Human Rights, Universality and Sovereignty: The Relevance and Irrelevance of Sharia
Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Nacim
September 27, 2011, 7:00pm
SFU Vancouver Campus, Joseph and Rosalie Segal Rooms 1400-1430
515 West Hastings Street, Vancouver
In this lecture I will combine a critical examination of the paradox in the theory and practice of human rights with a creative analysis of the relationship between these rights and Islam and Sharia (Islamic Law) to clarify the implications of that paradox and illustrate possibilities of its mediation. In particular, I am examining the relationship between Sharia and human rights as a case-study of the broader paradox of universality and sovereignty in the theory and practice of human rights. The rationale of this framing is to balance two perspectives. On the one hand, the need for historical and contextual understanding of the theory and practice of human rights calls for clarification of the ways Sharia is and is not relevant in order to address real or perceived tensions between human rights and the religious/cultural tradition(s) of a quarter of humanity today. On the other hand, it is necessary to avoid the implication that Islam and Sharia are so exceptional as to defy the possibility of mediation of paradox in the theory and practice of human rights.
In the part of the lecture on the general theory and practice of human rights, I will examine the dual paradox of universality and self-regulation by the state. I see the first paradox of universality in claims of the universality of human rights norms in the realities of permanent cultural and contextual difference among human societies. This reality of human difference is the basis and purpose of the collective human rights to self-determination, as affirmed in the first Article of the two main International Human Rights Covenants of 1966.
The part of the lecture on the Islam/Sharia case study is premised on the following perspective. Current scholarship in English about Islam (or Sharia) and human rights tends to examine the relationship between the two in general theoretical terms, or in relation to a particular subject, especially the rights of women, freedom of religion or the rights of religious minorities, without examining the specific theoretical and practical implications of the inquiry. In other words, the importance and relevance of the inquiry is assumed or taken for granted, without considering the purpose and rationale of the relationship between Islam/Sharia and human rights.
The basic thesis I seek to advance in this part of the lecture is that Sharia is relevant to the legitimacy and political efficacy of human rights norms among Muslims, but it is irrelevant to the legal obligations of states under international human rights law. The premise of this thesis is the distinction I make between Sharia as a religious normative system and state law as a necessarily secular legal system. As I have argued in my book Islam and the Secular State (2008), Sharia principles cannot be enforced as state law and remain religious because state law is inherently secular. In that book and other publications, however, I do emphasize the urgent need for Sharia reform for the cultural legitimacy and political efficacy of human rights norms among Muslims. I have also briefly examined the interplay between these two sets of ideas in articles and book chapters. The proposed study will bring these two dimensions of the relationship between Islam/Sharia and human rights together in a full book for the first time.
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