Taking Islamic Law Seriously: INGOs and the Battle for Muslim Hearts and Minds

44 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2010

See all articles by Naz K. Modirzadeh

Naz K. Modirzadeh

HLS Program on International Law and Armed Conflict

Date Written: January 27, 2010


Despite the human rights movement’s increasing sophistication, human rights NGOs remain unsure of how to address questions of Islamic law when it conflicts with international human rights law. Islamic leaders, on the other hand, are often unequivocal in their belief that specific areas of substantive Islamic law conflict with specific aspects of human rights law, and that Shari’a law should govern in such instances. Modern proponents of Islamic law regard their prescriptive rules for society as God-created alternatives to human rights law and as a parallel path to justice and emancipation. Human rights advocates, conversely, appear deeply uncomfortable about acknowledging the apparent contradiction between human rights norms and Islamic law. When they do acknowledge the conflict, human rights proponents seem unable to articulate a coherent response. Although they believe that international human rights law should prevail, they worry that this view smacks of cultural imperialism, and, as such, leaves them vulnerable to criticism from Muslims. Behind closed doors, many human rights professionals are deeply worried about how they ought to address Islamic law. The constant need to publicly deny any crack in the edifice of the universalism of human rights has adversely affected the work of the movement.

Part I of this Article very briefly discusses why I think we ought to be most interested in the work of these INGOs when appraising the effect and the effectiveness of the international human rights movement. I argue that in planning and executing their interventions, AI and HRW are, today, highly strategic pragmatists. Part II presents a typology of methods currently used by INGOs when they encounter Shari’a, and describes the four moves employed by INGOs to manage their untheorized position on Islamic law. Part III points to the costs of the current approaches and to those who bear them. I argue that the costs of the human rights movement’s professional performances in this finite arena can be identified and weighed against the benefits of international intervention as currently practiced. Part IV suggests possible ways out of the current confusion. It calls on INGOs to acknowledge the uncomfortable realities of their current position, and, assuming that INGOs will continue to take a pragmatic line in determining when and how to act, suggests that they consider new ways of engaging with Islamic law. Although I take no position on which strategy has the most potential, I provide three alternative paths forward for the movement, depending on how they choose to evaluate the costs and risks before them.

Suggested Citation

Modirzadeh, Naz K., Taking Islamic Law Seriously: INGOs and the Battle for Muslim Hearts and Minds (January 27, 2010). Harvard Human Rights Journal, Vol. 19, 2006. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1543510

Naz K. Modirzadeh (Contact Author)

HLS Program on International Law and Armed Conflict ( email )

1545 Massachusetts Avenue
Langdell 175-J
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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