THE BLOG
08/27/2014 11:20 am ET Updated Oct 27, 2014

The Long War: Defending Human Rights in the Middle East

Anwar al-Awlaki was almost certainly a member of Al-Qaeda, and an American one at that. He wrote for and managed a blog, Facebook page, YouTube channel, and the Al-Qaeda magazine Inspire, and on every platform espoused the organization's extremist views. After returning to his ancestral village in Yemen in 2004, he lectured at Iman University, allegedly inculcating new recruits with radical ideology. He may have helped to coordinate, or at least provide support for, attacks such as the Fort Hood shootings and the so-called "underwear bomber" attempt; he also may have protected other members of Al-Qaeda in Yemen with his tribal connections. Yet all of these allegations remain just that -- allegations -- because Anwar al-Awlaki died in a targeted killing by US drone strike in September 2011, depriving him of those most fundamental of human rights: the right to life, and the right to due process.

Human rights defenders are likely all familiar with the particulars of al-Awlaki's case. His death, and the deaths of three other US citizens killed by drone strikes, was brought about by a tenuous legal argument disputed by rights groups worldwide. Al-Awaki's is just one case in the sea of human rights violations committed in the name of the "War on Terror," abuses perpetrated both by Western and Muslim-majority governments alike. Many of these abuses, certainly the ones that make headlines are carried out against Islamist activists, from the moderate to the extreme. The current crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in post-coup Egypt is only the latest example in a long history of the governments of Muslim-majority countries depriving Islamists of their fundamental human rights.

In somewhat of an ironic twist, the rights of these Islamists have been widely defended by those belonging to the Western left: individuals who idealize equality of the sexes and personal and religious freedoms and spend their lives working to achieve them universally. This often stands in stark contrast to the victims whose rights they are defending -- in al-Awlaki's case, victims who would constrain or dismantle the very rights their defenders hold so dear if they were in power. These human rights defenders may disagree with what al-Awlaki had to say, but they would defend to the death his right to say it. If the shoe were on the other foot, however, it is unlikely al-Awlaki would feel the same.

This paradox is more comfortable to sweep aside when you are on the front lines of human rights, as it should be given that fundamentalist Islamists have the same rights as any other human being. Yet another large contingent of the Muslim-majority world is being largely ignored by Western human rights organizations, even as they lead the vanguard in the fight against extremism and see their rights violated by both governments and fundamentalist groups. Activists working to support women's rights, democracy, rule of law, education, access to the arts and literature are often just as persecuted by the state as are Islamists, yet the battles they wage for their rights rarely make international headlines. The rapid advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria only drives home the need to advocate for and protect the rights of a vibrant and diverse civil society in Muslim-majority countries: In the absence of well-organized groups reflecting the will of most Syrians, IS moved into the vacuum created when democracy-seeking groups failed to oust Assad. The struggle of citizens of Muslim-majority countries against the violations and violence of fundamentalism is catalogued by Karima Bennoune in her 2013 book Your Fatwa Does not Apply Here and summarized in an excellent TED talk. Bennoune rightly calls Muslim fundamentalism "a disease masquerading as a cure," and its victims are the people of Muslim-majority countries forced at once to fight against repressive governments and fundamentalist groups alike, with little to no international support.

Too often, human rights defenders hone in on the majority group persecuted by the state apparatus (Islamists) and ignore the cases of non-state perpetrators of horrific abuses in the name of God. Yet just as those Islamist groups and individuals persecuted en masse by governments deserve the rights too often denied them, so, too, do the victims of Islamist extremist organizations, who are also overwhelmingly from Muslim-majority countries. A 2009 study published by West Point revealed that in the period from 2004-2008, 85 percent of victims of Islamist-launched terrorist attacks were non-Westerners. From 2006-2008, 98 percent of victims were from Muslim-majority countries. A cursory glance at fundamentalist terrorist attacks in the news will show that this number can hardly have decreased, and most likely has gone up given the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq. It is not the West that is most in danger from the threat of fundamentalism, it is the citizens of Muslim-majority countries who quite literally have watched their worlds being ripped apart before their eyes by the scourge of terror in places like Pakistan and Iraq.

