Category - Human Rights

On The Events in Hong Kong
Jacques Berlinerblau on “Pomofoco” and religious freedom
Sacred vs. Naked
A Cosmopolitan Take on the Referendum
Dare we hope? The fate of Egyptian rights defenders.
Update on CCHR Dissident Yara Sallam
In Solidarity With a Great Dissident

On The Events in Hong Kong

Victoria Hui, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, has worked in the democracy movement in Hong Kong and now serves on the Academic Advisors Committee of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. She  discuss protests in Hong Kong and the Communist Party’s crackdown on social media as Beijing tries to prevent the democratic protest from spreading to the mainland.

Hui says… 
International media have reported on how hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong protesters have maintained nonviolent discipline and order. International observers see images common to nonviolent movements around the world: strength in numbers, determined faces in front of riot police, slogans, songs, and more. Beneath such broad strokes of similarities, Hong Kong is unlike other cases given the constitutional structure of “one country, two systems” agreed to between Beijing and London. While Hong Kong has only semi-democracy, people are free to protest. While the police sometimes make arbitrary arrests, the independent judiciary inherited from the colonial era routinely releases activists. This constitutional structure presents a very open political space unseen in the rest of China and yet makes it difficult for activists to mobilize the largely contented population. Against this backdrop, the unprecedented use of riot police and the firing of tear gas seemed to have galvanized popular support for the protesters fighting for genuine democracy and increased sympathy for nonviolent actions.
More from Hui in this Notre Dame news story.

Jacques Berlinerblau on “Pomofoco” and religious freedom

My Georgetown colleague Jacques Berlinerblau recently published a delicious — and gutsy —  piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It is delicious and gutsy at the same time because it is so refreshingly and humorously candid in its criticisms of a school of thought that has become very fashionable (if not hegemonic) in contemporary academic discourse on secularism, religious freedom, and human rights. Much of what appears about religious freedom and secularism on the “Immanent Frame” website of the Social Science Research Council, for example, reflects this school of thought.

Among Berlinerblau’s most memorable — and funny — achievements is to give this school of thought a name. He calls it “Pomofoco.” That might sound like a petroleum company, but it’s short for “Post-modernist, post-Foucauldian, and post-colonial.” Very apt, as the Pomofoco school represents a remarkable confluence of all three of those now very fashionable, and of course partially overlapping, streams of academic thought.

But Berlinerblau comes not just to christen Caesar, but to bury him. And Berlinerblau’s courageous christening-cum-critique identifies gaping flaws with Pomofoco thinking. For anyone concerned about developing a proper liberal humanism foundational to the theory and practice of human rights, Berlinerblau’s tour de force is of enormous value. (Not to mention entertaining. Jacques Berlinerblau is blessed with a sharp mind, wicked sense of humor, and fearless indifference to political correctness. And he is not afraid to put them on display —even in the normally decorous pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

The first flaw in Pomofoco thinking Berlinerblau deliciously describes thus:

[One] hallmark of [the Pomofoco] school [is] its conspicuous aversion to secularism. And liberalism. And democracy. And the Enlightenment. And American foreign policy. And Israel. And Western civilization. And those who criticize political Islam or Islamic extremism via invidious comparison with any of these. It appears to be Pomofoco’s objective to everywhere draw the following conclusion: As troubling as radical Islamism might be, secular liberal democracies are just as bad—no, worse!

For the “Pomofoco” school, it appears, the emergence of modern liberal and secular political thought and practice has been an unmitigated moral calamity — a moral calamity, indeed, than which nothing worse can be imagined. Secularism comes in many forms, of course, some humane and some not, as Berlinerblau emphasizes.  But for the sake of argument let’s call a secular political project one that seeks to create a social and political space in which no single religious community or institution enjoys unchallenged dominance and all people regardless of their religious beliefs enjoy equal human rights, including a right to religious freedom. Of course, not all avowedly “secular” regimes have come close to promoting such an objective. But it is no stretch to suggest that, generally speaking, confessional non-dominance combined with some kind of religious freedom is a characteristic goal and feature of secular political orders. (Think of the Republic of India, whose democratic constitution avowedly declares a “secular” republic in large part for the purpose of protecting “the right freely to profess, practice [sic] and propagate religion.”) Seldom achieved, of course. But worthy objective, right?

