Shadi Mokhtari, assistant professor at the School of International Service at American University, and Ebenezer Obadare, the Douglas Dillon senior fellow for Africa studies at CFR, discuss how different regions around the world approach safeguarding human rights. Jennifer Butler, founder in residence at Faith in Public Life, moderates. This discussion took place at the 2022 Annual Meetings, hosted by the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion in Denver, Colorado.
FASKIANOS: It’s great to be back at the SBL and AAR Annual Meetings in person. We haven’t done this lunch since 2019, so we’re excited to be here.
I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach at CFR. So thank you for being with us.
This luncheon is hosted by CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy program, which serves as a resource for faith leaders and policymakers, and offers a forum for congressional leaders, seminary heads, scholars, religion, and representatives of faith-based organizations to discuss global issues in an interfaith environment.
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I’m delighted to introduce our moderator who will facilitate today’s discussion—Jennifer Butler, founder in residence at Faith in Public Life. We have extensive bios in the programs at your seats, so you can look more there.
I’m going to turn it over to Jennifer to introduce our panelists.
Jennifer, over to you.
BUTLER: Thank you. Thank you so much. (Applause.) Welcome, everyone.
And a big thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations for pulling together such cutting-edge topics, such important discussions. I know we all benefit from these on a regular basis.
This topic could not be more pressing today—if we’re going with the AAR theme of catastrophes—looking at the state of democracy and human rights around the world, we’re facing a downright recession in human rights, globally, and in democracy, which safeguards many of those rights. Over a quarter of the world’s population now lives in a backsliding democracy. Countries such as Brazil, now the United States by some measures, fit into that backsliding category—Hungry, Poland, Slovenia.
And then, together with those living in nondemocratic regimes, they make up more than two-thirds of the world population. So two-thirds of the world population are living either in what is categorized as a backsliding democracy—hence where human rights are under threat—or in a non-democracy regime.
And religion, of course, is playing a complex role in that as part of civil society, both in terms of fostering or weakening human rights. It plays an even more complicated role when it becomes a political ideology, as we see in the rise of religious nationalisms around the world, but also when religion is exploited as a tool of Western hegemony as well.
And so there’s a lot of complicated dynamics that these two scholars are going to be incredible at helping us to unpack. We are very lucky to have them. And with that, I would like to introduce these astonishing professors here.
Shadi Mokhtari is an assistant professor at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC. Her teaching and research focus is on the politics of human rights, the dynamics of political change in the Middle East, and on political Islam. And she is the author of After Abu Ghraib: Exploring Human Rights in America and in the Middle East, which was with Cambridge University Press, and that book was the co-winner of the 2010 American Political Science Association Human Rights Section Best Book Award. From 2003 to 2013, she served as editor in chief of the Muslim World and Journal of Human Rights. Her current research develops a typology of Middle Eastern experiences of the international human rights framework and is entitled, Experiencing Human Rights as ‘Mockery of Morality’, ‘Manifesting Morality,’ and ‘Moral Maze’: The Resonance of Human Rights’ Rhetorical Promise and the (Un)Persuasiveness of its Practice to Middle Eastern Populations. That is a mouthful, but a critical, critical theme for today and one we will be discussing in depth.
Dr. Ebenezer Obadare is the Douglas Dillon senior fellow for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Before joining CFR, he was a professor of sociology at the University of Kansas. He was a political reporter for The News and TEMPO magazines from 1993 to 1995, and he is the author of numerous books. Dr. Obadare’s most recent book just came out this year from University of Notre Dame Press, and it’s entitled, Pastoral Power, Clerical State: Pentecostalism, Gender, and Sexuality in Nigeria. He is the editor of the Journal of Modern African Studies and a contributing editor to Current History. He was the Ralf Dahrendorf Scholar and Ford Foundation International Scholar at the London School of Economics.
And these two have so many accomplishments I will not read them all off, but they are in your bio.
So our first question today, to open up this conversation, is going to be—and I think I’ll start with you, Dr. Obadare, because you’re looking straight at me, and we’ve been bantering beforehand.
OBADARE: I should have not done that. (Laughter.)
BUTLER: Never make eye contact, right, then you end up going first. I wanted to start off with both of you just asking, what is the current state of human rights in the area that your expertise is in? And then, we’re going to delve deeper into some very complicated questions.
What is the state of human rights, and what role are religious organizations playing in this struggle? And what are the tensions between religion and human rights, broadly?
OBADARE: Yeah, thank you for that. Good to be here. Thank you for attending this panel.
So my work is on Africa so I’m going to speak generally about the human rights struggle in Africa. I think the first point to sort of get out is that you can’t understand the human rights struggle in Africa unless you put it within the broader context of the struggle for the integration of liberal democratic norms across the continent.
So for the last three to four decades many African countries have been involved—forced in the struggle to remove the military from power in different countries, and then, consequence upon that, in a struggle to institute democratic norms in the continent.
The language of human rights itself has to be inserted within the broader struggle to remove the military from power, first and foremost, but also to have liberal democratic norms be the modus operandi in different African countries.
And you could say that, to a large extent, considerable progress has been made in different parts of the continent, even though—if you’ve been reading the news about the last five to six months—you also see that there’s cause for disenchantment because of the speed of coups d’état that we’ve had especially in some West African countries—Guinea, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, come to mind.
So some of that points to the fact that some of the good things that we’ve experienced with respect to the consolidation of human rights and democratic norms, you start seeing a reversal of some of those norms especially with those military coups. And to sort of give a sense of the condition in the continent right now, from a high of about twenty-five, thirty in the mid-1990s—consequent upon the fourth wave of democratization of the continent—Freedom House now says that only eleven African countries can broadly be categorized as free.
And Freedom House—I don’t know if you know about their index—they use free and fair elections, freedom of the press, property rights, different things like that as a barometer to measure the progress of different countries, on the road to democracy.
The other part of your question is the role that those agents are playing in this struggle. And I think you could—it’s an extremely complex subject, where you could sort of divide that into two.
One is the way in which different religious organizations are really just institutions—basically turned the mosque or the pulpit, as the case may be, into religious platforms, right. So religious agents—pastors, imams—especially when the continent was under the control of the military, they turned those platforms into political platforms.
