Modern History and Politics: Islam, Liberalism, and Human Rights

Article excerpt

Islam, Liberalism, and Human Rights, by Katerina Dalacoura. London and New York: LB. Tauris, 1999. viii + 209 pages. Bibl. to p. 231. Index to p. 238. $19.95 paper.

Reviewed by Susan Waltz

For more than a decade, there has been an intellectual debate about the compatibility of Islam and human rights. For students of Islam and Arabo-Muslim traditions, the debate turns around the political interpretation and application of Islamic law, and, notably, the legal doctrines that were developed by jurists in the early centuries after the Prophet Muhammad's death. Arguments may likewise be located within a larger debate between cultural relativism (Hegelian communitarianism) and universalism (Kantian cosmopolitanism). From either perspective, the debate is a highly charged one, and discussion is complicated by the fact that neither "Islam" nor "human rights" is invariably defined. Human rights is alternatively viewed as a philosophical concept, a legally-defined concept, and a 20th century political project and political construct. Islam is variously represented as doctrine and as political practice. Those who expound the tenets of Islam may have in mind their own direct (but inevitably selective) reading of sacred texts, an established tradition of Islamic law, or political doctrine extending from the writings of Islamic scholars; alternatively, they may refer to social and political practices prevalent in Arab society, or Islaminfluenced practices common across the full span of predominantly Muslim societies. Proponents of various positions do not necessarily accept the same premises, approaches, or definitions. It is therefore not surprising that many arguments end up at cross purpose, in a deafening dialogue of the deaf.

Into this mayhem, Katerina Dalacoura has bravely stepped. She has assembled a thoughtful and cogent inquiry that separates and analyzes elements of this deeply entangled argument. Dalacoura sets out to determine if there is, in the first instance, an inherent logical conflict between Islam as a religion and the value of human rights (used interchangeably with the term "liberalism"). Are the two concerns mutually exclusive? In two complex chapters, she reviews contemporary and philosophically contending approaches to both human rights and Islam. She asks if Islam and human rights can be compatible and concludes with what is arguably the most significant contribution of the book: an intellectual argument for decoupling liberalism and secularism in the study of Middle Eastern politics. Dalacoura contests the commonly accepted, but infrequently inspected assertion that in Islam, religion and politics are one. The fact of doctrinal difference creates space for differing political representations of Islamic principles, including those compatible with international human rights standards. …