From the feeling of having been wronged to the intuition of universal rights

following Jeanne Hersch: an analysis of a recent Egyptian novel


0. Introduction

  Jeanne Hersch (1910-2000) was a Swiss philosopher, long associated with the University of Geneva and with UNESCO, well known for her work on the rights of man. In this paper I first recall some aspects of her philosophical writings on the rights of man that lead the reader to inquire into the psychological and anthropological problem of how people living in societies where human rights are not recognized may become aware of them, i.e., of how they may discover being the bearers of such rights. A recent novel by the Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany,  The Yacoubian Building, [1] offers a fascinating account of contemporary Egyptian society and of the islamistic movement that is at present gaining strength in that country as well as in many other countries with a predominantly Muslim population. This setting would seem –and in fact unfortunately is- most unsuitable for the development of an awareness of human rights. So in a sense it does provide a test to the philosophy of human rights expounded by Jeanne Hersch. Does Jeanne Hersch’s thesis stand the test?

  The exposition is in four (more) sections:

  1. I give a brief account of Jeanne Hersch’s ideas
  2. a quick introduction to the novel
  3. an analysis of the ephemeral and tragic form in which the perception of universal rights is achieved by one of the main characters in Al Aswani’s novel
  4. the unexpected and somewhat puzzling turn into gender that that perception takes
  5. a tentative exploration of some cultural presuppositions of the doctrine of human rights that the novel helps us to become aware of.
  6. is devoted to some concluding comments.


1. The foundation and universality of rights according to Jeanne Hersch

Up to a point, Jeanne Hersch follows the natural law approach to the rights of man. She wants to identify the foundations of these rights, i.e., those reasons which, if men came to see  them and scrutinized them carefully, would gain their acceptance, and would turn them into upholders and propagators of these rights. This is the long standing programme of ethical rationalism, a trend of thought unfortunately rather unfashionable nowadays, and it seems to me undeniable that Jeanne Hersch shares it. Her argument (Hersch 1993,  508) is surprisingly brief, and hinges on her conception of man. Man is made to be free, freedom is man’s specific calling. If he were oppressed or crippled by some overpowering institution –be it the family, the army, the Church, or the State- he would not be able to deploy his will. But the accomplishment of free actions goes to the very essence of man. Without the protection of rights, man is thwarted in his practical self-realization. There can be no unfolding of his humanity! This differs from the classic natural law argument –well represented, at the end of the 20-th century, by Karl Popper- in that it singles out free will, rather than reason, as the human faculty that is most deserving of protection. Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus would also seem to endorse a Kantian argument similar to Hersch’s in favour of human rights (Fortin 1997, 229).

   A brief look at Jeanne Hersch’s interpretation of Antigone (Hersch 1993, 509) will help to show the implications of her thesis. The challenge posed by Antigone to Creon shows that the stakes in the conflict between an individual and the State may sometimes be an absolute value, for the sake of which an individual may be ready to die. The absoluteness of the value calls forth an equally absolute commitment to that value. Such, argues Jeanne Hersch, is the foundation of human rights. But something would seem to have gone amiss here. First, she is not talking of ‘foundation’ in the earlier meaning of a compelling or convincing argument: for in this case she would have to refer to Antigone’s belief in the law on burying one’s dead relatives set forth by the gods of Ades; but as a personal attitude that may be taken as the irrefutable proof of the human aspiration to freedom. Second, an absolute commitment may be taken towards values far from being universal. It is an expression and a sign of the authenticity with which they are held, not necessarily of their universality. Still when they are universal the absolute commitment to them constitutes the psychological ‘foundation’ of human rights. In addition to an ethical foundation, Jeanne Hersch would seem to envisage a psychological foundation.

