Talal Asad and Abdullahi An-Na’im stand at the forefront of the challenging and constructive exchange taking place today between European and Islamic traditions of political, legal, and religious thought. At a recent event organized by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, the two scholars traded questions and criticisms concerning the concept of human rights. Moderated by José Casanova, the discussion addressed the intrinsic limitations and historical failures of the language of human rights, as well as its formidable capacity to challenge autocratic and state-centric distributions of power, creating openings for democratic contestation and political self-determination.

The following is a short excerpt of the conversation, which is available for download in its entirety here (pdf). You can see video from the event at here & there.

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An-Na’im: If I may, on the universality question: there is no such thing as a universal human. Being human is being specific, it is belonging to a location, a context, a gender, a class; there are all sorts of specifics about the human. So it is not what Talal called imperialist universalism, which projects its relativity into the global sphere in order to apply, for example, American law or the American institution of religious freedom throughout the world under the so-called “US International Religious Freedom Act,” which is an exclusively American project. How can this initiative be both international and American, such that Americans define what freedom of religion is for everybody else, and go out and impose sanctions, unless the President exempts a country like Saudi Arabia from the sanctions for other reasons. So the hypocrisy and double standards are very serious, but that is what we need to expose and American citizens need to confront.

Now, the idea of universality is not something to proclaim. It is not something to discover. It is something to construct; that is, I believe in constructing a universal consensus, using Rawls’s idea of overlapping consensus. Every human being is relativist by virtue of being human. She or he is of a place, a time, a culture, a set of values, and so on.  But can we come to a shared understanding of what human rights are, despite our differences as to why we come to make that commitment? So it is not a notion of the universal being already made and either brought down from natural law or proclaimed by the State Department, but it is about joining hands, joining struggles in actual solidarity. And yes, as Talal mentioned last night, it’s true that solidarity can be very dangerous, very seductive, opportunistic, and all of that. That is what the human is. We are all sorts of things—not always good, not always bad—but we have somehow to make sense of that. Solidarity, as an idea, can be hijacked, can be co-opted, yes. Human rights, as an idea, can be hijacked, can be co-opted, yes. But that is not good enough reason to give up on it. In fact, the very hijacking of the idea is a testimony to its power; as Louis Henkin says, the double standards and the hypocrisy about human rights “is the tribute of vice to virtue.” It is because the idea of human rights is attractive and because it is powerful that corporations would like to use it, governments or states would like to use it; but we need it more and we cannot give up on it because others abuse it.

Asad: Again, I am not sure that there is too much disagreement. Perhaps I am a little worried about too much confidence in human rights—that’s the main thing.

An-Na’im: Yeah, yeah, sure.

Asad: However, I want to ask you a question and also to make one comment. First of all, it’s not just the noble idea—this is my comment—of human rights, as I see it. There is an increasing material body of legal decisions and cases. So when corporations use human rights, they don’t take human rights as an idea, you know—there are particular rules and regulations, principles of interpretation and so on that they can go in and out of—that’s why they need lawyers for all this, because ordinary people wouldn’t be able to understand all the legal ramifications of human rights as a regime, why certain kinds of cases can have this or that outcome. So we already have an increasing body of law through which we decide—the courts decide—what is compatible with human rights and what is not. And then you also have this distinction, you know, between soft law and hard law, where hard law is backed by sanctions and soft law is more a matter of influence, of trying to get people to be a little more responsible towards human rights principles essentially by resorting to moral suasion. There is now an enormous legal structure of human rights, and I am not an expert on it at all and don’t want to use up the remaining years of my life trying to understand that part of it. But I think it isn’t good enough just to keep waving the flag and saying we need human rights. Yeah, okay, different things are possible in different situations—that’s fine—but there seems to me a kind of excessive, I might almost say religious, excitement about a solution which is believed to be special. I know you’ve said it is not appropriate in every way, but you do believe that it is in some sense special with regard to the transformation of the world. That leads me to my question. And it’s a real question that’s not intended to be a trap. You say you have to construct universality. What is the universe that you want to construct? Don’t say a human world because that is circular. In fact, the human has very gradually been transformed, as I suggested very briefly yesterday, its content has been historically changed and can be changed again given the technological developments and genetic engineering developments that are now available to us. The human can be almost anything. This is something we should at least think about. So what is it to construct the universe, the universal for you? What is the universe, logically speaking? What is the universe to be constructed politically?

Read a full transcript of this conversation here (pdf).