So religious agents or religious organizations of various sorts were part of the campaign to integrate human rights and liberal democratic norms on the continent. But the much more important contribution that I think religious agents or religious institutions perform was in the very philosophizing of the struggle itself—the way in which the struggle to institute human rights was turned into a demon vs. saint kind of thing, where the military was the demon and all the other forces within civil society that raged against them became the saints.
So that philosophy was actually much more important than the actual work that some of them did on the pulpit or inside the mosque. And I think, to close on a maybe a more skeptical note, it’s also to point out that even though religious agents or religious institutions have been so central to the work of Britain’s liberal democratic norms and human rights on the continent; that some of the more recent patients of sexual and reproductive rights sort of call us back to the fact that while we ought to celebrate the involvement of religious agents and actors in politics. Oftentimes, when you now see some of the other things happening, especially over the last five to ten years with respect to LGBT rights, sexual rights, pregnancy, echoes of Roe v. Wade, on the continent—you sort of see a different kind of—maybe a much more conservative role for religious agents, so.
I’m good to stop there.
BUTLER: Interesting. Yeah, thank you for that complex picture.
Dr. Mokhtari, what would you say?
MOKHTARI: Yeah, so if we were to think of the big picture of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa, it is at once very dire and promising as well—with caveats, of course. So on the side of very dire conditions, repression essentially reigns in most parts of the region.
You have—if we were to think of human rights in civil and political terms alone—and of course, there are social and economic rights, there’s the right to an environment—all of these are also very much compromised right now.
But just on the repression level there, widespread repression, right, a lot of authoritarian regimes who ruled through repression—the very promising 2011 Arab Spring—many of those movements have kind of taken a very dark turn. Three civil wars, tremendous human toll in Syria and Yemen, and Libya as well, and then, the second wave of protests, which took place around 2019, in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq—which didn’t get much coverage, unfortunately, in the West—but those are kind of this very stalemate state where we don’t know where they’re headed.
But the other side of it, what is really promising, in my view, is that, there are broad segments of these societies—and of course, there’s diversity in the region—and then I really can’t speak of the Gulf region much because it’s not my area of expertise—but in many of these other contexts, the norms of the human rights project and democratic liberal norms have broadly been embraced and overlap considerably with both the grievances the aspirations of large segments of the population. And in particular, the younger generations seem to be really driving the various protest movements. They are up against a lot of structural barriers and also kind of twenty-first century divide and rule devices through the means of social media, which has been a very effective means for authoritarian regimes in the region to divide and rule in a sense—or divide and conquer, and rule.
So in any case, there’s a lot I can say about these protest movements and kind of the underlying promise, and I would say, new generation of human rights activism. But I think I’ll dig deeper with some of the other questions, so I’ll leave it there.
BUTLER: Good. Yeah, you’ve piqued my interest there. Maybe we could stay with you for a minute just to continue in that vein.
The Middle East has been thought to be a place where there is cultural and religious resistance to human rights, but your research has really challenged that. So can you help us understand?
MOKHTARI: Yeah, so what I would say is that I’ve been visiting different countries in the region for over twenty years, and inevitably I’d be in a taxi somewhere or in a situation where someone would strike a conversation. They ask me what I am there for, and I say my research relates to human rights.
And as soon as I use—it’s usually not an expression that’s used internally, I had noticed, but when I bring it up—almost kind of on key—the response would be, what human rights? Human rights don’t exist.
And so over the years, I have come to the conclusion that while there may be these kinds of religiously-rooted, culturally-rooted, socially—social-norm rooted rejections of specific human rights norms, it’s not really the content, by and large—I mean, the bigger picture is that, by and large, people do not object to the core emancipatory promise of the human rights project.
What it is that really makes them keep a distance from it is that, the practice, as they see it around them, is so widely corrupted, and that’s what I mean by experiencing human rights as a mockery of morality. So you can look at the way Western governments—and particularly the United States—have deployed human rights in conjunction with a host of very problematic geopolitical policies and essentially their hegemony in the region, and that what human rights—“there are no human rights” retort I heard the most right after 9/11, right, and after Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo, and all of this came out.
And so, there is this de-politicization of the human rights conditions in the region that the West contributes to—I mean, in addition to kind of the commissions that take place after 9/11. There’s a host of other ways that human rights discourse becomes a discourse that’s widely corrupted in the region.
The focus on just women’s rights as if attributing all the human rights ills of the region simply to backwards culture and religious practices, right, as a way to de-politicize. So in any case—I mean I could go on about this quite a bit, but this is what I think often kept—people wanted to keep a distance from that discourse.
Now what I then go on to discuss is how that shifts in a lot of places after 2011, and that (un)persuasiveness of human rights. The “un” is in parentheses because it can be persuasive if it’s practiced in a way that’s considered not disingenuous, which is the way that it’s widely been experienced, not only because of the Western role and kind of the hollowness of Western rhetoric on human rights, but also the way their own authoritarian regimes are able to game the system, because of the way there’s an NGO sector that has conferences in five-star hotels and trainings, but in the end nothing changes, right.
And it seems like everyone’s kind of—it’s almost a farce. There’s this discourse that promises so much and delivers so little to them, but that changes after 2011. And I don’t want to go on too long here.
BUTLER: That’s Abu Ghraib. Yeah, back to Abu Ghraib? Is—(inaudible)?
MOKHTARI: No, no, no. The uprisings in the Arab world, right.
BUTLER: I got you.
MOKHTARI: So then you have this new generation of human rights activists and social activists—social movement activists who are deploying human rights very differently than it had primarily been deployed in the past. And it’s about challenging the structures of power—economic and political—in a very—in a much more meaningful way than it had been in previous human rights discourses.
Now, of course, then I talk about the moral maze, which is where the polarization comes in, the disinformation, misinformation comes in, and then there’s just endless contestation. And so the kind of moral clarity that you get at the inception of some of these protest movements gets more and more foggy.
If people are interested I could elaborate on that. It’s certainly something I’m worried about in terms of what’s happening in Iran.
BUTLER: Why don’t we move on to Africa for a bit, and then we’ll come back to some of the—
MOKHTARI: I just want to say one last sentence on the—because I didn’t bring in the religion part in the initial answer. So I do think that political Islam is on its way out as an ideology—not religiosity within the different societies. Different societies are different places, but I think that political Islam as a project—certainly in Iran, but also in a lot of Arab contexts was quite a force to reckon with up until 2011.
