Sunday, April 29, 2007

Drawing A Bright Line

One of the books I've been reading for the International Women's Forum Building Bridges--Breaking Walls Conference in Amman is Katerina Dalacoura's Islam, Liberalism and Human Rights. Ms. Dalacoura, who teaches at the London School of Economics, tries to make the case that there is no essential incompatibility between Islam and human rights. She defines human rights as "the rights people have by virtue of their humanity," and she traces the concept of humans having inalienable rights qua human beings to the bringing together of the Judaeo-Christian tradition in the West with the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. As far as the western view of human rights is concerned, probably no one would disagree. But she goes on to argue that our concept of human rights is grounded equally in the exercise of reasoned inquiry and the exercise of faith, for the secularism that the Enlightenment has bequeathed us cannot alone guarantee human rights, without a sense of a higher moral law. She finds moral law in man's recourse to what has long been called natural law, in which faith and reason are joined, and goes on to say that "whatever interpretation we give to natural law, however--whether we find our point of reference in Christianity, in Islam, in a belief in a higher Being or in a inchoate metaphysical sense of the sacredness of the human being--we cannot, I argue, escape its [natural law's] necessity if we want to be consistent on human rights."

The Dalacoura view of an Islam that could be compatible with such human rights is more problematic. She puts aside sharia (the Abbasid medieval legal codes that dictate much of the practice of Islam) and finds a locus for human rights in the Q'ran. However, she is vague as to which divine revelations in the Q'ran address human rights. And in the end her argument is unconvincing, partly because she does not discuss Mohammedan revelation, partly because the Egyptian and Tunisian attempts to combine human rights and Islam, which she chronicles, have failed.

Therefore, I had tossed this book aside--more fool me--until Ms. Dalacoura's subject came back to haunt me this past week after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision Gonzales v. Carhart. There was so much vituperative back-and-forth in the media about this partial-birth abortion case that I decided I had to read the decision and the background cases for myself. And I was surprised--more, taken aback--even more, appalled--at what a partial-birth abortion actually entails. It is either infanticide or next-to-infanticide--and whatever it is, it abrogates that "higher moral law" to which, according to Ms. Dalacoura, we are all bound. And the ironic thing, from my point of view, as a western woman cautiously embarking on an exploration of Islam, is that infanticide is one subject on which Muslims can take the human rights high ground, for in the seventh century Mohamed outlawed infanticide, at a time when the other Mediterranean cultures practiced it. I wonder if any of the Muslim women at the conference will point this out, if and when they are queried closely about human rights in their countries.

Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court decision shows how difficult it is to find that locus of natural law. It is one thing to say "let's combine faith and reason;" it is quite another more difficult thing to do so. The exercise of reason is hard, very hard, and it is a task best-suited for the most intelligent. When reason and faith go hand-in-hand, as they have many times in western culture (the abolition of slavery, child labor laws, encouragement of education and knowledge), they walk in beauty, to quote Byron. But there are times when reason and faith clash. In such instances, the exercise of reason becomes not only difficult to do but difficult to sustain, for one's mind is already jumping past argument to the forgone conclusion that faith a priori embodies. This seems to be the situation with Justice Kennedy's written opinion in Gonzales v. Carhart. His reasoning is disjointed, weak, and doesn't hold up to scrutiny; his conclusions are peremptory--because, I suspect, in his mind (like in my own) from the beginning any and all argument about women's rights this/doctors' opinions that/case law here/precedent there are irrelevant because the prohibition against infanticide or against an act coming close to infanticide trumps everything. Therefore, Justice Kennedy's written opinion is a charade, and it is just the kind of intellectual dishonesty for which Katerina Dalacoura takes many modern Islamic scholars to task when, for example, they try to prove that women in Islamic societies have a panoply of human rights. The fact that a western jurist (one trained in the Jesuit tradition, no less) cannot sustain an argument warns us of the difficulties ahead for many a Muslim jurist trying to do the same, and in cultures less hospitable to reason and more deeply imbued with a sense of divine law. In our own society, moreover, it is not just the jurists and scholars who are intellectually dishonest. Last week few in the media repeated the word "infanticide," even though it appears often in the Supreme Court opinion. If Americans choose euphemism and circumlocution, if we cannot speak our minds, how can we expect people in more closed societies to do otherwise?