The inability to incorporate nuance into ideas about whose rights are being violated in the Muslim-majority world is the death of sound human rights policy. To blindly defend the rights of Islamists and not those whose rights they often menace is a violation in and of itself: it denies millions of victims the right of recognition of the acts perpetrated against them and their loved ones, it denies them the humanity of being acknowledged as a person whose fundamental rights were violated. That Islamists -- from the most moderate to the extreme -- are in need of human rights activism in the face of repressive governments is taken as a given in Western HR circles and organizations. Not so the victims of human rights violations in the name of religion, whose stories are often dismissed even as they are reported, and who lack the organizational depth of religious groups in many regions and are hard-pressed to fight back. These victims, among them journalists, activists, lawyers, and -- most importantly -- countless ordinary citizens, labor under the same repressive laws against freedom of expression, organization, assembly, and association as religious groups, and are at a distinct disadvantage to those who can twist "God's" message to fit their own political needs.

Constitutional laws to protect both the freedom of religion, and the freedoms of those threatened by it, are essential in a region where a group like ISIS is now a serious contender to head at least one national government. Human rights laws must be set in stone to ensure that Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood may enjoy full political participation. But the law also must be clear that those rights that may not be abrogated for any group: the rights of women, of minorities, of the LGBT community, and so many more. Fundamentalist political groups threaten the rights of at least half of those societies in which they gain power, by virtue of their widespread stances against fundamental female rights. Even "moderate" Islamist political organizations such as Ennahda in Tunisia do not have a firm stance supporting women's full equality under the law. This fact only speaks to the need for non-amendable legal protections for human rights, that would protect citizens on all ends of the political spectrum equally.

Creating a legal framework in the region without ensuring its enforcement and application, however, will only be to give repressive governments yet another paper tiger to point to and call themselves "democracies." Creating the social and political space for groups fighting against fundamentalism is nearly impossible given the restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, as well as by the collusion of many governments, such as that of Pakistan, with fundamentalist groups. Organization of an anti-fundamentalist movement is often deadly in places where to speak against Islamist groups is tantamount to speaking against Islam itself, and where such actions are considered blasphemy and are punishable by law, or by vigilante justice. Rule of law is cited as the bedrock of democracy for good reason: protection under the law, created by a democratic government for the benefit of the people, enforced by a non-corrupt and nonpartisan police force, and carried out by and independent judiciary, is the primary facilitator of an environment where people feel safe to express themselves, whether in speech, writing, or at the ballot box. If the law does not protect individuals from persecution, either legal or extrajudicial, for their ideas, then rule of law cannot exist, and neither can true democracy. Yet the path to creating a culture of the rule of law in many Muslim majority countries is strewn with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

These obstacles would be rendered less dangerous for the activists who seek to overturn them if the international community of human rights defenders took a more balanced view of whose human rights they defend. Islamist organizations, both moderate and extremist, are well-represented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the plethora of other organizations that operate in the Muslim-majority world. Yet the ordinary citizens battling fundamentalism on the ground often do not have a well-run organization like the Muslim Brotherhood to call upon when their rights are violated. They also need avenues to appeal to when they experience abuses, both at the hands of their national governments and also at the hands of extremists.

By recognizing the current shortcomings of human rights activism and broadening its scope to be more inclusive of those fighting against fundamentalism as well as those professing it, the human rights community can begin to balance the record of disproportionately representing fundamentalists while largely ignoring the plight of millions of citizens of Muslim-majority countries fighting against them. This requires a shift in organizational culture and a recognition of areas where rights groups have not dedicated equal time and resources as they have to Islamist groups. Organizations must look at their record of work and ask, "Whose human rights are we defending, and who are we leaving out?" The shift will be difficult, but necessary as rights groups attempt to live up to the promises of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If human rights themselves are universal, then their defense must be universal, too.

* Estimates of the victims of drone strikes vary widely. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that in five years of strikes from January 2009-2014, at least 2,400 individuals were killed.