East as his ‘orient’ in question. It is our western perception of the ‘other’, of the ‘orient’, which determines our comprehension of Islamic religion and culture.[5] A former professor of comparative religion, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, is quoted as saying: “if you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinion for or against”.[6] This typically oriental idea is prevalent in many eastern spiritual teachings, within traditions like Zen Buddhism and Taoism. Its essence captures the reality that religions have two forms: an inner and an outer, an “original and historical”.[7] Religious adherents experience the former and outsiders perceive the contextual appearance of the religion – its place in the world. There is an unbroachable divide separating religious life, as perceived by devotees of Islam, and those that wish to understand Islam from an academic or political standpoint.

Islam: Is, often, defined as a monotheistic Abrahamic religion, in that it aligns itself with the belief in the revelatory prophets found in Judaism and Christianity.[8] Muhhamad (c. 570-632 BCE) was Islam’s founding prophet; and the Quran is a collection of the revelations revealed to him by the angel Gabriel. Islam does not instruct via a priestly hierarchy, as do Judaism and Christianity. It is, rather, a collective practice involving daily repeated prayers by the faithful toward the Holy Mosque in Mecca. As religious concepts emerge within the culture around them, Arabic in this instance, they take on the forms of these cultures. Religion may be inspired by God, but it is clothed in the customs of human beings.

Culture: Polysemous, but originally related to ‘cultivate’ from agriculture, it became a catchall term to describe a grouping of related agents. In eighteenth century France, it acquired a meaning to do with refinement and class, which later included education and training.[9] Nineteenth century historians began employing the terms ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’ synonymously, when referring to the total sum of a particular human society’s endeavours, beliefs and knowledge. In the twentieth and twenty first centuries, culture has morphed into the favoured collective noun of the era. Cultural concerns lie at the very heart of debates about human rights, especially between east and west, orient and occident.

 

Human rights, globally, have been legally defined since 1948 through the United Nation’s “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.[10] Article 2. sets out the rights and freedoms:

“without distinctions of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or status”.

This comprehensively charters the human rights of all human beings, whatever their circumstance. Unfortunately, a convention cannot guarantee that it will be adhered to by every regime. Thus, we are faced with human beings, who are, often disadvantaged and voiceless, suffering their human rights being violated and neglected in places around the world.[11] A favoured defence from those regimes, accused of transgressing upon the rights of their citizens by human rights advocates, often, falls under the ‘cultural relativism’ banner.[12] This questions upon what basis the ‘universalism’ of human rights is defined.[13] It pits the individual versus the social group. Are the universal rights of the individual greater than the rights of the culture within which that individual lives? It pits the secular west against the theocratic east. This debate has particular relevance for Islamic nations and cultures around the globe.

Cultural Relativism: Who has greater moral might, the individual or the culture, he or she, abides in? The radical universalist would see the rights of the individual take precedence over all demands of community, family and country.[14] The radical Islamicist would see Islamic law, sharia, completely define the rights and behaviour of the members of their community. It seems that consensus, a middle way, affords respect for both community and the individual, where possible. Cross-cultural conversations are required when minorities of Muslims live in countries like Australia and in European nations.[15]

 

Human rights’ legislation must prioritise the cessation of suffering first and foremost, when wielding its power. These rights cannot be separated from their social and historical context, but they, also, cannot be subsumed by those considerations. A dominant secularised western approach to human rights will not work within Islamic cultures. The identity of these people is deeply woven through with Quranic religious sensibilities. Emphasising and accentuating the human rights perspectives already inherent within Islam, will be a more effective and constructive approach.[16]

Community is, likely, religion’s greatest offering in a practical sense. Islam is no exception, with members of Islamic communities experiencing strong interconnecting bonds centred around their mosques. Duty and social obligation are at the very heart of an Islamic life.[17] Human rights do not exist in Quranic interpretations of Islam, rather Muslims have privileges. Lives are determined by God; and human beings have prescribed roles depending upon gender and whether they are believers or not. All the Abrahamic religions emerged from tribal cultures; and the place of the individual was a newly emergent concept. Islam is the youngest of the three religions; and stresses the ”dignity and elevated status of the individual”.[18]

 

