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A rebuttal.

In his article in the winter 1997 Arab Studies Quarterly, John Strawson purports to critique the second edition of my book Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics and ascribes to me various misguided positions regarding how human rights relate to Islamic culture and law. He does this despite my extensive publications, numerous public lectures, and years of human rights activism, all of which provide ample proof that I do not subscribe to any of the positions he attributes to me. Being allowed a short space for rebuttal, I can only highlight a few of his many attempts to place my work in an entirely false light.

Strawson would have it that I argue that Islamic culture is an obstacle to human rights (Strawson, p. 34) and, that, even worse, in my work "the dynamism of Islamic jurisprudence is put to death by a combination of cultural essentialism and Western positivism" (Strawson, p. 43). Nothing in my book remotely supports the premise of cultural essentialism. On the contrary, my publications show how unimpressed I am by Islamic cultural rationalizations for denying human rights. Throughout my book I express skepticism about whether any of the obstacles placed in the way of human rights actually derives from Islamic culture. Indeed, the reason for the subtitle, "Tradition and Politics" is that I propose that political interests, rather than Islamic tradition, ultimately dictate positions on human rights. See my conclusion on p. 177 where, in assessing Islamic human rights schemes, I say:

Their Islamic pedigrees are dubious . . . the pattern of diluted rights in the Islamic human rights schemes examined here should not be ascribed to peculiar features of Islam or its inherent incompatibility with human rights. Instead, these diluted rights should be seen as part of a broader phenomenon of attempts by elites - the beneficiaries of undemocratic and hierarchical systems - to legitimize their opposition to human rights by appealing to supposedly distinctive cultural traditions.

Persons who want my views on this point spelled out in capital letters might consult "Cultural Particularism as a Bar to Women's Rights. Reflections on the Middle Eastern Experience," in Women's Rights. Human Rights: International Feminist Perspectives, Julie Peters and Andrea Wolper, eds. (New York: Routledge, 1995), 176-88, and "Universal Versus Islamic Human Rights: A Clash of Cultures or Clash with a Construct?" Michigan Journal of International Law 15 (1994), 307-404.

According to Strawson, I confess to having "selected only conservative interpretations of Islamic law" on the basis that "these forces have been dominant within Islamic jurisprudence." (Strawson, p. 41) He footnotes this to pp. 40-43 of my book, where no such claims are made or even remotely implied. Having invented this confession out of whole cloth, Strawson then takes me to task, complaining that I provide no supporting arguments! (Strawson, p. 41) But, why should I spring to the defense of propositions that I have never put forward? Far from selecting "only conservative interpretations," I touch on a full spectrum of Islamic opinion, ranging from complete endorsement to total rejection of human rights, admittedly with a concentration on the opinions representing the middle ground. As I explain on pp. 24-25, these compromise positions are the most interesting ones for purposes of comparisons with international law. I explain the criteria for selection on p. 24, indicating that I have focused on certain Islamic human rights schemes because of their likely impact, which has led me to emphasize ones put forward "by major Islamic institutions and influential figures, as well as ones adopted by governments." On p. 20 1 advise readers that, by this emphasis, I do not intend to imply that the middle ground positions are definitively Islamic. Far from claiming that these are in any way "dominant within Islamic jurisprudence" or that they are even closely tied to Islamic jurisprudence, I highlight their political contingency and explain on p. 24 that these schemes amount to "a melange - and often a very awkward one - of international law principles with rules and concepts that are taken from the Islamic legal heritage or that are presented as having Islamic pedigrees."

According to Strawson, I belong to the benighted crew that believes Islamic law is static (Strawson, p. 33), which many will find an especially bizarre coda to my piece spoofing the notion that Islamic law is monolithic and static, "Islam Inside and Out," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 22 (1991), 89-100. I am also accused of holding that Islamic law is "untouched by the idea of the state" (Strawson, p. 40). Naturally, Strawson can cite nothing in Islam and Human Rights to back up either of these claims. After all, the book covers a striking diversity and mutability in Muslims' understandings of Islamic law and shows how the subordination of Islamic law to the state has led it to be reconstituted to serve governmental agendas. Furthermore, for years I have been preoccupied with how Islamic law is being reformulated and, in particular, how it is being reconfigured by the intervention of the nation-state, my single most important publication being on this topic: "The Shari'a: A Methodology or a Body of Substantive Rules?" in Islamic Law and Jurisprudence, Nicholas Heer, ed. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990), 177-198. Other relevant pieces include "War and Peace in the Islamic Tradition and in International Law," in Just War and Jihad, James Johnson and John Kelsay, eds. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991) 195-226 and "Islam and the State," Cardozo Law Review 12 (1991), 1015-56. Strawson pretends that I identify Islam as the cause of the failures of Iranian constitutionalism, protesting that I ignore that the human rights situation in a country like Iraq "is no better despite its being a secular regime" (Strawson, p. 43). Strawson presumably counts on readers not checking this against p. xvii of my book, where I point out that my work as a human rights activist has taught me that "Islam is not the cause of the human rights problems endemic to the Middle East. Human rights abuses are every bit as prevalent and just as severe in countries where Islamic law is in abeyance or consciously violated as in countries where it is, at least officially, the legal norm." Strawson apparently also reckons that no one will notice that I refer to Iraqi human rights abuses on pp. 20 and 179, and that Republic of Fear, the seminal analysis of Saddam Hussein's reign of terror in Iraq, is cited on p. 208.

Strawson claims that I exclude from my purview actual human rights organizations and that I am guilty of a "studied refusal to engage with the human rights activities in the region," (Strawson, p. 47) a particularly outre accusation to hurl at someone like myself who has a long record of collaboration with human rights groups from the region and of scholarship dealing with their concerns. Consulting the index of Islam and Human Rights will lead readers to discussions of human rights advocacy in the region on pp. 14-15, 26, 166-67, 175,177, 180, 183. Strawson likewise insists that I fail to mention major human rights conferences or initiatives (Strawson, pp. 47-48), when in reality I mention meetings like the Kuwait seminar on human rights in Islam on pp. 51, 171-72, 174; the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights on pp. 179, 180-81; and the historic critique produced by the 1984 human rights conclave of Arab intellectuals in Tunis on pp. 175-76.

Although space limitations preclude further elaboration, I trust the foregoing evidence will suffice to warn readers about the caliber of what John Strawson is attempting to pass off as an academic "critique."

Ann Elizabeth Mayer is an associate professor in the Legal Studies Department, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
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Title Annotation:response to article by John Strawson, winter 1997 Arab Studies Quarterly
Author:Mayer, Ann Elizabeth
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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