   The theoretical universality of the rights of man is one thing; or rather, is an important philosophical claim of the natural law school, one that does not command wide acceptance any longer. But even if we admit its validity, we have to reckon with men’s possibility to come to know of these rights, as distinct from, and preliminary to, their wish or their institutional possibility to actually exercise them. Strictly speaking, a citizen may enjoy some rights without knowing it. If all others respect them, he may continue to lack the knowledge that his fellow citizens are dealing with him, exactly as they should. In a society where respect for the rights of man were commonplace, and to that extent never brought to public attention, nobody would know of their existence! At the other extreme one can imagine a situation in which a person living in an environment hostile to human rights may become aware of their existence while she is engaged in pursuing some objective of hers’ into whose legitimacy she had not initially probed very deeply. This is perhaps what happens to Antigone. She was, or perhaps she became sure she was acting in the name of a principle of public ethics absolutely valid, when she began to clash with Creon. Some awareness of the universal validity of one’s claims  strengthens one’s willingness to enter a fight for them. Although one may be willing to fight and even risk one’s life for a completely private end, or in order to defend some privilege connected with one’s class or social status, one may not fight for one’s natural rights if the corresponding claim does not rest on a universal argument or value. Thus for example Averroes engaged himself in a defence of the legitimacy of philosophical research under Islamic Law, but only for true philosophers, or “sages”: undisciplined heterodox people (“hacks”) were to his mind rightly bound for the execution (Brague 2006, 292-3). He was not, then, a hero of the freedom of thought. That there should be at least a small minority of people ready to fight for their (universal) rights is a necessary condition for human rights to remain in force. They arise, as Jeanne Hersch maintains, from conflict. One could argue that the presence of an embattled minority is ‘the foundation’ of the rights of man, in a third meaning: the readiness of at least some people to risk their lives to defend freedom is an essential social pre-requisite for a free society.

   What did Jeanne Hersch think of this problem, or rather, of this set of interrelated problems, living as she was in a period where the refusal of human rights by non-Western countries was not as widespread and as open as it has become today? She had advanced a thesis on the compatibility of the plurality of world’s cultures and the validity of the rights of man. But above this, she imagined and through the machinery of UNESCO carried out an ambitious ethnological experiment (Hersch 1969). Let her describe it in her own words (Hersch 1993, 512-514):

A propos de l'universalité des Droits de l'homme, je voudrais rappeler ici une expérience et un livre. La Division de philosophie venait d'être créée à l'UNESCO lorsque j'en ai assumé la direction. Elle a reçu comme première tâche de préparer, pour le 20e anniversaire de la Déclaration universelle des Droits de l'homme, en 1968, un recueil de textes les concernant. Or, à ce moment, bien des gens se posaient la question : les Droits de l'homme ne seront-ils pas un concept purement occidental ? Leur diffusion internationale n'est-elle pas une simple variante de l'impérialisme blanc ? J'ai décidé de tenter une expérience à l'échelle de la terre entière, mais en tenant compte des différents modes d'expression dans les diverses cultures. Usant du filet mondial dont dispose l'UNESCO, j'ai demandé à tous les pays membres de m'envoyer des textes de n'importe quelle époque (mais antérieurs à 1948, date de la Déclaration universelle), relevant de n'importe quel mode d'expression, où se manifestait, selon eux, de quelque manière que ce fût, un sens pour les droits des êtres humains. (Il est bien clair que si j'avais demandé des textes explicites, conceptuels, juridiques ou philosophiques, je n'aurais reçu que des reflets ennuyeux de la pensée moderne et occidentale.) J'ai attendu dans l'angoisse, - ne sachant pas si j'allais recevoir quelque chose ou rien. Les textes arrivèrent de tous les coins de la terre, de tous les continents, de toutes les époques entre le IIIe millénaire avant J.C. et 1948 ; de tous les genres, allant des inscriptions gravées sur la pierre, des proverbes et des chansons - à des extraits de traités philosophiques ou juridiques. …

A la suite d'un tel travail, certaines conclusions s'imposent… à propos de l'universalité. Il est clair que si on s'interroge sur l'universalité du concept des droits de l'homme dans les diverses cultures, il faut répondre : non, ce concept n'a pas été universel ...   Et pourtant, il y a une exigence fondamentale que l'on perçoit partout. Quelque chose est dû à l'être humain du seul fait qu'il est un être humain : un respect, un égard; un comportement qui sauvegarde ses chances de faire de lui-même celui qu'il est capable de devenir; la reconnaissance d'une dignité qu'il revendique parce qu'il vise consciemment un futur et que sa vie trouve là un sens dont il est prêt à payer le prix. Cette universalité-là me paraît d'autant plus saisissante que l'extrême diversité des modes d'expression en garantit l'authenticité. Tout homme veut "être un homme", même si ce n'est pas pour tous de la même façon. Tout homme veut être reconnu comme tel. S'il en est empêché, il peut en souffrir au point de parfois préférer mourir.

