Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Soft bigotry

It isn't as obscene as Daniel Ortega's reported comments in Nicaragua, that Gadaffi '"is again waging a great battle" to defend the unity of his nation', but the slow, equivocal and hesitant response by Western governments to the risings in the Middle East has disappointed. Today the main political row is about whether the government has acted quickly enough to get British nationals out of Libya, rather than the failure to apply sanctions and enforce a no-fly zone as the anti-Gaddafi forces are calling for.

In addition, the welcome given to the successful revolutions has hardly been ecstatic. This isn't just because the overturned regimes were, embarrassingly, strong allies and reliable customers for the weapons that they used to keep their people downtrodden, there is also a note of caution about what comes next. It seemed that every news broadcast I watched during the Egyptian revolution raised the question as to whether this was to pave the way for an Islamic state (ignoring the demonstrations against just such a state in Iran), despite the vehement declarations of the protesters that this was not the case. Now the discussion is more about the danger of power vacuums. These, of course, were some of the justifications for support that the dictatorships offered the West - it is us or something worse. Although, looking at the events in Libya, you have to wonder what on earth could be worse. Gadaffi's rehabilitation over recent years has been one of the most odious pieces of Realpolitik I can recall.

So why should this be? In this piece Issandr El Amrani resurrects a wonderful phrase, "the soft bigotry of lowered expectations", to explain the West's uncertainty.
For several decades, there has been a soft bigotry of lowered expectations in the west and among Arab elites about the Arab world. The prevalent thinking about this region of over 300 million souls is that it offered no fertile ground for democracy, either because democracy risked bringing political forces hostile to western interests or because democracy is not a value that has much currency in the region.
The phrase was originally used in an educational context. I recognise precisely what it describes and the resultant damage to the confidence of some of the amazing people I have taught in adult education, where our job was one of reconstruction and encouragement. I expected wonderful things from my students and was rarely disappointed. Shouldn't we be feeling the same about the new opposition to the vile kleptocratic dictatorships that litter the Middle East? Shouldn't these democratic risings, these demands for freedom, be unalloyed good news? Isn't it possible to argue that the protests are evidence of the defeat of theocracy in many parts of the Arab world, its marginalisation and its irrelevance to the aspirations of the people?

Of course there are real dangers of the revolutions being betrayed, though that is less likely if more international support is forthcoming. But El Amrani puts it beautifully:
Libyans are not condemned to be ruled by Gaddafis for eternity; Moroccans do not have to settle for an absolute monarchy, no matter how enlightened. Encouraged by their neighbours' example, they have higher expectations for their future, and so should you.


Terry Glavin said...

Another great one, Peter.

That's twice in a couple days you've led me to something excellent as well.

It's fucking snowing here mind.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Yep, what Terry sez. Although re the slowness of response: just heard an interview with an ex-Mossad chief, now a popular talking head: he explains the slowness by the necessity to get out the citizens first safely. Knowing what Muammar is able to perpetrate, it seems like a reasonable concern.