4/2011

The Power of Human Dignity

 

It is widely understood that when the conflict between the West and Islamic extremism is over there will be no ‘signing ceremony’ or victory parade. Even if Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda disappeared from the face of the earth tomorrow it would not bring an end to the hostilities. For the ‘idea’ of jihad lives on like a virus in our digital age - and an idea can never be destroyed entirely.

We can score necessary tactical victories by killing and arresting those who would kill innocents. But how can we achieve strategic victory over an idea? A couple of things will need to happen: The Muslim world and modernity will need to come to terms with one another, as will the Muslim world and democracy. And recent history has taught us that direct intervention by the West in an effort to speed this harmonization can be rather counterproductive.

The only ones who can bring about change to the Muslim world are Muslims themselves – the overwhelming majority of which are moderate. And according to the Pew Research Center over sixty percent of the worlds Muslim population is under thirty. The digital age has allowed them to connect with the world and each other - even as their governments have tried to keep the ‘old order’ entrenched.

Thus arises a quandary for the United States. For the ‘old order’ in countries like Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia is; or was supported by the US. Not because of some evil intention, but out of perceived strategic necessity. The Middle East and greater Muslim world is a hard and complicated place. Tom Friedman once wrote that a soldier in Iraq told him that one of the things he learned during his tour of duty was that there are no ‘straight lines between two points in the Middle East – only broad curves’. The US might have prodded for political reforms from time to time, but it would never push. ‘Stability’ has always been seen as the most important element in a region awash with volatility.

However ‘stability’ in the Muslim world has led to human stagnation. High unemployment, corruption, poor education, and lack of basic freedoms have all contributed to the fire in the belly of the Muslim youth. And when the US or the West in general is seen as being supportive of certain regimes for the ‘sake of stability’- it provides fodder for those with extremist views. For in the youth of the Muslim world one can see the greatest hope for the future, but one can also see a fertile recruiting ground for Al Qaeda and their ilk.

In recent weeks we’ve seen the toppling of governments in Tunisia and Egypt, and eruptions in several other countries across the Muslim world. Not inspired by jihad, as Osama Bin Laden has always dreamed – but by a desire for freedom, universal human rights, and economic opportunity. The events in Egypt were especially important and powerful considering Egypt is the world’s most populous Arab nation. And because of its close ties to the US government, President Obama was among many in Washington who were captivated by the upheaval. After 30 years in power, and 18 days of protests - Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down. This is part of what President Obama had to say on the evening of Mubarak’s departure:

The United States will continue to be a friend and partner to Egypt. We stand ready to provide whatever assistance is necessary - and asked for - to pursue a credible transition to a democracy. I’m also confident that the same ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit that the young people of Egypt have shown in recent days can be harnessed to create new opportunity - jobs and businesses that allow the extraordinary potential of this generation to take flight. And I know that a democratic Egypt can advance its role of responsible leadership not only in the region - but around the world.

Egypt has played a pivotal role in human history for over 6,000 years. But over the last few weeks, the wheel of history turned at a blinding pace as the Egyptian people demanded their universal rights.

We saw mothers and fathers carrying their children on their shoulders to show them what true freedom might look like.

We saw a young Egyptian say, ‘For the first time in my life, I really count. My voice is heard. Even though I’m only one person, this is the way real democracy works’.

We saw protesters chant ‘Selmiyya, selmiyya’ – ‘We are peaceful’ - again and again.

We saw a military that would not fire bullets at the people they were sworn to protect.

And we saw doctors and nurses rushing into the streets to care for those who were wounded, volunteers checking protesters to ensure that they were unarmed.

We saw people of faith praying together and chanting – ‘Muslims, Christians, we are one.’  And though we know that the strains between faiths still divide too many in this world and no single event will close that chasm immediately, these scenes remind us that we need not be defined by our differences. We can be defined by the common humanity that we share.

And above all, we saw a new generation emerge - a generation that uses their own creativity and talent and technology to call for a government that represented their hopes and not their fears - a government that is responsive to their boundless aspirations. One Egyptian put it simply: Most people have discovered in the last few days…that they are worth something, and this cannot be taken away from them anymore, ever.

This is the power of human dignity, and it can never be denied. Egyptians have inspired us, and they’ve done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained through violence. For in Egypt, it was the moral force of nonviolence - not terrorism, not mindless killing - but nonviolence, moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.

