In Association with Royal Holloway Islamic Society and Royal Holloway Chaplaincy

Human Rights and its Search for the Universal Horizon between East and West

If alterity is the state of being ‘Other’ and has served as a basis to justify inequality within international law, how is it possible to create an international human rights regime based on universal principles? The answer lies in deconstructing the competing poles of ‘East’ and ‘West’.

This meeting was organised by the Joseph Interfaith Foundation. Zahra Afshar, a graduate in Law from Bristol University with a post-grad distinction in Economics, came to Royal Holloway University of London to speak of the competing poles of East and West, and how these must be deconstructed in order to find the universal spirit of human rights. She used the idea of alterity (the state of 'the other') as an example of explaining how perceptions of rights polarised, in an attempt to be as little like 'the other' as possible.


Her first point was concerning the concept of Jihad in Islam, meaning 'struggle', and its misinterpretation by the much of the world, muslims included. Zahra quoted from the Qur'an:
"Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, and do not transgress [limits], for Allah does not love transgressors." (Surah 2, Verse 190)

She moved onto gender inequality, and stated that the duties of men and women are different, but that imbalances arise when one side does not fulfil their duties. She used the example of a father or husband, whose duty is to protect and give provisions to their daughter or wife, but if he hurts her, or does not treat her fairly, then there is an imbalance.

Jay Elkin One of the presidents of the Jewish Society of Royal Holloway presents a question

The audience participated in questions, with one of the presidents of the soon-to-be-formed Jewish Society of Royal Holloway expressing the view that if everyone followed the rules, this would be perfect, but asking whether the problem (with respect to Islam and how people perceive it nowadays), was caused by a mixture over the years between Islam and Arab culture, with another member of the Jewish Society asking Zahra for her personal opinion. She replied that, in her view, Sharia Law requires a ruler. However, she believes that there is no one today of sufficient calibre to deliver the type of fair and just ruling which is needed. Thus, the aim should be a personal one: no one is perfect but we should all aspire to it.

ataul, zahra and mehri Zahra Afshar responds to a question, with chairs, Ataul Munim (l) and Mehri Niknam (r)

Sally Rogers, a reverend at the College, stated that there is a distortion regarding the perception of Islam today, and there needs to be a recovery of the religion. She asks though, where are her partners for conversation? Zahra responded that she didn't feel that the East and West were in a place where they are comfortable enough with themselves to dialogue productively with one another. She suggested that first there must be an introspective examination, and then communication with others. She advised that we should draw upon commonalities within our different religions, for example, using Abraham within Judaism, Christianity and Islam to remind all that the three religions have the same origin.

zahra Zahra Afshar speaking

The previous president of the Islamic Society at Royal Holloway asked a question regarding 'reformist' or 'modern' muslims: can it be assured that they themselves will not fall into the same trap of alterity with the West? If it's a psychological reaction, then is it possible to blame anyone? Zahra responded by claiming that a lot of the reformist muslims were trying to focus on similarities between different cultural views, rather than the differences. If everyone were able to focus more on the similarities, then it would be beneficial to all.

The programme was a good success. The audience were made up of a wide demographic with members from different religious student societies as well as the chaplaincy and people from the local community engaging in the discussion. Rajah Hassain, the community engagement officer, praised the Joseph Interfaith Foundation for hosting these events, with several students echoing sentiments commending the Foundation for its work. Mehri Niknam, the executive director of the Foundation, thanked all for attending, as well as Zahra Afshar for delivering such an informative and thoughtful talk.

Photos by K Hunt