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The Islam and Human Rights Fellowship Program at Emory University is a three-year project that brings scholars and activists together to explore the relationship between human rights and Islam. Across the Muslim world today there exists a profound tension between the competing paradigms of universal human rights on the one hand and Islamic law and tradition on the other. The human rights paradigm outlined in the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is widely perceived as a Western effort to impose its values at the expense of traditional Islamic values. The aim of the Islam and Human Rights program is to explore such tensions and, when possible, reconcile them. In doing so, the program means to help people within Islamic societies promote and protect human rights from an Islamic perspective.

- Approach

- Network

- Director & Board

- Emory Resources


The Approach

The program is designed to put sound scholarship at the service of practical efforts to promote human rights in Islamic societies. It is predicated on the belief that the moral and philosophical foundations of universal human rights can be found in different religions and cultures, notwithstanding that the present articulation of the modern concept arose out of Western constitutional experiences since the late 18th century.

European and American political and religious thinkers first began to advance the modern concept of human rights as a part of their struggle to shield individuals from the growing power of the nation-state. Now that the European model of the nation-state has spread across the globe, people outside the West face a similar need for protection against the excess or abuse of power by the state. Human rights advocates have tried to address this by making Western-style constitutional rights binding under international law. But since there is no reliable international mechanism for enforcing human rights standards against the will of national governments, they continue to face the question of how to motivate nation-states to ratify and enforce human rights treaties within their respective territories. The most effective and sustainable way to do this is to generate a local constituency in favor of compliance. But the rights outlined in such treaties must be seen by the general public as consistent with their own religious beliefs and norms for such a constituency to emerge and be effective in its mission.

Those who wish to nurture a human rights constituency in the Islamic world face special problems in legitimating their cause. Some elements of the traditional theology of Islam, like that of many other major religions, are not readily consistent with the key human rights principle of non-discrimination. Islamic political thinkers have inherited a strongly developed ideology and clear visions of the social good, as expressed in Shari'a, and these views are commonly believed to be divinely ordained and immutable. Moreover, the Western powers in the past have used Western concepts of human rights as an excuse for the colonial intrusion and post-colonial domination of the Islamic world. This experience has radically transformed life in many Islamic societies, forcing Muslims to negotiate their relationship to modernity on terms which appear to be dictated by the West. As a result, many see the human rights movement as an imposition of Western values and a symbol of continued imperial political and cultural hegemony.

Many Western and non-Western societies are struggling to determine how the modern concept of human rights fits in with their indigenous religious traditions. But the tension between religion and human rights is particularly pronounced in the Islamic world because of the strong role Islam plays in public and private life, even in countries that formally claim to be secular. For the same reason, identifying strategies that can legitimize human rights in the eyes of Muslims is a task that has implications for some 1.2 billion people, constituting the majority of the population in more than fifty African and Asian nations, as well as substantial minorities in other countries.


The Network

To link the fellows and other scholars and advocates of human rights, the program has created this website. The website will give human rights advocates with a particular interest in Islam an open and accessible forum for continuous dialogue and consultation, tentative publication of short manuscripts, and the exchange of news and information. The website includes a wide set of offerings, including articles, bibliographies, profiles and contact for human rights groups organized by country, short profiles of leading scholars on Islam and human rights from around the world, and links to other electronic resources.

The program will also publish a newsletter and an occasional paper series.


The Director and Advisory Board

Abdullahi An-Na'im is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law as well as the Director of the Religion and Human Rights Project at the Emory University School of Law. He is the author of Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights and International Law and the editor of The Politics of Memory: Truth, Healing and Social Justice (with Ifi Amadiume) and Human Rights in Cross Cultural Perspectives: Quest for Consensus; Human Rights in Africa: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (with Francis Deng); The Cultural Dimensions of Human Rights in the Arab World (in Arabic); Universal Rights, Local Remedies: Legal Protection Prof. An-Na'im
of Human Rights under the Constitutions of African Countries; and Proselytization and Communal Self-Determination in Africa. He has written more than fifty articles and book chapters on human rights, constitutionalism, Islamic law and politics. He is a visiting professor with the International Institute for the Study of Islam at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