The ‘power of human dignity’ is probably the greatest weapon that can be brought to bear against Islamic extremism. It’s a weapon that needs no bullets, pilots, or explosives. It can begin to drain away the resentment and the anger that extremists feed on. It can give a young person the lust for life instead of being lured into a culture of death. A young man with a decent job, personal freedom, and an active social life in a vibrant democratic society is far less likely to be seduced by internet videos of suicide bombers, beheadings, and IED explosions. The tumult going on right now is the first step in a long, long journey – a journey that will end with the realization of dignity for the Muslim world. And I believe with that realization will come strategic victory over Islamic extremism. As was said before, the weapon that is the ‘power of human dignity’ needs no bullets or explosives. However there is one thing it most definitely requires; and that’s patience.

Some have put forward the idea that the West should be wary of a transition to Muslim democracy – because the people who get elected may be worse than the dictators they replace. Basically saying the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. Thus some have questioned what will happen if the Muslim Brotherhood ever came to power in Egypt. However, I believe that the main concern should be about the elections themselves; not who wins them. As long as there are free and fair elections happening every couple of years, the people will have their voices heard. And if the Muslim Brotherhood (or another Islamic organization) wins the election - let them govern. Let them pave the roads, pick up the trash, grow the economy, and educate their youth. If they choose to take their country in the opposite direction – let them do it. In the short term could it get messy and complicated, and give the US some major foreign policy headaches – of course it could. But in the long-term strategic sense, the outcome should be immensely positive for the West and the greater Muslim world.

One of the ironic things about all this is that George W. Bush actually understood how essential Muslim freedom / democracy was to victory over Islamic extremism. Yet like most things with Bush – he knew exactly where he wanted to go, but had no idea how to get there. Bush subscribed to the belief that by ‘installing’ democracy in Iraq, the US could in turn spread democracy throughout the Muslim world. This thinking was flawed for many reasons; one being the fact that the Iraqi people didn’t own the change that was happening to their country (nor were they ready for it). And the fact that the ‘power of human dignity’ can’t flourish in a populous that resides under an occupying power. Especially when the occupying power allows the country it’s supposed to be helping devolve into chaos, anarchy, ethnic cleansing, and civil war. The mess that ensued from the invasion wasn’t exactly a great selling point for rapid American backed regime change.

From the beginning of the Iraq War it was all about the US and it’s intentions; not about the aspirations of the Iraqi people. The focus was on the US trying to impose it’s will on an Arab / Muslim nation – not an emerging democratic society. The movements going on in the Muslim world today are the complete opposite. The focus is on the people and their desires for a better future – it’s about them. It’s not about the US or the West, and that’s the way it should be. Even though the situation might look uncertain in the short term, we should keep the long term always in our minds. For the steady march towards dignity for the Muslim world is also the steady march towards strategic victory over Islamic extremists. It will take time, but we must resist the urge to try and shape every event to our liking. Or as Andrew Sullivan recently put it on The Daily Dish:

‘We’ve finally figured out how to help democracy in the Arab world: get out of the way and nudge quietly from a distance’.

 

Afterword:

Of course not soon after this was written, President Obama decided that it was necessary for the US to intervene militarily in the rebellion / civil war in Libya. Since NATO, the UN, and the Arab League supported the action - it was hardly comparable to the Iraq War. The president said the action was born from a sense of moral necessity – the notion that the US could not stand idly by as a dictator massacred his own people. The president also said that there would be no ‘boots on the ground’ in Libya. As it turns out, there may not be ‘boots’ on the ground; but CIA wingtips instead.

Was this the right moral thing to do? Yes it was. Did Libya’s oil supply play into the decision? Of course it did. A no–fly zone with covert action is a far cry from an all out invasion. And Gaddafi is one dictator who really has no allies whatsoever. This (along with the international umbrella that the action falls under) will probably help shelter the US from blame for any unforeseen consequences. However, what happens when the no-fly zone is established? Does the US force Gaddafi out or not? Will it be another post Gulf War Iraq where part of the country is protected by Western fighter planes for the next decade? The only thing worse than not acting is acting by half measure. I’m afraid ‘Now what?’ may be a common phrase heard in the weeks ahead.

Whatever the case, no matter how intelligent or forward thinking a president is, it’s interesting how the old paradigms of American foreign policy remain entrenched. One can almost see Obama in the Oval Office reciting Al Pacino’s famous line from Godfather III:

‘Just when I thought I was out – they pull me back in!’

And so it goes; once again the US is directly involved. Hopefully the outcome will be one of success, not the failure of good intentions.