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Religion and Society

Human Rights Between Hard Power and Soft Power

A conversation with Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na‘im, a Sudanese, a lecturer  in the United States of America, a disciple of the great reformist thinker Muhammad Taha, who was executed in Khartoum in 1985. ‘Universality must be built  through the idea of progressive consensus. The use of brute force must be avoided.’  

This article was published in Oasis 11. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-06-19 14:46:53

Professor, in a text of 1994 which we recently republished in Oasis the then Cardinal Ratzinger stated that: ‘There is no such thing as naked faith or mere religion. Simply stated, insofar as faith tells man who he is and how he should begin being human, faith creates culture; faith is itself culture.’ How do you see this relationship? I agree with the basic idea: the assumption that mission is limited to the transmission of a religious message is out of place because faith has a transforming power as regards culture. Specifically because of the fact that faith is not a pure idea but is embodied in a culture, which is committed to propagating faith, it is also involved in transforming culture. This is why I look with interest at the process of self-definition of community which is presently taking place in Africa. To give a practical example, do missionaries transmit only Christianity or do they also transmit the values to which they belong? An African missionary in Europe is not the same as a European missionary in Africa, even though they share the same faith. The cultural background is very different. However, even accepting these premisses, I observe that in the circularity of faith and culture one should also consider the aspect of power relations. There is an asymmetry in the distribution of power, some societies are very poor and mission ends up by reflecting this situation. This is why, to go back to the example I gave, Christian missionaries in Africa were in the past seen as spearhead for European colonisation. And what happens in some parts of the world is the outcome of the resentment that springs from this situation. It is one thing to see in the faith-culture dynamic power relations as well, but it is another to conclude that specifically because of this disparity of forces contact between cultures should not take place. That is not what I say. I believe in universality but universality is not a given fact and it is not enough to proclaim it at the level of words; one must build it through the idea of progressive consensus. In order to achieve it one must bear power relations in mind. This applies to every kind of universalism and not only to faiths. Let us take the case of the United States and its project to democratise Iran or Afghanistan: has it not obtained the opposite of what it hoped for? Is the universality of human rights, which you have studied for many years, also played out at the level of power relations? Certainly. The reason why I have devoted myself so deeply to the question of human rights and democratisation is specifically to reconsider the impact of power. Power is an ambiguous thing, it is not only material. The point is not that everyone can reach the same level of power, but, rather, that it can be transformed into a kind of different power, because if there is diplomatic pressure, pressure from public opinion, and economic pressure, one can avoid the use of brute force. When one has authority and prestige, one can engage in incisive action. Mine is an attempt to support human values through soft power. Let us take the case of the United States after 11 September, let us look at the war in Afghanistan. For President George Bush, the idea of declaring war was attractive and easy, but in the end this decision created more problems than it solved. My aim is to create awareness about the need to resort to alternative forms of power such as international institutions. Not allowing States to solve questions amongst themselves but involving the whole of humankind… it seems to me that these two things are rather different. In order to speak and practice inter-religious dialogue, tolerance and respect, normative institutions and systems are needed. As long as this remains the work of individuals, they have no possibilities of success, but if one works together one will never think of what the other wants to extort from me or impose on me, but more in terms of human community. And yet to create international institutions one must refer to shared values. One often hears it said that human rights are a device to interfere in the affairs of other States. From what you say, I seem to understand that you do not agree with this objection. One cannot deny that human rights can become a pure pretext and end up being exploited in an imperialist way. But this is not a sufficient reason to oppose them. Even if we suppose that the United States or Italy use human rights for foreign policy reasons, one has to ask why they do this. They do this because the ideal of human rights has a value, it is a strong idea, strong enough to conceal other, less noble, motivations. The real question, then, is: how should an imperialist use of human rights be opposed? The imperialist impulse is not only European or Western, it is universal, it exists in every people, in our families as well. How can we reassure those who feel threatened by the hegemony of others? When I speak about human rights and international legality, I refer to the need to impede somebody’s power crushing others. Usually, the discourse of human rights is made in decidedly secular terms because it is believed that if it were formulated in religious terms it would not manage to achieve the same level of universality. Do you agree? Does the fact that you are Muslim add something to the secular discourse of human rights? What specifically? The idea of a solely secular foundation for human rights is doomed to fail. Muslims are believers and thus to ask them to work and sacrifice themselves to protect human rights on the basis of a purely secular justification is not realistic. In reality, there is no sole foundation for human rights. But I can be asked, and I ask others, to adhere to these values, yet we have different reasons for adhering to them. The right of believers to support human rights and to adhere to them is as important as the same right of the secular supporters of human rights. The very idea of human rights implies the right of everyone to choose their reasons for adhering to them. If you impede me from adhering to human rights because of the justifications that I give you, you take away my right. You can challenge to live up to my commitment to human rights, but you cannot question my reasons for my commitment. The first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as is well-known, does not expound any foundation for human rights, but this does not mean either that God has nothing to do with human rights or that human rights come from God. It means only that the question remains open. Maritain said that the value of human rights is not diminished by the fact that not