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Human Rights Quarterly 24.2 (2002) 361-381

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Does Islamist Human Rights Activism Offer a Remedy to The Crisis of Human Rights Implementation in the Middle East?

Neil Hicks

I. Introduction

It is not remarked upon often enough that in many countries in the Middle East the organized human rights movement and the political Islamic trend share, to a considerable extent, a common agenda. Both criticize the authoritarian governments of the region for their disregard of democratic principles, for flouting the law, and for engaging in widespread violations of human rights. Despite these elements of shared analysis of what ails their societies, in most cases the two groups view each other with mutual hostility and suspicion.

For Islamists, human rights activists are "working to a Western agenda" seeking to undermine the distinctive identity of Islamic society. For human [End Page 361] rights activists, Islamists are backward-looking, obscurantist and a threat to basic freedoms.

There is no doubt that this divide, between arguably the most dynamic and most popular political trend in the region and the powerful emancipatory force of the human rights discourse, is very convenient to the region's entrenched ruling elites.

The question therefore arises of whether an alliance between the political Islamic movement and the human rights movement is possible, not necessarily in any formal sense, but simply in the emergence of some degree of common ground between them. Is it conceivable that we might have human rights activists who are Islamists, that is to say Islamist human rights activists?

There would be advantages to both movements in such a development. The human rights movement suffers from a lack of a popular base for its ideas. Human rights organizations are too often elite westernized enclaves. No political trend has shown itself more able to mobilize popular support than the political Islamic movement. Islamists suffer from their bad reputation. Governments justify often severe repression of Islamist organizations by claiming that they are acting to preserve civilization itself. A clear public commitment to human rights principles would be a powerful response to such claims.

It is not my purpose here to delve into theological and philosophical questions about the compatibility of Islam with international human rights standards. Others are doing that. It seems to me that Islam is at least as susceptible to interpretations compatible with human rights standards as are other major world religions. Rather, I examine here the experience and the practice of the human rights movement in Egypt and Turkey.

Egypt and Turkey are two of the region's most important countries by virtue of their size and regional influence. Both countries have developed domestic human rights movements of considerable size and visibility, but these two movements have developed in divergent circumstances. Broadly speaking, despite the persistence of deeply entrenched patterns of human rights violations, the Turkish human rights movement has worked within the broader context of a liberalizing polity in which substantive human rights progress was being made, especially since 1995. 1 On the other hand, the Egyptian human rights movement has worked within the context of a de-liberalizing polity in which human rights conditions have deteriorated over the last two decades. 2 [End Page 362]

Egypt, over the last two decades, has in many ways epitomized the crisis in implementation of international human rights standards. A glance at the Amnesty International reports dealing with the early eighties in Egypt reveals essentially the same pattern of widespread human rights abuse that we find today: arbitrary detention and torture, unfair trials, restrictions on freedom of association and on political participation. Turkey presents a different picture. Despite many continuing problems, Turkey has made substantial progress in the human rights field over the last two decades. 3

Through comparison of the experience of the human rights movement in two diverse countries we can observe the extent to which something that we might call Islamist human rights activism has emerged in practice, and if it has, whether it has had a positive effect on human rights conditions...


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