Sunday, June 07, 2009

It is All About the Universal: Anwar Ibrahim on the American "New Beginning"

It has become clear that within legal and political frameworks grounded in substantive values, the ability to control the content and interpretation of those substantive values is critical to assertions of power and influence. I speak not merely of an amorphous power and control, but the specific mechanics for the expression of power in law. For that purpose, it has been important to appeal to universal values. This has served as the basis for the rise of transnational constitutionalism. See Larry Catá Backer, God(s) Over Constitutions: International and Religious Transnational Constitutionalism in the 21st Century, Mississippi Law Review, Vol. 27, 2008. It has also produced its religious counterpart, especially within the dar al Islam. See, Larry Catá Backer, Theocratic Constitutionalism: An Introduction to a New Global Legal Ordering, Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, 2008; Islamic Law and Law of the Muslim World Paper No. 08-44.

But the importance of control of the universal extends beyond constitutionalism. Nations and states have been competing for the right to bear the mantle of universalism and its interpreter. I have written of the way in which the American President, Mr. Obama, has sought to personalize this universalism (and its values) both in his person and in the body of the polity of the United States. See, Larry Catá Backer, Mr. Obama Speaks in Egypt: "Islam is a Part of America"--The Ummah Wahida, and the State in Two Distinct World Orders, Law at the End of the Day, June 5, 2009; Larry Catá Backer, Mr. Obama on Guantanamo: Of Power and Politics in Time of Crisis, Law at the End of the Day, May 21, 2009; Larry Catá Backer, Democracy Part XIV: “For Now We See Through A Glass, Darkly; But Then Face to Face”; On President Obama's Inauguration Speech, Law at the End of the Day, Jan. 21, 2009. I have also suggested the way in which Benedict XVI has sought to advance similar assertions for Roman Catholicism. Larry Catá Backer, Urbi et Orbi--Easter 2009, Law at the End of the Day, April 12, 2009.

This movement to capture the universal is not limited to the West, or Western religions. Nor is it, within the dar al -Islam, solely in the hands of traditional religious elites. Outside the Arab and Persian homelands Muslims are also seeking to participate in and add their voices to this evolving structure of universalism, especially in its values expression as law. And thus, Anwar Ibrahim has provided context to the development of a view of universalism within liberal Islam:
Even if we are agreed that Muslims must be committed to change, the question that remains is how we can proceed. Real engagement must be inclusive. We should not start by building a wall around ourselves, setting preconditions, and prejudging groups and parties. These impediments only serve to strengthen old prejudices and further sow suspicion and doubt. If the notion of the universalism of Islam is to mean anything, it would require that its values of justice, compassion and tolerance be practiced everywhere. Can we remain blind to the injustice perpetrated in non-Muslim countries? Should we not also relate to the suffering of other minorities in Muslim countries? And our condemnation against the violation of human rights must transcend race, colour or creed. But we should do well to remember that no nation, no region, and no culture or religion has a monopoly on the values of freedom, justice and human dignity. If we seek to engage in dialogue between Islam and the West that is meaningful, then let it be based on these universal principles that we all share.
Anwar Ibrahim, Islam and the West after George Bush, Opening address by Anwar Ibrahim at the L’Institut français des relations internationals Conference-Debate on “Islam and the West after George Bush”, in Paris, Chaired by Michel Camdessus.

The fight for the control of values--especially those values which determine the legitimacy of law and political action-- and its incarnation within existing systems of political and religious communities, will define the shape of political and legal discourse in the coming century. Those who fail to master its language, who insist on using the 20th century forms of the expression of power, will find themselves increasingly irrelevant in the discourse of power that is taking shape. Benedict XVI, Barack Obama and Anwar Ibrahim have understood this new reality and begun to use it to help shape the way in which political elites approach law and legitimacy. How well they will be able to harness this embrace of universalism and its incarnation in their respective communities, remains to be seen.

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