Before coming to Emory in 1995, Dr. An-Na'im was executive director of Human Rights Watch/Africa in Washington, D.C. and a scholar-in-residence in the Ford Foundation's Cairo office for the Middle East and North Africa. He is a board member of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies in Egypt; the Research Action & Information Network for Bodily Integrity of Women (RAINBO) in London and New York; and the Institute for Human Rights and Development in the Gambia. He belongs to the Arab Working Group on Human Rights and he works closely with the International Center for the Legal Protection of Human Rights (Interights) in London, the Center for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at SOAS, the University of London and Sisters in Islam in Malaysia.

The fellowship program's advisory board assists Dr. An-Na'im. Its current members include:

Salbiah Ahmad, who is a lawyer in Malaysia. She initiated the formation of the group, Sisters in Islam (Malaysia) as early as 1987 when she was teaching law at the International Islamic University in Malaysia. She was involved in framing the Islam and the Modern Nation State workshop and in the campaign on the Kelantan Hudud law and the work on two booklets on wife-beating and equality. She is no longer affiliated to Sisters in Islam as of July 1997. She was involved in the 10 year campaign for a law on domestic violence and the current campaign for a law on sexual harassment in Malaysia. Her regional work on women's rights has been with the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Devt. (APWLD) and with the Women Living Under Muslim Laws network (WLUML). She continues her work on human rights, women, religion and law as a lawyer.

Caassandra Balchin, the coordinator of Women Living Under Muslim Law, a network of regional women's groups working to promote the rights of women living in Islamic societies. Balchin is based in Pakistan and the United Kingdom.

Bahey Eldin Hasan, the director of Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies in Egypt.

Ayesha Iman, the co-coordinator of the West Africa chapter of Women Living Under Muslim Law and a Nigerian women's rights activist.

Asifa Quraishi, an American human rights lawyer and a founding member of the international organization, Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights.


Resources at Emory University

The Islam and Human Rights Fellows may take advantage of a wide range of resources at Emory University. The Fellowship Program grew out of the Islamic Family Law project, another Emory University initiative funded by the Ford Foundation. Both the Islam and Human Rights Fellowship and the Islamic Family Law project are part of the Law and Religion program at Emory University. The Law and Religion program explores the religious dimensions of law, the legal dimensions of religion and the interaction of legal and religious ideas and methods. Established in 1982, the program offers students and faculty unique forms and forums of interdisciplinary study. Through a variety of specialty courses and clinics, projects and publications, colloquia and conferences, the program cultivates holistic understandings of the legal and religious professions. The program is ecumenical and comparative in perspective, with an emphasis on the religious traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It has sponsored a number of major conferences in the United States and abroad.

The Law and Religion Program is engaged in several multi-year research projects whose themes overlap with the work of the Islam and Human Rights Fellowship. The Religion and Human Rights Project explores the religious sources and dimensions of human rights, particularly in non-Western cultures. The Ford Foundation has sponsored two major initiatives of this project: (1) a comprehensive study of cultural transformation and human rights in Africa (1996-2001), which has concentrated on women and land in Africa; and (2) a comprehensive study of Islamic family law, which is mapping the role of Muslim family law in practice as well as legal text within various Muslim communities in majority and minority contexts. The results of both studies are posted on their websites and, respectively. In 2002, the project published a guide to Islamic family law, Islamic Family Law in a Changing World: A Global Resource Book(London and New York: Zed Books).

The Law and Religion program is part of Emory University's broader vision of encouraging interdisciplinary inquiry and international initiatives in the context of a classic liberal arts education. Several other university programs supplement the traditional curriculum to bring students and faculty together from a variety of different perspectives and disciplines. These include the Center for Ethics and Public Policy in the Professions, the Institute for Liberal Arts, the Halle Institute for Global Learning, the Aquinas Center for Technology, Women's Studies, Violence Studies, African-American Studies, and area studies programs on Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Russia and Eastern Europe. A number of these initiatives are now confederated with the Law and Religion Program in Emory's new Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion.