Double Bind: what to do if perpetrators are themselves being persecuted?

May 25, 2013
Meredith Tax, a writer and political activist, has recently addressed in a book a most important and tricky subject: Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights, published by the Centre for Secular Space. Human rights defenders are supposed to protect the rights of those oppressed by the state or by non-state actors.  But what happens when people who are mistreated by the state violate the rights of women?  Can one fight their violations while at the same defending their rights against state power?  How? This political terrain is tied up in so many knots it amounts to what Gregory Bateson called a “double bind” in “Toward a theory of schizophrenia” .Meredith Tax asks questions such as: In a period of right wing attacks on Muslims – or people thought to be Muslims – how does one respond to human rights violations by the Muslim right without feeding hate campaigns? When the US invokes the oppression of Muslim women to sanctify war, how do we practice feminist solidarity without strengthening Orientalism and neocolonialism? When the US targets jihadis for assassination by drone, should human rights defenders worry about violations perpetrated by those  same jihadis or focus on violations by the state?

While international human rights law ‘solves’ these questions by stating that all rights have to be respected and all issues have to be addressed, but on the political and practical level, things are a lot more complex and one has also to be willing to face backlash and censorship. Some of the most interesting excerpts are:

Gita Sahgal, founding head of the gender unit at Amnesty International, found this out three years ago when she left Amnesty after publicly raising objections to its alliance with Cageprisoners, a UK organization set up to defend prisoners at Guantanamo. People around the world came to Gita’s defense and have now formed the Centre for Secular Space in order to strengthen secular voices, oppose fundamentalism, and promote universality in human rights. 

Leftists often hold back from talking about the Muslim right because they are afraid that doing so will strengthen Western racists and nativists. But surely we have to oppose all varieties of right wing politics. Of course we must stand up to demagogues who characterize every Muslim as a potential terrorist and try to whip up violence against civilians. In my view, these people are fascists. But the fact that we have a problem with white fascists in the US or UK should not lead us to overlook the fact that other parts of the world have problems of their own with fascist movements, some of which claim to be the only true Muslims and try to enforce their version of Islam through violence.  Add in the fact that a number of jihadis come from Canada, the UK or the US, and it becomes apparent that we cannot think only in terms of domestic political struggles when we live in a globalized world.

Rather than framing the world situation as a war between US imperialism and Islamist freedom fighters, Double Bind sees a complicated dialectic between terrorism and counter-terrorism with the possibility of an emerging conservative front in which Washington and the Muslim Brotherhood are as likely to be allies as adversaries, and both are opposed by popular democratic movements. Instead of sanitizing and protecting the Muslim right in the name of fighting colonialism and imperialism, we propose a strategy of solidarity with actual popular movements of democrats, trade unionists, religious and sexual minorities and feminists struggling in the Global South against both neo-liberalism and religious fundamentalism.

Secular space is central to this strategy.  Since the end of the Cold War, secular spaces all over the world have come under siege by various forms of fundamentalism, and the instrumentalization of religion for political gain has become a problem in regions as varied as Africa, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, the MENA region, North America, South America, South Asia, and Western Europe.  In all these places, religious identity politics has muddied discussion of class, labour, racism and discrimination against women and sexual minorities.

Democratic governance is based on the idea that the authority of the state is delegated by the people rather than coming from God.  The separation of the state from religion is central to democracy because gender, religious minority and sexual rights become issues whenever human rights are limited by religion, culture, or political expediency. Thus secular space is essential to the development of democratic popular movements that can oppose both neoliberalism and fundamentalism. To move forward, we need a strategy that combines solidarity with defence of secular space.

Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights was launched by a panel at Toynbee Hall in London on 11 February 2013.



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