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  • Group Rights and the Muslim Diaspora 1
  • William Barbieri (bio)

I. Introduction

The fifty years following the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have witnessed a signal achievement: the establishment of a moral lingua franca for global politics. In statements by visiting heads of state, in the efforts of international organizations, in the pleas of grassroots associations and nongovernmental organizations, in the declarations of religious bodies, and in the accusations of rebel movements alike, talk of justice—and, more immediately, injustice—is conducted in the parlance of human rights. Even the cynical and blatantly manipulative invocations of human rights issued by oppressors and tyrants provide a sort of backhanded testimony to the moral force of the idea. As Michael Walzer remarked in connection with the ethics of war, “Wherever we find hypocrisy, we also find moral knowledge.” 2

It is part and parcel of their promotion to present human rights as fixed and obvious verities of human experience. This image masks, however, deep ambiguities, if not paradoxes, in the nature of human rights. Thus, the normative authority of human rights claims stands against a widely shared confusion regarding the relationship between the moral and legal dimensions [End Page 907] of human rights. Thus, a remarkable measure of practical agreement on international human rights standards stands against widespread disagreement on their theoretical underpinnings. Thus, the historicity characterizing the emergence of human rights norms stands against the timelessness they claim for themselves. Thus, the universality suggested by the very notion of human rights stands against the impact of the particularity of each context in which they are invoked. One should think of these antinomies as constituting a framework of creative tensions within which human rights are dialectically articulated and promoted. Human rights discourse, in this view, is best understood as the practice of collectively interpreting the implications and requirements of the idea of human rights, always in light of the experience garnered in attempts to realize human rights in practice.

One of many theaters in the ongoing project of interpreting human rights is Islamic Western Europe. This is the Europe marked by the promi-nent mosque on the banks of the Alster in Hamburg, by the students wearing head scarves in state-run lycées in Paris, and by the public calls to prayer in Birmingham. It is a Europe that has emerged from the aftermath of colonial-ism and the wake of the worker recruitment programs of the fifties and sixties that constitutes a forum for the politics of identity, difference, and recognition. 3 At the heart of this Europe, sharpened by the conjuncture of divergent world-views, lies a set of questions bearing on fundamental notions of human rights. What consequences does this new social constellation bring for our understanding of the tension between the individual rights of liberal tradition and the group rights championed by the multiculturalists? What, in this context, is the meaning of equality? Also, what are the implications of Islamic Europe with regard to how we should think about religious freedom?

In taking up this rather daunting cavalcade of questions, the intent of this article is, in the first place, simply to shed some light on their ethical complexities. Illumination of the structure of moral problems is the primary task of applied ethics; to this, the constructive normative argument must take a back seat. Accordingly, what this article will offer in the way of answers will be, at best, tentative and highly provisional. All the same, some attention will be devoted to proposing guidelines that might assist in resolving conflicting claims of human rights. [End Page 908]

II. The Issues

The Islamic presence in Western Europe is marked by a good deal of diversity; France’s Algerians, Germany’s Turks, and the United Kingdom’s Pakistanis are only the most prominent of the predominantly Muslim immigrant populations that have established themselves as minorities in recent decades, in some cases, joining small groups of indigenous Muslims. 4 Equally variegated have been the receptions accorded this influx in the respective countries of destination, with respect to both the legal incorporation of the newcomers and their social and economic integration. 5 All the same, the encounter between...

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