And then you had—I mean, I can get into kind of the key points where there’s a shift going on, but essentially at this point there are a lot of—well, overall it’s considered an experiment—an ideological experiment that’s kind of run its course.
I’ll leave it there, and if we want to pick up on it—
BUTLER: Wow. And that’s a big assertion and a very exciting one, so I’m sure—we will have a time of Q&A, so prepare your questions now.
Dr. Obadare, similarly you’ve studied a very similar concept in African studies—the recent decolonial turn has targeted Western ideas and epistemologies, and as part of this movement some scholars have even branded the idea of human rights as a Western construct.
So what’s your attitude toward this intellectual development, and do you see human rights as a Western construct?
OBADARE: I certainly do not. I think this is one of those moments when we have to be very careful. I think there’s a tendency to conflate human rights with Western countries and the hypocrisy of Western countries.
I could write three books on the hypocrisy of Western countries. I’m sure we all could. America has not always—I mean, the West in general has not always matched its rhetoric with its action, but that has nothing to do with human rights.
Human rights—there are two components. I think we talk about rights we forget about the first word, human. Human rights are universal.
They transcend race. They transcend gender. They transcend sexuality. They transcend religion. They are rights that pertain to you because you’re human.
Whatever corner of the world you live in, whatever historical oppression you’ve been exposed to, no matter legitimate—how legitimate your grievances, that has nothing to do with the fact that human rights are human rights. There’s no such thing as African rights. There’s no such thing as Arab rights.
To the extent that those subcategories of rights exist, they exist under the broad rubric of human rights. It is the only thing that is left to the oppressed, in different societies. So I was a journalist in Nigeria in the early 1990s, and when you live under military rule, you appreciate what it means to be denied your human rights.
So I think—I mean, the idea that human right is a Western construct I think it’s absolutely—it’s ridiculous. But the other point is this, I think people also fixate on the genealogy of ideas, and then make inferences on the basis of those genealogies.
So if I say, oh, women have every right to be the equal of men, nobody in this room is going to ask me, where did that come from? Is that from Mongolia? No, it just seems intuitively right.
I think the problem with de-colonialist scholarship—and there’s no time to go into it in-depth here—the problem is the failure to separate the genealogy of the concept, or even the hypocrisy of someone pushing a concept from the soundness of the concept or the principle itself.
So when it comes to human rights, for me the question is, is not whether the United States or the West has been hypocritical. The question is—and this is the same question I ask about every other principle—does it tend to human flourishing? Does it allow me to make a case for equality between men and women in an African context?
It does. Human rights are not the property of any specific region or culture. Human is what we should focus on. To be human is to be universal.
BUTLER: Now you’re preaching, I have to say. (Laughter.)
OBADARE: I’m preaching. I’m sorry. (Off mic)—right now, so.
BUTLER: And I had to do like one of those kind of internal amens for a minute because this concept of human flourishing, or human dignity, is one we’ve been using a lot at Faith in Public Life as we find human rights in America questioned—or in the United States, I should say—and even voting rights under question.
And it leads me to this next question. You two have already commented a bit on the connection between what’s happening in the United States, and the United States and its legacy in history, and your respective regions—I wonder what impact the faltering of American democracy in human rights has, if any, on your regions? But also, are there any other connections between the U.S. role in human rights in your regions that you wanted illuminate for the participants here?
Either one can go first.
MOKHTARI: Yeah, I mean, I could build on what was just said. I’m sure you’ve seen Matua’s Savage-Victim-Savior metaphor of human rights. So it’s an article from the early 2000s that really kind of illuminates the traditional—what I’ve called the East-West geography of human rights, where there’s this one-way traffic, right, and you have the savages in Matua’s formulation are non-Western states, but really kind of underlying their savage culture.
And then the victim is usually women and children in those non-Western contexts, and the savior is Western actors, states, NGOs, and in his formulation, these principles—Western values. And it really does shed light on—I mean, it exists. This dynamic has been longstanding, and if you ever want to see an example of it, look at Barbara Bush’s radio address when the U.S. is entering Afghanistan and she talks about American troops saving Afghan women. I mean it’s a textbook example of Matua’s Savage-Victim-Savior.
Now what happens is that increasingly people are conscious of what saviorism—a kind of formulation of human rights—and so what we then get is a brand. So when you take that, in conjunction with states like Iran, and Syria and Russia—that claim to be anti-imperialist—and Venezuela—where the state or the government is essentially saying we are against the West’s imperialism—people who see Savage-Victim-Savior then start focusing on Western hegemony in a way that then obscures the non-Western population’s experiences of suffering vis-à-vis their own governments, right.
So we’re so fixated on Western imperialism—which exists and has been very problematic—that we then engage in a different kind of saviorism. What I tried to develop as a progressive form of saviorism, where—and I’ll wrap it up very quickly—the savage is Western governments, and the savior is the population and the state—excuse me, the victim is the population and the state which are conflated—and the savior is kind of sometimes this anti-imperialist leftist factions and their thought.
And I think that is just as essentializing as the original form of Savage-Victim-Savior, and it essentially obscures the lived experience of these populations who sometimes will say—as in Iran—yes, we understand what the U.S. has done to us and how the U.S. has been responsible to where we are today, but at the same time our biggest battle right now is with our own regime. But that gets obscured.
MOKHTARI: So there’s a lot there.
BUTLER: Hard to believe the complexity, right?
MOKHTARI: I said that it was—(laughs)—
MOKHTARI: —I tried to make that as brief as I could, but there’s a lot to say.
BUTLER: No, I’m feeling it over here. I’m feeling the complexity of it all.
BUTLER: Dr. Obadare, you had a lot to say on this.
OBADARE: I actually—I find the travels of the United States instructive for a different set of reasons. I think it’s actually something that—maybe not to be applauded, but it’s something that we should—that—so there are no perfectly democratic societies.
There are democratizing societies, and different societies have achieved different levels of progress.
I think there’s no way of escaping the kind of trouble that the United States is going through—a very multicultural country spread across such a wide geographic space with people divided—North and South, East Coast and West Coast. If there’s anything for me to take away, it is to tell people who look at the United States as a beacon of democracy and say, the United States remains a beacon of democracy.
