Challenges of Change Panel 2: Building a Culture of Peace in Multi-ethnic/Multi-religious Societies (video, English)

Challenges of Change Panel 2: Building a Culture of Peace in Multi-ethnic/Multi-religious Societies (video, English)

Resource Type
Event Recording
Publication Year
English (US)




This video presents the second panel discussion from Challenges of Change: Religion, Secularism & Rights, a WLP conference. 

LaShawn Jefferson, program officer at the Ford Foundation and former executive director of the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, notes that promoting human rights does not mean suppressing differences or cultures but seeking to integrate rights into them.

Karima Bennoune, professor of law at Rutgers University, said her father’s torture and suffering as an Islamic revolutionary in France-ruled Algeria shapes her view that all fundamentalisms (note the plural) are a challenge to women’s human rights. Political aims are now expressed in religious terms, collapsing diverse ideas into spaces too small for their complexity. International law has misread these political drives as religious and cultural. This reflects a general loss of confidence in the universality of anything and in our ability to distinguish among overlapping and mis-reported ideas.

Unthinking U.S. financial largesse for any group opposing the Soviet Union during the cold war helped strengthen the Taliban and other extremist copycats, who were then able to exploit America’s anti-Islam reaction to 9/11, fostering armed political groups in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere. The failure of the U.S. political process to explain to the public this origin and reach of Moslem fundamentalism has created today’s problems of misunderstanding, fear and reaction that wrongly rejects all of Islam. That is not to say no danger exists, but we must remember that Muslims also have universal human rights. “I reserve the right to reject the idea that my choices are limited to accepting either Glenn Beck or sharia [Islamic law],” she said. Her new book is entitled Rethinking the Others’ Others, which uses examples of women trying to modernize within Islamic fundamentalist cultures who are then rejected, even killed, by those cultures. 

Zainah Anwar, project director of Musawah and former executive director of Sisters in Islam, urges conference participants to be “loud and public” in speeches, writings and demonstrations challenging those who use Islam to justify their discrimination against women. “We need to build public outrage at this misuse of Islam and build a constituency for the use of Islam to help build democratic states.” Courage and determination are required. Some 60 police reports were filed against her group in her native Malaysia after it protested a sharia court sentence of public lashings for a young woman for drinking a glass of beer. Her book has been banned as a “threat to public order” although it has not caused riots in the two years it has been out.  Such abuses are opportunities to make one’s case and draw public attention to the situation. Failure to challenge them leaves the field open for extremist advances.

“Public law and public policy must be by definition the product of public discussion,” Anwar says. If Islam is immutable and divine law, it must be removed from the public sphere. Hope lies in the exciting current process of a resurgence of faith in an age of rapid change and uncertainty: space is opening for a new interpretation of Islam to incorporate human rights and women’s rights, so that Muslims do not have to choose between human rights and their religion.

Q&A Discussion

Jefferson notes some apparent self-censorship among academics reluctant to label Islamic actors as human rights violators to avoid censure for the religion. What is government’s role? Anwar says governments will not deliver democracy without a public demand for it. This requires some courage but more outrage. Bennoune observes that a human rights victim in one context, such as in U.S. prison in Guantanamo, can become a perpetrator of human rights abuse in another context. “It’s messy,” she says. “We have to get into complexity; we’re not living in a black-and-white world any more.”

Cosmetics use is a similar complex issue: it can be viewed as submission to a sexist patriarchal ideal in America, but as an expression of defiance to a fundamentalist state. What’s required, Bennoune says, is constant respect for context as part of a difficult and complicated democratic response to simplistic un-democratic movements. Liberals’ respect for multiculturalism may blind them to the universality of human rights, Anwar says; poor uneducated women suffer no such illusions and will speak out against the abuses they suffer, if given the vocabulary and a safe space to express themselves. Jefferson advises participants to focus less on the meaning of labels such as “feminism” than on their beliefs about women’s humanity.