   So in view of this we can say that Jeanne Hersch did pose the problem of the knowledge of human rights by people belonging to societies that do not recognize them, or living in periods in which no society recognized them, and thought (Hersch 1993, 514) that the key to the solution was a distinction between the philosophical or legal concept –undeniably of Western origin- and the basic human need or aspiration – echoing throughout the collection of world texts she had commissioned and published, perennial and universal. However, it should be specified that together with the common aspiration there has to be an least tentative intuition that the aspiration is rightly held,  i.e., is justified by a universal principle. Each man wants to be acknowledged as a free agent, and this is easy, and is ready to extend a similar recognition to every other man, and this is harder but necessary for the thesis of the intercultural validity of human rights. So the distinction between “le concept des droits de l’homme” and “l’exigeance fondamentale” may not be as decisive in settling the matter as she thought.  For in order to be relevant the expression of “l’exigeance fondamentale” must also contain some inkling of an appeal to a universal law or value, and therefore become closer to “le concept des droit de l’homme”. Her conclusion that the data obtained through her ethnographic inquest confirmed overwhelmingly her philosophical anthropology was perhaps a bit too hasty. 

  Having learnt the harsh but salutary lesson by Popper, that it is easy to find confirming instances, more difficult, but a lot more instructive, to look for instances where our candidate theories are rejected or do not appear to work so smoothly, I propose to broaden slightly the repertory of universal texts amassed by Jeanne Hersch by adding a few pertinent quotations from The Jacoubian Building.


2. The Yacoubian Building

Not having the good luck of being a scholar in modern Arab literature and being therefore confined to the descriptive criteria of the normal Western reader, I can only say that Al Aswani’s is a realist novel, written with great talent for social comedy and for political and religious satire. The narrative allows the interlaced unfolding of the lives of the inhabitants of the Building, with special but not exclusive attention to the group of squatters who have moved to occupy a few square meters each of the terraced roof of the building, transforming the cells that were originally meant as deposits for the drying laundry of the legal residents into small flats. There has been a social revolution in Egypt, and the people sharpen their wits in all sort of legitimate and illegitimate ways to try to leave poverty and dejection behind them. But it seems that the real, as distinct from the formal, political structures are not conducive to the desired social progress. Even more regressive is the role of religion. The clergy are either allied to the regime and subordinate to it, or at the head of the islamistic movement, an organization based on the building up and capitalization of hatred. This is why at times the trifling and seemingly ridiculous comedies of the dwellers may turn into tragedies.


3. Taha’s education

Taha is a shy, diligent and devout boy living on the roof.  The humble condition of his father, janitor of the Building, makes him withdrawn and awkward. But he has a ruling dream, to become a member of the police force, and a girl friend of dream, the handsome Buthayna, also a squatter. Having obtained his high school diploma with high grades, he takes an exam for admission in the police force, but discovers that the examiners are no less prejudiced socially than the civilian people outside. This upsets him terribly. He then writes a movingly naïve petition for redress to the President of the Republic, pointing out that according to the Prophet himself impartiality is mandatory in the public administration. But from the Office of the Presidency comes, not the hoped for admission, but rather a scorning, mocking confirmation of his exclusion. As if this were not nagging enough for him, things go also to waste with Buthayna. She has had to learn to fend for herself in a world of sex-hungry employers, always ready to blackmail her with the perspective of dismissal (there is apparently no trade union bent on the defence of young attractive shop assistants in Cairo). Her experiences in some sense parallel Taha’s, but lead her in a direction opposite to his. For as she becomes sceptical and disillusioned, she also develops a personal sense of discernment and self-confidence that makes her more resourceful in the daily battle for the family subsistence –she is the only wage earning person in her family with several small children. Instead, Taha becomes ever more devout. Having failed admission in the police force, he then begins his University studies. He is soon attracted to the islamistic movement. A highly popular Sheikh, able preacher of hatred, quicky accomplishes his conversion.

