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)

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