In ten days, I will be returning to Portugal to defend my thesis. I have 120 minutes to demonstrate why Muslims – both in the West and around the world – are not allergic to the concepts of democracy, human rights, and freedom.
The task at hand: convince a panel of five professors and international relations scholars that the Muslim world and the West are not clashing.
Surely, I am prepared for the criticisms: the treatment of citizens in Iran and Saudi Arabia (and elsewhere in the Middle East), the violent examples of religious fundamentalism trumping reason in countries of the West, the Burqa bans sweeping across Western Europe, the mosque controversies in America, and the persistent voices of Canadian, American, and European academics promoting a clash of civilizations.
All of the above merit some attention and concern, but to ignore or downplay what is happening today in Egypt (and across the region) is an affront to intelligent thinking. And to those who believe that the only choice in Egypt right now is the option between stability (at the hands of autocratic rule) and democracy (risking relative peace in the region), please give your head a shake. Or, alternatively, consult the annals of politics in the Middle East and North Africa.
The truth is: these oppressive regimes have been substantially funded by Western governments for decades. Egypt’s $1.6 billion per year “American aid package” is not the only example. Just think about current day Saudi Arabia and its freshly signed $60 billion arms deal with why yes, the United States of America.
For us, in the West, to criticize the Muslim world for their inability to provide a decent standard of life to their citizens without considering our historic and present influence is simply nonsense.
Never in my lifetime has the concept of universalism (the belief in social justice, dignity, and respect for all) been so prevalently on display. Unfortunately, never in my lifetime has Western hypocrisy been so visible as well.
The cries are clear. Muslim citizens are asking for freedom, dignity, economic justice, human rights, and dare I say democracy? The reaction from the West has been divided and ultimately inadequate. The dismal reactions from Canada and Israel, just to name two, quickly comes to mind. Sure, the leaders of these two democracies have publicly voiced their wish for political reform and freedom. But, if you examine their cautious language, it is clear that they favour continued stability over a transition to democracy in Egypt.
The fear is an Egypt that slips from relatively peaceful international relations to one in which a divided Muslim Brotherhood (or other strains of Islamic extremists) take power. The consequences, it is suggested, would be disastrous. Israel’s very existence would be threatened and increased tensions with the Western world would be heightened. Admittedly, these worries are very real, and I understand the international anxiety. But let us be honest with ourselves here. What does promoting and preserving stability really mean?
Does it mean supporting Taliban “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan when the enemy is Soviet communism? Or does stability mean the ongoing purchase of Saudi oil while their women continue to be subject to some of the worst human rights abuses in the world?
I am not suggesting that the West support a reckless and irresponsible political transition in Egypt. I am, however, defending the principle that the people of Egypt need the democratic opportunity to design their own future through the power of the ballot. And Egyptians need our help in order to make that a reality.
Once again, the West finds itself muddled in trying to “fix” the situation “over there”. Canada, Israel, the USA, and Europe should be unified in the quest to provide the opportunity for the voice of Egyptians to prevail. Supporting peace by propping up and funding moderate yet regressive regimes does not make you a defender of democracy. Unfortunately, this may be the reality Egyptians face in the near future.
This is why, in ten days when I am asked: if the clash of civilizations is not real, why is then that few Muslim countries have embraced democracy? It is here, where I will be quite confident to suggest that part of the answer is anchored in the fact that almost always, when given the opportunity to influence, countries that make up the West have historically, and still today, choose stability and security over democracy.
If we, in the West are serious about democratic values, freedom, and equality, this is yet another chance to show we actually really mean it.