The fact that it’s struggling does not make it less of a beacon. Look at what it’s done right. Look at what it has done to get to where it is right now. Keep in mind that, as you go along your own journey, maybe not the same thing, but the variants of the same thing will happen to you.
Why? Because democracy is work. If there is anything that we ought to blame the United States for, it is the hubris that gallivants, and—(inaudible)—and says we are a democracy, period; we’ve nailed it.
I think the good thing about what has happened to us over the last five, six years is we are realizing that it—timeout like vigilance is the price of liberty—that even when you think you’ve done it all, because it’s a democracy there is always more work ahead.
And I’m taking that tact because I’m leery of—either people, on the extreme right or the extreme left of the spectrum, on the extreme right people would say, I told you democracy does not work; we prefer a theocracy. And those on the extreme left who will say, I told you this thing doesn’t work; we prefer some form of collectivization.
Liberal democracy works. The United States is the perfect testimony to that. The fact that it is struggling is only a confirmation that it is not perfect. It is—it does not mean that we should abandon democracy. If anything, it’s what—the messiness itself is what recommends democracy.
BUTLER: Oh my gosh. That gives me great encouragement, actually. It reminds me of what John Lewis said right before he died about how democracies don’t just exist. You have to work for them. You have to struggle for them, and that’s essentially what they are.
OBADARE: It’s a lot of work.
BUTLER: So thanks, again, for preaching here. (Laughter.) You’re both preaching. But it’s helpful because I think in these times, we need some encouragement.
And so as we look to close and kind of open things up to the audience, we’ve talked about the impact of the U.S. on your regions, but what are the implications of the struggles in your regions for the future of human rights? What lessons do you bring for the rest of the world? And what are the implications?
And I know both of you want to comment on Iran, too, and you might weave that into the context of that question, and what’s happening there.
MOKHTARI: I think I’m not even going to start on Iran. OK. Very briefly, I would say that it is incredible to see women leading protests and men following their chants, and that says something—I mean there’s this really extraordinary shift in norms that’s taking place, which does not mean patriarchy has been eradicated in Iran, as it has not been eradicated anywhere else.
But there’s something really, really very inspirational that speaks to the human quest for justice that is very powerful coming out of Iran. Pay attention to that.
There’s also a lot of, I think, what’s being talked about in kind of popular discourse in the U.S. is noise. So there’s all sorts of contentiousness amongst diaspora groups, and polarization and state-sponsored polarization, and all sorts of actors in the region who would like to see Iran weakened and—but are not necessarily committed to meaningful political change.
So it’s going to be a very uphill battle, but I don’t think the population is going to give up, and I don’t think that’s the case in Iran or a lot of the other places where we’ve seen protests—particularly the second wave. It’s just covered up by the repression right now, but it will resurface when it can in other places. That’s my own personal view.
And I’ll just say briefly about the contribution to human rights—just to connect it to what I said earlier—that human rights was a discourse that was dominated by, again, the kind of hollow disingenuous alienating politics and practice and discourses that encompass Savage-Victim-Savior in a sense. And it gave rise to a lot of cynicism, and I think the way that it’s being practiced by protest movements in the Middle East breathes new life to the project. It makes it something that’s much more meaningful and kind of resonates with people beyond the region, and I must say that after 2011, we saw the rise of protest movements in a lot of places beyond the region. And these are protest movements that essentially have some element of rights—demands and rights consciousness embedded in them.
For years we’ve been seeing scholarship talking about the impending demise of the human rights project. There’s a book called The End of Human Rights, and a lot of the problems with human rights—which, I mean some of them are very valid critiques—but I think the sense that human rights was out the door is—it’s not, right.
And it’s interesting to think of it in the sense that human rights was supposed to be something that saves the Middle East, according to the traditional kind of formulations, and it may just be that the Middle East, and broader Global South, end up saving human rights. (Laughs.)
So that’s just something to think about.
BUTLER: That’s beautiful. Yes, Dr. Obadare.
OBADARE: So quickly, Iran—I think a couple of things about Iran. One is to put it in the wider context of similar protests that have been going on in different parts of the world over the last five, seven years.
The protests against the monarchy in Eswatini, in Southern Africa; the anti-monarchy protests in Thailand led by a human rights activist—I’m blanking on some of the other protests that are going on out there now—but the Iranian struggle for women’s liberation, for human rights has to be put in that context. To appreciate that context, please pay attention to the slogan: woman life freedom. I love all those things. There’s nothing not to like in all three.
What the women in Iran are saying is that they are tired of conservative religious persistent supervision of their lives. They want to have control over their bodies. You know where else they say that? In the United States in the context of Roe v. Wade. So, again, the universality of human rights.
And part of what I think—I find disappointing is that there hasn’t been as much attention to the struggle in Iran and for all kinds of reasons I probably don’t want to get into here. But if we say we care about human rights and gender equality, the struggle of the people of the women of Iran that’s our struggle. That’s absolutely our struggle.
And it’s one of those contexts in which the United States ought to play a leading role. I’m aware of white superiority. The problem with white superiority is that it means it verifies every attempt to intervene in the problem of another country. It’s interpreted as white superiority.
No, if we believe in the universality of human rights, some forms of intervention are legitimate. There must actually be times when you back people up with muscle.
I’m not saying we should back Iranian women up with muscle. I’m saying we should be as vocal and expressive enough in the United States to support what’s going on, to give the women in Iran every bit of our support.
And this takes me to the question about—maybe a couple sentences about the United States itself. The most important thing—so over the last twenty, twenty-five years, the United States has given material and moral support to pro-democracy and human rights advocacy groups in Africa. We should continue to do so.
But much more than the material support, what we ourselves represent is important. We cannot go abroad championing democracy if we can’t have elections that are credible. We can’t keep sending election monitors abroad to determine whether those elections are free and fair when our own elections are riddled with doubt, cynicism, and skepticism.
The United States is the beacon of democracy in the world. It should not let this side down.
BUTLER: OK. Wow lots to think about, and now it’s your turn in the audience. So when you’re ready just raise your hand, and we’ll bring the mic over this way.
We’ve got a question and one here on the edge. Yup. OK. I saw you next, and then here in front after that.
RICHARDSON: Thanks very much to the panel. I’m Kurt Richardson. I lead an academic philanthropy called Abraham’s Bridge, Institute for Abrahamic Relations, and we work to build capacity within universities and professional lives in the Middle East—so Lebanon, Iran, and Israel. They all have an obligation to each other, if they only knew.
