National Security Adviser Michael Flynn at the National Prayer Breakfast, February, 2017, Washington, DC. Pool/ABACA ABACA/Press Association. All rights reserved.The line of demarcation has been drawn. Is fear of Islam rational? or a mental illness, a phobia? Against the soon-to-be National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn’s claim that fear of Islam is rational, we have the common and damning denunciation of Islamophobia.
My perspective is unusual; I am a historian of modern Europe and a human rights lawyer who works in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. My work defending human rights is born out of requests from Muslim Mauritanians who believe deeply in the promise of human rights – the right to freedom from enslavement, the right to equality before the law, the right to freedom of conscience, the right to freedom of expression, the right to property, and so forth. These are fundamental values that have guided the United States from its revolutionary era and that are enshrined in the major international human rights treaties.
The much celebrated book of Karima Bennoune, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, tells the story of numerous Muslim human rights defenders. All of them are fighting for the fundamental values that animate our American democracy. The polarization of politics – from rational to fear, or phobia – silences this human rights movement. The human rights defenders find themselves on a small isolated island, an ideological no man’s land.
By all rights the defense of human rights should be integral to western politics. And yet we find ourselves in a political dynamic so highly polarized that one camp is insisting rational people should fear Islam, and on the other hand, in the urgent need to defend people under attack, we see an uncritical embrace of all Muslim traditions. We see, for example, college students enthusiastically defending a sex-segregated Muslim prayer circle at the University of Michigan. The students are rightfully motivated to defend a minority culture that is under attack, but the nuance is lost — the male supremacism of this sex-segregated prayer circle goes uncriticized.
Probably some of those students defending the prayer circle are advocates of women’s rights. But the men they are defending, do they believe in women’s rights? Just to be clear, this male supremacism is shared by most conservative religions, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim. The advocate for human rights, which include women’s rights, is critical of all these male supremacist ideologies.
Those politicians who believe that fear of Muslims is rational, meanwhile, argue, why is the left so stupid as to defend conservative Muslims? Why do they defend this culture that is so deeply at odds with western values? This culture that believes in veiling women, in stoning adulterers, in cutting off the hands of thieves, in executing blasphemers and apostates? The nuance is lost. There are numerous Muslim defenders of human rights. Indeed, the stereotyping of Muslims and blanket denunciation is itself a human rights violation.
The nuance is lost, abandoned in the polarized ideological battle that, along with the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump, has slammed hard onto center stage of national politics. Human rights defenders are out in the cold at this moment, we have compromised allies on the left and the right.
When I defend my Mauritanian client, Mohamed Cheikh Mkhaitir, against blasphemy charges and fight to get his death sentence repealed, I risk being viewed as an ally of Pamela Geller and her politics of polarization. Those on the left cannot hear of human rights troubles in Islamic societies, they are preoccupied with defending Muslim immigrants against hateful discrimination. Those on the right gleefully seize on any scandal in the Muslim world as further evidence of its irredeemable nature.
The western world, so caught up in its own objectives and internal clashes, easily abandons human rights advocates for Muslim communities. This is true not only in domestic politics, but even more so in international policy. The long alliance with the Kingdom of Saud is only the most glaring example. We could go on: US support for the Saudi war in Yemen, US tolerance for Israeli war on Gaza and other aggressions against Palestinians, US unprovoked war on Iraq and its ill-advised invasion of Afghanistan. Human rights defenders in the Islamic world often find themselves fighting oppressive governments that are allies of the United States. And then they have to fight again, when the architects of such international policy deride Islamic culture as incapable of supporting human rights.
As of January 20 2017, when Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, when General Flynn assumed office as National Security Adviser, the defenders of human rights for Muslims find themselves in political no man’s land.