Embracing Human Rights: Islamists Renouncing Violence

November 17, 2009

Why should we care about the human rights of people who themselves don’t appear to respect them?  Statements made this week by a former member of an armed Islamic group suggest that it is the best way to change hearts and minds.

In an interview in the British newspaper the Independent, Maajid Nawaz, discusses his life in a radical Islamic group.  He was imprisoned and tortured in Egypt.  But it was in prison, he told British journalist Johann Hari, where he had his deepest beliefs challenged.

“When his family were finally allowed to see him, they told him he had a new defender. Although they abhorred his political views, Amnesty International said he had a right to free speech and to peacefully express his views, and publicised his case. “I was just amazed,” Maajid told Hari. “We’d always seen Amnesty as the soft power tools of colonialism. So, when Amnesty, despite knowing that we hated them, adopted us, I felt — maybe these democratic values aren’t always hypocritical. Maybe some people take them seriously … it was the beginning of my serious doubts.”

This isn’t a new revelation.  Eight years ago, Egyptian democracy activist Saad Ibrahim, a former Amnesty POC, told of how during his detention in Egypt he met with members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and convinced several to give up militancy for support of democracy.  It may be, Ibrahim told me, perhaps his most important initiative.

It does make a difference as to whether we treat the enemies of human rights with justice.  At a time when America is divided on how to treat the people behind the 9/11 attacks and armed Islamic groups in general, it’s important to show that human rights and democracy is for everyone. It might also just be the best policy we have against armed Islamist groups.