But one of the things I think that’s extremely important about the work that is human rights, in many ways if you can be in a partner attitude, if you do have access, then you are a shared co-laborer in the constant project that is democracy and human rights formulations. It’s extremely important that a culture—a larger culture, multicultural, formulates their own document.
So while things were downgrading so severely in Iran in the last decade, Rouhani fulfilled a promise of Khatami from—prior to Ahmadinejad, that a formulation—an Iranian—authentically Iranian formulation would be produced. He gathered 180 Iranian scholars. It was not produced by the government, and there is now a statement in Farsi, Arabic, and English.
The divisions between Shia and Sunni are more acute than they’ve ever been. All of the fault lines are along religion, and so although I’m a Protestant, I would—I do commend, most highly, the work of Vatican II on Dignitatis Humanae on religious freedom of conscience.
There is a special theological contribution born out of the religious wars of the seventeenth century that produced the basic theological foundations for liberty of conscience that produces religious liberty, not merely toleration—that’s majoritarian religious supervision of what is tolerable and what is intolerable—but rather on the basis of negative liberty. Then an individual culture needs to appropriate an educational document, which is what the U.N. statement of forty-eight really functioned as but over the generations it’s produced the human rights courts in Canada.
And the big question over and over is the separation of the religious court and the civil court. But until a culture has that acumen to—they will not be able to educate their own people in human rights principles that have been contextualized, but in agreement with the universal humanity that you were describing.
Thanks very much to this panel.
BUTLER: Thank you for that contribution. Let’s also take a question over here so we can get a couple things on the table for the panelists to respond to. And then we got a gentleman down front, and there’s a woman way here in the back. So I can get each corner of the room, at least.
BLOOM: Hi. Thank you so much for the panel. My name is Mia Bloom. I’m a professor at Georgia State, and I wanted to direct my question specifically to Dr. Obadare.
So I do research on Boko Haram. And I work with Faktina Akelo in Abuja, and I work with Maji Peterkson in Kaduna. And one of the things that has happened with the women who were freed, rescued from Sambisa, is that the military forces turned around and did to them what Boko Haram did to them.
And so when we’re talking about human rights and we understand that it’s usually clear who are the bad guys and who are the good guys, what do we do in a case like Nigeria when you have either the peacekeeping force, which isn’t really keeping peace, or you have the soldiers in the military that are the ones also abusing human rights? And so this is why the women are running back to Sambisa to their Boko husbands.
OBADARE: Thank you. There is no problem there. You are describing a situation in which women are caught between male power from the point of view of Boko Haram and male power from the point of view of Nigerian soldiers. When you come for the woman, you’re screwed. There is no conflict there. The way to get out of that—and I was going to ask the gentleman who spoke earlier about the document in Farsi, which connects to this—did you read the document? What does it say about the rights of women?
You can’t say you want universal right and then not respect women. How are you going to do it? You want universal right as long as it suits men. The people—
RICHARDSON: It includes men and women.
OBADARE: It guarantees for rights for women—the right for them to dress the way they like, to dispose—to own and dispose of property. Really? To marry whoever they want?
Let’s stop kidding around. Look, the argument for culture who lapses once at a certain point you cease to make progress with the argument for culture. Look, the argument for culture, you know why it affects me and where I’m coming from?
It basically says I have a right to marry as many women as I like. I own them as property. The women have no right. I love that culture, right? What about the women? Culture has to bow to the universal.
It does not matter who is saying it. If a white person is saying it, the argument is still sound. The problem I think people face is because they say it’s an American that is saying it, so the argument is flawed. Remove the person saying it. Go to space and say, I want men and women to be equal. It sounds right to me.
BUTLER: All right we had a question—I promised down here in the front, and then we’re going to go to the back of the room here on the right. And then I’ll watch for the other hands, if we have time after that. Trying to get everybody in.
CHARNES: Thank you. I am Rabbi Joe Charnes and I have a question for Dr. Obadare.
I appreciate your focus on the human dimension of human rights because, sadly, I think we often, all of us, focus on the rights part and forget that there’s a human being that those rights are supposed to inspire, and give dignity and meaning and hope, too. I often speak of the humanity of rights.
And my question for you is, when you spoke of human rights transcending race and culture and gender and society and religion, there’s one area, unfortunately, that I don’t think it transcends, and I wonder, what is your—at least attempted solution—or both of your solutions to this because we’re all in the same boat. Human rights, unfortunately, don’t transcend politics. What do we do? I’m not looking for saviors, but I’m looking for some hope.
OBADARE: The key—the word is not transcend. The operative word is underpin, right? If we are going to have a robust public sphere of deliberation—a deliberative democracy—where I am Muslim and I am free to speak to the rabbi, where the rabbi is free to associate with one of the nuns. It has to be predicated on mutual respect.
Where does that respect come from? It means I have to see you beyond your color. I have to see you beyond your gender, beyond your location, beyond your class. I see you as a human being is the most important attribute that we all bear.
The human, that’s where our dignity comes from. That’s why certain things are forbidden. That’s why we say you can’t do that to fellow human being. There’s no problem here. Human rights is the very foundation of my own conception of politics.
BUTLER: Dr. Mokhtari, you want to tackle that one?
MOKHTARI: Well, let me actually go back to the Iran document that was mentioned. So I think part of the problem is the conflating of—in well-intentioned kind of progressive attempts, and peace and conflict resolution type attempts—the conflating of the state and the population, right, and states that claim to speak for—and this is kind of cultural relativism more broadly, too.
So I always tell my students take cultural relativism claims seriously, but do not concede them on face value because usually you have to ask, who is it that’s making this claim? And cultures are usually contested. Religious interpretations are contested internally. They’re dynamic.
And so cultural relativism claims a lot of them can be responded to by looking at who it is that’s making the claim and what are their interests in that. So if you are at the helm of power and if you are a—in the case of Iran, a male-dominated regime that constructs its ideology in opposition to the West by bringing in Islam and listing Islam—that’s not where the real work needs to be done in terms of bridging cultures and norms, I think. It has to really be done—and Khatami and Rouhani played an important role. In the end, their project failed. There’s a lot to be said about them and kind of post-Islamists and attempt to have Islamic reformist movements within the state in Iran.
