Politik und Gesellschaft Online
International Politics and Society 4/1998

The Concept of Human Rights, the Process of Modernization and the Politics of Western Domination

Vorläufige Fassung / Preliminary version

After suffering the destruction of human life and the waste of human energy and natural resources, caused by two international and several civil, ethnic and religious wars, Europe and the Western world in general learned the lesson: Life in all its forms is precious, and, therefore, should be protected. But protection of life could be only accommodated if the basic rights of every human individual living on earth is protected against any violation covered under any claim. The Human Rights Declaration of 1948 was an expression of such concern. This awareness has its philosophical, social and political roots in Enlightenment, rationality, individuality, democracy, and freedom in the widest sense.

Though the Human Rights declaration is basically intended to be universally implemented, it has been politically manipulated by the powers of the North as a means of exercising domination over the Third World countries. After the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, the United States of America became the sole political power. Liberalism and Capitalism became, consequently, the global principles of the "New" world order marking the "end of history" according to Fukuyama. According to Samuel Huntington's theory of "The Clash of Civilizations" (the American quarterly Foreign Affair, summer 1993) the principal conflict of global politics would occur between nations that belongs to different civilizations. Huntington identified seven of these nation-civilizations, among which is Islam, alongside the Western civilization. The question is not whether this view is valid or not; more important is the reference made to global conflict, a reference that points to the dilemma Third World countries have with regard to Human Rights. For the majority of the people in these countries, who suffered and still suffer the consequences of the imperial and colonial exploitation of their resources, the Human Rights Declaration is understood as a Western product aiming at protecting the welfare of the Western citizens at the expense of the welfare of the non-Western nations. This understanding is supported by the socio-cultural level maintained in these societies, a cultural level which has not yet reached the cultural standard of modernity and modern values. Moreover, cultural diversity which is used by military or semi-military governments of the Third World to justify their totalitarian political systems, is also used to justify the difficulties of the implementation of Human Rights.

The question is not, accordingly, whether or not Human Rights are universal, it should rather be why these universal Human Rights are not universally accepted, nor universally implemented? Trying to answer this question one must raise another essential question: Are modernity, enlightenment, equality and freedom, or rather are Human Rights a mere Western invention? The fact that human civilization has reached its modern and recent development in the Western part of the world does not mean that human civilization is totally Western. Modernity, as we all know, has been identified as "the modern industrial and urban way of life" which stands for a specifically Western set of notions that took root in the eighteenth century. It entails a new periodisation of history (ancient, medieval, modern) in which the modern denotes the period when reason and science triumphed over scripture, tradition, and custom. At the heart of modernity is the notion of the freely acting, freely knowing individual "whose experiments can penetrate the secrets of nature and whose work with other individuals can make a new and better world." (Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob, "Postmodernism and the Crisis of Modernity" in Telling the Truth About History, W.W. Norton, New York 1994, p. 201.)

This definition of modernity, which is basically appropriate, should include a historical analysis of the components of this modernity. Such analysis would reveal that it contains so many elements whose roots are related to some sorts of modernity that existed before modern history. Modernity is, therefore, a process of development and continuation. It started when humans gathered around water resources, settled, produced for their needs by cultivation, and formed social order called "community". Before modern time, modernity was not a universal concept as it has always been related to and shaped by time and space. What was considered to be "modern" in a specific time and place turned in the course of history to be "classical" or even "old fashioned". This is true in literature, art, music, philosophy and ideas etc. Therefore one can indeed speak about "modernities" that existed and contributed their universal human elements in the formation of the modernity which is wrongly called "Western".

Human Rights are similarly the product of the history of human struggle - since Spartacus in Rome till Nelson Mandela in South Africa - against all kinds of human injustice. If every culture on earth has historically contributed to modernity, and accordingly to the formation of the Human Rights Declaration, in one way or another, why are the benefits of modernity and Human Rights not equally shared?! Again the ball is in the Western side of the play yard; political Europe and the United States are still living in the age of the white man's superiority, which means that they are very aware of Human Rights only when the white man's rights are touched. But when violation of Human Rights is related to non-white people, political Europe and the Unites States react, if they react at all, very softly. Exploitation, injustice and humiliation are three obvious factors that determine the basic relationship between the West and the rest of the world in the eyes of the non-Western public. The issue of Human Rights is always used to serve the political and the economic interest of the West. If these interests are secured there is no need to invoke it.