Not according to the Pomofoco school. As Berlinerblau notes, the proponents of this way of thinking — a wide interdisciplinary range of scholars, from anthropologists Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood to political scientist Elizabeth Hurd — deplore the very objective of secularism. It is not just that all modern secular orders miss the mark, or fall short of a worthy goal. It is that the very goal is a hidden exercise in coercion and domination — even when the goal is as innocent-sounding as “religious freedom.” Indeed, Elizabeth Hurd, for example, has castigated religious freedom per se as “this modern attempt at mind control,” comparing it — get ready for this — with the Inquisition. (“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” goes that old Monty Python skit. And I for one certainly did not expect it in the middle of Hurd’s critical account of “religious freedom.”)

The sweeping Pomofoco critique of “secularism” and “religious freedom” is noteworthy on numerous counts. One is that it clearly and necessarily presupposes a passionate appeal to a concept of, well, freedom — the idea that “mind control” is wrong, and specifically the idea that there is something seriously wrong with coercively imposing one person’s version of “religion” on another person (even if the coercion is soft and subtle). Presumably by calling “religious freedom” a form of “mind control” and comparing it to the Inquisition, Hurd is not trying to be nice. As Hurd herself seems to suggest, so-called “religious freedom” is actually an assault on “human dignity and diversity.”

But the moment one takes  the trouble to develop and elaborate such an inchoate commitment to non-domination in religious matters, one would quickly have on one’s hands a normative political and moral doctrine that would have some elements of something like the ideas of liberalism, democracy, religious freedom, and perhaps even secularism, depending on how one defines those terms. Presumably it would have to include some kind of idea that arbitrary domination of some people by other people on religious issues is just plain wrong, as a matter of principle.

If so, wouldn’t it be perfectly reasonable, if not unavoidable, to call such an idea “liberal” or perhaps even “secular,” and to name the principle underlying it “religious freedom”? In other words, the Pomofoco school seems to be heavily invested in critiquing what it calls “religious freedom” and “secularism” with its increasingly heated, Inquisition-laden rhetoric — each time with “its finger pointed higher in the air,” as Berlinerblau says. But it must do so in the name of an underlying commitment to a principle of religious freedom or liberalism or secularism (or….?) that it is not willing or able to announce, articulate, or defend.

A hidden bunker may be a convenient place from which to shell the enemy, but it makes it hard to have a constructive or even intelligible conversation. It is one of the virtues of Berlinerblau’s piece that he zeroes in on this feature — and failure — of “Pomofoco.” According to the Pomofoco position, as Berlinerblau describes it, “[secular] states are incorrigible, illegitimate, and must be replaced.” But as Berlinerblau rightly asks: “replaced by what?” Alas, the work of staking out a clear normative position — or even an inchoate moral principle — does not seem to interest the Pomofoco school at this point in time. As someone who has profited from the work of some members of the Pomofoco school, particularly Elizabeth Hurd’s invaluable The Politics of Secularism in International Relations, I hope this is not where things remain.


Sacred vs. Naked

As choices go, the sacred versus the naked is one of the more arresting. But – says David Anderson, Parliamentary Secretary to Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs – that’s just the false choice facing many political cultures around the globe today.

On the one extreme, he says, governments grant and enforce exclusive status to one religion. That’s the sacred choice. On the other hand, governments try to stamp out religion and its expression from public life. They go, it’s said, naked.

Both of these are flawed in a way that Charles Taylor explains in Secularism and Freedom of Conscience. They both rely on strong civil religion, a comingling of political-theological enforcement that often produces, according to God’s Century, pathological and destructive politics. This see-saw default, argues Taylor, is endemic to many political cultures partly because the alternative can be seen as a dangerous gamble, especially in times of fear and anxiety.

Religious freedom, says David Anderson, can’t be a balancing of some kinds of belief with others, but the right of persons to choose to believe, or not to believe (and change those beliefs) as they see fit. The objective is not sameness, he says, but freedom.

That’s a gamble. And it’s probably the critical gamble of our time that enables democracy. Chris Seiple, from the Institute for Global Engagement, says the big question of our moment in history is: “how to live together well, in the midst of our deepest diversity?” The anxious, religious and non-religious alike, will be alarmed by that diversity – and sometimes they’ll have good cause to be. The temptation, says Taylor, is always very strong to reintroduce a stronger civil religion, to foreclose on the possibility of deviant diversity, to control and manage pluralism. That, he’s said in a recent interview with James K.A. Smith, is the story of the Charter of Quebec Values.

Limits to pluralism exist. But in the false choice between going sacred or going naked, the gamble of secular societies truly deserving of that name will be on their own citizens funding the virtues and values that laws cannot make, and markets cannot sell. Therein the clothes of democracy.