But in the end, the population was in a very different place it seems like, normatively. There are religious segments of society that need to have that kind of engagement in terms of human rights and where they feel that it does not coincide with their religious and cultural sense of morality.
Another debate we have in my human rights classes—when is shaming effective, and when do you need to have an engagement strategy? And calling in versus calling out—when is each more appropriate, and when is shaming going to backfire?
And we talk about when people hold—I mean, FGM is a great example. People holding the belief that what they’re doing is in line with their moral code. And you come in and you pass judgment on them and say you are being misogynist, you’re a terrible, that’s where we should have engagement with people.
But I would just caution against conflating—essentially doing what these states that claim to be anti-imperialist through their ideology want you to do, which is to conflate them and their agendas with that of their population.
And in terms of sectarianism in the Middle East, a lot of that is fueled by political actors who would rather the population is focused on sectarian divisions then the grievances they have against the authoritarian regimes in power.
BUTLER: Interesting. All right we had the question here in the back, and I promised back here so let’s get to the back of the room.
MOTHOAGAE: Thank you. Thank you. My name is Professor Itumeleng Mothoagae from University of South Africa.
I just want to ask a question—I must say, I think it’s Dr. Obadare—there’s somewhere that I actually differ with you completely—on the issue of universalism and the idea that says, look, United States is a beacon of hope. I actually completely differ with you on that.
And in South Africa, for example, the land is in the hands of the minority, who happen to be white, number one. Number two, the economy is dictated upon by whites. So how do we speak of human rights in a context where the majority that live beyond poverty line are Black?
So how then? Because the South African image of segregation was taken from the United States. If you compare the conditions of a Black American in the United States, you have to compare it to South Africa. That’s number one.
Number two, I have also another problem is that we’ve got to look at existential experiences because it is experiences of the people that should be translating into how we ought to translate and understand the notion of human rights.
Now we look at the ideas of the human rights charter. They came when a white man started killing another white man. Prior to that, the notion of human rights did not exist—slavery continued, disenfranchisement of Black people continued without any problem. But when a white man started killing another white man, then we started talking about human rights.
At exactly the same time, South Africa went into an apartheid system when here in the United States in San Francisco the human rights charter was launched, where Black people were further dislocated from their homes. Now post-1994 in South Africa, we are told about these notions of human rights, which if you look at the South African Constitution—chapter one of the South African Constitution talks about the bill of human rights.
Yet, the people who do not benefit from that are still the ones who did not benefit even during apartheid. Now, I need to ask you this question. Britain saw it and tempted fate together with the United States to see to it that they put sanctions on Zimbabwe because Robert Mugabe refused to abide to them, regardless of the benefits and whatever that was going to affect the people of Zimbabwe.
Rwanda becomes an example, in which we can say, opposite the United States, opposite Western democracy, Rwanda gives us an alternative democracy, where the cultural system is incorporated with Western system.
So I would like you to respond to that, please. Thank you.
OBADARE: Thank you. There’s a lot to unpack there. I’m just going to say maybe three or four sentences because—and maybe you and I can continue over coffee or something.
Rwanda is no democracy. It’s totalitarianism pretending to be a democracy. You should look beyond culture.
You’re not seeing properly because of your affection, because you like Mugabe, too.
I thought Mugabe was a monster right away. And if you don’t believe me, check the economic indices under Mugabe. Look at what happened to the people of Zimbabwe under Mugabe. I don’t care about Mugabe. I care about Zimbabweans.
I insist that the United States is a beacon of democracy, of course. The United States is by no means perfect, and it has not always reconciled its creed with its actions, but that creed is sound. You don’t believe me? Look at Venezuelans. Look at Mexicans. Look at Paraguayans. Look at Nicaraguans.
Thousands of people are dying struggling to come to the United States. I came here out of my own volition. I love the United States. I am aware of historical injustices in the United States, and I think that if you’re going to have any problem at grasping—grappling with those injustices, human rights is your friend. It’s not your enemy.
The fact that an advocate for a good has been disreputable does not change their focus itself. You are mixing categories here. Human rights are universal—even in South Africa, right.
So you talk about economic disparity between Black people and white people, and then I will challenge you. South Africa has been under Black rule since 1994, right. Let Black people in South Africa take possession of their own destiny. If they are going to do that, you know what’s going to help them? The language of human rights.
The human in human rights. If you focus on the human in human rights, it makes you pay attention to the economy. It means you pay attention to the infrastructure. One of the things that the intelligentsia outside the United States has to stop doing is to stop holding outsiders responsible for their own problems. I saw that trope in your questions.
MOKHTARI: Can I add, maybe, a couple things here?
MOKHTARI: I mean, I must say that I also would not completely agree with a couple of statements here. One, that the U.S. should be viewed as a beacon of democracy. Now, I would definitely accept that the U.S.’s relationship with the human rights paradigm has been complex and there have been times where it’s had a positive impact, but there’s also a lot of problems there that we don’t have time to kind of really get into.
And the other is the statement that was made earlier that it doesn’t matter who it is who’s invoking human rights. I think that it does sometimes matter. It doesn’t always, but sometimes it does matter, so.
There’s an image I showed my students of—and I forget the name of the U.S. congresswoman from New York who had worn a burka where she did the speech in front of Congress—
OBADARE: (Off mic.)
MOKHTARI: I’m sorry?
OBADARE: Is it one of—(inaudible)—I think? I’m trying to jog your memory.
MOKHTARI: So she wore a burka, did a speech on Afghan women and their oppression. So I showed that image—and this is in the context of the U.S. wars, right—and then an image of an Iranian woman who’s holding up a scarf she’s taken out.
Both of those people are challenging a mandatory hijab in a sense, and I asked my students to think about what’s the difference, right. And I think that there is a lot of difference there because there’s a lot of baggage and civilizing mission with goes with the first picture. And there’s—it’s an active agency in the second picture that’s not there in the first. So there’s a lot of layers there.
Now I do believe that you have to try to make your tent big, as big as you can, and bring in people and engage with people even though there may be some disagreements, but it does matter. I mean, there’s a very political context that can be brought in with someone invoking sympathies for human rights in this place or that place.
