January 17, 2008 Special Dispatch No. 1810

Tunisian Progressive Basit bin Hasan: Why There's Opposition to Human Rights in Arab Society

January 17, 2008
North Africa, Tunisia | Special Dispatch No. 1810

In a November 26, 2007 article posted on the liberal website, Tunisian poet Basit bin Hasan, former chairman of the Arab Institute for Human Rights in Tunis, reviewed the forms of opposition to human rights in Arab society and the role this opposition plays in obstructing the development of a culture of human rights.

Following are excerpts:

"The Prevailing… Discourse Hurls Invective at the Concept of Human Rights – [Presenting It as] a Conspiracy to Undermine Our Identity"

"Arab societies' degree of comprehension of the concept of 'human rights' is puzzling...Whenever the Arab discourse comes close to accepting new concepts [of human rights] heralding freedom and equality, it immediately runs into [a barrier of] suspicion and doubt regarding the practical benefit of these concepts and the extent of their rootedness in our 'cultural identity.'

"It was only for brief moments in [Arab] history that the discourse on liberation was inspired by human rights concepts. [This discourse appeared briefly] as part of the discussions during the [Arab] revival, among the anti-colonial national liberation movements, and during the period in which [the Arab] human rights organizations formed and developed.

"[However, in all other periods,] the issue of human rights came under severe attack by many political currents and in different writings – not only conservative ones but 'progressive' ones as well. This created much confusion regarding the concept, and made it even harder to grasp for the Arabs.

"Those Arabs who attacked the concept of human rights focused [on two issues]: the double standard that the colonialist and imperialist hegemonic Western countries employ in implementing human rights, and the [seeming] contradiction between the universal [values] embodied by this concept and the 'specificity' of our societies...

"While criticism of the concept [of human rights] has increased within Arab societies, it [has at the same time been used] to back up our demand for liberation from tyrannical regimes and in our struggle against corruption, poverty, marginalization, discrimination, and occupation.

"[Now] we are facing a strange situation. On the one hand, our society is forcefully demanding [political] participation, democracy, fair allocation of resources, and the restoration of the concept of the civil state, which promotes individual and collective welfare and upholds the [citizens'] right to quality health services and education. Yet, on the other hand, the prevailing political and cultural discourse [still] hurls invective at the concept of human rights, [presenting it] as a conspiracy to undermine our identity and stability. So what exactly do we want?

"The prevailing discourse among us is accustomed to blaming the hegemonic and tyrannical 'other' for our misfortunes, for the hideousness that surrounds us, for our cultural emptiness, and for our problems. It acquits [us of responsibility for] our tragedies through the dualism of the evil 'other' and 'us,' the innocent victims... This outlook [on human rights] stems from this naïve dualism, which conceals a deep desire – whether conscious or unconscious – to marginalize the issue of human rights and to dissociate it from the question of liberty…

"Following is a review of the main doubts evoked in the Arab world regarding the concept of human rights:"

The Argument that Arab Society Lacks the Maturity Needed for Human Rights

"This is the [argument frequently] resorted to by various political, economic and moral forces [in society] who believe that [certain] 'peoples' are inherently incapable of comprehending and implementing self-liberation, or of living according to democratic [principles] and taking part in decision-making. [This view] rests on the perception of the people as children, minors with stunted [intellectual] ability, who are unable to rise up by their own efforts and change their fate. The public is a mass of people [passively] waiting for a savior who will define their social roles [for them] and grant them material comfort...

"These forces, who [claim]... that the people are genetically incapable of liberating themselves and weathering the challenges of human rights, are the very same forces that invoke the value and maturity of the people when it comes to defending national sovereignty against 'external threats,' or securing their votes in elections that perpetuate autocracy.

"Many people have internalized this disdain in a kind of racism against themselves and have come to believe themselves incapable of weathering the challenges of human rights – since their human nature is [allegedly] incompatible with [the values] of human rights. They [see themselves as] a people that can only live... in a state of submission to a redeemer [i.e. a leader whom they believe will lead them to redemption]."

The Selective Approach to Human Rights

"Those who adopt this approach maintain that there are certain rights that our society is incapable of enjoying, since our 'specificity' cannot be reconciled with all human rights as a single indivisible system. [They believe that] the governments of our countries are capable of honoring certain obligations included in the international conventions on human rights, while there are other obligations which they are incapable of honoring due to [our] 'cultural specificity.'