   One of the main characteristics of this ideology –although certainly not one that confers any sort of uniqueness to it- is its insistence on an opposition between ‘us’, the group of true believers, and ‘the others’. This second group is made of two sub-groups, ‘the unfaithful’, i.e., the non-Muslims, and the non islamistic Muslims, and sometimes it is this second subgroup that is regarded as the worst and most abominable enemy to the faithful. The ruling Egyptian regime is regarded as a single bunch of traitors and oppressors. The form of the Egyptian State, at least on paper a democratic and socialist republic, is rejected with horror not so much because it is only a pretence behind which lies the true regime, corrupt and tyrannical, but rather because it is of Western origin: neither democratic nor socialist, but Islamic and Islamic, should be the true islamistic republic.

   At a certain point in the (re-)education of Taha, the Sheikh waves under his eyes the photo of a little Iraki girl whose face has been terribly disfigured by the explosion of an American bomb, and invites him to take responsibility for that as well as for all other Iraki victims as if they were his own brothers and sisters. To which Taha (Al Aswany 2004, 131) comments:

The children of Muslims are slaughtered in this hideous way, while Egyptian television is crawling with scholars from el Azhar affirming that the Egyptian government’s position is sound in Islamic law and claiming that Islam supports the alliance with America to strike Irak,

a remark to which the Sheikh answers:

Those scholars are hypocrites and evil-doers. They are the pet jurists of the sultans and their sin is in God’s eye great. Islam absolutely forbids us to participate with unbelievers in the killing of Muslims, whatever the reason.

   Taha sucks in progressively and almost avidly this tribal or perhaps retribalized ethics, and takes part in a demonstration of university students against the Egyptian participation on the side of the United States to the war against Irak. That Irak had closed in on Kuwait with the intention to make a single bite of it, is a circumstance apparently regarded as completely irrelevant: perhaps according to the Sheikh and his followers, that a Muslim State should attack without any justification another Muslim State is in the normal order of events; it is if some non-Moslem group tries to interfere that the situation becomes scandalous and intolerable.

  After the demonstration, Taha is caught by the police, repeatedly beaten up and interrogated. But even after the harshest physical and psychological tortures he does not reveal the names of the organizers. Eventually he is set free. But the repeated rapes and other indignities to which he has been submitted have left a deep shadow in him. His depression is extreme. On his next meeting with the Sheikh, Taha (Al Aswany 2004, 167) explains:

They humiliated me, Master. They humiliated me  till I felt the dogs in the streets had more self-respect  than me.  I was subjected to things I never imagined a Muslim could do,

and it is interesting that while the first comparison is between some dogs and, presumably, a human being, the second is between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is only the second that appeals to the Sheikh, who answers:

They are no Muslims. Nay, they are unbelievers, according to the consensus of the jurists.

But here something new and unexpected happens. This exportation of the torturers outside the group of the true believers proves insufficient to relieve Taha of his deep malaise. It does not provide a categorial framework for the events, adequate to the entity of evil that Taha feels has been made to him. So, he answers:

Even if they were unbelievers, wouldn’t they have an atom of mercy? Don’t they have sons and daughters and wives that they care for and have pity on? Had I been in Israel, the Jews wouldn’t have done to me as they did. Had I been a spy and a traitor to my country, they wouldn’t have done those things to me. I ask myself what offence could merit that horrible punishment. Has the observance of God’s Law become a major crime? Sometimes in detention I’d think what was happening to me wasn’t real, that it was a nightmare that I’d wake up from to find it was all over. Were it not for my faith in God, Sublime and Magnificent, I would have killed myself to escape from that torment.

