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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.

Nor do you point to the one of the clearest threats to rights—particularly to women and religious and sexual minorities—the threat to introduce so-called “shari’a law.” It is simply not good enough to say we do not know what kind of Islamic law, if any, will result, when it is already clear that freedom of expression and freedom of religion—not to mention the choice not to veil—are under threat. And while it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood has not been in power for very long, we can get some idea of what to expect by looking at their track record. In the UK, where they were in exile for decades, unfettered by political persecution, the exigencies of government, or the demands of popular pressure, the Muslim Brotherhood systematically promoted gender apartheid and parallel legal systems enshrining the most regressive version of “shari’a law”. Yusef al-Qaradawi, a leading scholar associated with them, publicly maintains that homosexuality should be punished by death. They supported deniers of the holocaust and the Bangladesh genocide of 1971, and shared platforms with salafi-jihadis, spreading their calls for militant jihad. But, rather than examine the record of Muslim fundamentalists in the West, you keep demanding that Western governments “engage.”

Western governments are engaged already; if support for autocrats was their Plan A, the Muslim Brotherhood has long been their Plan B. The CIA’s involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood goes back to the 1950s and was revived under the Bush administration, while support for both the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat e Islaami has been crucial to the “soft counter-terror” strategy of the British state. Have you heard the phrases “non-violent extremism” or “moderate Islamism?” This language is deployed to sanitize movements that may have substituted elections for bombs as a way of achieving power but still remain committed to systematic discrimination.

Like you, we support calls to dismantle the security state and to promote the rule of law. But we do not see that one set of autocratic structures should be replaced by another which claims divine sanction. And while the overthrow of repressive governments was a victory and free elections are, in principle, a step towards democracy, shouldn’t the leader of a prominent human rights organization be supporting popular calls to prevent backlash and safeguard fundamental rights? In other words, rather than advocating strategic support for parties who may use elections to halt the call for continuing change and attack basic rights, shouldn’t you support the voices for both liberty and equality that are arguing that the revolutions must continue?

Throughout your essay, you focus only on the traditional political aspects of the human rights agenda. You say, for instance, that “the Arab upheavals were inspired by a vision of freedom, a desire for a voice in one’s destiny, and a quest for governments that are accountable to the public rather than captured by a ruling elite.” While this is true as far as it goes, it completely leaves out the role that economic and social demands played in the uprisings. You seem able to hear only the voices of the right wing—the Islamist politicians— and not the voices of the people who initiated and sustained these revolutions: the unemployed and the poor of Tunisia, seeking ways to survive; the thousands of Egyptian women who mobilized against the security forces who tore off their clothes and subjected them to the sexual assaults known as “virginity tests.” These assaults are a form of state torture, usually a central issue to human rights organizations, yet you overlook them because they happen to women.

The way you ignore social and economic rights is of a piece with your neglect of women, sexual rights, and religious minorities. Your vision is still rooted in the period before the Vienna Conference and the great advances it made in holding non-state actors accountable and seeing women’s rights as human rights. Your essay makes it all too clear that while the researchers, campaigners, and country specialists who are the arms and legs and body of Human Rights Watch may defend the rights of women, minorities, and the poor, the head of their organization is mainly interested in relations between states.

Canadian Council of Muslim Women (CCMW)
Center for a Secular Space (CSS), global
Marea, Italy
Nijeri Khori, Bangladesh
One Law for All, UK
Organisation Against Women’s Discrimination in Iran, UK
Secularism Is a Women’s Issue (, global
Southall Black Sisters, UK
WICUR-Women’s Initiative for Citizenship and Universal Rights, global
Women Living Under Muslim Laws (, global
Individuals (organizations listed for identification purposes only)
Dorothy Aken’Ova, Exercutive Director, INCRESE, Minna, Nigeria
Codou Bop, Coordinator, Research Group on Women and the Law, Senegal
Ariane Brunet, Co-Founder, Urgent Action Fund, Canada
Lalia Ducos, WICUR-Women’s Initiative for Citizenship and Universal Rights
Laura Giudetti, Marea, Italy
Anissa Helie, Assistant Professor, John Jay College, US
Marieme Helie Lucas, Secularism is a Women’s Issue
Alia Hogben, Canadian Council of Muslim Women
Hameeda Hossain, Bangladesh
Khushi Kabir, Nijera Kori, Bangladesh
Frances Kissling, Visiting Scholar, University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics
Maryam Namazie, One Law for All and Equal Rights Now; Organisation against Women’s Discrimination in Iran, UK
Pragna Patel, Southall Black Sisters, UK
Gita Sahgal – Centre for Secular Space, UK
Fatou Sow, WLUML, Women Living Under Muslim Laws
Meredith Tax – Centre for Secular Space, USA
Afiya Zia, Journalist, Pakistan

Sign petition attached to the letter here.

Support and sign the Manifesto for a free and secular Middle East and North Africa here.

1 Comment

  • markjuliansmith
    Posted 16th February 2012 11:58 pm 0Likes

    “State multiculturalism has failed,” says David Cameron BBC 5 February 2011

    Multiculturalism has not failed ‘Freedom of Religion’ has failed and brought down Multiculturalism with it.

    For Multiculturalism to work, without violent schism, shared core values regards Other and women in particular are required – if foundation text of any of the communities contains vilification of Other and conflicts diametrically with the status of women in society there will be terror. For such continuing irrational positions against Other particularly women cannot be justified and maintained by reason therefore violence internal and external exists where reason cannot.

    No society should have to accept terror and subjugation of women and children under any notion be it ‘Freedom of Religion or any other as a price for allowing another culture within.

    Pathological Altruists have to be removed from making government policy and laws which put fellow citizens in mortal danger and enable women to be subjugated to Man.

    Pathological Altruists would have us believe a Religious foundation text with exactly the same construct of Other and women as a Secular foundation text will not deliver different outcomes. As well Pathological Altruists introduce laws to punish any citizen who dares to dispute such tawdry logic.

    The ‘truth’ speaks for itself – yet as the mightiest swords own the pens, as history shows, ‘truth’ is relabelled as the many churches, mosques, temples, … as something completely different.

    Humanity must replace ‘Freedom of Religion’ with ‘Religions of Freedom’. Freedom based on notions of the Human Rights of the Twenty First century particularly as they apply to women.

    We know through psychological research and history – the type of foundation text (method and content) sets up the cognitive behaviour which kills and subjugates Other (particularly women).

    Humanity Needs ‘Religions of Freedom’=No Terror + Non-Adherents & Women free from violence & equal under law Secular and Religious and Reality + Freedom to Disagree,

    Not ‘Freedom of Religion’=Terror + Non-Adherents & Women Subject + Beating + Throwing the first Stone + Blasphemy the cornerstone of genocide. With the bonus of counter terror.

    Time to review ‘Freedom of Religion’ as a right to impose evil on Other and at the same time create truly harmonious Multicultural Societies.

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