A Cosmopolitan Take on the Referendum

Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, recently wrote the following concerning the referendum on Scottish independence that will take place on Thursday:

So a new idea of citizenship is emerging. It is not cosmopolitanism if that means that national loyalties do not matter. It is a citizenship that upholds national identities while recognising the benefits of shared sovereignty – the kind of citizenship Scottish people can understand: being Scottish, British, European and a citizen with connections with a world wider even than that. It is not abstract: it represents how people now live their lives – connected constantly through mobiles and the internet, able to communicate with anyone, in any part of the world, at any time – involving an identity that is, for individuals, more a matter of choice than at any time in history.

Brown’s intervention is in the context of his support for keeping Scotland as part of the United Kingdom. What is interesting is he puts it in terms of global citizenship, something that one wouldn’t expect in a debate between two sides that seemed very fixed on their understandings of nation and nationalism. Brown’s point, here and in other places, is that the United Kingdom can and will change, but devolving into smaller sovereign nation states is not the way to go. Rather, a new kind of citizenship and a new constitution is necessary to bind the UK together and simultaneously give it the chance to become part of the world in a different way.

His arguments have a strong appeal for me. Brown’s understanding of cosmopolitanism is close to my own – a mix of local, national, regional, and global orientations that allows us to understand and act in the global political sphere in new and interesting ways.

I know that for many in this country, Brown is a polarizing figure. His role as Chancellor under Tony Blair was part of the New Labour process of shifting the United Kingdom toward more neoliberal economic policies. And his tenure as Prime Minister was filled with stories of bullying and poor governance. But since leaving 10 Downing Street, Brown has embodied the kind of cosmopolitanism he describes above – he advocates for his own small constituency in Fife yet continues to speak on issues of national and global importance. Unlike his predecessor, whose cosmopolitanism is the jet setting world of the corporate executive, Brown’s cosmopolitanism is Scottish, British, European and global.

Many friends and colleagues have strong views on the independence debate, and even in my own family we do not all agree on what is the best route for Scotland. Much of the argument for independence has focused on economics and culture, both of which are important. What I like about Brown’s point, though, is that it’s about politics, the kind of politics that I think is most important – citizenship, constitutionalism, cosmopolitanism. Moreover, these are concepts that are not distant and unimportant in the debate, but actually underlie the more prominent issues of currency, pensions, and the future of the NHS.

There are, of course, very good political arguments on the side of independence. They include the centrality of self-determination, disparities in power, and a vision of social justice in Scotland that is more progressive than the current UK government. But too many of these arguments for the Yes campaign remain insular and localised. I believe, like Gordon Brown – and like other important figures such as Pope Francis – that division and borders are not necessarily good things. Rather, I want a Scotland and United Kingdom that is part of the world in a new way.

In fact, the reason I can’t vote in this referendum is partly the result of the sovereign state system that creates artificial barriers. I’m an American citizen who has worked in the United Kingdom for 10 years. Two of my children were born here. Citizens of EU countries and some former Commonwealth countries residing here can vote, but for reasons that perhaps have more to do with the United States than with the United Kingdom, I don’t have that opportunity. Brown’s vision of a different kind of world, one in which a kind of global citizenship creates new opportunities for political engagement might allow me to vote on my own future (truth be told, I have indefinite leave to remain and am only not a citizen because I don’t want to pay the exorbitant fees – but why should I have to pay money to become a citizen?).

An independent Scotland might be able to engage in the world in this new way, and if the vote goes for independence, I hope it will. But I think the danger of nationalism, a negative nationalism that wants to find conspiracies and dangers in those ‘down South’ will only lead to further divisions. I agree with Yes campaigners that having a say in how you are governed is really important. And, there is certainly no guarantee that a united United Kingdom will create the kind of cosmopolitan representativeness that Brown advocates. But it gets closer to the global politics that I support, one that sees through and beyond the insularity of a single sovereign state to a wider global constitutional order.

A glimmer of hope seemed to emerge from Egypt this morning. According to various news reports, Alaa Abdel Fattah was released on bail following his conviction in absentia in June over charges of violating a 2013 law that seeks to curtail protests (Law 107 of 2013). A prominent blogger and political activist, Abdel Fattah was originally sentenced to 15 years. Following today’s retrial, he will be released from prison and have his case transferred to a new court in an apparent attempt to avoid potential “embarrasment”.


Sadly, my former classmate and friend, Yara Sallam (NDLS LL.M. Class of 2010) has not been so fortunate. As noted in a recent post here, Yara was detained by the Egyptian authorities on 21 June 2014 following her alleged participation in a peaceful march against the same 2013 protest law. This draconian law has been widely criticized by human rights organizations for breaching fundamental human rights standards. It allows security forces to use force in dispersing peaceful protests, practically bans protests unless pre-authorized by the Ministry of Interior and criminalizes activities that essentially constitute peaceful expression and assembly. Yara’s fellow inmates include Sanaa Seif, the sister of Alaa Abdel Fattah. It is no coincidence that such prominent human rights defenders were targeted and remain in detention.