"Congress determined that the abortion methods it proscribed had a 'disturbing similarity to the killing of a newborn infant,' ... and thus it was concerned with 'drawing a bright line that clearly distinguishes abortion and infanticide.'" (J. Kennedy, opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court, Gonzales v. Carhart)

Friday, April 27, 2007

My Friend Clare

At the outset, I should confess that, like the proverbial changeling or cuckoo chick, I am going to this conference under false pretenses. I am not a "woman leader"--that would be my friend Clare, who has generously asked me to accompany her. She is a trusts & estates lawyer, philanthropist, and IWF member who, like all the other members convening in Amman, is allowed to bring one guest. So I suppose I will be the Woman Who Came to Dinner. Hopefully, I will not be the only one. Clare's invitation was serendipitous (as such things often are), for she thought I would be in Egypt sometime in May and could hop over to Jordan and join her. Indeed I had planned to be in Egypt with my younger daughter Caroline, who is visiting St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai because she hopes to present a paper on two of the monastery's frescoes at a Byzantine art conference next fall. But mother-daughter scheduling didn't work out, and Caro can't get to the Sinai until August and its 120 degree heat. Even as my Egypt sojourn vanished (regrets, regrets--Caro is the absolute best traveler, but that's a story for another day), I jumped at the chance to join Clare. So now I will try to be as good a
traveling companion for Clare as Caro has been for me. Tall order. We'll see how I do.

Having googled some of the California IWF members going to Amman, I'm slightly intimidated by their accomplishments. I'm a bit of an odd bird myself--a somewhat agoraphobic traveler, spending my days at home researching and writing little histories on my mother's family (albeit an interesting one, in that Southern gothic way) when I'm not taking trips here and there. Sometimes, as I hold a letter from the 1880's and struggle to decipher the copperplate, briefly I have the oddest feeling that the writer has stepped out of the shadows to my side. I wonder if a century and more from now our blogs, presuming that they still circle the ethernet, will alight upon spaces yet to be created.

So--returning to the subject at hand--I will be one of many upper middle-class and upper class women, East and West, traveling to Amman. We all seem to be well-educated. My husband supposes that we westerners (mostly Americans?--I'll find out and report) will be secularists, almost to a woman. Of course, I am an exception; and from googling, I know that two of the California IWFers are "staunch Episcopalians," as they say, and one is Jewish. As for our hostesses, I suddenly realize that my presumption that all will be Muslims could be wrong. There are 4 million Arab Christians in the Middle East; a few could be part of the Cornerstone Conference. Somehow--after my reading--I think not. But I will report, and that will be a story for another another day.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Off To See The Queen

Even though I brought out Owl and Green Dog as a political blog--like everybody else and her aunt momma looking ahead to 2008--I will be writing first from the International Women's Forum Cornerstone Conference in Jordan. "Under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah, Founder of IWF Jordan, women leaders from around the world are invited to join IWF in this ancient and biblical land for a conversation unlike any other. In unity, with stewardship and trust, come to Amman, May 14-16 and help expand the circle of understanding that lifts prospects for a more sustainable future." So states the program. A born sceptic, I will see.

I should also mention that I am a born (again) Christian who, having worked my way through the conference's reading list on Islam, realizes for the first time the depth of her ignorance about Muslims. So probably I shouldn't be nitpicking, yet--but, after all, this is a blog. Should the conference prospectus begin its description of Jordan with the moniker "biblical land?" Jordan is an Islamic state where, technically, the penalty for apostasy is death. Promulgating the Bible is against the law. Of course, Jordan has a Christian Orthodox community that predates the creation of Jordan itself by a thousand years. And Muslims recognize Christians and Jews as fellow "peoples of the book"--dhimmi, in Arabic. However, our book, the Bible, is not the equal of the Q'ran. Therefore, I wonder if a biblical Jordan is a bit outside the circle of understanding.