Imran Khan Was Not So Wrong About Difference Between Human Rights And ‘Muslim Rights’

Imran Khan Was Not So Wrong About Difference Between Human Rights And ‘Muslim Rights’
At the recent meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Prime Minister Imran Khan assumed his preferred role as Muslim cultural ambassador at large and urged the international community to be 'sensitive to the tribal customs' of Pashtuns. Conflating these with those of the Taliban, the PM acknowledged differences in human rights and women's rights across cultures and argued that incentivizing basic rights is futile unless local patriarchal norms are accommodated. 

The PM often speaks with superficial knowledge, but righteous indignation over these observations is misplaced. Firstly, the PM’s appeal for cultural exceptionalism aligns with the majority of ‘progressive’ NGOs in Pakistan and international donors, who tailor all their projects so as to avoid offending religious-cultural sensitivity or upsetting patriarchal privilege. Secondly, many post 9/11 analysts and academics have also typecast Pashtun-Taliban culture, insisting that rather than terrorists or even fundamentalists, they should be understood as historical anti-imperialists or even, ‘muslim male politicians’.  Finally, the conviction that human rights are incompatible with some cultures echoes the findings of several respected scholars of Islam. 

Legal scholar Naz Modirzadeh notes that “Islamic law, as currently applied in many countries, violates international human rights law” and despite these widely known incongruities, the “hand-wringing by Muslim scholars about whether a conflict exists is largely for the benefit of a Western audience.” (A caution here for the blindly outraged; just as the argument for secular resistance in majoritarian contexts is not a rebuke of religion itself, the incompatibility mentioned here is not between Islam and human rights but Islamic laws as they are interpreted, drafted and implemented.)

Suspicions about human rights organisations as handmaidens of anti-Muslim agendas pre-date the events of 9/11 but after 2001, the debate over Islamic law in conflict with international human rights law sharpened. While secularists directly challenge Islamic statehood, the liberals and reformists seek to iron out, hybridize, accommodate, and fuse these different regimes. Since the sacred is immutable, such exercises resulted in recommendations for “tempered or chastened universalism” or strategic legal maneuverings. However, such appeals for “a not-so-radical approach to human rights in Islam” and for “both sides to tone it down” do not offer solutions for when rights conflict – over child marriage, inheritance, child custody, inter-faith marriages, religious offense, sexual autonomy, interest. 

Other than reformist efforts during General Musharraf’s rule, an entire body of scholars from the elite LUMS criticized the “forced diagnostic-prognostic couplings” of “equality-espousing human rights norms” while advocating for culturally relevant religious laws to combat moral and financial corruption. They refused to concede their erroneous predictions that reform of the Zina law by a liberal regime would be rejected by the pious masses. Masqueraded as sympathy for the common man, the claim of these benevolent intellectuals is that sharia is appropriate for the unwashed pious masses while liberal and secular human rights are reserved for themselves.

These moderates insist that Muslims suffer moral injury when Islamic laws are challenged and that engagement and consensus from Islamists and madrassa-educated students is necessary. They fantasize how discursive explanations will convince the righteous that blasphemy does not apply to non-Muslims and more deviously, some propose that minorities be classified as ‘dhimmis’ so they can qualify for formal protection. But when the PM proposes to follow such recommendations, they rage at the conservative audacity of such piety-driven politics. Religious politics depends on controlling women’s autonomy, inequalities of minorities, and a class-based economic system, so these ‘middle-path’ pipe-dreams are not just defeatist but reek of majoritarian conceit.  

In contrast, despite the risks, pioneering Pakistani human rights activists have resisted clerical authority, questioned the efficacy of Islamic laws and politics and attempted to expand rights while monitoring lapses in the government’ s commitments to international treaties. Asma Jahangir’s own views were crystal clear; “a true liberal interpretation of Islam will never be widely accepted. On the other hand, the half-hearted liberalization of Islam will be more detrimental for women.” For this she was characterized as a “liberal hawk'' by the cancellers.

Scholar Reza Afshari refuted the idea that human rights violations in Iran were only motivated by Western imperialism and observed how “cultural relativist ethnographic exploration led to a scholarly demand for a retooling of human rights discourse and practice”. We should learn from the creeping fate of such societies, including India. 

Those who feel there is incompatibility between rights’ regimes should not offer half-baked musings about liberalising Islamic laws or hope to shame the pious into following universal principles of individual freedoms, sexual autonomy or indivisible equality. They should explicitly advocate secular options without resorting to cultural or nationalist nativism. 

Conversely, those who feel human rights can flow through Islamic doctrinal laws must urge the National Commission of Human Rights to collaborate with the Council of Islamic Ideology and Rehmatul-lil-Alameen Authority and dispense with token references to secular rights treaties. Instead, they should engage with the divisive religious debates and hire sharia-minded activists, lawyers, judges and experts to craft recommendations based on Islamic legal reform approaches. 

The PM has rightfully identified the divergences between rights’ regimes, so instead of hiding behind the gray shades of centrism, it’s time to affirm a clear and dependable frame of human rights rather than fake neutrality.