  So in a sense what we have here is the outline of an ethical recomposition of humanity. Taha’s initial conception of justice is certainly not universal. It is only the enormity of the evil to which he has been subjected that leads him to invoke a universal feeling (or virtue) of mercy and also a universal measure of justice, an intercultural criterion of congruence between offences and penalties. Torturers must have a knowledge of good and evil, based on their spontaneous wish to protect from evil their dears and dependants. They should therefore conclude that evil should not be visited on other people, either. And they should be able to reach this conclusion as parents, sons, brothers, not as Muslim parents, sons, or brothers. Family ties, and the emotional experiences that one makes within the family, are more basic and therefore more universal than religious belonging. The violation of this primitive norm of justice is the cause of an unbearable suffering, that turns into a feeling of unreality. When pushed beyond certain limits, injustice turns into unreality. The universality of justice, denied by the explicit religious ideology, reappears in Taha’s perception as an implicit presupposition of reality.


4. Taha’s individuation

But this instinctive grasping of the universality of ethics, so promising from a Herschian point of view, is here linked to another, and culturally more idiosyncratic, motif. It is the scenes where Taha had been forced by his sexual abusers to pretend to act as a woman that he feels as the most unreal. The recollection of those scenes  frightens and horrifies him. By having lived through them he feels deeply dishonoured in his own eyes. As if his very personal essence, like a maiden’s virginity, had been spoilt forever! Taha is in a fix: on the one hand, he believes implicitly that the deepest existential and even ontological rooting of an individual is provided by sexual identity, and therefore, seems to have only his sexual identity to hang on to; on the other hand, he does not feel any longer sure of his own sexual identity! 

  It may be that this susceptibility is not a peculiar psychological trait of Taha’s, but is widespread in some societies, and perhaps in some societies with a Muslim majority. Perhaps the U.S.A. torturers in Abu Ghraib, as their Egyptian collegues described in the novel, were well aware of these fears and exploited them to terrorise its unfortunate inmates. If these conjectures were right, then we might conclude that Taha has discovered not, to borrow a phrase of Jenne Hersch’, ‘the right to be a man’, but rather a somewhat more limited, if  for him all-precious, ‘right to be a male’! 

  In the sequel of the novel, Taha remains deeply depressed, and only the wish for personal revenge keeps him alive. The Sheikh tries to exploit this in order to turn him into an islamistic terrorist fighter, and the head of the training camp for terrorists where Taha is sent will even provide him with a suitably pious islamistic wife –ominously, the widow of a fallen terrorist- so as to both strengthen his conversion and, at the same time, help him to reassure himself of his badly threatened maleness. But this will all be to no avail. The conversion from personal revenge to ideological and military zeal does not occur. In the end, at his first terrorist action, his wish for revenge will undo him.


5. Individuation and  the monotheistic religions

 A key presupposition of the doctrine of the rights of man is the preciousness and uniqueness of the human person. Equality in dignity among all men is itself based on their uniqueness and irreplaceability.  Perhaps the philosopher Leibniz expressed it best with his theory of the monads: each individual is a world incommensurate to each other , for he is able to self–express and self-realize himself in a completely original way. Each man must follow his own calling, a calling which is not known a priori by him but must be sought in the free experimentation of his life.

  Identity must be sought. People must have the freedom and the resources to carry out their search…for themselves. This is accounted for in the argument for freedom given by Jeanne Hersch. Each person is owed “a behaviour that safeguards his (her) chances of making of him (her)-self what he (she) is capable of becoming”. Without freedom people cannot search, and therefore cannot find, themselves. In a way, Taha’s is the story of a thwarted search for oneself, by a young man who sorely missed his inner ubi consistam, his individuality, his self. (He may stand for the whole of contemporary Egypt in this.)

   Although the Leibnizian view of the human beings as unique original individuals has a universal philosophical appeal and can be appreciated by people of all convictions, it is historically connected with Christianity. It may be considered as a universal rendition of the bold idea that men are made in God’s image, and of its further more daring development that they are even sons of God. One may wonder how much Tahs’s religious upbringing, as distinct from the islamistic ideology he takes refuge in, but perhaps never comes to fully share, helps him bear and work out his grief. He says to the Sheikh that he has abstained from taking his own life because Allah forbids it. (Allah does not forbid revenge, apparently.) To the Christian, and perhaps to the Jew too, God is the original of whom one is an image, and even a Father. So he can solace himself with the notion of being loved by God the Father, and even attempt to imitate God’s moral attributes. Indeed Jesus of Nazareth, as is well known, invites his followers “to be as perfect as the Father is”. These beliefs seem to have a surprising power in affecting individualization. It would seem that a Muslim is bound to do without them. Man is not made in God’s image (Khalil Samir 2002, 189). Allah is not a Father to the believer (Khali Samir 2002, 182-3 and Benslama 2002, 320)[1] and does not love him, any more than the Aristotelian God would. It is he who must love Him. So the process of individuation may be more or less easy according to the nature of the society and culture where one is born and lives.

