Human Rights as “Ground Rules” for Muslim Political Participation: Six Hypotheses

First, I argue that a Human Rights Framework (HRF) can facilitate political interactions between Muslim representatives and host country authorities because it provides them with a common language essential for a democratic dialogue. Along the same lines, the Parekh Report on the future of multi-ethnic Britain advocated twelve years ago that the negotiations over contested issues of diversity such as school curriculum or religious attire in public space require “ground rules that provide a minimum guarantee of protection for individuals and a framework for handling conflicts of interest”. The Report further argued that “such ground rules are provided in part by international human rights standards”[1]. I believe that the developments after the publication of this report have reconfirmed the validity of the case made for human rights as ground rules for political engagement with groups holding particular cultural and religious practices at the centre of their identity.

Second, HRF can help broaden the terms of engagement with Muslim communities beyond the security agenda and enhance their sense of belonging. In the wake of 9/11 and subsequent terrorist attacks, governments’ willingness to engage with Muslim communities mainly in the context of counter-terrorism continues to weaken rather than strengthen the support expected of the communities for counter-terrorism policies, such as “the Prevent” agenda in the UK[2] or “Islam Conference” in Germany[3]. This is mainly because Muslims in the West often feel that they are boxed in a religio-security context[4]. It is therefore necessary to broaden the terms of engagement beyond the security agenda to show that Muslims are not simply potential terrorists but individuals and citizens with inalienable civil, political, social and economic rights.

Third, HRF facilitates recognition of multiple identities of migrants, thus widening the opportunities for their participation that are not solely as Muslims, but also through mainstream organizations. Since 9/11, as a result of threatening circumstances and adversarial politics, religio-cultural identity has resurfaced and overshadowed other layers of immigrant identity such as ethnicity (1990s) and ideological orientation (Cold War). Islam today plays a key role for European Muslims, both as an identity marker and as a mobilizing force around which diverse individuals can rally. However, although migrants (or “guest workers”) turned into “Muslims”[5], they continue to have multiple identities. Because of the alleged link between Islam and terrorism, policies of engagement with Muslim communities emphasize and encourage participation with Muslim identities. Ironically, this restrictive approach empowers the most radical groups who are more prepared and organized than moderate and secular Muslims to mobilize around political and religious issues.

Mahinur Özdemir, a Humanist Democratic Center (CDH) Deputy of Turkish descent who was elected to the Parliament of the Brussels-Capital Region in regional elections held on 7 June 2009, became the first headscarved deputy in Belgium.

In this context, specific needs and concerns of female Muslim migrants who encounter multiple barriers both within and outside their communities to participate in public life can be addressed more effectively in the human rights framework. Tensions on private matters related to family law such as forced marriages, divorce and custody of children require nuanced responses developed together with community representatives based on universal human rights principles, rather than introduction of parallel legal systems based on sharia law.

Fourth, a dialogue with Muslim immigrants based on HRF empowers them because the liberal state is under legal and political commitments both at the national and international levels to respect and protect human rights of all persons under its jurisdiction, including non-citizens[6]. History of the impact of migration on the legal system of liberal states demonstrates that disputes about migration have played an essential role in spreading human rights. Standards of rights protection to all persons, regardless of their status, are considered central to states’ democratic self-image.[7] However, there is now an extensive literature which documents restrictions imposed upon migrants’ basic political and civil rights. Human rights of migrants remain low on the international human rights agenda. The 1990 UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers, one of the 12 core international human rights instruments, has not yet been ratified by any of the Western liberal states.  If representatives of Muslim communities organized in civil society are supported and trained to make their cases in the context of human rights law and policies, it would allow them to effectively communicate their demands to the authorities and to the mainstream society, and if justified, receive political attention and visibility to address their concerns.

Many Muslim NGOs are now using both national and international human rights platforms to publicly hold the states accountable regarding the lack of implementation of the commitments they have undertaken. The “boomerang effect” coined by Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink in “Activists beyond Borders” (1998) is also at work for Muslim advocacy groups today. Through human rights advocacy based on research about the communities, they are able to convey their views as well as their demands and recommendations to the states in an increasingly effective way[8]. Should the States remain indifferent to their demands, groups in one country appeal to citizens of another through transnational advocacy networks in domestic and international politics; these citizens pressure their own government to pressure the indifferent offending State.

