Democracy or Human Rights: an unexpected and uneasy choice

Thinking of recent events in Tunis and Cairo, I can’t help thinking of one of my journalism students in Baghdad: Thiba. She, like others I know in Beirut, Istanbul, Casablanca, and Amman, is a modern, secular young woman. Thiba is a Muslim who considers her faith, and how she chooses to exercise it, a matter of personal choice. But she lives in the capital of Iraq. A place that, in many respects, has turned into a theocracy in a way that would make the mollahs in Tehran reminisce of the good old days. There are little personal choices left for Thiba. She does not belong to the rich, happy few that has the means to escape: so for her, conformity, peer pressure, and social conservatism masquerading as true religion dictate public life now. This was quite different under Saddam.

In the West, we often have a somewhat monolithic view of the Near East. We tend to think of it as one large traditional, pious society where everyone is content to follow the rule of Islam – or rather the reactionary, male-centered version that governmental and religious authorities choose to enforce. We tend to overlook the very real cultural war that is going on all through the region, between religious and cultural traditionalists on one hand, and liberal, secular, free-thinking individuals on the other. In some places this cultural war is palpable. In others, it is a silent war that seems all but lost to the modernists.

When it comes to the issue of democracy versus human rights, liberals and minorities in the Near East – whether Muslim or Christian, men or women – often face a hard choice. Under authoritarian rule, their social rights and privileges are to some degree respected. Although many dictators in the Near East came to adopt religious fervor as an integral part of their governing ideology in recent decades – along with nationalism and anti-Zionism – the secular Muslim elite and ethnic minorities feel protected from Islamist zealots, and Christians feel shielded from persecution by the other People of the Book. If you would ask a modern, progressive inhabitant of Cairo – someone that might have a world outlook surprisingly similar to yours in London or Amsterdam – whether he prefers democracy over Mubarak, you might be in for a very uneasy answer. It isn’t that he particularly likes Mubarak. But it’s still better than the potential alternative.

Many secularists in the Middle East have made a bargain: they have essentially given up on their political rights – including their right to vote in free and fair elections, a transparent government and an independent judiciary – in order to safeguard their social rights. On a rational level, they do see that true democracy would bring them both political and social freedom; but they find it hard to see that this stage of true democracy would ever be reached, once a newly installed fledgling democracy has opened the floodgates to the Islamists. This is the dilemma that many in Tunesia  – and other countries across the globe  – now face, and it partly explains the current stand-off in Tunis between those that want a smooth transition and those that fight for radical, swift, democratic change.

When it comes to our foreign policies, we in the West often make the wrong choices. We either support a nasty dictator, or we support those that claim to bring true democracy to their country, but often strand – willingly, or unwillingly – in some imperfect version of it that only brings more corruption and new forms of oppression. We should start to support the lone individuals that truly share with us modern values about freedom, equality, human rights.