  The resources of Islam in this respect have been recently discussed by Benslama (2002, 290-304). Leaning especially on a work by the philosopher Abou Ali Ibn Miskawayh (944-1020), whose recent French translation carries the title Traité d’éthique, Benslama argues that “les penseurs de l’Islam, à partir de leur propre lieu et avec d’autres moyens, ont arpenté le même espace, concernant le rapport de l’individualité humaine à Dieu, que le christianisme, reputé être une religion individualisante ou individualiste. ” But Miskawayh, a keen student and follower of Plato and above all Aristotle, is no Duns Scot, and certainly no Leibniz. The main idea that Benslama draws from the Traité d’éthique is this: “Tout homme  est l’élément d’identification à Dieu pour son géniteur, lequel le fut dans un tour precedent pour le sien. Toute l’humanité s’est constituée généalogiquement comme une chaîne des trais unaires, le uns pour les autres. La filiation est ce systeme où le descendant est un traceur pour l’ascendant. L’Homme ne s’identifie à l’Homme que pour autant que cette identification vise le modèle d’identité divine.“  But Allah remains, in  splendid isolation, only related to himself, by the relation of identity.


6. Conclusion

Can a philosophical thesis be put to an empirical test? As a matter of principle, Jeanne Hersch (1993, 512), as so many other philosophers, denies it, but then we have seen that by her own recounting in 1969 she was looking forward “in anguish” to casting her eyes on the universal texts she had called forth “from the four coins of the earth.” Suppose she had received a copy of The Yacoubian Building, a novel that I am sure she would have liked very much. What would she have done of it, would she have taken it as another confirmation of her thesis on the universality of the rights of man? Perhaps she would. At the extreme of his suffering, Taha does hit for a moment upon a principle of universal validity. But then he is mislaid into taking refuge in the dubious universality of maleness. He would have needed a somewhat more Socratic teacher than his islamistic Sheikh in order to develop his ethical intuitions and, at the same time, develop as a person.

[1] The original edition was published in 2002. The English edition in 2004. Translations in other European languages, such as Italian, French, German, Castillian, and Catalan, followed in 2006 and 2007. In 2006 the Egyptian film director Marwan Hamed turned it into a film, which was shown (in Egypt and) at the Rome Film Festival of the same year. All quotations in the present paper are of course from the English edition (Al Aswany 2004).



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Benslama, Fethi. 2002. La psychanalyse à l’épreuve de l’Islam. Paris: Aubier.

Brague, Rémi. 2006. Au moyen du Moyen Age. Chatou : Les Editions de la Transparence.

Fortin, Ernest. 1997. From Rerum Novarum to Centesimus Annus: continuity or discontinuity? In  Human rights, virtue, and the common good: untimely meditations on religion and politics, 223-9. New York: Rowman & Littlefiled Pubblishers, Inc.

Gellner, Ernest. 1994. Lawrence of Moravia: Alois Musil, monotheism and the Habsburg empire. Times Literary Supplement, August 19.

Hersch, Jeanne. 1969. Le droit d’être un homme: recueil de textes préparés sous la direction de Jeanne Hersch. Paris: Unesco/R. Laffont. In English, Birthright of man: a selection of texts prepared under the direction of Jeanne Hersch. Paris: UNESCO.

Hersch, Jeanne. 1993. Les droits de l’homme d’un point de vue philosophique. In La philosophie en Europe. Ed. Raymond Klibansky and David Pears, 505-540. Paris : Gallimard/UNESCO.

Khalil Samir, Samir. 2002. Cento domande sull’Islam. Genova: Marietti.