A Conversation with Talal Asad and Abdullahi An-Na’im

In the Immanent Frame:

Talal Asad and Abdullahi An-Na’im both stand at the forefront of the challenging and constructive exchange taking place today between European and Islamic traditions of political, legal, and religious thought. At a recent event organized by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, the two scholars traded questions and criticisms concerning the concept of human rights. Moderated by José Casanova, the discussion addressed the intrinsic limitations and historical failures of the language of human rights, as well as its formidable capacity to challenge autocratic and state-centric distributions of power, creating openings for democratic contestation and political self-determination…

Talal Asad: José suggested that I should talk a little bit, first of all, about some of the main points from yesterday’s lecture. The lecture was an exploration of a number of concepts that that seem to me to lie at the origin of human rights, something I’m thinking about for my next book. But if I could just summarize, first, some things from that lecture, then I will try and make some points about Professor Abdullahi’s work, particularly his famous book, which has been much more influential than mine—my work on secularism is purely academic, you know; it tries to determine where the real effects of politics come from—and also to indicate the things that I think are good about secularity and then pose some questions I had, which it would be good to have you answer. And finally, I’ll say a few words about actual politics. I would like to begin with the effort to move some of our countries towards a more democratic form of politics and government and so on, which is not always the same thing as speaking about what one would like to see.

I basically tried to stress a couple of things yesterday, and perhaps I should focus on the most important ones. First of all, that the emotions that we talk about, like compassion and sympathy, which are supposed to lie at the base of human rights, are really much more mobile, much more unpredictable, much more uncontrollable than one thinks. They are both necessary and dangerous, one might say.