A debate with ‘Human Rights’ Watch

If you recall, a while back, I and a number of other campaigners and rights organisations wrote an open letter to ‘Human Rights’ Watch Director Kenneth Roth criticising his apologetic stance towards Islamism. The letter was recently published in the New York Review of Books Blog along with a response from the organisation.

It’s basically the same old, same old.

HRW insists that it is possible that ‘a government guided by political Islam might be convinced to avoid such discrimination’ by saying there is a difference between the Taliban in Afghanistan and Erdogan in Turkey but Erdogan is not like the Taliban because of the role of secularism in Turkey and not because of ‘diverse, interpretive strains of Islam’.

It goes on to say that those of us who signed the letter ‘insist on “separation of religion from the state,” presented as “the most basic guarantee of rights.” But that is obviously not what the people of Egypt and Tunisia, when given a choice, voted for.’

Whilst I have discussed why this is so elsewhere, suffice it to say that irrespective of people’s ‘choices’ – if you can really call it that – shouldn’t HRW be more concerned about well err, human rights? If a ‘majority’ (which can sometimes even be a minority in parliamentary democracies) chooses to bring the death penalty back or vote the far-Right British National Party into power in the UK, would HRW be as eager to call for engagement? It is only eager to do so when it comes to the people of the Middle East and North Africa because in its worldview Islamism represents the will of the people. [Read more…]

To Human Rights Watch: Separation of religion from state is the most basic guarantee of rights

An Open Letter to Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch

Dear Kenneth Roth,

In your Introduction to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2012, “Time to Abandon the Autocrats and Embrace Rights,” you urge support for the newly elected governments that have brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Tunisia and Egypt. In your desire to “constructively engage” with the new governments, you ask states to stop supporting autocrats. But you are not a state; you are the head of an international human rights organization whose role is to report on human rights violations, an honorable and necessary task which your essay largely neglects.

You say, “It is important to nurture the rights-respecting elements of political Islam while standing firm against repression in its name,” but you fail to call for the most basic guarantee of rights—the separation of religion from the state. Salafi mobs have caned women in Tunisian cafes and Egyptian shops; attacked churches in Egypt; taken over whole villages in Tunisia and shut down Manouba University for two months in an effort to exert social pressure on veiling. And while “moderate Islamist” leaders say they will protect the rights of women (if not gays), they have done very little to bring these mobs under control. You, however, are so unconcerned with the rights of women, gays, and religious minorities that you mention them only once, as follows: “Many Islamic parties have indeed embraced disturbing positions that would subjugate the rights of women and restrict religious, personal, and political freedoms. But so have many of the autocratic regimes that the West props up.” Are we really going to set the bar that low? This is the voice of an apologist, not a senior human rights advocate. [Read more…]