Friday, December 23, 2005


There is a typically thoughtful piece [Managing tension] by Gamil Mattar (formerly director of United Nations Radio and Television in New York) on Al-Ahram, the respected Cairo weekly. The backdrop is the parliamentary elections in Engypt, but the scope is the wider concern about terror, rights and security in an uncertain global environment where states are easily deformed and deforming.

The relationship between state and individual (in the shape of governance) and aid and human rights (as mechanisms of development) is perhaps a little more demanding than the perspective Mattar sets out, but he is dealing with extreme circumstances. His intentions are also noble. And he is 100 per cent right in saying that "under no circumstances should emergency laws be used as instruments of governance, except in times of war and for a very limited period."

He goes on: "Complex political agendas, coveted trade relations, and strategic interests often stand as barriers between ideals and action. But it should be clear too that our increasing concern over, and losses to, global terrorism are linked to human rights violations at the national level. Violations are a fertile breeding ground and build supply lines for terrorist actors and activities. To the extent that we continue to view terrorism as a security rather than a political problem we will gradually lose the battle against it."

That too is a vital warning. But the underlying question, which liberal advocates do not often ask, is: what underwrites the international human rights agenda, given that - in practice - human value systems often vary fatally?

You do not have to subscribe to some simplistic 'clash of civilisations' thesis to see that this is a crucial issue. The fact is that different religious 'theologies' and secular ideologies have different estimates of what it is to be human and what flows from that. The imposition of one of these views is untenable, and when pursued by force is simply totalitarian. But how do we sustain the necessary and inevitable argument (as distinct from war) about this? What mediating frameworks are available to us in the global political, social, cultural and economic arenas? And how are competing interests and perspectives to be negotiated in a tense, unjust and unequal world?

No-one has easy answers to such questions, and an admission of this is a good starting point. The other good starting point is a basic willigness to negotiate, even with what repels us. But the negotiation should be grounded not on lowest common denominator realpolitik, but by a search for highest common factors. And, at the same time, those of us who belong to specific moral and narrative communities - like followers of Jesus Christ - have the concomitant task of developing and offering visions of 'the good' which lure us away from either personal despair or the wider politics of fear and death. The latter in very much part of FinS's agenda. Ekklesia (church-as-people's-forum) ought to be social and political praxis - not in isolation from the broader agenda, but as a hopefully transformative and transpositional element of it.

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