International: Human rights, fundamentalism, power and prejudice


International human rights law is not a sufficient basis for responding to religious fundamentalism. Fundamentalisms are about power as well as prejudice, Vijay Nagaraj tells Cassandra Balchin.

CB: How can human rights activists strengthen their responses to religious fundamentalisms?

VN:  The question of religious fundamentalism is not merely a question of tolerance, and a human rights critique of this phenomenon which uses the framework of religious intolerance is not enough to capture the entire political spectrum religious fundamentalisms cover. 

For example, states have positive obligations under human rights law to enable freedom of belief, freedom to choose or practice one’s religion, etc. but also a negative obligation to ensure that other parties - non-state actors - do not create conditions in which religious intolerance leads to human rights violations. While this is relevant and important as a safeguard, in terms of addressing religious fundamentalisms the question is not one of tolerance or intolerance, although bigotry and prejudice is often at the core of religious intolerance; religious fundamentalisms encapsulate very conscious political projects. While religion itself might be invoked in support of a whole host of claims that are being made, it is important to understand that fundamentalisms are about power, and not just about prejudice.

This brings me to the second challenge facing those who critique religious fundamentalisms within a human rights framework. Religious fundamentalism poses a threat to human rights not simply because of the specific acts of fundamentalist groups which may be recognised as concrete violations of human rights standards; the real threat comes from the political aims or the political project that is at the heart of fundamentalisms, which is essentially to transform the way identities are ascribed and negotiated.

The human rights question is about us having rights as human beings. The fundamentalist claim is very different: it is about ascribing humanity on the basis of a certain religious claim which has to be legitimated by certain authorities, and which in turn lays down a whole set of other obligations and subject relationships with self and others to a certain kind of regime. To critique this core of the politics of religious fundamentalisms, human rights actors will have to look beyond just the obvious standards against which violations can be assessed. They will actually have to go deeper into the human rights framework and look into those values and principles which constitute the ethical universe that is at the heart of the human rights project. International human rights law in itself is not a sufficient basis for a political critique of fundamentalism.

CB: Why do you think human rights law is an inadequate basis for a political critique of religious fundamentalisms?

VN: Precisely because of the fact that international human rights law is  basically a negotiated compromise between political entities or authorities with many conflicting interests.  When we are confronted with religious fundamentalisms we are facing a very pernicious re-ordering of relationships between self and others, and a challenge to our autonomy to define our being and way of relating. This demands a strong moral critique because it is so deeply personal. The character of this phenomenon requires us to call on ethical universes or pluriverses that can actually challenge it at the same fundamental level. Which is why I think that while international human rights law can be a very important instrument in responding effectively to religious fundamentalisms, we have to draw upon much deeper resources morally to inform our politics and law-making.

CB: Would you say that ethics have been an area of weaker development in the responses of both human rights organizations and feminists to religious fundamentalisms, and is that an area that needs strengthening?

VN: Yes, that is an interesting way of asking the question. At one level, there’s always a tension between organizing a response to any kind of human rights violation and looking at the root causes of that violation and where it is coming from. I think those responses which advocate institutional change, legal change, behavioural change  - or all three - are important and always raise these ethical questions. These violations are however only a symptom underlying religious fundamentalism, because at the heart of religious fundamentalism is the project to redefine human agency in a very profound way and hence at one level politics alone is not sufficient to respond.  Retrieving the self as well as individual and social relationships from spaces mediated by fear - divine or human - and from the totalitarian ethos of fundamentalism is a challenge of ethics.

CB: Activists confronting religious fundamentalisms in the South sometimes find that donors and foreign governments suggest to local human rights activists that they should engage in dialogue with religious fundamentalists and not complain when donor-county governments meet with what local activists define as religious fundamentalist groups and politicians. A Bangladesh activist highlighted this in research by AWID when she said that British Government officials, when challenged as to why they were meeting senior members of the Jamaat-e-Islami, responded that “these parties are a normal part of the political process”. But what you are pointing out is that religious fundamentalisms are so much more than that?

VN: Yes precisely, they are part of the political process to the extent that they are present amongst us and active in the polity, but I think it would be a mistake to presume that their ambitions are for instance only to capture power. Of course they are about power. But they are much more than that. Unlike many other political actors, religious fundamentalisms seek to fundamentally transform and essentialise our relationships with ourselves - between individuals, within the family, within intimate relationships, within institutions, within communities and ultimately the state itself. It is the manner in which they transform agency, that disempowerment which religious fundamentalisms stand for and which makes them dangerous.

Human rights work has a lot to learn from engaging with feminist practice and with women’s rights groups in this context, because feminism has engaged at the same difficult, complex level by challenging the way we think fundamentally about ourselves and the way we relate to each other. To the extent that religious fundamentalisms also seek to redefine these relationships but in disempowering ways, we have something to learn from feminist practice about transforming these individual and societal relationships in an empowering way.

