Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry

Nov 2, 2001

Human rights scholar Michael Ignatieff happened to be in Kabul when the Taliban came to power. He has never forgotten his conversations with Afghan women during that time, who, he says, "taught me more about human rights than I have ever learned before or since." In this talk, Ignatieff discusses the poor human rights records in many Islamic countries and possible remedies.


MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: The contents of this book, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, comes from a series of lectures I delivered at Princeton in the spring of 2000. It was written and completed before September 11th, so the question is: how does this book look after September 11th, and do the human rights issues and challenges that we face look different after September 11th?

In one sense, nothing—repeat, nothing—was changed by September 11th. If you believed in human rights before, you ought to believe in it afterwards. What you thought was deeply true before September 11th strikes me as true after September 11th. We who believe in human rights will not make friends now by changing our principles. Nothing is gained by concession and compromise in the face of terror and outright horror. But there is simply no doubt, if you are a writer, that the audience and the way an audience reads a book has been changed utterly by the events of September 11th. The small number of pages in this book that are devoted to the Islamic challenge to human rights now seem more salient than before September 11th. Although I am deeply respectful of the Islamic tradition to the degree that I know it, I have a nasty tendency to pretend expertise in areas where I have none, and this might be a case where my pretenses to expertise irritate, or even inflame, those of Islamic faith, and I pray your indulgence and that you will hear me as a friend and not as an enemy.

I recall being in Kabul in September of 1996, forty-eight hours after the Taliban took over. I was in a compound of the International Committee of the Red Cross. What I noticed immediately were the number of women crowding into the compound in tears, huddling in the back, literally hiding behind desks and chairs from the gaze of the Taliban fighters who had just taken the city. I will never forget the conversations I had with those women, who taught me more about human rights than I have ever learned before or since.

They were saying: We are women who went to Moscow and trained as gynecologists during the Soviet period; we went West and we became lawyers and doctors and professors and teachers; we got jobs with international relief agencies as typists and clerks and executives; we now run the emergency delivery programs in our towns. We are also good Muslims; we believe in our faith, in the vision of honor and dignity that this religion creates for us as women. But we want a few simple things: to be able to walk in the street; to practice our occupations; to educate our female children; and to receive medical care with female practitioners —ncy, of their freedom as individuals.

These women had an agenda of freedom, which was perfectly specific as well as compatible with devotion and faith within the Islamic tradition. What they were using human rights to say was not "we want to become Western," but "we want to protect ourselves from this particularly virulent and intolerant version of our faith, this hijacking of our faith, to imprison us once again."

In other words, I learned to think of human rights as a language that has gone global by vernacularizing, and to focus on the extent to which Islam, or a particularly radical version of Islam, was now in many ways the chief challenge to human rights in the global battle of ideas.

There were four issues where this challenge was most salient.

  1. women's rights: women are on the front lines of this battle;
  2. democracy: —n kinds of Islam are or are not compatible with democracy;
  3. the Islamic distinction between a believer and an infidel, which poses a challenge to the universalism of human rights;
  4. and finally, the very nature of jihad —ersal dignity that are rooted in Western ideas, in Western ideas of agency, to reconcile those visions of dignity for women with those that are deeply rooted in the Islamic tradition.

Women's Rights

Human rights will win no friends if it sees Islam simply as the language of oppressing females. Islam is also a powerful language of dignity and empowerment. But there is a conflict between the kinds of empowerment and freedom implicit within the human rights tradition and those implicit within the Islamic tradition, and that conflict has generated a dialogue in which deliberation can go only so far. Women of Islam will ultimately have to choose which version of freedom they are going to ally with, and our job, to the degree that we are involved in this debate, is to assist them in making those deliberative choices. It's not a matter of imposing; it's a matter of standing with and helping them choose the kind of freedom they want.

Islam and Democracy

On the second issue, the issue of democracy, we in the West have to try hard to remember the enormous power of Islam as the language of the oppressed. It's a language of the streets, expressing a cry for justice. Traditionally, Islam has given voice to the voiceless, to the silenced. This gives it a profound link to some of the basic concepts of human rights.

