Studies 25 September, 2013

On Justice in the Current Arab Context


Azmi Bishara

Azmi Bishara is the General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies and a member of its Executive Board. A prominent researcher and writer, Bishara has published numerous books and academic papers in political thought, social theory, and philosophy, in addition to several literary works. He was Professor of Philosophy and History of Political Thought at Birzeit University, from 1986 to 1996. He also co-founded Muwatin, the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy, and Mada al-Carmel, the Arab Center for Applied Social Research. Bishara was the principal founder of the National Democratic Assembly (Balad), a Palestinian-Arab party inside the Green Line, which supports democratic values irrespective of religious, ethnic or national identity. For four consecutive session, from 1996-2007, he represented his party as an elected member of parliament. In 2007, Bishara was persecuted for his political positions at the hands of the Israeli authorities, and currently resides in Qatar. He is the recipient of the Ibn Rushd Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2002 and the Global Exchange Human Rights Award in 2003.


This paper explores the deep-rooted, transcultural history of justice and fairness, which has fluctuated and evolved into the contemporary concept of justice, which is linked to citizenship through the concept of rights after a long separation between the two. In this paper, justice and its evolutionary path are thus traced to Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Cicero, and Roman law; then to the Torah, Christian teachings, and the ideal Islamic conception of rule; and, finally, to the revolution of modern thought. Exploring justice, in the context of modernity, reveals the notion of "rights," upon which justice has been founded in the modern era.

This essay further examines the expansion of the concept of justice to include social equality, in addition to natural equality, and to take "freedom" into account as one of the components of justice. Starting off with John Rawls and Amartya Sen, the paper moves on to discuss the Arab's encounter with Western modernity-especially through Egyptian intellectual Rifaa al-Tahtawi-and the current challenges confronting Arab thought with regards to what constitutes "justice" in terms of the rights related to equal citizenship, social justice, and civic and political freedoms. The paper argues that transitional phases, such as the one currently witnessed in the Arab world, represent an opportunity to broach the subject of justice and to make theoretical and practical propositions around this question.

Central to this paper is also the question of identity, a notion that is key to the building of a modern state. Identity is even more crucial in the context of the Arab world, where the phenomenon of the politicization of sub-identities within the state emerges as part of the struggle against despotism. To the author, all these challenges must be dealt with from an enlightened perspective; in search of a theory that not only organizes the relationship between the principles of equality and freedom, but also explores the concept of "justice" as inclusive of all identity groups, though not at the expense of freedom and equality.

* This study was originally published in the fifth Edition of tabayyun (Summer 2013, pp. 7-26). Tabayyun, published by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, is a peer-reviewed academic quarterly journal devoted to philosophical and cultural studies.

It was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version can be found here.

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