Legal Reform: Reviewing Human Rights in the Muslim World

By Hibri, Azizah Al | Harvard International Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Legal Reform: Reviewing Human Rights in the Muslim World


Hibri, Azizah Al, Harvard International Review


AZIZAH AL-HIBRI is Professor of Law at the University of Richmond. She is also President and founder of Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights.

Muslim countries are the bete noire of the Human Rights Movement. Problems in these countries range from a denial of democratic rights to restrictions on speech, movement, and education. A drastic example comes from Afghanistan, where the Taliban, in their pursuit of "the perfect Islamic state," have exiled women from public life. Less known is the damage the Taliban are also inflicting on Afghan men. An eyewitness recounts from Kabul the following story, which captures the texture of human rights violations there and the miseries to which they give rise: "Recently, a man was arrested for not growing a beard. His wife and infant child were left unattended at home. The woman finally had to leave her house, with the infant in her arms, to purchase a loaf of bread. She was detected by the Talibans and was beaten mercilessly because her flowery skirt showed accidently from under her chador. The woman lost her sanity. She ran home, where she was boiling meat, and splashed hot water on her assailants. They killed her on the spot, in front of her child."

Incidents like this one, as well as the rape laws in Pakistan which punish the victim, the Algerian civil war which continues to claim the lives of thousands of men and women, and the personal status codes (family laws) which reduce the woman to a ward, all have caused many in the West to ask: "Why is Islam so violent, so different, and so oppressive?" In fact, it is this concern about Islam which underlies many of the recent discussions in the West about "the clash of civilizations" and makes the West less hesitant about the use of force in Muslim countries. This same concern has also led Western non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to support efforts for the secularization of laws in Muslim countries, particularly personal status codes, and the establishment of Western-style democracies.

These efforts will be frustrated, and improvements in the human rights situation will be delayed in Muslim countries, so long as action for change is not based on a proper understanding of the nature of the problems and the people involved. Thus, it is important to remember that all three Abrahamic religions were revealed, and most other religions originated, in the East. Muslims take spirituality very seriously and would be willing to put up with a great deal of pain and suffering rather than abandon this fundamental disposition. Additionally, many Muslims have an intuitive belief that it is not religion which is at fault, but those in power. Consequently, they continue to search for the spiritually acceptable solution. In the meantime, Western NGOs offer no more than lightly-modified Western secular solutions, sometimes thinly disguised with religious rhetoric.

Origins of the Crisis

The roots of the human rights crisis in the Muslim world are ancient. They are also directly related to the issue of democracy and political legitimacy. Political legitimacy in the Muslim state was lost soon after the death of Prophet Muhammad and the four rightly-guided khalifahs (caliphs). At that historical moment, the Umayyad Dynasty rose to power not through free bay'ah (the form of voting practiced then) but by the combined use of sheer force and deceit. Soon thereafter, they further marginalized the will of the people by establishing a hereditary monarchy. Muslim scholars who argued throughout the ages that such a system was antithetical to basic Islamic principles suffered severe retribution. Ultimately, most scholars, weary of the oppressive state machinery and committed to the stability of the Muslim society, opted to abandon the sphere of politics and turn their attention to other matters.

With the decline of Islamic democracy based on the twin principles of bay'ah and shura (consultation), authoritarianism became increasingly entrenched and patriarchal thinking flourished. …

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