The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The Arab world is not ready for complacency

This commentary was contributed by friend of the blog Dr H.A. Hellyer, who is senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London.

One would think the whole 'Arabs aren't ready for democracy' shtick would get old at some point. But it doesn't. The virus of this strand of pseudo-intellectualism is an equal opportunity one, across the board, whether the carriers are politicians, diplomats, journalists or just your average taxi driver (that last one, not really; that’s just an additionally problematic way of understanding the region, but I digress).

When the claim of ‘they’re not ready’ comes from within the region, it's simply a way for autocrats, dictators and worse to justify their abuses and maltreatments. When it comes from outside of it, it's merely a new way of expressing a 'bigotry of low expectations', underpinned by a skewed and self-serving cultural relativism. Or, to put it bluntly: “what kind of standards can you really expect these kinds of people to uphold? I mean, after all, they are what they are…”

The Complacency of ‘Within’: Colonel Jessup is at the party, not just in Gitmo

We’ve seen that from rulers and officials from within the region, of course. To defend, excuse and minimise the seriousness of abuses they oversee or have responsibility for, they revert to this crude style of orientalism. They caricature their own people, so that their own problematic rule is justified. “Yes, we’re abusing our own people – and so what? This isn’t the West, and they’re not Westerners. We’re in a rough neighbourhood, we’re not all educated, and you need to understand what we are going through – the responsibilities we have – the challenges and problems we face – so leave us be.”

It reminds me so much of that scene in that 1992 movie, A Few Good Men, where Colonel Nathan Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, defends his ordering of an abuse of a soldier (Santiago) under his command:

Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines…You have the luxury of not knowing what I know; that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall!”

How many times have we heard the autocrats and their domestic apologists use the same logic. But the situation is worse. Because they’re not just talked about at the parties, like Colonel Jessup is talked about – they are at those parties, as honoured guests.

The Complacency of ‘Without’: ‘The natives said they aren’t ready, and they’re right!’

And when it comes to the advocates for these kinds of figures, who will do the party invites, write the raving reviews and the delirious declarations – they will just say, ‘well, they’re not ready for democracy. They even said so themselves, and they’re right.’

How convenient, of course – especially when we, as governments, want to sell weapons and arms to these autocrats, with no strings attached. When we, as writers and journalists, want to act as propagandists for the same. At so many levels, this skewed ‘cultural relativism’ is deployed, time and again. It has nothing to do with respect for difference and pluralism, and everything to do with shirking basic human responsibilities.

Pragmatism isn’t evil. To minimise further damage to regional stability, to ensure lives are saved rather than slaughtered by the likes of ISIS and worse; sometimes, it is necessary to work with unsavoury characters. But there is a clear difference between engaging in order to reduce harm and increase benefit – and engaging because we essentially don’t care about anything more than the bottom line.

So, let us be frank – the ‘not ready’ argument is little more than a 21st century version of that old ‘civilising mission’ rhetoric that underpinned the colonialist endeavour. It is just a shallow and thinly disguised regurgitation to justify our complacency, our lack of care, our rank disinterest in the well-being of the peoples of this region, all the while we seek to benefit ourselves by them.

Has anywhere ever been ‘ready’? No: we all makes mistakes and we all learn

But here's the truth of it - has there ever been a place that has been 'ready' for 'democracy'? Or, let's break it down, to avoid the tired old tool of ‘democracy is a Western, imperialist, non-universal way of governing’. Indeed, the Arab world ought to be able to produce its own indigenous ways of governing, without fetishizing the modern nation-state model. So, let’s ask: has any place in the world – in human history – been ‘ready’ for respecting the fundamental rights of all, while choosing their representatives openly and freely?

No, of course not. Was the United States 'ready', when it started out with slavery, and systematic exploitation of Africans on its soil for centuries? Was it ‘ready’ for democracy, when it elected a man who is daily chipping away at its fundamentals? Was the UK ‘ready’, as we colonised much of the known world? Is the United Kingdom 'ready', when we voted 'yes' in a referendum that is leading us to economic turmoil, a referendum tainted by xenophobic memes? Was Europe ‘ready’, as we perpetrated the Holocaust? Is Europe 'ready', when the bigoted populism of the far-right is the fresh new game in town?

No, there's no place that is 'ready'. We all learn – by being given chances, and opportunities, and options. We might all make mistakes, and grievous ones at that. We might make mistakes with Islamists; with anti-Islamists; with right-wingers; with left-wingers; across the board. But they will be our mistakes, and no one else's.

We all have the right to have that chance: stand for that, or be silent We all have the right to have that chance - and if the comfortable, privileged few within these lands of the Arab world want to disavow their own right to have that chance, that's their choice. But they do not have the right to negate that choice for the rest.

For those of us outside of the Arab world, who find it easy to accept the supercilious worldview of these few; those of us who are comfortable in accepting the 'barbaric Arabs who need a strong man to control them’, because it makes it easier to ingratiate the autocrats... well. You ought not to be surprised when you're called out on it.

And when you are called out – don’t act so wounded. Long after your emotional bruises are healed, there will be people fighting & struggling; pushing & pulling; to fight the good fight & to hold back the tide, to hold the line & to keep the faith. All to make a difference; all while you're back on your comfortable couch in suburbia, pontificating about these ‘objects’ of discussions. They’re not objects – they’re human beings, with their own dreams and the right to have those dreams.

And when you finally start to ponder, ponder this: if your assertion really is that this region is not 'ready', then explain why so many in 2011 insisted - nay, they revolted - in order to have a chance to say 'no: we demand the right to choose; and to be treated as human beings.' What, because they are tired, six years later, exhausted and healing, they are suddenly domesticated pets? Is your view so shallow, your perspective so narrow, your outlook so self-serving?

If you would not stand with them, that's fine. It's your choice. It would be a credit to you if you did, and an honour you would earn nowhere else. But if you wouldn't, then respect their struggle, admire their sacrifice, and remain silent, without implicitly or explicitly admiring their oppressors. Decency demands no less.

A visiting professor at the Centre for the Advanced Study of Islam, Science and Civilisation in Kuala Lumpur, Hellyer is the author of several books including A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond RevoltMuslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans and the forthcoming A Sublime Path: the Way of the Sages of Makka. You can follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

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