What if the Arab world committed to human rights?
Photos of the Ukrainian protest remind us of Arab Spring squares, but we are used to the deaths of protesters
Ukraine is on the verge of a civil war. The situation these days is worse than just the fact that there are protests and divisions are deeper than a political dispute between an elected government and an opposition that wants to topple it. The cause is bigger than trends that want the country to remain within the Russian axis and trends that aspire Westwards. It’s a deep division that may religiously and ethnically divide this emerging democracy. Photos of the Ukrainian protest remind us of Arab Spring squares, but we are used to the deaths of protesters. They are shocked by the number of those killed, a number which may reach 80 by the time this article is published. This number shocks them and it’s shocked many Europeans but it’s still far from reaching numbers like those we witness every day in our countries. Why? It’s their commitment to the standards of human rights which does not allow for the shedding of blood of the sons of their countries. However, we still think it’s acceptable to shed this blood because it’s necessary for society’s safety and general security. We must admit that some of al-Hajjaj bin Yusuf al-Thaqafi still lives within Arab politicians. Al-Thaqafi was a controversial Arab administrator, politician and minister of defense during the Umayyad caliphate. Even an Arab intellectual, preacher, author or lecturer is willing to “sacrifice a small [number of people] so the rest can live.” This is how ousted Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi put it when he launched an initiative to protect Egyptian women’s rights.
I referred to Mursi to give an example because we live in an era where we choose whom to criticize and whom not to. Mursi is one of those we can criticize. He was also an elected president who came to revive the values of life, human rights and sanctity of blood. The paradox was that he made that famous statement. He is still being punished for it in the media although you can hear many others saying it these days. The logic behind that announcement is part of the fabric of our political intellect. Some of us say it silently when thinking of the hundreds or thousands killed, and some of us are even willing to utter it out loud because they think killing these people was necessary to serve the greater good.
If Bashar al-Assad emerges victorious, he would be insensitive enough to build a memorial for Syria’s martyrs and cry over those killed on his side and those killed among the rebels’ ranks. He would stand with his wife and children, wiping a tear that the camera managed to take a snap of and say: “They are all Syria’s sons even if they’ve been misled.” Then he will lay flowers on the memorial amidst the applause of those who once said: “Either Assad [in power] or we’ll burn the country down.” They will act as if what happened was the result of elections, and the president will thank both those who voted for him and those that did not. Yes, this is how the devolution of power takes place in our miserable world. This is how it has happened ever since Muawiyah (who established the Umayyad Dynasty of the caliphate) refused to make the oath of allegiance to Ali Bin Abi Taleb (the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Mohammad) and flashed his sword before him.
Two years ago, social media circles said there were calls to protest in Saudi Arabia. A date was scheduled and it was never known who was behind the call and whether it was real or a mere childish attempt to vent or a foreign conspiracy. But a famous preacher wanted to be patriotic so he demanded to crush the skulls of anyone who protests. No protests happened and no skulls were smashed - thank God. But if a protest did happen and if some skulls were crushed, then what sort of society would this be?
If Bashar al-Assad emerged victorious, he would be insensitive enough to build a memorial for Syria’s martyrs and cry over those killed on his side and those killed among the rebels’ ranksJamal Kashoggi
Dozens of Arab commentators and authors have rationalized their statements by referring to a quote attributed to British Prime Minister David Cameron: “Don’t [talk] to me about human rights when my country’s national security is under threat.” This is how they justified human rights’ violations in their countries. None of them bothered to apologize after it was confirmed that Cameron did not say that. And perhaps they even have the audacity to say: “It may be false but its meaning is true.” For three months now, Ukraine has been religiously and ethnically divided. The division there is not between supporters and opponents of the government. The division is over the country’s identity as some want it to be attached to Russia, the Soviet Union’s heritage and the Orthodox church and other liberal people dream that the country be part of a union. Opposition forces protested until they dared raid governmental headquarters and they won’t stop until the president is toppled. Meanwhile, there are daily confrontations between the police and protesters in which batons, tear gas, Molotov cocktails, drums, enthusiastic speeches, divided media and accusations that the opposition has foreign agendas are being used. The latter accusation was strengthened following the frank American support of the opposition. The opposition accuses the authority of hiring thugs and the authority accuses the opposition of terrorism. Photos emerging from there resemble photos of a battlefield.
Addressing the crisis
I was in Vienna attending a seminar that addresses this crisis. I asked the speakers - a Bulgarian, an American and a Russian - what would happen if former-President Yanukovich, supported by his ally Putin, the police and the army, ordered the dispersal of the protest? What if he did what Bashar al-Assad did when the Syrian revolution first erupted and opened fire on peaceful protesters killing 100 or 200 in one day? Their answer was this cannot happen and that the world and Europe would not accept this! But how come the world accepted this when it happened in our countries? Perhaps it accepted it because we accepted it and because we consider murdering 100 or 200 in one day to be acceptable.
Therefore, there must be a neutral movement amidst our many struggles - a movement that calls for reviving the culture of human rights and that harmonizes this with the push for democracy. An Austrian researcher wrote: “East Europe is witnessing the last round of the restructuring process and it must be carried out by respecting human rights. This will not happen without European sponsorship.” And I wrote: “And we’re still in round one and so far...how many Arabs have been killed from January 2011 until today?”
This article was first published in al-Hayat on Feb. 21, 2014.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.
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