Thus, we must say frankly in our encounters with the Islamic world that Islam doesn't necessarily translate politically into theocracy. Islam might very well translate into democracy. We need to find a dialogue with Islam in which we give voice to that language of justice that is so central to Islam and find ways in which a deliberative compromise between the principles of empowerment that are stood for in human rights and in Islam may speak together so that Islamic citizens have the form of democracy that is appropriate to them and not simply the tyranny of the mullahs.

Infidels and Believers

The third place in which we need an honest dialogue is the distinction between the infidel and the believer. All religions distinguish between "us" and "them" —tic conception of brotherhood and sisterhood which is present in Islam.


The final area in which there has to be a dialogue is over jihad. Islam — A deliberation between equals is a deliberation in which they say, "That's not consistent with human rights." Fine, let's have that dialogue in which we say, "This is not consistent with your traditions of warrior decency and warrior's honor" and they say, "There are things that you are saying that are not consistent with your premises." That's the dialogue we need.

Finally, one of the things that has been disabling to human rights has been a sense of rights as trump. We have a sense that whenever we put human rights on the table, it ends deliberation. We whack those thirty-two articles, or whatever they are, of the UDHR onto the table, and that is supposed to end the discussion.

I'm trying to give you a different picture of human rights, in which human rights is the condition, not the resolution of deliberation. It's the condition of deliberation in one absolutely simple sense: human rights is the language of human equality.

Not all rights traditions are. Many are not premised on equality. "We hold these truths to be self-evident" was a rights tradition that denied full humanity—and full civil and political rights—to blacks for 165 years in this country. There is no necessary connection between rights and equality, but the human rights tradition is a tradition of human equality.

If that is so, it's a discipline, which means we can't go into a room and say to those with whom we are in dialogue, "We have a kind of civilizational and cultural superiority to which you have to defer." No. The language of equality is a discipline, in the sense it commits us to equal deliberation with our partners, a frank, clear and truthful engagement.

Human rights creates the ground in which we are forced, against all our instincts, our cultural superiorities, our imperial heritages, to listen, to deliberate, to find compromises. There is, of course, some point at which deliberation has to cease. There are forms of treatment of women that in any construal of any set of traditions are not defensible.

So it is that double side of human rights that we need to keep in mind: a language of equality that creates the possibilities of deliberation, and a set of core principles allowing us finally to say, if we can't reach agreement: "Here, unfortunately, we have to disagree; and here, unfortunately, sometimes we may have to fight." But that is also true of the other tradition, which is why equality is so difficult.

I don't want to over-sell deliberation to you. There are moments where deliberation ceases. Human rights both creates the grounds for deliberation and tells you "this far and no further."

I hope this lays out some very abstract, very broad sense of how human rights and Islam can be in dialogue; why they have points in common, points of difference; how deliberation is possible; and how it is possible to reach moments where deliberation has to cease and another language has to begin.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: I was very puzzled by your initial remark, that nothing had changed on September 11th. Certainly from the point of view of a practitioner of international relations, everything has changed. And certainly in the case of human rights and foreign policy, it is remarkable how the world has gone almost from black to white. If you look at the history of human rights and international relations, there are basically three eras. In the Cold War, human rights was used selectively against the Soviet Union but not against Mobutu or General Ziad [phonetic]. Then, after the end of the Cold War, it was used at least less selectively, but still you didn't apply it to, say, Saudi Arabia. But now, after September 11th, all bets are off and human rights will again be used even more selectively.

I will give you one concrete example. For fifteen months, the Security Council was debating whether to lift sanctions on Sudan, and the answer was: "No. Human rights in Sudan is bad." One Thursday afternoon, there was a phone call from Washington to New York, and the next morning, at 10:00 o'clock, the sanctions on Sudan were lifted. Nothing changed in Sudan, but the international dimension changed.

