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October 28, 2002

Law School fellowships tie Islam and human rights

By Eric Rangus

Human rights is a subject that rarely ducks relevance. When the Law and Religion Program received funding to start its Islam and Human Rights Fellowship Program in 2001, the plan was to invite scholars to campus and guide them through research that focused not only on human rights, but also angled that discussion through the prism of the Islam.

Halfway through the program’s life cycle, the fellows who have come to campus have deepened this important discussion.

“The idea is to invest in young scholar/activists who are scholarly enough to appreciate conceptual thinking about Islam, history and politics but also are engaged in social policy,” said Abdullahi An-Na’im, program director and head of the Religion and Human Rights Project in the Law and Religion Program. He and program coordinator Shelly Brownsberger administer the fellowship program.

“We want people who are invested in transforming their societies and changing attitudes,” An-Na’im said.

The first two of nine fellows came to campus last spring and now are in the field doing their research. The second set arrived on campus at the beginning of this semester, and—considering their work—they definitely meet An-Na’im’s scholar/activist criteria.

Recep Senturk is a sociologist by training and a researcher at the Islamic Research Center in Istanbul, Turkey. Jamila Bargach is an assistant professor of social sciences at the Morocco’s National School of Architecture in Rabat.

The fellows are hardly working in isolation. Both Senturk and Bargach took part in a lunchtime lecture series sponsored by the Religion and Human Rights Project in which they presented their research to somewhat small (about 20 people each) but informed groups. Senturk spoke Oct. 15 and Bargach, Oct. 22.

Senturk’s research project—as well as the title of his Oct. 15 presentation—is “Sociology of Rights: Human Rights in Islam Between Universal and Communal Perspectives.” He is exploring the two, incompatible definitions of human rights within the Islamic world. One (universal rights) states that simply being human guarantees one basic rights. The other (communal rights) holds that rights are granted only to Muslims.

The clash between these two viewpoints, Senturk said, dates to the eighth century. He added that most Muslims and most governments in Islamic countries have historically followed the universal definition of human rights, but there are states that misuse the concept.

“These are debates among scholars of 1,000 years ago, and they still resonate,” An-Na’im said. “In fact, Dr. Senturk’s point is we can better understand and better influence what’s happening today by understanding that history and scholarship. We can pull from that history instead of appearing to introduce totally new ideas.”

Senturk said one of the things that has helped him with his research has been the Law and Religion Program, which has few thematic equals around the country.

“At Emory there is an identification of the relationship between law and religion; at most schools and, in my country, that identification is neglected,” said Senturk, who holds a PhD in sociology from Columbia.

“I felt that I needed to be more grounded in the legal aspects of human rights,” he said. “My approach is combine the sociological aspect of human rights with a legal perspective.”
Senturk’s goal is to produce a book in both English and Turkish on the sociology of human rights.

Bargach’s research is more secularly grounded than Senturk’s, but the concept of human rights is at its center. “A Human Rights Perspective to Deal with Urban Marginalization” addresses the problems inherent to living in Sidi Musa, one of Morocco’s oldest slums.

“There is a view that slum dwellers are dirty and poor, and this leads to their marginalization,” said Bargach, who has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Rice University. “These people are denied all forms of dignified living—they have no water, no
electricity, their schools are far away.”

Before starting her current project, Bargach was researching the abandonment of children in Morocco. Therefore, she is not as far along on her fellowship research as Senturk.

“This is a work in progress,” she said. “The fellowship has helped me find the time and the resources to do some research and think about the various approaches I could take.”

Bargach’s field work will deal not only with communicating with associations and groups that serve slum dwellers in Sidi Musa, but also with the government. “When dealing with slum living, you cannot not deal with the state,” she said. After all, it is the government that essentially is responsible for providing the basics (water, electricity) for the sustainment of life.

Senturk and Bargach will spend the remainder of this semester on campus, then return to the field for the remainder of their nine-month fellowship. However, they will be back on campus for a short time in the spring—along with the other seven fellows—for a workshop where each will present his or her research. Previous fellows have researched women’s health in rural Senegal and the social exclusion of Africans in Yemen.

Since the program’s beginning in summer 2001, one of its goals has been to create a permanent online network of scholar/advocates of human rights who could provide a forum for ongoing dialogue, consultation, research and publication. An-Na’im said that the website is near completion and should be up sometime in November. Once that phase is completed, the next step will be to secure funding so that the original three-year, $707,000 scope of the program can be extended.

Two more lectures are planned for the lunchtime religion and human rights lecture series. Ekaterina Yahyaoui, Gallatin Fellow of the University of Virginia, will speak on “Interaction Between International Instruments on Women’s Human Rights and Islam,” Nov. 5; and Asma Abdel Halim of the law school will speak on “Reconciling Public Laws and Shari’a with the Rights of Non-Muslim Minorities in Nigeria,” Nov. 12.

Both lectures will be at noon in the Agnor Room of Gambrell Hall. Lunch is provided, but an RSVP is necessary.

For more information, call 404-712-8711.