Behind the Scenes: Anver Emon

From the Summer 2009 issue of Nexus.

Prof. Anver EmonFrom the publication of the Danish Mohammed cartoons in 2006, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, interaction between the Islamic and the Western world makes front page news on a regular basis. While the average person in the West must rely on broadcast media to interpret and present the points of confl ict and exchange, Faculty of Law Professor Anver Emon is busy at work behind the scenes, diligently using his own research on Islamic law to foster greater understanding and cooperation between the two cultures.

"What I am concerned about is an ignorance of Islamic law in the West, and particularly among forces serving in Islamic countries," says Emon. "Without a basic understanding of Islamic law, we cannot have a high-level dialogue about the rule of law in these countries. In order to discuss violence, torture, abuse and conflict, we have to have both a high level of scholarly exchange and create the institutional capacity in Muslim countries for these discussions."

Professor Emon is an expert in Sharia law, who received his BA from UC Berkeley, a JD from UCLA School of Law, an MA from University of Texas at Austin, an LLM from Yale University Law School and a PhD in history from UCLA. A current research project has him focusing on law, tolerance, and the treatment of minorities under Islamic law.

"How can we talk to Muslims about torture without using Islamic law as the basis for that conversation?" he asks rhetorically. To that end, Emon has been working with several international organizations such as the International Bar Association, the Salzburg Global Seminar, the law faculty's International Human Rights Program, and the Centre for Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey. He has been a frequent speaker on Islamic law to NATO forces and to senior military personnel at the Canadian Forces College and also recently addressed a group of American military lawyers, as part of their judicial education initiatives program.

"In Afghanistan, the situation on the ground is that military forces are creating provincial reconstructions teams (PRTs). The military realizes that it has a limited understanding of Islamic law, and knows that although it is armed sufficiently - they are not equipped with a sufficient understanding of Sharia law and Islamic issues. At the present time, the security situation simply does not allow for civilians to introduce concepts of the rule of law to the general population. Therefore, it is military personnel that need to be equipped with a more indepth knowledge of Sharia in order to encourage the development of rule of law institutions," he adds.

In 2006, a Danish newspaper published caricatures of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. Almost immediately, European nations contended with widespread demonstrations by Muslim protesters who felt that the cartoons were blasphemous and insulting to their faith. Emon maintains that the debate was incorrectly framed in terms of two fundamentalist polarities - Muslims facing off with free speech fundamentalists.

"The way the issue was presented was an 'either or' situation. The assumptions were that either Muslims support freedom of speech or they do not," he says. "Both groups were asserting positions that claimed no limit, yet both groups clearly do have a tradition of limiting freedoms."

The Western tradition of freedom of speech, he says, is not unlimited. "In Austria, for example, people can be convicted of a crime for Holocaust denial," he explains. "In Pakistan, there are limits on blasphemy against the prophet Mohammad. Freedoms are limited in national interests. So really, the question is - when we limit freedoms, why do we do so, on what assumptions? What does this say about our values, and what is at stake?"

When the dust finally settled in Denmark, he says, the result was only greater xenophobia in Europe toward Muslim immigrants.

Emon believes that such public debates about cultural differences can be valuable. "By having this kind of dialogue, we can only foster greater understanding and perhaps a greater appreciation of other cultures," he says.

by Laura Rosen Cohen

Photograph by Michelle Gibson