The danger for the rest of the world is that if human rights once again becomes a very cynical tool of foreign policy, doesn't that affect the way human rights is seen in the whole world?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Anyone who is a human rights activist — be, a language of ethical consistency. A language that makes universalist claims and makes consistency claims of this kind is disgraced if it is used in a selective way. The coinage is unquestionably debased. But that's the nature of this language. I think opponents of human rights simply see it as the kind of willing lap dog of any imperialist trickster who can happen to conjure it up.

I would argue that human rights is a language with its own integrity, and it bites those who tend to use it and misuse it. I can only concede the utter truth of what you are saying and warn those who do so that the coinage will be debased, we will not be believed. There is nothing that is more harmful to human rights than its use by power in these inconsistent and self-interested ways. A proper use of human rights conditionalities, human rights perspectives, in international affairs would discipline the alliances and deals we do. But clearly this is not happening. Those who defend human rights in certain administrations will simply have to choose. If they continue to do that, the language will lose all currency.

It is the kind of problem that has special difficulties because human rights is a moral and ethical language. There are all kinds of inconsistencies in international affairs. Consistency in this sense is the hobgoblin of little minds. Circumstances change and you have to shift policy around.

But if you up the ante and justify policy one minute with the ultimate language of modern secular or moral principle and then the next day change around, it has much more visible and difficult consequences than if you simply say, "Hey, we changed our mind. This is why playing with human rights in this way is a particularly dangerous game, because once you up the ante in this way, once you make a moral claim, and then betray it the next minute, you betray anybody's faith in your moral consistency as an actor. Moral consistency is a tremendous force multiplier and force enabler. If you consistently maintain moral principles through thick and thin, you get what is called moral legitimacy. If you apply it inconsistently, you lose it. So it has power implications as well.

QUESTION: In your judgment, what should the international community have done in Afghanistan in 1996, when you were there and saw what you saw?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: It's a very good question. In a sense, they did nothing. They saw very clearly what the advent of the Taliban would do for women. This is not a case of a knowledge problem. Everybody had the facts. Sometimes policy isn't very good because people don't know. Everybody knew.

One of the most disturbing implications is the extreme — is quoted in the Nouvel Observateur in Paris in 1998 as saying, when he was reproached for arms supplies to the Mujaheddin, "Who cared if the goal was the overthrow of the Soviet Union?" That is, part of the policy problem was simply not thinking through consequences beyond one goal.

Nobody asked the question in the 1980s: What happens if they win? The only question was: How do we get the Soviet Union to lose? One of the lessons here is to calculate consequences through as long a chain as you possibly can.

If you use proxies, you are liable to be disgraced. A principal agent's capacity to control proxies is going to be very limited.

One of the things that then happened is after the Mujaheddin won what was by all accounts a heroic victory, they then turned upon themselves inside Afghanistan. When I went to Kabul, in Warrior's Hono r I called it the "Dresden of the post-Cold War world." The destruction that those militias wrought on Kabul was one of the war crimes of the 1990s that went unnoticed and unpunished. Again, principal agents have limited control and leverage over proxies. Our ability to stop that was limited.

What might have made a difference, again, required enormous amounts of geo-strategic vision. The basic enfeebling condition of Afghan policy through the 1990s was an inability to see it as a geo-strategically important place.

The civil wars of the 1990s were seen as a humanitarian crisis. One of the lessons that I draw about Afghanistan is that in the whole post-Cold War world, people like me and many others in the room were trying to say that a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe will become a national security threat. We were trying to bridge the gap between perceiving a humanitarian/human rights crisis and seeing a national security threat.

Slowly, the two threats came together. Slowly, people began to notice that if you have a failing and failed state, it becomes a harbor for terror, it becomes a source of uncontrolled refugee flows which have destabilizing effects in neighboring countries. Finally, it becomes a drug source, and so on.

A humanitarian/human rights crisis metastasized into a national security threat. But the whole period, from 1991 when the geo-strategic goal was achieved, right through to 2001, it was seen as distant, "it has nothing to do with us and it's on another political and moral planet."

In other words, the basic problem was much larger than simply principal agent proxy problems. There was also a sense of immense political distance that could not be closed by anything anybody said. Everybody who came back from Afghanistan said: "This place is going to blow. This place is a catastrophe for the geo-strategic security of an entire region which includes a nuclear power. Something must be done. Get all the parties in one room, get a political process going, shut off arms supplies." You can write the ticket of what political engagement would have required. But that incorrigible tendency to regard far away as nowhere inhibited all capacity to act until suddenly the action was coming right at us.

This is one of those kinds of stories that a lecturer tells to demonstrate to you his enormous clairvoyance and all-seeing powers: In March 2001, I gave a talk to the 450 cadets at the United States Naval Academy, in which I said: "Where is the next threat to your boats coming from?" There was a long, paralyzed silence, young undergraduates looking timidly. I said: "It's coming at you from Afghanistan." I now feel this is a tremendous display of historical foresight. But this is not rocket science. The World Trade Center had already happened, the COLE had already been hit, and the embassies had been taken down.

So as this problem came closer and closer, that's what's truly horrifying: nobody could connect up the dots and see that a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe had become, through four or five distinct steps, a national security threat.

That is one of the messages that human rights activists need to learn, because we talk a language of pure conscience, a language of humanitarian concern, and we never had the traction to make the national interest argument clearly enough.

QUESTION: Regarding two comments that you made earlier in your remarks, one will be a comment and a brief question.

Regarding women in Afghanistan, twenty years ago, Princeton University Press published a book by a colleague Gregory Massell on the Soviet Union and the women in Central Asia. He and I revisited the topic over lunch yesterday. He commented that in the early years of the Sovietization of Central Asia, part of the Soviet strategy was to reach to the women and empower then in social and professional life. Skipping many years later now to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Mujaheddin, they saw women as relative infidels, and one way of restoring a kind of religious control to the society was to get back at them, to put them in their place. Earlier this week here, Fawaz Gerges from Sarah Lawrence College said that all of the states in the Islamic world have rejected a modernization of Islam to go along with your concepts of human rights and religious freedom. What has happened for the Islamic states to essentially reject the assertions and determination of Kamal Ataturk in the early part of the century, to keep Islam but give it a modernist overtone?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Whenever General DeGaulle was asked a question he couldn't answer, he would say "Vaste question," meaning too big, too hard, can't do it all. Just some headlines by way of an answer.

The Soviet and the Ataturk modernizations of women are interesting, but different. Ataturk's modernization of Turkish women had much more legitimacy because it was anchored in a nationalist ideology. But the Communist modernization of women in Afghanistan shows exactly how you shouldn't do it. A kind of Western rationalist universalism backed by terror and tyranny did bring women gains, but the gains are now delegitimized by the means with which they were used. If you are going to get traction here, you have to show considerably more respect and understanding for the culture in which you are working. That would be message number one.

If you show respect, you get traction, in my judgment. Respect means saying: "This is not a package deal. We are here to enhance those forms of agency, of dignity, that you want and need, and it's for you to define what those are." Human rights in this sense is a tool kit, but it must be fashioned by those who use it. It is a deliberative dialogue, a process.

The forms of freedom that are appropriate in one Islamic society may not be entirely appropriate in others. It's important to remember always the enormous variation in Islamic societies. Not all societies in Islam are going in the fundamentalist or extreme route. There are as many forms of Islamic society as there are societies of a Christian origin. There are as many forms of Islamic engagement with modernity as there are other forms of engagement with modernity.

We need to variegate, to distinguish, to disaggregate. Tunisia and Egypt are not Indonesia or Malaysia. All of these societies have a particularity. We are making our problem much worse if we believe we are confronting one thing.

The ways in which women find justice, equality and freedom in these societies will vary according to the ways in which Islam is inflected and reflected. There is an enormous battle within Islam and within Islamic societies between tendencies. Will Wahabism from Saudi Arabia be the dominant tradition that defines how modernity is encountered in Islam, or will it not? That is a battle that we can only watch as bystanders and help to the degree that we can, and it is for Islamic societies, not for us.

