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  • After Abu Ghraib: Exploring Human Rights in America and the Middle East
  • Cyra Akila Choudhury (bio)
After Abu Ghraib: Exploring Human Rights in America and the Middle East, by Shadi Mokhtari. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. ix + 243 pages. Bibl. to p. 248. Index to p. 252. $85.

In the post-September 11th era, much has been written about American exceptionalism. Critics have been quick to point out the isolationist tendencies of the George W. Bush era and its "my way or the highway" attitude towards international cooperation. However, relatively little has been written analyzing the resistance to such exceptionalism in the domestic sphere by and through human rights activists using international norms and institutions. Shadi Mokhtari's book is a timely intervention in the literature because it attempts to analyze both the resistance to US human rights exceptionalism in the domestic sphere as well as the impact of Abu Ghraib as a catalyst for human rights activism in the Middle East.

Mokhtari's book is rich with many insights, and scholars of human rights during the tenure of George W. Bush will find much to engage them. Mokhtari's work marries constructivist theory with the Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) critique of human rights orthodoxy, resulting in a more complex analysis. She argues that human rights law is, at once, more normatively strong than TWAIL critics give it credit for yet also prone to political forces in a way that constructivist theory fails to appreciate fully. In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, human rights as a normative constraint to state power was deployed against the United States which, after having spent decades tutoring the "East" on the subject, [End Page 682] was seemingly hoisted with its own petard. As Mokhtari observes, the US's longstanding commitment to human rights made it difficult to disavow them for political expediency.

Despite the activism within America for compliance, that activism failed to unsettle the identity of the United States as a human rights champion and leader. Rather, human rights activists and organizations challenged the regime on its failures while accepting the dominant narrative that these were an aberration or departure from what the United States would "normally" do in a war. In other words, the internal activism, Mokhtari points out, was largely effective because it was couched within the comfortable political identity of the United States as a civilized military power which simply failed to adhere to its own normative commitments to human rights in this one instance. And as part of this narrative, the most legitimizing move made by activist organizations was to engage military personnel as spokespeople for human rights.

Turning to the Middle East, Mokhtari's research examines the influence of US failures and the dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims at Abu Ghraib on the internal human rights landscape in Yemen and Jordan. Mokhtari shows that a new sensibility for the importance of human rights adherence emerged from these events. Despite the fact that many Middle Eastern human rights activists do not have the freedom to criticize their own regimes for the multitude of abuses with which most of us are familiar, the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo scandals along with the use of rendition and CIA black sites, gave these activists an oblique way to critique similar practices committed by their autocratic regimes. That space may shrink under an Obama Administration seeking to reestablish its human rights credibility. However, the fact that the space even opened up and existed —however briefly —is a novel development worthy of note.

Finally, one of the more intriguing theoretical observations of the book, which Mokhtari does not sufficiently explore but leaves others to engage, is that the easy dualisms of the pre-Abu Ghraib era that posited a conflict between rights universalism and cultural relativism broke down into far more complex relationships to the human rights project. The United States, which has long been a champion of universal human rights, used relativist arguments to defend its derogation from those very norms. Middle Easterners, who often have justified derogation on cultural relativism, insisted on the universality of those norms in their application to Arab and...


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