Human Rights and Lefts

If the left and the right support the right, who is then left to support the left?

The recent ousting of the Egyptian President has brought some noteworthy insights into the discussion about the academic right and left and their approach to human rights.

Before unearthing this insight, let’s take a step back and start with what is considered to be the normal perception of the left in academic discourse. We’ll stay in the region and take the scholarship on the Middle East and North Africa as a case.

In his book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (2011), Martin Kramer criticizes Middle Eastern studies in the United States for what he sees as left-wing biased scholarship. Inspired by that book, Norwegian editors Bernt Hagtvedt, Øystein Sørensen and Nik. Brandal published Venstreekstremisme (2012) which contains a similar criticism against Norwegian Middle Eastern scholarship. The essence of the criticism in both books is that leftist scholars have a tendency to romanticize the Third World and sympathize with political radicalism in the Middle East. In a human rights context, particularly when we find ourselves at the intersection of human rights and what is understood to be Islam or islamist actors, leftist scholars appear to defend the latter- sometimes with good intention- as a culturally appropriate alternative. Some of these scholars identify as left-wing, while others are deemed as such.

But does the identification of the scholar as left-wing, imply that the content of the scholarship also is left-wing?

The support for or lack of criticism of Islamist movements by self-identifying or deemed to be left-wing scholars are support for conservative movements, which is in itself a puzzle. If one is left-wing and sometimes radically so, why then support conservative movements and not fellow leftists? The academic support for leftist or secular groupings following the turmoil in Egypt was marginal. Instead, schoalrs gathered around the Muslim Brotherhood, which stands to the right in the Egyptian political landscape. They have a conservative political program, a right wing economic policy consisting of free-market economy and privatization, and an understanding of rights and individual liberties which is limited by a conservative ideology and which stands in stark contrast to the protection afforded by international human rights standards.

Scholarly support for these actors is thus support for movements which will weaken these countries and increase the gap between them and the rest of the world, reduce their competitiveness and independence and make them susceptible of foreign influence. Such support is hardly Third World friendly.

Can the content of such support then be called leftist? Or do the leftists need to re-name themselves as right-wing? Are the concepts of right and left of any help at all?

The picture gets increasingly exciting when we now introduce one particular reaction following the ousting of the Egyptian President. Following Mursi’s removal the previous director of the Egypt office of the International Republican Institute (IRI), Christian Angell, strongly criticized the coup for being undemocratic. He furthermore supported by Muslim Brotherhood by emphasizing that they had been democratically elected. Angell’s words are not uninteresting. Nor is his background. The IRI, founded by USAID and chaired by John McCain, is an organization which supports conservative political movements and parties outside of the US. It is therefore not surprising that Angell so strongly criticizes the removal of Mursi who heads one of the conservative political parties under IRI’s support.

So Mursi and his fellows are supported by both the academic left and by the right. Instead of conceptualizing human rights schoalrship into right and left, which is not very illuminating, one should perhaps move the discussion to one that actually centers around human rights. The question should perhaps be whether the scholarship or the political party or the lobbyist works in favor of human rights or not?

2 thoughts on “Human Rights and Lefts

  1. Azin,

    Thank you for your provocative posting. The issues you raise are very real and not easily resolved.

    Here I just want to remind us all of the controversy a few years back at Amnesty International that centered on the meaning, or parameters, for defending human rights. I’m referring to the incident between Amnesty International and Gita Saghal, who was running a program on Gender and Human Rights for AI. Saghal ended up quitting, or being forced to resigned, from AI because AI formed an alliance with Moazzam Begg a former Guantanamo detainee, now running an organisation called Cageprisoners which has championed the views of Anwar al Awlaki. For those interested, more on this controversy can be found at the Human Rights For All website:

    So, when you advocate that the Left should defend those who defend human rights, that is not necessarily a straight forward solution.

    That Human Rights has been the language of Western imperialism in the Middle East complicates the equation further. On this see the excellent recent book by the historian Elizabeth Thompson, called Justice Interrupted, Harvard University Press 2013.


    Alice Bullard, J.D., Ph.D.
    EIP Fellow, Georgetown University Law Center

  2. Thank you for your good comments, Alice!

    I agree that there is not always a straight forward solution, sometimes the human rights of some conflict with the human rights of others. However, sometimes the line is not blurry, and it is on these occasions that there is a responsibility, at least for human rights scholars, to criticize movements that actively preach or practice disregard for rights.

    As for the issue of human rights as an imperialistic tool- yes. But this tool would become increasingly useless if Middle Eastern countries actually improved their practice of human rights. The fact that some people don’t know how to add, or don’t bother to learn how to add or manipulate the calculation, should not lead us to abolish or compromise mathematics. It is the same with human rights.


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