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ABDULLAHI A. AN-NA'IM is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law. Originally from Sudan, An-Na'im is a disciple of nationalist leader and Islamic reformer and Sufi, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, who was executed in 1985 by the regime of President Gaafar Nimeiry. Taha's pronouncement of his first political incarceration by the British is reminiscent of Sri Aurobindo's: "When I settled in prison I began to realize that I was brought there by my Lord and thence I started my Khalwah with Him."
An-Na'im's specialties include human rights in Islam and cross-cultural issues in human rights. He is the director of the Religion and Human Rights Program at Emory. He also participates in Emory's Center for the Study of Law and Religion. An-Naim was formerly the Executive Director of the African bureau of Human Rights Watch. He argues for a synergy and interdependence between human rights, religion, critical thought and secularism, instead of a dichotomy and incompatibility between them.
A crucial point in An-Na'im's fascinating and insightful article "Competing Visions of History in Internal Islamic Discourse and Islamic-Western Dialogue" is the hegemony of the "center" over the "peripheries" as defined in terms of the historical origins of Islam. Pondicherry is the Mecca of the Integral Yoga community. The question Angiras raises in his comment is: does this make Sri Aurobindo the property of the Ashram and India, or does he belong to the world? The attempt by defenders of the faith in Pondicherry to seize control of the representation of Sri Aurobindo on the other side of the globe resembles the hijacking of Islam by the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia.
Competing Visions of History in Internal Islamic Discourse and
This paper explores the prospects of a proactive approach to historical thinking in relation to the paradox of human difference and interdependence in a global context. The dual premise of my analysis is the reality and permanence of cultural (including religious) diversity of human societies, on the one hand, and the imperatives of peaceful and cooperative co-existence in an increasingly globalized environment, on the other. Competing visions of history, I suggest, have always been integral to conceptions of self-identity and relationship to the "other," in individual and communal interactions. But the history of any society would have been mixed, containing peaceful and cooperative as well as confrontational and hegemonic types of elements in human relations.
Different visions of history may emphasize one or another element of the ethical norms, social institutions, economic relations, or political organization and processes of a community, or present one view or another of its relations, with other communities. For example, different visions of history may present a positive or negative view of women and their status and role in society, or of relations with neighboring or distant communities, may emphasize a tradition of tolerance or intolerance of diversity of religious or political opinion and practice within society, and so forth. Whether consciously or subconsciously, such divergent visions of history influence, and have been manipulated in political discourse to influence, individual and communal behavior. The fundamental question I raise in this regard is whether it is possible to deliberately differentiate between various visions of history with a view to enhancing and promoting certain policy objectives as suggested in this essay.
I am also concerned with the role of historical thinking in cultural self-determination. Given the influence, and manipulation, of perceptions of his¬tory in the politics of communal self-identity, and intercommunal relations, how can communities articulate and realize the most relevant and constructive perceptions of self-identity in relation to other communities? To speak of cultural self-determination, it might be said, emphasizes difference and specificity, rather than similarity and universality, in human cultures. While appreciating the negative potential of the tension between the two, I do not believe that they are necessarily mutually exclusive. On the contrary, I suggest that similarity and universality should be premised on the realities of cultural difference, instead of pretending that such differences do not exist. As I see it, the question is not whether universality is possible, but rather on whose terms and how should it be sought.
I will begin with a discussion of some of the general conceptual and methodological questions raised by the proposed proactive and constructive approach to history, followed by a discussion of the interaction between competing visions of history of time, place, and community in internal Islamic discourse, and in Islamic-Western dialogue. With respect to inter-Islamic discourse, I am concerned with the role of competing visions of history in defining (and manipulating) Islamic identity in the dynamic of the relationship between a historically presumed center and peripheries of the world community of Muslims (Umma). I will illustrate my argument with reference to Sub-Saharan Africa in relation to the presumed "centrality" of the Middle East in Islamic discourse, but a similar analysis can be applied, I suggest, to Southern, Southeastern, and now Central Asia. A different approach, however, may be necessary in relation to Muslims in the diaspora of Europe, North America, and elsewhere. I am also concerned with the ways in which that internal Islamic dynamic shapes and informs Islamic-Western dialogue, while the latter also shapes and informs the former. In this respect, I seek to clarify the present circumstances of encounter in relation to the possibilities of peaceful co-existence and cooperation based on mutual respect for cultural identity and communal self-determination.