"However, we see that this specificity is invoked only when there is a need to justify violations of the rights of women and minorities, as well as of other weak or marginalized groups. [Similarly,] this specificity is invoked only when [the governments] are responding to national and international reports exposing the violation of the right to participate in political process and in civil and union activities, as well as violations of freedom of opinion, expression, thought, and religion...

"This 'selective' [approach] has transformed the issue of [cultural] specificity into a weapon that is brandished only... when there is discussion, either of a local or a universal nature, on specific issues such as women's rights, violence against women, sexual rights, postnatal care, children's rights, refugees' rights, and the rights of religious and ethnic minorities..."

The Argument that East and West Are Essentially Different

"The central [axis] of this approach is the fundamental idea that human rights originated in the West and have been rooted in the Western heritage from time immemorial, and thus cannot be appropriate for every time and place. [The proponents of this approach believe that] Western man is endowed with a particular and essential nature that makes his acceptance of the idea [of human rights] flow from his very existence.

"This essentialist view of the 'other' leads, in the end, to a conception of human rights as an abstract idea whose form is not subject to historical development, and [is also] not subject to conceptual tensions and struggles between [different] philosophical, political, and legal schools of thought.

"This approach consciously disregards the fact that human rights originated and developed in Western societies that langushed for centuries under political tyranny and absolutist rule, denied religious freedoms, and engaged in bloody sectarian wars and conflicts.

"Calling human rights into question because they are 'Western' has led to their total rejection [by those who follow this approach], along with a belief that religious authority can provide clear and definitive answers and solutions to man's problems, and that in order to build an ideal society, one need only return to the Islamic sources and fundamental principles...

"This approach, which has helped the fundamentalist craze, with all its material and spiritual violence, to burgeon in our political culture, has created an unambiguous reality in which a vast and unbridgeable gulf separates Western human rights, which are foreign to our civilization, from an ahistorical Islam, which needs only to be reinstated in its absolute sanctity in order for the umma to attain happiness. This approach, which has infiltrated our political culture and our religious and educational discourse, has created generations of Arabs who dream of past paradises and are incapable of seeking solutions to their problems outside absolute cognitive models."

Pseudo-Intellectual Opposition to Human Rights

"This manner of calling human rights into doubt brings together many diverse writers, intellectuals, philosophers, and judicial specialists. What is noteworthy about these people's positions of casting doubt on the universality of human rights is that they appeal to a modernist frame of reference. Thus, they never tire of repeating that their views derive from the principal sources of modern thought on the state, the individual, and secular civil society.

"Nevertheless, when it comes to human rights they are quick to use any position calling them into question – as if human rights were some foreign body originating outside the modern or postmodern ideological framework. The fact that they appeal to a [vast] arsenal of knowledge in order to impose their supposedly clever pseudo-intellectual views has further confounded our approach to the concept of human rights, deepening the misunderstanding of their origins and development.

"The illusion promulgated by this pseudo-intellectual approach is that universal human rights are an absolute concept, abstracted from an ontological process that transcends time or place. It follows that this concept fits only one view of man – namely, the one that appeared together with the 'natural right' school of thought and was enacted in the Declarations of the Rights of Man and Citizen in France in 1789.

"This reductionist view dominates the few works [written] in Arabic on [the issue of] human rights. However, it has engendered a fundamental historical confusion, by rendering the sources of the human rights concept the monopoly of Western liberal heritage, and by instilling in the [popular] consciousness an opposition to human rights based on the assumption that they [exclusively] serve one central, Western view of man..."

These Forms of Skepticism Regarding Human Rights Have Made the Concept a Stranger to Our Societies

"All the aforementioned forms of skepticism regarding human rights... have helped make this concept a stranger to our societies, and have made difficult the building of a political culture that is capable of including in its scope… such concepts as citizenship, freedom, equality, and social justice. This has led to [additional] problems that are no less dangerous to our societies' political culture. The discussion of human rights has been reduced to abstract fantasizing about the Western sources [of human rights], the extent of their rootedness in our culture, and the extent of the danger they pose to our identity and to our religious frame of reference…

"Despite the plurality of human rights and their sources... and despite the difficulty of implementing them in certain instances, they remain a historical and ethical tool in the political process, and a means of enriching [this process] with the notions of citizenship and social justice. Human rights have impressed on political practice principles and values such as equality, freedom, justice, and honor, cleansing it of the barbaric utilitarianism that consumes both individuals and countries.

"The culture of casting doubt on the concept of human rights has removed it from the sphere of [man's] historical and ethical power, and rendered it suspect [in the eyes of the people]…"[1]


[1], November 26, 2007.

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