So what is happening that I think is very interesting is increasingly there’s South-to-South human rights learning, right. So Chile is a place where there’s—if you don’t know about Chile, there’s tremendous advances taking place that incorporate social and economic rights.
And I guess it also goes to the last question we had in the sense that traditionally—again, Western-driven human rights discourses have been very neoliberal, right, and have—and in South Africa you had the truth and reconciliation process that dealt with civil and political rights violations and nothing about the economic structures, right.
But what’s happening I see in the Global South is a new generation of human rights activists who are very attuned to these dynamics and are changing what we mean by human rights so that it’s not in the forms that have traditionally been as problematic. Now will they be successful in making human rights a more politicized—and politicized in the sense that looks at political structures and more meaningful discourse? I don’t know because they’re also up against a lot in that project.
But I think the South-to-South learning is also very interesting—and cooperation.
BUTLER: Exciting. All right we have a little time for some more questions. Someone down in the front and then over here. Perhaps we could take two at a time?
Yeah, right here in the front. It came up first. I’m trying to get them as they come in and go around the room.
Q: Thank you very much. This has been terrific. I’m wondering—and I’m asking out of my own guilt—should we have left Afghanistan, or should we have stayed? (Laughter.)
BUTLER: Big one. Big one. Since that’s a big one, let’s also take this one over here on the—right behind you in the gray sweatshirt just so we can get in as much as possible.
ALEXANDER: Thanks. My name’s Laura Alexander. I’m at University of Nebraska at Omaha. I teach a course called Religion and Human Rights, so this one of those deceptively simple questions I want to know what to talk to my students about.
In your work with communities on the ground when you see folks who are protesting against unjust structures who are protesting for their rights to control their—I shouldn’t say right—protesting to control their own body—do you see folks using language other than the language of rights, or of human rights? Or do you primarily see those groups really continuing to use the language of human rights so that that remains that kind of fundamental language that folks will talk about?
BUTLER: Do you want to go ahead and—
MOKHTARI: Yeah, so—so I mean, again, this is why I said the Middle East has moved on from the project of political Islam. In Iran we had several cycles where people were pursuing reform from within, and that entailed making the case for rights through religious discourses, couching rights claims. And in Iran it’s somewhat unique because that’s what you had the space to do. The government—you didn’t have much more space to use secular framing.
But in any case, I mean this was also happening in other Arab countries, where you try to bring in religious communities through religious framing. But I think that these societies—definitely Iran is in a different place right now, and by and large the move is more towards secular couching of rights at this point.
In Iran, I’m paying careful attention to the slogans being used. I don’t see—the only reference to religion that I saw was one slogan that says, “rape in prisons, where is that in the Koran?” And it's an indictment of, obviously, this regime that claims religious morality. But beyond that people have moved on to very secular discourses, so.
In terms of Afghanistan, I mean it’s such a difficult—I mean, so much of the problems in Afghanistan as in Iran it’s like Western intervention played such a critical role in the rise of the mujahideen in Afghanistan historically and kind of religious politics in Afghanistan.
And so then everything that happens post-9/11, I mean, so—ultimately, I say, yes, the U.S. had to leave because it couldn’t be there forever and it’s a fight. The Afghan people and Afghan women—it’s a fight they’re going to have to create the space for, but again, I mean just as in Iran, I don’t think it’s something that outside—now outside forces can be somewhat supportive in certain ways. But ultimately, it’s a fight for the people themselves.
And it’s fascinating to see Afghan women protesting, even though they are now subjected to much—I mean and replicating some of the same slogans in Iran—even though they are subjected to much more brutal repression right now, and have much less space to try to push forward a movement like this.
I mean I think part of the reason Afghan women suffer from, again, what I call the double curse of Western hegemony. So, the Savage-Victim-Savior formulation and then the overcompensation for that, which obscures what people on the ground experience at the hands of, again, forces that claim to be furthering religion, right.
I think if Iran goes in the direction that we hope—I hope that it does—it’ll open up space for a lot of other places in the region and maybe one day Afghanistan, too. I don’t want to say it’s just because of Iran, but I think it’ll have a positive influence, I think.
BUTLER: Did you—
OBADARE: Afghanistan, I think it depends on the question of why you think—what’s your sense of why we went to Afghanistan in the first instance, right. If you think we went there for the sake of oil and geopolitical reasons, maybe.
If you think we actually have anything to do to help countries, another culture of different kinds of autocracy, maybe you say yes. But what I want to say is, I really don’t think we should give up on intervention.
The word has attracted so much problem of late, understandably. Because the United States is not always covered itself in glory, but it will be the wrong lesson to take from that to then say we will never intervene in the affairs of other people. We will not go—there are different kinds of trouble.
There are trouble that come looking for you, and you find that that you have to actually—I mean, so should we intervene in Ukraine? Of course we should. We’re doing the right thing. The people of Ukraine are repelling an odious dictatorship.
The moral line for me couldn’t be clearer. We should be there. We should commit resources. We should fight it to the last.
And it’s the same way I think about what we do outside the United States. There are times we’ve behaved—look, I could—I know more about the history of American misbehavior—probably more than anyone else in this room—but we shouldn’t give up on the agents of the United States to do good.
This is the only country that can muster the kind of resources that it only can muster. Let me swing at your heart a little bit here. Do we all remember Malala Yousafzai, the young woman? Do you think it’s OK to help people like that go to school?
Don’t you think it’s OK to repel regimes that prevent women from going to school? And you’re going to hold back because of accusations of your intervening in another country?
Not all interventions are alike. There are good interventions. There are bad interventions. The West should commit to the good type. The West should renounce the bad type.
BUTLER: All right. Room for two quick—
MOKHTARI: Let me just say one—
BUTLER: Go ahead.
MOKHTARI: —I think that’s a very—there’s a lot to dissect there because who decides what’s a good intervention and what’s a bad intervention, right—(applause)—and how do we define—I mean, the intervention—I mean, are we talking about military interventions here, or are we talking about—
OBADARE: No, no, no, no, there are different kinds of intervention. There are times when the United States and the West are the only agents that people suffering can call upon. Don’t pretend that you don’t know that because it’s coming next week or the week after. And it’s going to be a moral problem, and you are going to have to address it.
You can’t say because you’ve gotten certain things wrong in the past that you are no longer going to try in the future. There are bad interventions, I agree with you. We should forfeit those. We should try as much as possible.