CB: Do you think it would be more effective for human rights organizations to have specific projects - such as sexual and reproductive rights - on religious fundamentalisms, or to ‘mainstream’ awareness of religious fundamentalisms and take this into account in all their human rights activities, or to do both? Many women’s rights activists want human rights organizations to take a more active role in responding to religious fundamentalisms.

VN: There is already a mountain of work that seeks to understand religious fundamentalism The first step for human rights organizations is to engage further with that work. There are some areas in which human rights organizations are already confronting fundamentalism and responding to it, for example in the area of sexual and reproductive rights. But let’s face it: there are other areas. We have seen in our work there is a need for a far greater engagement of human rights organizations with the question of family law, which the women’s movement has long considered. Many aspects of family law have been subject to standard setting for decades, so it’s not the absence of standards; it is really a need to consider family laws as an area which the human rights community should engage with, and that is where they will encounter religious fundamentalisms re-ordering relationships with the self and intimate others.

I’m not convinced that a project approach or rather saying that “we will now look at religious fundamentalism” will work. What is needed is a far deeper consciousness of religious fundamentalisms within human rights organizations. For instance, working with staff, holding discussions internally, looking also at how in subtle ways responses of human rights organizations might well be actually invoked by religious fundamentalist groups themselves. We know that they use the human rights language too; they understand how to mobilize the language of rights, they understand how to capitalize on the awareness of rights, and the legal consciousness associated with it. 

I also think human rights groups need to understand their own moral and political preferences when addressing human rights questions and take into account how religious fundamentalisms influence relationships in formulating their responses.

CB: I tend to agree with you that a project focus may not be the best way to go. On the other hand, women’s rights activists’ experience of ‘mainstreaming’ has been quite a bitter experience in terms of gender rights. If we say that we should mainstream awareness of religious fundamentalisms, how can we ensure that is not reduced to a one-line meaningless sentence at the bottom of the analysis to the effect that “Religious fundamentalisms have a role to play in this and need to be taken into account”. How can it become something more profound?

VN: Responding effectively to fundamentalisms requires a sincere, detailed and informed reflection on how individual autonomy and social relationships are constructed in the world today. Those engaged in human rights work need to strive harder to understand the nuanced political, social realities that shape interactions between individuals within families, within communities, societies and even nations and states. It’s not just a question of having some workshops on religious fundamentalisms for example. It’s about reflecting deeply on what kinds of forces in different social contexts shape individual and social relations.

CB: You seem to be quite comfortable with the term, and yet within certain sectors of the human rights community there is a level of discomfort with using the term ‘religious fundamentalisms’. Can you explain why you feel comfortable as a human rights activist with using the term?

VN: Maybe it’s because coming from South Asia I understand almost intuitively what this means and others who come from other contexts may understand it less so. However, I also think that it’s because I don't rely on international human rights for my political direction. I see international human rights as an extremely important framework that can define relationships between people, between states and between states and people. That doesn’t mean I have an instrumental view of human rights: I think human rights values are an end in themselves, but at the same time we need something more. 

I am also comfortable with the term because those of us who are engaged in reflection on how to change the world we live in for the better, must be prepared to reflect on every aspect that influences the way we want to change it, including religion.

CB: Research into strategies for resisting and challenging religious fundamentals has questioned the utility of labelling individuals and pointing a finger “That is a fundamentalist”. There are indications that a more effective way of approaching this would be to label agendas - recognizing that at times it can also be strategic to unmask a specific individual – a politician for example. This is both because focusing on agendas not individuals can be more likely to help build alliances, and because in some countries there may be actors who pursue a fundamentalist agenda but who outwardly appear secular or they’re operating within a secular framework. So to start labelling them ‘religious fundamentalists’ creates problems of taxonomy and debates over definitions, losing sight of the impact of what they do. Is that something that you can relate to in your work as a human rights activist?

VN: We are all probably agree more or less that what when we challenge key individuals we are challenging what they stand for and represent - the agendas they translate into action. Eventually we have to focus on agendas at some level… I’m just afraid that - to paraphrase Victor Hugo – religious fundamentalisms are an idea whose time has come and we won’t be seeing the end of its influence by focusing on some individuals; fundamentalism is something whose seeds have been planted and which needs a long, sustained effort at de-seeding. This means clearly focusing where necessary on individuals and eventually on the agendas too, seeking  not so much to de-legitimise ‘them’ but on legitimising other more empowering, enabling ideas. This is where human rights can be a very important idea, as a counter narrative, not an anti-narrative, that focuses on reclaiming agency.

Vijay Nagaraj was speaking in a personal capacity in this interview.

This article is part of openDemocracy's dialogue Religion Gender Politics 

About the author
Vijay Nagaraj is Research Director at the International Council on Human Rights Policy