MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS Human Rights in the Arab World: Independent Voices, ed. by Anthony Chase and Amr Hamzawy. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. 199 pages. Appends, to p. 282. Notes to p. 309. Contribs. to p. 313. Index to p. 322. $65.
Reviewed by Amy Hawthorne
This dense volume is not an easy read. Indeed, any book that engages deeply with the unhappy topic of human rights in the Arab world could not be. Nonetheless, it is an original and outstanding contribution to the literature on human rights in the region.
The book comprises 11 chapters by leading Arab, American, and European scholars and human rights activists, who explore the struggle for human rights from theoretical and empirical perspectives. Introductory chapters examine the debate in the region over the meaning of human rights: Are they universal, reflecting global (some say "Western") norms? Or are they contextual, determined wholly by Islamic norms and Arab cultural values? Or some combination of both? This debate is fierce because it is intertwined with the broader struggle over Arab and Muslim identity and the region's relationship with the West. Subsequent chapters examine strategies used by Arab human rights groups (e.g., bringing lawsuits in the courts, raising public awareness) and the dilemmas they face (e.g., whether to accept funds from Western donors, whether to defend all victims of human rights abuses, notably Islamist extremists who seek to deny the rights of others). This multidimensional analysis produces an unusually richly textured picture of the Arab human rights movement.
Indeed, a central theme of the book is that a genuine movement exists. As Anthony Chase writes, "... human rights are on the intellectual and public agenda ... the human rights debate is part of the Arab world's everyday political conversation" (p. 3). The book traces the movement's evolution, from its intellectual stirrings following the 1967 Arab defeat by Israel, which leftist intellectuals blamed in part on the absence of political freedoms; to the establishment of human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the 1980s; to the movement's expansion and professionalization in the 1990s; to the more recent adoption of human rights discourse by some Arab regimes and mainstream Islamist groups.
The book's second main theme is the failure of this movement to achieve any significant gains. Some contributors attribute this to government repression and Western indifference, while others point to the challenge of fighting both illiberal regimes and illiberal Islamist groups. The most common explanation, however, blames the movement itself. It has failed - indeed it has not seriously tried - to build a grassroots constituency. …