On Being Curious about Fundamentalisms and Human Rights

By Buss, Doris E. | Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview

On Being Curious about Fundamentalisms and Human Rights


Buss, Doris E., Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law


In her recent book, Cynthia Enloe writes about curiosity. (1) She explores the differences to scholarly enquiry when we are curious about the obvious. She gives as examples, the words "natural," or "always," or, my favorite, "cheap labor" (she questions why, for example, we do not refer instead to "labor made cheap"). I take up the gauntlet thrown down by Enloe to be curious, and my curiosity starts with the title of this panel.

There are three questions I trip over in approaching "fundamentalisms and human rights." First, what are the "human rights" and "fundamentalisms" named in the panel's title? Second, where, how, and in what context do we imagine human rights and fundamentalisms coming together? That is, what is the "and" that joins "human rights" and "fundamentalisms"? Third, what narratives of international law are required and made possible by a panel on fundamentalisms and human rights?

Let me begin with the first question: what are the human rights and fundamentalisms of which we speak? I confess to being uneasy with both "fundamentalisms" and "human rights." Although the term "fundamentalism" traces its roots back to early nineteenth-century Christianity in the United States, its more current usage needs to be assessed in the harsh light of its common association with certain Islamic sects or actors. In the context of prevailing anti-Islamic sentiment, invoking "fundamentalisms" brings with it the possibilities of other, pejorative meanings. Furthermore, "fundamentalist" is a sweeping and conclusive category. It suggests a known, coherent quantity, notwithstanding the vast array of social science literature that maps the differences and contradictions among religious orthodox actors. I wonder if, in the blinding glare of the term "fundamentalism," it is easier to see some religions as more extreme than others?

What of the "human rights" side of the fundamentalisms and human rights equation? Why is it, I wonder, that we tend to see fundamentalism as posing the most significant threat to women's rights? Here too, "fundamentalism" seems to operate as a bit of blinding search light, subjecting to its harsh gaze, and making strangely luminescent, women's rights. While there is no doubt that women's rights are an important issue in this context, is there a danger that women's rights are hyper-visible in this debate, and that this hyper-visibility might reinforce existing tropes of civilized and uncivilized? As a feminist concerned about women's rights, I wonder if our focus on the nexus between women's rights and "fundamentalism" is drawn in such a way that we see only certain types of challenges to women's rights, and not those once again cast into the shadow, such as global trade or wars on terrorism?

Perhaps it might be helpful to step back from the extremes and limitations implied in our terms "fundamentalisms" and "human rights" to consider more generally what might be some of the assumptions we are making about religion and its relationship to international law? Where is it that we see--or assume we ought to look for--the encounters between religious orthodoxy and human rights?

This question is motivated in part by the work of Talal Asad, who argues that the categories "politics" and "religion," far from being distinct, "turn out to implicate each other more profoundly than we thought." For Asad, a recognition of the relationship between secularity and religion challenges the simplistic characterization of "religion as "infecting" the secular domain or as replicating within it the structure of theological concepts." (2)

Taking Asad's lead, we might consider what assumptions, or dichotomous thinking, inform how and where we see the relationship between religion and international law. First, and perhaps most obviously, we would consider international law's own roots in Christianity and the ways in which Christianity was mobilized to justify international legal sanction of the colonial project. …

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