Majid Khadduri was a member of the Baghdad PEN centre from the 1930s onwards, and became the Director of Iraqi PEN in 1951.
Khadduri was to become a key global figure in the study of International Relations and the politics of the Middle East, with an academic career spanning seventy years. After studying at the American University in Lebanon, he returned to his birthplace in Mosul in 1932 before going to live in Baghdad where he joined the Iraqi PEN organisation. He would continue to be a member of Baghdad PEN for many years, and became its director in the 1950s. From the early 1940s he was an authoritative figure in international politics, during 1940-1941 preparing the White Book report used by the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs in negotiation with Britain, and in 1945 becoming the Iraqi delegate to the founding of the United Nations, working on the Trusteeship Committee and the Regional Arrangements Committee. He would go on to be a key thinker on Islamic history and in the emerging academic field of international relations.
At the 1936 Buenos Aries PEN Congress, at the age of 27, he took to the floor to participate in a debate about literature’s relationship to politics and human rights, a debate in which Jacques Maritain also featured prominently. Khadduri argued that there was an intellectual ‘crisis’ at the current time, a crisis that the PEN organisation itself would be well advised to address.
Khadduri identified two key aspects of this crisis. First, he criticised the claim that art is important for its own sake. Second, he attacked those who propagate ideas that serve the interests of a vested class. The masses, he declared, are left out of both of these approaches to knowledge. Their identification with ‘movements of a reactionary character’, according to Khadduri, is understandable when ‘we publicly and emphatically declare that we think and write, that is, that we apply our intelligence just for the sake of thinking and writing’.
His second main contribution was to argue that intellectuals needed to strip bare their prejudicial categories that filter the world. The writer, he declared, should speak the truth, and recoil from letting their intelligence be poisoned with ‘egoistic nationalism, sectarianism, or racial differences.’ It is only when intellectuals speak pragmatically and without prejudice that they will restore the prestige of intelligence. Khadduri’s intervention was greeted with ‘loud applause’ from the audience.
He would go on to write a number of influential essays and books on human rights, including his influential essay of 1946, ‘Human Rights in Islam’. Here he argued that human rights were both necessary in the new world order; but he also identified the difficulties faced by Islamic countries in adapting the Koran, which he called their ‘fixed bill of rights’ to the commands of Universal rights. In one of his first books, War and Peace in the Law of Islam which was published in England in 1941, and then republished in an expanded version in 1955, he elaborated on the specific problems faced by Islamic nations in adapting to the United Nations and Universal rights. Modern Islamic states, in order to enter the United Nations, have had to adapt their understanding of Islamic law to an existing system of foreign relations and international co-operation. Their participation ‘in promoting stable world order and international co-operation’ has required a significant amount of adaptation.
Khadduri’s early work on this, at a time when human rights were being discussed and reconceived on an international level through organisations such as the UN, offered a crucial voice for the Arab world within the unfolding international human rights debate.