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Human Rights Quarterly 22.4 (2000) 906-941

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Human Rights and Islamic Identity in France and Uzbekistan: Mediation of the Local and Global

Abdullahi An-Na'im 1


This discussion of current expressions of Islamic identity in Western Europe and Central Asia is part of my wider and continuing concern with issues of cultural transformation in Islamic societies and communities. The relevance [End Page 906] and implications of a human rights paradigm for these issues in apparently different parts of the world are explored herein. This choice is explained below. The theoretical position I will argue is that the application of a human rights paradigm to the processes of cultural transformation draws on the interdependence of culturalist notions of contingency and global mutual influence, on the one hand, and positivist ideas of rights and their institutional expression, on the other. In the last section, I suggest that the human rights paradigm can play this role only to the extent that it both includes different perspectives and is capable of mitigating the negative consequences of differentials in power relations in the processes of globalization.

By the term "human rights paradigm," I mean the articulation and application of the same norms to every human being everywhere, a standard that presupposes the validity of cross-cultural moral judgment and requires systematic efforts to influence state policy and practice in matters that were previously deemed to be subject to the exclusive domestic jurisdiction of the state. 2 At a time when the world was just emerging from the horrors of the Second World War, the Charter of the United Nations of 1945 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 emphasized the idea that, in the interest of protecting human dignity, states should accord all persons, subject to their domestic jurisdiction, certain rights and freedoms. The basic idea is that, whereas the state traditionally determined the normative and institutional framework for matters such as citizenship and its implications, that framework is now partially defined by the human rights paradigm which is articulated and implemented by a variety of governmental, intergovernmental, and nongovernmental actors from all parts of the world, including vulnerable groups like women and immigrants.

As discussed later, the human rights paradigm is premised on a paradox. On the one hand, the normative and institutional arrangements it mandates are supposed to be produced and sanctioned by processes beyond the [End Page 907] exclusive control of the state and local communities. On the other hand, this paradigm also concedes to the state and local communities a crucial role in the interpretation and implementation of human rights norms.

The focus herein is the role of the human rights paradigm in the dynamics of the formation and transformation of Islamic identity in France and Uzbekistan today. In France, this process is taking place for a small minority living in physical diaspora of place or space, while in Uzbekistan it is happening for a clear majority in terms of what may be called "a diaspora of time or displaced memory." Despite differences in their historical experiences and specific present context, both types of complex Muslim communities face the question of the relationship between Islam and the state. As I will emphasize, however, this relationship should not be seen simply in terms of acceptance or rejection of secularism as the complete separation of religion and the state.

While the situations in France and Uzbekistan are quite different in many respects, I see them as raising similar tensions between the dynamic of cultural transformation and the adequacy and legitimacy of institutional arrangements for pluralism and multiculturalism within each country. Yet, the clear differences between the two situations are useful for drawing at least some tentative general conclusions from this comparative analysis. For example, if one can identify some similarities about the relevance and implications of a human rights paradigm for Islamic modernist initiatives in different regions (in this case, Western Europe and Central Asia), that might be helpful in understanding corresponding processes taking place in other parts of the...


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