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  • Toward a Normative and Institutional Framework for Cosmopolitan Justice
  • Abdullahi A. An-Na'im (bio)

Shared Human Vulnerability

In this essay my general objective is limited to arguing for the need to construct and sustain a legitimate and viable normative framework for cosmopolitan justice. However, I will open this discussion on a personal note. I believe myself to be a cosmopolitan out of personal experience. I find myself to be of many places at once, and I feel that I can understand, relate to, and empathize with people of other places and experiences. However, in recent times I have been questioning myself seriously over the real meaning of what it is to be cosmopolitan. The weeks that followed September 11, 2001, were a deeply challenging time for me. This was so at the time and has been so since for many Muslims, and for those living in the United States in particular. Being a Muslim from Sudan, living in the United States, I was asked to talk about that tragic event almost every week, in both churches and synagogues as well as on college campuses and to the media. From the start, I condemned the terrorist attacks while also asking audiences to understand—though certainly not condone—such atrocities within the larger context of the profound moral and political failure of the foreign policy of the United States, particularly in relation to the Middle East. At the time, I also cautioned against a military retaliation, but with the beginning of the American military bombardment of Afghanistan on October 7 of that year my worst fears were realized.

At some point during that period I began to notice how I was using personal pronouns like "we," "you," "I," and "us." In addressing American audiences I would say "you," and at some point I would talk about "we" and sometimes "us." I therefore began to reflect on what these terms include and what they exclude. Who is the "we," who is the "us," and who is the "I" at a given time and place, and what do these terms really mean? In which moments am I included or excluded in each of these pronouns, and in what sense is that inclusion or exclusion different from or similar to that of my various audiences?

I strongly condemn both the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the unilateral military retaliation against Afghanistan that followed, and more strongly the colonization of Iraq since March 2003.1 I also feel that "we"—in the varying ways and degrees that accord with the range of possible uses of this pronoun—have failed to respond appropriately to the challenge [End Page 51] of terrorism.2 This is so because terrorism is ultimately a challenge both to our human decency and to our sense of responsibility for what we do, including for what is done on our behalf or in our name, with our approval or acquiescence. In this regard, I see no distinction between actions that are formally characterized as terrorist by nonstate actors or similar acts of arbitrary violence by a government. To the extent that all of us, in our respective situations, have supported, encouraged, or been indifferent to the political violence of various perpetrators in many places, as well as to the underlying causes of such violence, the terrorists have succeeded and we have failed. One's individual and collective responsibility and failure will vary according to one's identity and location in relation to the perpetrators of political violence and to the grievances or hegemonic projects that have driven it, whether or not it is characterized as "terrorism" in a given case. The questions that I wish to raise in relation to this point and for the purposes of this essay include, what difference does being cosmopolitan make in relation to this problem? And, more generally, can one really be of multiple identities and locations simultaneously, and how does this affect one's responsibility?

Many lessons and insights can already be drawn, and will continue to unfold, from the atrocities of September 11. But the immediate point that is tragically demonstrated by these attacks—and in similar ones that have taken place since—is...


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pp. 51-62
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