Monday, February 13, 2017

I make it clear in the book (something I also made clear in my previous book Desiring Arabs in the context of post-1967 Arab intellectual debates) that the failure to take political economy seriously in relation to debates about “women in Islam” and the attendant privileging of the idea of cultural determinants can be historicized in terms of the end of the cold war era. Once the USSR was eliminated, the global public sphere becomes dominated by the ideas of West European and US Human Rights and other “development” NGOs, in addition to the expansion of the purview of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to encompass all of Eastern Europe and the disintegrated Soviet republics (not to mention post-Apartheid South Africa and the post-Oslo yet-still-occupied Palestinian territories). It is then that the liberal language of rights achieves something like global hegemony and questions of political economy recede, almost disappear, in the framing of the problem of “women in Islam.”

Farris asks, “Is the economic realm thus ‘excluded’ from human rights’ agendas precisely because it constitutes the very basis of those ‘higher’ realms of politics and culture, to put it in Marx’s terms? In other words, is the discourse of human rights, and consequently, of women’s rights in the East and under Islam, a plea for political equality that only serves to divert attention from economic and social inequalities?” My answer is a resounding yes to both questions. While Orientalism is the organizing epistemology and ontology of human rights work at the level of the representation of Muslim women, the overall strategic goals of human rights work are set by imperial capital (in its neoliberal form) which not only funds and plans the agendas of NGOs but underwrites the very production of imperial culture and policy as a “culture of human rights,” either as alibi or as imagined check on the worst excesses of neo/imperial capital. That what is taken to be human rights is the liberal agenda of Western European governments and that of the United States and is adopted by organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which originate as partisans in Cold War-era ideological battles, is hardly a coincidence. Such a human rights agenda refused to grant any legitimacy to what the Soviets considered “human rights” not only by the Western human rights industry, but even by many of their academic, yet liberal, critics in the Western academy. Of course “Economic and Social rights” remained on the agenda of resistant academics and activists whose voices, however, were not influential in policy circles.

— Joseph Massad

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