But we have enfeebled ourselves with a sense that this is a battle between civilizations, that this is an aggregate, that all of the directions in Islamic society are going towards Osama bin Laden. This is not true at all.

QUESTION: Michael, I was wondering if I could ask you to react to another description of your thesis. What you're describing is two different conceptions of human rights advocacy as a legal method, and what you're arguing against is the understanding that is dominant in the academy, insofar as the academy is mostly based in law schools, where they are used to understanding law as something that you simply interpret —s advocacy has been too dominated by law schools, and we need a broader conception based more on the regions where this debate is taking place.

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: That is a very helpful suggestion.

Human rights is a global movement, which is now vernacularized and has probably more adherents outside the Western world than inside. It's black-letter international law and it's politics.

The human rights practice that excites me and seems most problematic, but also most useful, is a politics of cultural dialogue and deliberation in which the black-letter law serves less as an enforcement grid —t of human rights has obscured the extent to which human rights principles are in conflict. I was talking about the Singaporean example, an apparently notorious one, in which free speech principles, mandated in the ICCPR and the Universal Declaration, are in some sense in conflict with equal concerns, which is the right of people to personal security. Certain exercises of free speech can jeopardize racial and religious harmony in societies. There is a conflict in principle between free speech principles and principles of social order.

It is clear to me that free speech is a moral universal, but it is not clear how the adjudication society-by-society of this tension is a universal. That is, the Americans have a free speech First Amendment tradition which is considerably more absolute in the privileging it gives to free speech than European ones, and even the international black-letter law has essentially public order, racial incitement, and abuse overrides. There is a very clear example where universalist principles are in tension and conflict, and the black-letter law approach often fails to see the extent of this conflict.

If a human rights activist understands that he can go into a cultural context where this adjudication takes place with a sense that he is doing something more than saying, "Free speech is the trump here." He or she is saying, "We have to deliberate and to work at practical, but principled, compromises on these issues that reconcile competing principles."

That's why the book is titled Human Rights as Politics. Human rights is politics in my view: the attempt to use principled normative frameworks to adjudicate extremely difficult rights conflicts in particular contexts without giving away the store, or a sense that there are some things that are intolerable in any culture, in any context, at any time, in any place.

But short of the intolerable, short of the insufferable, how Singapore makes that balance in the incredibly volatile and difficult racial and religious balance of that society cannot be dictated from outside. It's a matter for deliberative compromise within, in which outsiders and insiders have a play and a place.

But that is how I would do it. We are talking about negotiation, about deliberation within a normative grid which doesn't serve as trumps, but which serves to define what principles are in conflict in a particular situation. So the straight answer to your question is that I don't want to jettison black-letter international law, enforcement, or the enormous accomplishments that human rights have made in getting this stuff into international black-letter law, but on the ground what I see activists doing is this, and that's what I want to endorse.

QUESTION: In terms of furthering the dialogue on freedom of speech and the security of citizens everywhere from the acts of terror that occurred on September 11th, where do you see this starting? Has it started? Who should start it? Within the Islamic community, what is being done to point out the inconsistencies with regard to jihad?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF: Again, you would have to disaggregate country by country, context by context, place by place, in the Islamic world.

One of the things that honesty requires is that we face up to our free speech difficulties. This is a very difficult thing to talk about. The free speech chill on our society post-September 11th is considerable, even though we may not admit it.

Many of us feel shock, horror, dismay. I happen to be a Canadian, but I have a kind of proxy patriotism. I have enormous affection and respect for this country. I feel I don't want to say certain disobliging things.

So there is a kind of free speech chill which we have to master and overcome. There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn't have a vigorous, contentious public debate about the conduct of the military operation in Afghanistan or a painful and difficult discussion about American policy in the Middle East. Human Rights Watch is part of that deliberative process.

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