everyone agrees on their foundation. With time our agreement on human rights will also influence our agreement on the reasons for our agreement. We share the same commitment to human rights, everyone having a particular reason for doing so, and with the passing of years this commitment will create shared understanding of human rights and who is worthy of being called human, which will influence our respective reasons for adhering to human rights. Our commitment at the outset will not be complete or absolute, it will develop over time. But for now, the fact that a number of parties in good faith are trying to explore the reasons for their adherence to human rights is encouraging. To know that the others, as well, are cultivating an interest in peace leads the parties involved to lower their guard. To summarise: a shared commitment helps us to find shared reasons. And the more these reasons draw close to one another the more this commitment will grow stronger. At the outset overlapping consensus may be shallow but to the extent that we are committed to this process consensus expands and grows deeper. And the deeper it becomes the more people become trusting. I believe that this is a realistic vision of things. At times I think that we are building a culture of human rights… certainly some may continue not to agree. It is not ingenuousness; I consider myself a pragmatic optimist, I refuse to be a pessimist. If I left the field to the fundamentalists I would, through my desertion, let them get their way, allowing them to take over Islam. But if I fight, I win even though I lose, because I fight for my values. As regards fundamentalism, you had to leave your country… I think that it is more honourable to leave one’s own country than to die in vain because exile allows you to continue the fight. The important thing is to be a positive force who honours his tradition. I refuse to surrender to fundamentalism. For me fundamentalism is a mental state. It is curious to see in our experience how those who were once Marxists tend to become fundamentalists. There is a basic arrogance which they both share. And religious fundamentalism is not the only form of fundamentalism. There can exist secular fundamentalism, for example Fascism or Nazism. I resist fundamentalism because it is a denial of my humanity. Indeed, what is the ultimate meaning of human rights? It is my freedom. I refuse to give away my freedom. You can kill me but you do not eliminate my moral experience. My investment in human rights and international legality, my commitment to the creation of solidarity between people begins from the belief that each culture has within it forces that strive for hegemony and forces that strive for sharing power and resources. In privileging a culture of solidarity we transcend cultural and geographical boundaries to give life to an area of sharing. I need human rights to protect my own area. I am the first to need them. How did you reach this belief? My mentor Mahmud Taha was truly an inspired person, what Christians call a saint. He forgave the people who killed him, whereas I am unable to forgive them. Although they did not kill me, in killing my mentor they killed something very valuable inside me. Seeing him forgive his murderers shook me. Twenty years later I understand more than I did when I left Sudan, but I am still struggling to be able to forgive those who killed my mentor. When I left my country I was very angry. Now I have an American passport and at times it is possible to go back to the Sudan for a few days. Then I see that the Muslim Brothers have done more for my mentor’s mission than we, our disciples, would have been able to do. When in the 1970s and 1980s we spoke about the danger of fundamentalism, people did not understand. But now, after living under fundamentalism, people immediately understand the core of our argument. God acts in mysterious ways and it is surprising to see how, by allowing fundamentalists to come to power, God has made clear to people the dangers of fundamentalism better than we could have done with our words. For Christians the death of Jesus must have been traumatic. But to see in it a good for so many, salvation as the Bible says, changes one’s perspective on the injustice of the death of Jesus. Could you say that a large part of the education that you received passed by way of the blood of your mentor Taha? How did you meet him? Was he a famous and popular figure in the Sudan? Famous yes, popular no. I moved to Khartoum in 1965 to go the university. At that time Taha was known as a very charismatic orator but his opinions were controversial and many people accused him of being a heretic and warned us about listening to him. I remember that one day I was visiting my parents in a small provincial town north of Khartoum, and there was nothing interesting on at the local cinema. A friend of mine invited me to go to a lecture by Taha and since I did not have anything better to do I decided to go. I heard Taha speak and from that night I could not walk away or neglect his message. I felt that he not only spoke to me but spoke for me. In his words one felt the fullness of his heart and it was this fullness that made him strong. Taha insisted that one practice what one preaches, or stop preaching it. He believed in the unity of thought, speech and action. He loved to repeat, quoting Jesus, “my word shall never return to me empty”. I am not translating well from Arabic here, but I am sure you would know what Jesus was saying – something to the effect that because he spoke from his full heart, his words reach the hearts of his listeners... From what you tell us, his was true witness. As I mentioned to you, I see a Biblical dimension to his life. What happened cannot be seen as a matter of chance but, rather, as the outcome of a design that allowed many people to benefit from his life and work. This, at least, is what I feel I should say as regards myself and my experience. In the case of Jesus, as well, many at the time did not recognise him or denied him and only understood him subsequently. For me, there is a parallel between the life of Jesus and the life of Taha. At the moment of his death it seemed to me to be meaningless crime, then later on I understood its value. I am really fortunate that I have got to know and appreciate the life of someone who showed me what it means to be truly Muslim. I really have never known a Muslim better than Taha. The value of saints and prophets is that they show that human perfection is possible, that it is not only a romantic ideal but can be attained. I think that this is the most powerful message which through divine will they reveal to us. Taha was a complete person, like other great men, Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. Indeed, the saints and prophets all have something in common. The world needs spiritual anchors. The Muslim Sufi tradition speaks about the presence of ‘poles’ (aqtâb), without which the world could not function properly. The Sufi tradition also affirms that often the greatest saints are also those who are most hidden. If, however, you have the good fortune to meet one and recognize him, then you are truly blessed by God.