COLONIALISM – WESTERN CULTURAL IMPERIALISM

History can help us understand some of the difficulties human rights face internationally and politically. We are a global collection of cultures and nations, with recent and distant histories involving interactions between us. Colonialism of the European kind, which saw western nations invade, conquer and control vast territories in Africa, the Americas, Middle East and Asia, from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries, remains acutely in the minds of those who were colonised. Westerners consistently underestimate the accrued feelings of resentment within the populations of these countries. Racism lies at the heart of the colonial experience, as documented by writers such as Joseph Conrad and George Orwell in Africa and Burma respectively.[19] In fact, though the colonial powers may have been dismantled in terms of statehood and independence achieved in these nations, western corporations often remain, mining the resources under economic agreement in places like the Congo, South Africa, Kenya, Mali, Tanzania, Senegal, Ghana and Burkina Faso.[20] Australian multinationals are mining an estimated $40 billion out of Africa, as of 2017.[21]  There is no level economic playing field for these newly established states in former colonies, and many local inhabitants feel that they are still being rapaciously exploited by western interests to this day. A combination of unfair mining deals and profits squandered by corrupt despotic regimes has seen little revenue benefit the people within these young nations.[22] Africa needs political stability, good governments, environmental safeguards, multinationals willing to pay fair prices for mineral extraction rights, and an end to the civil wars.

Many Islamic states emerged from the struggles for independence and share a postcolonial antipathy toward the imperialism practiced by the west.[23] Coups d’état’s and revolutions occurred in: Iraq in 1936, 1941, 1958, 1963 and 1968; Syria in 1949, 1963, 1966 and 1970; Egypt in 1952; Iran in 1953 and 1979; Turkey in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997; Algeria in 1965 and 1992; Libya in 1969; Oman in 1970.[24] Iraq, Syria and Libya are currently states in conflict. The military presence of Daesh in Iraq and Syria has been well documented by world news’ agencies.[25] Afshari, recounting his experiences in Iran, blames the “political disposition of nationalism” for the failure of democracy, prior to the 1979 Islamic coup. That no ideological synthesis was forged between it and democracy; with elite sections of society abusing the human rights of ordinary Iranians.[26] The divide between the elite members of many oriental nations, who are trained and feted like western elites, and the majority of ordinary citizens in these nations is a recurrent theme. It is too easy to generalise, but in Middle Eastern states, like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, royal families maintain fierce grips on large unequal shares of wealth and power to the detriment of poorer members of these nations.[27] There is inequality everywhere in both east and west; and human rights suffer as a result of it.[28] Rebalancing economic inequities would go a long way to removing human rights abuses per se globally.

 

Said returns repeatedly to the theme of how ‘Orientals’ have been consistently portrayed by generations of western scholars, painting them as lesser, debased, and politically slaves to western masters.[29] The impact of this sustained cultural onslaught on both westerners and those residing in the Islamic east cannot be overestimated. As Said recounts, imperialist functionaries like Balfour in British controlled Egypt, in 1910, genuinely believed they were providing “absolute government” as a benefit to Egyptians:

These long-held beliefs underpin the attitudes of superiority, which the west wields in its political and diplomatic dealings with the east to this day. Governments are like octopuses, bearing many arms, whilst one arm delivers humanitarian aid and lectures on human rights abuses in that country, another arm quietly supports its multinational interests to acquire deals and interests in these same countries, and yet another arm may facilitate overseas military actions in places like Afghanistan, Africa and Iraq. U.S. President Trump’s recent speech, where he thanks African leaders for making his business friends rich, is a case in point.[30] Simultaneously, the U.S. military is escalating activity in Africa with some 3500 missions and engagements sanctioned this year. More drone strikes in South Sudan, Niger and Somalia, as Nick Turse confirmed, with a U.S. $100 million drone base built to combat Al-Shabab, the Islamicist jihadist group based in East Africa, and other perceived threats in the region.[31]

 

The U.S. has been painted as the Great Satan by Islamic fundamentalists around the globe.[32] This pejorative was first employed by the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in 1979; and with the abuses perpetuated by the U.S. backed Shah, it can be contextually understood. Since then, it has become a catchcry for many Islamicists when pillorying the apparent enemy in the media. There is a perception of the west as a completely materialistic society, with its focus on wealth and possessions; and a converse perception of Islam as ascetically non-materialistic. There are sections of western society, who see virtue in the ascetic path and moral degradation in western materialism. [33]  I would posit that some Islamic commentators make political capital out of the comparative poverty of their inhabitants; making a virtue out of a necessity. There is, however, an absence of ‘spiritual life’ in places like Australia, which is keenly felt by many migrants who come here from Islamic countries.[34] Secularism has delivered many freedoms in the west, especially for our sensual lives, also, for women on multiple fronts, and for previously persecuted sections of society, like homosexuals. However, some westerners bemoan the demise of religiosity and regretfully feel the absence of a spiritual life.[35]

 

Islam is involved in an internal battle of its own, between those who promote a peaceful charitable Islam and political extremists, who seek power through the sword.[36] This tussle occurs across the Islamic world. We in the west, especially since 9/11 and the subsequent ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, have a skew-whiff perception of Islam on this basis. Our news commentators focus on the dangerous minority of bomb and gun toting terrorists, to the exclusion of the billions of ordinary Muslims around the world. We see the oriental world only through the viewpoint of our own concerns, as Said has so clearly articulated. There is a far larger Islamic identity, which is effectively hidden from view, because it does not fit the sensationalistic appetites of our western media.