This past Saturday, friends of Yara from across the world connected with eachother via internet. They waited with bated breath on news from her long-awaited trial, only to have the court hearing her case adjourn the trial to 11 October 2014. And once again, without any apparent justification, the court renewed and extended her detention.


We can only hope that international concern regarding the evident denial of justice in this case – and the potential “embarrasment” that it will cause – will prompt the Egyptian authorities and judiciary to rethink their approach in advance of next month’s trial. It would be better still if individual legislators, law enforcement officials and judges would commit to serving justice and respecting human rights – regardless of pressure to do otherwise. Perhaps we need to work toward the first scenario while praying for the second.

For further updates on Yara’s case, see

Update on CCHR Dissident Yara Sallam

Sean O’Brien, CCHR’s Assistant Director, updates us on Yara Sallam.  For the original story, see
​I write with a brief update on Yara’s trial over the weekend. After her defense team challenged the validity of the prosecutor’s video allegedly showing her participating in the “illegal” anti-protest law protest, the judge moved to adjourn the trial until October 11. This means that Yara and her 22 co-defendants will remain detained for nearly another month, beyond the 87 days they have already served. Some of Yara’s co-defendants are now on hunger strike, along with more than 156 other political detainees throughout the Egyptian prison system.
Oddly, the trial was not held in the usual courtroom in Heliopolis, but at a police academy instead. Yara and her co-defendant’s were, therefore, not confined to the typical defendant’s cages and appeared to have a little more freedom of movement. However, Yara’s parents were prevented from entering the courtroom and a female member of her defense team was verbally and physically assaulted by police guards as she entered. The photo below shows Yara’s response after she was informed of the thoughts and prayers for her by so many in the Notre Dame community and beyond. She remains, as is typical for Yara, in good spirits.
Coverage of the trial in English language Egyptian media can be found here:
Yara’s LL.M. classmates and others throughout our LL.M. alumni network will continue to advocate for her release, though the context for political advocacy is increasingly difficult after Sec. Kerry’s visit to Cairo over the weekend to court Egypt’s participation in the the anti-ISIS coalition.
So many of you wrote with fond memories of Yara’s time at Notre Dame Law School, especially the library staff with whom she worked closely. Thank you for your continued thoughts and prayers for Yara and her co-defendants.

In Solidarity With a Great Dissident

Here at the Center for Civil and Human Rights, we are proud to have graduated over 300 human rights lawyers from over 80 countries from our LL.M. program in human rights.  Perhaps it is not surprising that some go on to be dissidents.

One of our alumna, Yara Sallam, was arrested in Egypt and will go on trial in Egypt tomorrow.   Her story was documented in the New York Times and she is an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience.

Sean O’Brien, who direct’s the center’s academic programs, wrote in an e-mail today to friends of the Center:

I write asking for your prayers. As you may know, our esteemed Egyptian alumna and Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, Yara Sallam (LL.M. ’10), goes on trial tomorrow in Cairo. She was arrested in June for being near a public protest (of the anti-public protest law, no less). Once the Egyptian military government realized that they had in their grasp one of Egypt’s most well known and beloved young human rights defenders, they gleefully transferred her to one of the country’s most notorious prisons. She has been held in deplorable conditions all summer, advocating for the rights of other women prisoners also being detained.
She faces many years in prison at trial tomorrow before a corrupt and unjust legal system where evidence matters little. Her trial comes as Egypt’s military government is actively seeking to make examples of human rights lawyers and organizations. They have recently issued a decree forcing all human rights NGOs to register with the government, who will then control their budgets, programs of work, premises and contact with foreign visitors. Our other Egyptian alumni are facing the decision of whether to go into exile or remain in Egypt and face arrest after the November registration deadline passes. For them, registration is not an option.
Seven political parties as well as journalist’s syndicates have called for a nation wide hunger strike tomorrow in protest of Yara’s unjust detention and trial. Among those supporting Yara at her trial are ND LL.M. alum Ziad Abdel Tawab (LL.M. ’10) and many of the human rights defenders whose rights Yara has so passionately defended in the past.
Both during her time at Notre Dame and throughout the revolution in Egypt, Yara has been known for her warmth and her joie de vivre. She is quoted as saying “My life, if it can have any meaning at all or if it will ever be remembered, I want it to be about hope, laughter, joy, passion and love for life. My revolution is the same.”

Yara Sallam

Yara Sallam

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.