But if people under tyranny call on us for help, we should give them help. That’s what the United States is about.
BUTLER: So we recognize there’s some gray area there, and if we had time, we would create some more nuanced framework, right, and yet stand to the standards of like human rights is a thing we want to stand for, protect it in some way and not make it so relative that everybody’s frozen and can’t do anything, which is where we’re at.
And that is a tough, tough order. We would need several hours to unpack our framework, wouldn’t we? (Laughter.)
BUTLER: But we’re trying to compensate here, too, I think, for some of the extremes.
OK. So we have somebody in the middle here, and somebody here. Let’s take these two really quick, and then we need to wrap.
Thanks for being persistent.
PROCIDA: Hello. Thank you for your comments. My name’s Rich Procida. I’m an attorney, and I studied law and international service at American University. And I’m also founding the Truth and Democracy Coalition, which works to build a pro-democracy movement in America in order to promote and defend democracy locally, nationally, and globally.
So I have two questions. The first is for Dr. Obadare, and then, the second is for both of you. When we look at The Economist Democrat Index of Democracies, we see that in Africa—I’d like to say—sometimes I say the Iron Curtain runs through the heart of Africa. Yet, in South America we have mostly democracies, and the question is, why?
And then, the second question is, is what does protecting, defending, promoting democracy in Ukraine, Iran, and Africa look like?
BUTLER: OK. We had a second question over here. Go ahead throw it on the table, and we’ll see where we can get to.
COHEN-SIMAYOF: Hi. I’m—it’s off.
BUTLER: Keep going. Keep going.
COHEN-SIMAYOF: OK. Is it on? (Laughs.)
COHEN-SIMAYOF: I’m Ophir. I’m from the AAAs Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion. My question is about technology and the role that it plays in democratic backsliding or democracy building.
I am twenty-four years old, a Gen Z-er, I feel like I’ve lived the majority of my adult life, especially post-COVID or during COVID, online, and I was just wondering what—whether it is in your own regions, the regions that you study, America, beyond—but what role does technology play, both as a tool of oppression as a tool for civil society, and especially in the wake of Twitter being a tool of information sharing, but also now being a little bit of a dumpster fire?
Yeah, so I wonder if you can speak to that.
OBADARE: Do you want me?
BUTLER: Go ahead.
OBADARE: Yeah, social media, yes. I don’t know if you know what happened in Nigeria in 2020—October 2020, the End SARS protests. Most of the people who took part in the protests were just people like you—Gen Z-ers, and a little bit older. But I think—I bring it up because one of the things they did was to use the power of social media, too.
So this is a very vast subject, of course, but you could sort of see social media going in one direction—being used positively to advance democratic space to support human rights struggle. But you also sort of see in the pushback by reactionary forces working for the state to use social media to sort of—I mean, think about what President Trump did with his Twitter handle. There’s a whole study there about how occupiers of state office can manipulate social media.
So social media is going to be with us for the foreseeable future. How we deal with it as human beings is going to be the issue.
Ukraine, before you get to Ukraine in—before you get to democracy in Ukraine, you’ve left something out. You have to keep Ukraine as a country. If Ukraine is not a country, how is it going to be democratic?
The most important thing we have to do is to make sure that we help the people of Ukraine in their struggle to maintain their territorial sovereignty. Once we have that, we can then have it.
As a matter of fact, one of the reasons why I think—other than the fact that its territory has been invaded by a hostile neighbor—the fact that philosophically we see eye to eye with the people of Ukraine that it’s a democracy—however flawed it is—makes it all the more incumbent on us to give support to Ukrainians.
MOKHTARI: On the social media front, I mean, so there was a lot of celebrating of social media around 2011 with the Arab uprisings, and then we saw the darks side of it and the way that a lot of—particularly Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran—a lot of these governments figured out very quickly how to not only target dissidents through social media, but to manufacture and disseminate all sorts of disinformation, which then circulates as misinformation. And they have been very, very effective at that.
And so it’s like the pendulum has swung, but then now that I look at Iran, I mean, I see both effects very—almost evenly. I mean, I don’t see how these protests could have—we’re now in, what, the end of the second month. I think we’re in week ten. I don’t think how it—that it would have endured without people being able to get those videos online and the world seeing what’s happening.
At the same time, there’s a lot of, lot of, lot of misinformation. One of the people that sent me an image that was an iconic image of the Egyptian uprising.
It’s called the Blue Bra incident. So it’s a woman that security forces are beating. She’s a protestor, and she’s got a veil so she’s religious, but you can see her blue bra. And they sent this to me as an example of the Iranian government’s moral hypocrisy, as if we needed more examples.
But she doesn’t know, and I had to tell her this is actually from Egypt, not Iran, and then she stopped sending me things, so I was like, oh, this is bad. I need her to send this for my research. But in any case, both are—and that’s a somewhat benign example of misinformation, but there are more problematic ones.
In terms of what intervention is helpful in Iran—I’ll just limit it to Iran quickly—this is the big question. So it used to be the U.S.—don’t say anything because then the government could shut it all down by calling this a U.S. agenda and a Western intervention, and so activists treaded so lightly, have such a confined space within which to operate.
And what I think is fascinating is that a lot of—led by diaspora activists who have unfortunately, taken it a little bit to the extreme. But they have opened up the space so that you can say, Biden administration make a statement on this, and a lot of them, actually, go much farther. And it’s—I’m not quite there at all, but sanctions are OK.
And even there are—there’s an interesting segment of the population outside and inside Iran who would’ve loved Trump to start a war in Iran because they saw that as the only avenue for them to be able to get rid of this regime. I mean, they couldn’t find—they couldn’t see any other way to get out of the grips of the regime. And there’s, of course, a lot of trauma, and there’s a lot of other things going on.
But I think it is interesting that they’ve now opened up a space where at least statements are possible. But I think just the issue—the international spotlight on the protests in Iran and elsewhere in the region is very helpful because even the Islamic Republic of Iran really does not want to have all of this bad press that it’s getting. It does have an impact.
BUTLER: Incredible. Unfortunately, we need wrap. I want to thank our audience. You all have asked incredible questions. And to Dr. Obadare and Dr. Mokhtari, it’s been inspiring and illuminating and complexifying, so thank you. (Applause.)
OBADARE: Thank you.