Muslims and the Western Conception of Rights

Editorial Review by M. R. Whitehead

Since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, little has changed. Human rights abuses have persisted around the globe, across cultures and societies, and despite the timeworn discussion of how to prevent them. This book, Muslims and the Western Conception of Rights, pushes back against the discourse’s inertia, putting moral universalism and cultural relativism in conversation with one another to reveal flaws in Enlightenment and Islamic traditions and thinkers.  It instead taps the holistic systems thinking framework (STF) to illuminate the patterns of human rights abuses—and how those rights might be protected around the world.

Engaging with Islamic and Western, historical and contemporary and relativist and universalist thought, this book is vital in its groundedness, taking an aspirational concept and tethering it to reality. It will not only be a necessary resource to scholars and researchers engaging in topics concerning human rights, Islamic societies, and foreign policy, but also an accessible text for readers grappling with the cycles of war, power, and the historical narratives behind them.

Rejoining William Talbott’s question which human rights should be universal?, Ahmed Souaiaia proposes a different foundation for human rights discourse. He lays bare the common threads that connect the most egregious human rights abuses in both Western societies since Enlightenment and Muslim communities since the 7th century. The body of evidence in support of the proposed framework consists of five proofs organized in three sections.

In the first section, Souaiaia interrogates two passionate authors whose stated aim is to universalize all or part of the human rights found in the UDHR, William Talbott and Abdulaziz Sachedina. These authors, and in turn the author of this work, engage with a wide range of ideas developed by philosophers, historians of religion, sociologists, and political and legal thinkers.

In the second section, Souaiaia juxtaposes the reasoning and proposals of these two advocates for universal human rights against the respective traditions from which they draw their inspiration: Enlightenment moral philosophy and Islamic tradition and institutions.

In the third section, Souaiaia presents the case of the 2011 protest movements and wars in Southwest Asia and North Africa to account for historical factors and global actors that initiated, sustained, and justified the conflicts.

This book brings an unusually clear-eyed voice to human rights discourse, seeking to place equal weight on armchair philosophizing  and concrete evidence. Exploring human rights not only throughout history and civilizations, the author also investigates the war in Syria  as a present-day case study encapsulating centuries of human rights challenges and the international involvement in a Muslim-majority country. The author contends that, in naming the overarching perpetrators of human rights abuses, a path emerges to fight for and protect human rights and dignity.

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