 

The relatively recent increase in the migration of Muslims to predominantly non-Muslim countries in Europe, the U.S. and Australia, has seen human rights for Muslims become a domestic issue within these nations. It is another cultural battleground, pitting western secular conceptions of universal human rights against traditional religious behaviours and customs.[37] Human rights and freedoms, as they pertain to gender in the west clash with Islamic beliefs and rights for adherents to practice their religion in their newly adopted countries. The covering of the face with head scarf provokes strong reactions among westerners. Many in the west wrongly assume that the head scarf is the tip of a much larger iceberg, hiding violence and oppression routinely committed against all Muslin women by their menfolk.[38] This is an erroneous assumption, often, fuelled by commentators in the media for political gain.[39] Not all Muslims agree on the place of the hijab in modern society.[40]

 

The cure for cultural xenophobia, in this writer’s mind, can only be education and exposure to cultural diversity. Australia and the U.S. have just under 50% of 25-34 YOs completing tertiary education in 2016, with Australia at just 35% for 55-64 YOs.[41] The importance of this data, is that education at this level exposes undergraduates to the study of complex issues like religious/cultural diversity. Unfortunately, tertiary education in the west has been degraded since the 1980s, by a focus on technology and pragmatism at the expense of a broader liberal arts approach to educating the whole person.

 

CONCLUSIONS

The west cannot bully Islam at home or abroad into adopting its own western secular conception of human rights. Culturally and politically it cannot carry on with policies designed to diminish the oriental ‘other’. We all must respect diversity and treat the other with tolerance. Education is the answer, but an education based on the humanities, and a twenty first century appreciation of diversity; not just on economic considerations. Interfaith dialogues are important first steps toward pluralistic outcomes; but also, seeing the true nature of the clash of civilisations as cultural and not made by any God, will empower us as human beings to sort out our disagreements. Give young nations time and support to find their feet; and the UN and concerned governments should monitor the multinational deals occurring in these countries to ensure fairness. Economic inequity will always lie at the heart of human rights abuses, wherever and whatever the culture or faith.

©Robert Hamilton

 

 

 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

 

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[1] Said, Edward, Orientalism, (Penguin Classics, 2003) p 328.

[2] Lane, 1955-1956, Vol. 3, p 944 in Khir, B, “Islamic Studies within Islam: definition, approaches and challenges of modernity”, Journal of Beliefs & Values, Vol. 28, Issue 3, (2007), p 258.

[3] Maududi, 1982, p 99 in Khir, op cit, p 258.

[4] Said, Edward, Orientalism, (Penguin Classics, 2003).

[5] Said, op cit, p 5.

[6] Rajneesh, retrieved from http://bit.ly/2Appgan , viewed 7th November 2017.

[7] Khir, op cit, p 259.

[8] Pettis, Jeffrey, “Islam” in Leeming, David, (ed.), Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, 2nd edition, (2014). Retrieved from https://link-springer-com.simsrad.net.ocs.mq.edu.au/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-1-4614-6086-2_338 , viewed 5th November 2017.

[9] Jahoda, Gustav, “Critical Reflections on Some Recent Definitions of ‘Culture’”, Culture & Psychology, Vol. 18, Issue 3, pp 289-290.

[10] UDHR retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/ , viewed 3rd November 2017.

[11] Posner, Eric, “The Case Against Human Rights”, The Guardian, (4th December, 2014), retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/04/-sp-case-against-human-rights , Viewed 10th November 2017.

[12] Hayden, Patrick, The Philosophy of Human Rights, (St Paul, 2001), p 371.

[13] Sundaramoorthy, Laksshini, “Is the idea of human rights a universal concept?”, Merici, Vol. 2, (2016), retrieved from http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/n2328/pdf/ch03.pdf , Viewed 12th November 2017 pp 23-25.

[14] Donnelly, Jack, “Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights”, Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 4, p 402.

[15] Xiaorong, Li, in Hayden, op cit, p 407.

[16] Dalacoura, Katerina, Islam, Liberalism and Human Rights, (IB Tauris, 2007), p 39.

[17] Dalacoura, op cit, p 44.

[18] Dalacoura, op cit, p 44.

[19] Orwell, George, Burmese Days, (Harper, 1934), retrieved from https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/orwell/george/o79b/ , Viewed 8th November 2017.

Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness, (Blackwood’s Magazine, 1899), retrieved from https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/conrad/joseph/c75h/, Viewed 10th November 2017.

[20] Kimani, Mary, “Mining to Profit Africa’s People”, (April 2009), retrieved from http://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/april-2009/mining-profit-africa%E2%80%99s-people , Viewed 12th November 2017.

[21] Bagshaw, Eric, “The Australian Companies Mining $40 Billion out of Africa”, The Sydney Morning Herald, (10th September 2017), retrieved from http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/the-australian-companies-mining-40-billion-out-of-africa-20170906-gyc6t0.html , Viewed 10th November 2017.

[22] Kimani, op cit, http://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/april-2009/mining-profit-africa%E2%80%99s-people

[23] Sayyid, S, “Empire, Islam and the Postcolonial”, International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding, (University of South Australia, 2012), p 1.

[24] Helfont, Samuel, “Post-Colonial States and the Struggle for Identity in the Middle East since World War Two”, Foreign Policy Research Centre, retrieved from https://www.fpri.org/article/2015/10/post-colonial-states-and-the-struggle-for-identity-in-the-middle-east-since-world-war-two/ , Viewed 10th November 2017.

[25] CBC News: World, “ISIS retreat from their last urban stronghold in Syria”, retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/isis-boukamal-syria-retreat-1.4395090 , Viewed 10th November 2017.

[26] Afshari, Reza, “An Essay on Islamic Cultural Relativism in the Discourse of Human Rights”, Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 16, Issue 2, p 235.

[27] Lawson, Timothy,  “Saudi Arabia: Leaked cable reveals how royals get rich”, (8th October, 2011), retrieved from https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/saudi-arabia-leaked-cable-reveals-how-royals-get-rich , Viewed 12th November 2017.

[28] Global Inequality, Institute for Policy Studies, retrieved from https://inequality.org/facts/global-inequality/ , Viewed 10th November 2017.

[29] Said, op cit, p 97.

[30] Morgan, Riley, “US President Donald Trump has congratulated a group of African leaders for making his business friends rich”, AP-SBS Wires, (21st September, 2017), retrieved from http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2017/09/21/trump-thanks-african-leaders-making-his-friends-rich , Viewed 12th November 2017.

[31] Turse, Nick, (interview), “From Niger to Somalia, U.S. Military Expansion in Africa Helps Terror Groups Recruit”, (27th October, 2017), retrieved from https://www.democracynow.org/2017/10/27/nick_turse_from_niger_to_somalia , Viewed 12th November 2017.

[32] Dabashi, Hamid, “Who is the Great Satan?”, (20 September,2015), Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2015/09/great-satan-150920072643884.html, Viewed 10th November 2017.

[33] Monbiot, George, “Materialism: a system that eats us from the inside out”, The Guardian, (!0th December 2013), retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/09/materialism-system-eats-us-from-inside-out , Viewed 12th November 2017.

[34] Cahill, Desmond, “Religion, Cultural Diversity and Safeguarding Australia”, Dept. of Immigration and Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs, (2004), retrieved from http://amf.net.au/library/uploads/files/Religion_Cultural_Diversity_Main_Report.pdf , Viewed 12th November 2017, pp 6-8.

 

 

[35] Hughes, Phillip, “Dissatisfaction and the shape of Australian spirituality”, ABC Religion & Ethics, (26th November, 2010), retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2010/11/26/3077011.htm , Viewed 12th November 2017.

[36] Siddiqui, Mona, “The battle is among Muslims themselves – a battle for the very soul of Islam”, New Stateman, (8th My, 2014), retrieved from https://www.newstatesman.com/2014/04/arabisation-islam , Viewed 11th November 2017.

[37] Shadid, W, “The Negative Image of Islam and Muslims in the West: Causes and Solutions”, in Religious Freedom and the Neutrality of the State: The Position of Islam in the European Union”, (Leuven, 2002), p 174.

[38] Krayem, Ghena, “Freedom of Religion, Belief and Gender: A Muslim Perspective”, (Supplementary Paper) for Australian Human Right Commission Project, (2010), pp 3-4.

[39] Al Jazeera News, “Marine Le Pen stirs headscarf controversy in Lebanon”, (22nd February, 2017), retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/02/marine-le-pen-stirs-headscarf-controversy-lebanon-170221150240682.html , Viewed 12th November 2017.

[40] Nomani, Asra, “As Muslim women, we actually ask you not to wear the hijab in the name of interfaith solidarity”, The Washington Post, (21st December, 2015), retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/12/21/as-muslim-women-we-actually-ask-you-not-to-wear-the-hijab-in-the-name-of-interfaith-solidarity/?utm_term=.b0503ca63bf0 , Viewed 12th November 2017.

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