When it comes to "Islam" and the Muslim world, the public feeling of injustice and humiliation is even stronger. The rejection, or the acceptance, of "modernity", "democracy" and "Human Rights" is always questioned, analyzed and discussed in reference to Islam as a "static" religious concept. The social and the political situation in Muslim countries and societies is almost absent from such a discussion. Surely Islam is for Muslims more than a personal or spiritual matter, while Christianity has been driven back to the rear in Western societies. But this does not justify turning the above mentioned issues into a mere theological discussion that leads nowhere. If Christianity is po be questioned in the same manner as Islam is questioned, every one knows how the Church stood strongly against any secular explanation. Only under the pressure of social and political changes that Christianity adjusted itself to "modernity" and to its total social, intellectual and political implications. The question is: is it religion that always determines and shapes social life, or is it also shaped by and interpreted in a certain socio-historical context?

In order to approach answering such a question, a clear distinction has to be made between the original socio-historical context of a given religion and its development(s) through its socio-historical journey up to present time. Through such long a journey, layers of interpretation and re-interpretation, or rather interpretation and counter-interpretation, are accumulated around the original texts to the extent that the original socio-historical context is veiled. If the basic texts of Islamic revelation are analyzed against their historical context it is very appropriate to speak about the kind of "modernity" Islam brought to the world in the seventh century and to explain how this modernity was carried out and developed by Muslims till the twelfth century. Muslims nowadays, however, are very reluctant to accept contemporary "modernity" on the grounds that most of its values contradict Islamic values, or that they rather stem from human legislation while Islamic values are originated in divine revelation. The problem is not, therefore, a religious or theological one, it is rather a socio-cultural and political problem.

Because modernity was introduced to Muslims mainly through colonisation, the image of the West, and accordingly of modernity, was always, and still is, perplexed: It is that of the coloniser and the master, the enemy and the teacher. Modern Muslim thinkers are, unlike their ancestors, torn off between hate and admiration, enmity and love. In this context, modernity is desired because it is practical, but rejected because it represents threat to traditional identity. The image of the West as projected in literature and perceived by the elite constitutes an essential element in studying the problems that keep the distance and maintain the difference. All the political regimes in the Muslim world, on the other hand, seem to enjoy a mutilated modernity, i.e. a modernity without rationality (I borrow the phrase from Fatima Mernissi: Islam and Democracy, translation by Mary Jo Lakeland, 1992). Even with the case of Turkey, the only Muslim country ever to claim to be a secular state, Modernity is under military censorship. The absence of the civic society institutions, which is the only insurance for its continuity, is a very remarkable symptom of the mutilated modernity. In this copy of modernity, individualism is always considered as threat to the community's solidarity, although it is emphasized in the original essential texts of Islam.

Because modernity was enforced, not chosen, it has been associated with the fear of losing self identity. Therefore, individualism held an ambiguous place among the reformers of the nineteenth century religious and nationalist movements. "Facing the militaristic imperialistic West, Muslim nationalists were forced to take their shelter in their past and erect it as rampart-cultural hudûd, boundaries, to exorcise colonial violence. The Muslim past they reactivated did not anchor modern identity in the rationalistic tradition. In fact, the nationalists were prisoners of a historical situation that inevitably made modernity a no-win choice". There were two options: first, to claim "the humanistic heritage of the Western colonizer at the risk of losing unity", second, to "carefully safeguard a sense of unity in the face of the colonizer by clinging to the past, favoring the tradition of ta`â 'obedience' and foreclosing all Western innovation except for importing technology. Rationalism means ra`y 'individual opinion' and `aql 'reason', and, therefore, the possibility of divergence of opinion which present threat to the unity of society." (ibid. p. 42/43)

How much change could be noticed now in the relationship between the West and the Muslim world? How much pressure is still practiced against the Muslim world to protect the economic and political interest of the West? How many unjust political regimes are supported by the political West against the will of the people? How much political manipulation is played against Muslims by presenting Islam as the substitute enemy of the West after the demise of the Soviet Union? It is true that the world has become a small village, but in this small village the poor living in the South are getting poorer and poorer, while the rich of the North are getting richer and richer. Modernity, Human Rights, democracy are only for the privileged, for the underprivileged there is nothing but to cry for justice. In this cry, sometimes violent, - not in Islam - resides the question of Human Rights and all its relevance.

In conclusion, Human Rights are absolutely universal as model, principle, ideal. In reality things are different; the world political situation has not reached yet that level of universality. Islam as a religion is also ideal, universal, and also very human, but the socio-cultural and political situation of most Muslim countries does not allow the original message of Islam to be decoded. The world needs to change in order to reach the high level of the model principles of humanity. A cultural network of intellectuals, writers, artists, sincere journalists and academics, from all the corners of the world, should carry the responsibility of creating equality, justice and freedom between nations and cultures. I hope it is not another utopia.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition bb&ola | November 1998