Fifth, HRF can assist the liberal state to address cultural and religious demands of Muslim communities in a secular context. Muslim communities are generally believed to pose new challenges to liberal nation-states. Nevertheless, the Gallup surveys demonstrate that Muslim communities rarely contest and highly praise the secular nature of the liberal state in which they live[9]. The Declaration adopted by the Conference of “Heads of Islamic Centers and Imams in Europe” in Graz on 15 June 2003, calls on Muslims in Europe to “demonstrate loyalty to law and constitutional principles also as regards the secular structure involved”. In search for a deeper sense of spirituality, however, Muslims demand redefinition of the boundaries between the public and the private. In such processes, Seyla Benhabib argues, the “ground rules” in the form of basic rights and liberties cannot be transformed and abrogated by majority; however, they should be constant subject of deliberation, contestation and negotiation[10].

Sixth and final hypothesis I put forward is that speaking human rights language in the interactions between Muslim immigrant representatives and the institutions of liberal states would further encourage and contribute to the ongoing interpretation of the Islamic law and practices in a way that would be compatible with international human rights law. International human rights law, negotiated for decades among nation-states, constitutes a platform of shared values. Furthermore, it is generally in conformity with the basic tenets of all the major religions[11]. Susan Waltz’s research on the participation of Muslim countries in the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights shows the important substantive contributions made by Muslim representatives[12].

A leading thinker in human rights from outside the Western tradition is Abdullahi An-Na’im. Committed to international human rights and of the Islamic faith, An-Na’im argues that “(Muslim) human rights advocates must work within the framework of Islam to be effective… [and] should struggle to have their interpretations of the relevant [Islamic] texts adopted as the new Islamic scriptural imperatives for the contemporary world.” He urges human rights advocates to claim the Islamic platform and not to abandon the field to the fundamentalists[13]. An-Na’im is certainly not alone in his endeavors to reconcile Islamic teachings with secular human rights norms. Shirin Ebadi’s and Abdulkarim Soroush’s work on freedom, democracy and human rights are but some other prominent contemporary examples of “translation” of the concepts and criteria of one culture into another.

[1] The Parekh Report – The Future of the Multi-Ethnic Britain, June 2001

[2] Ahmed, Nafeez Mosaddeq, “Toward a Holistic Strategy to Counter Violent Radicalization in the United Kingdom”, IPRD Report, August 2009, p.4.

[3] Hans-Christian Jasch, “State-Dialogue in Italy and Germany for Promoting Integration of Muslims”, Turkish Policy Quarterly, Winter 2006/2007 (Volume 5, Number 4), pp.4-7.  One of the working fields of the Conference, designated by the Federal Minister of Interior, has been “Security and Islamism”.

[4] Nebahat Albayrak (then MP for the PvdA), “Downgraded Migrant Tired of Exclusion”, Volksrant, 13 March 2006, p.7.

[5] Gökçe Yurdakul, From Guestworkers into Muslims: The Transformations of Turkish Immigrant Associations in Germany, Cambridge Scholars, 2009.

[6] Kjaerum, Morten, “Human Rights for Immigrants and Immigrants for Human Rights”, Ibid. p.62

[7] Bhabba, Jacqueline, “The Impact of Migration on the Legal System of Western States”, International Migration and Security: Immigrants as an Asset or Threat? (Routledge Research in Transnationalism) by Elspeth Guild and Joanne van Selm, 2005, p.28.

[8] For an example in the UK, see the website of Islamic Human Rights Commission:

[9] Mogahed, Dalia, “Ordinary Muslims”, Gallup Special Report, 2006.

[10] Benhabib, Seyla. “Toward a Deliberative Model of Democratic Legitimacy”, p. 70

[11] Kjaerum, Ibid.

[12] Ann Elizabeth Mayer, Islam and Human Rights, Fourth Edition, Westview Pres, 2007, p.13.

[13] Ibid. p.58.