By Sharmine Narwani – al-akhbar
Freedom and democracy. How I have come to loathe this phrase. Two-lofty-words-and-a-conjunction bandied around by handmaidens of Empire: verbal grenades that can gut entire nations. When I hear “freedom and democracy” I instinctively look for cover – just as “Allahu Akbar” yelled loudly enough can now make Arabs and Muslims hit the ground fast.
“Freedom and democracy” is the battle cry for every single western regime-change operation I can remember. Operations that leave innocent civilians dead, cities destroyed – anarchy, corruption and criminality in their wake.
In the Middle East, these are dangerous words that have filtered into our vocabulary. People here, intoxicated with their faux revolutions, now spout this silly foreign phrase with the same shrill, mad-eyed, self-righteous conviction as do Americans before they bomb us into ‘freedom.’
But Arabs and Muslims should dig deep into their recent memory:
The first words uttered by you as you rose up against your US-backed dictators were “honor and dignity” – not “freedom and democracy.” How did that fact get lost in the mayhem to follow?
And why on earth would this distinction make any difference?
For one, ‘freedom and democracy’ has always suggested western-style standards for governance and social liberties alien to the Mideast. We’re just not there yet – not on those terms anyway – and we’re not likely to be. Many regional states are just entering the nascent phase of what will undoubtedly be a rocky political evolutionary process – with each nation creating wholly indigenous models of governance, as unique as their individual cultures and histories. What if some towns would like their political process determined by an old-fashioned cockfight? What if a strongman is the only way to prevent the disintegration of a nation-state or the outbreak of ethnic and sectarian carnage? What if people genuinely don’t give a toss about gay and lesbian rights, preferring – imagine that – to find employment and feed their kids first? Women’s suffrage? Gender-integrated football stadiums? Childcare in the workplace? Worker’s rights? Important stuff, but… Feed. Child. First.
And then there’s that other unfortunate association: freedom and democracy brings with it a cornucopia of weapons, military bases, bombs hailing from skies heaving with US-made drones, financial assistance tied to all shades of silliness.
Freedom and democracy is extremely discerning. It seems to altogether bypass friendly dictatorships, only landing with uncanny accuracy on the heads of those opposed to Empire – civilians included.
And it is a foreign-imposed concept, presupposing, for instance, that elections are all-important. Except, even Empire doesn’t believe that. Why else dismiss Palestinian elections with a Hamas victor, or Iranian elections when the candidate doesn’t suit, or Russian parliamentary ones that ‘smack’ of fraud?
Yet Empire’s silence is deafening when a friendly monarch passes the mantle to his son, when a client state doesn’t care about popular legitimacy, when a military ally with big budgets for US-made weapons rejects elections outright.
Honor and dignity is none of those things. It doesn’t mean elections, it doesn’t mean individual rights. It is unselfish and broad – it understands what is right, what is important, what is a priority. It will wait a bit longer for jobs, stability, electricity, but it demands one immediate correction: the state must recognize and act upon popular will.
What’s the difference you still say?
Freedom-and-democracy embraces US-Israeli hegemony and GCC petrodollars. Honor-and-dignity does not.
Freedom-and-democracy thinks there are “processes” to remedy the colonization of Palestinian land. Honor-and-dignity knows there is only one: decolonization.
Freedom-and-democracy seeks to vilify, marginalize and criminalize groups, sects and nations in the Middle East. Honor-and-dignity seeks collaboration and harmonious relations, even among those marked by differences.
Freedom-and-democracy is governed by militarization – it seeks military bases, weaponizes its allies, draws red lines, makes threats, retaliates disproportionally, punishes with ease, targets the vulnerable. Honor-and-dignity believes in soft power, engagement and mediation with brothers.
Freedom-and-democracy has always supported dictatorship and brutality. Honor-and-dignity wants that to stop.
Freedom-and-democracy gives you a truckload of money in exchange for implementing a political, social and economic blueprint with the assistance of foreign advisors and NGOs. Honor-and-dignity is determined to learn from its own mistakes.
Freedom-and-democracy knows what’s best for you. Honor-and-dignity wants to decide for itself.
Freedom-and-democracy fears your independence – thinks you are “not ready” for it. Honor-and-dignity can’t stand still from wanting to taste it, lick it, embrace it, implement it.
Freedom-and-democracy violates your border, guns cocked. Honor-and-dignity knows it must shoot you dead or you will never learn.
Freedom-and-democracy thinks it is free and democratic. Honor-and-dignity notices an interesting trend: the more freedom-and-democracy talks about “freedom and democracy,” the more it legislates against freedoms and undermines democracy back home.
Real ‘freedom’ in the Middle East means honor and dignity. Real ‘democracy’ in the Middle East starts with honor and dignity. Arabs nailed it the first time around.
Honor-and-dignity doesn’t mean elections and governments that operate within the exact same geopolitical and economic parameters of yesterday. Honor-and-dignity means good governance in a just society under the rule of law based on consensus – homegrown, indigenous solutions that are unique to each country.
The new governments of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen don’t stand a chance – they operate within the old parameters that acknowledge western hegemony, GCC dominance in regional affairs, and the economics of disparity. They play with Israel and pretend Palestine does not exist. They vacillate between paralysis and aggression against the only Resistance this region has ever had. They thrive on yesterday’s divide-and-rule and have warped ideas about brotherhood. And they rig systems today to ensure their continued dominance tomorrow.
You cannot have honor and dignity with a dependent economy – it will hamper your independence. You cannot have honor and dignity with foreign military bases in your country – it will cripple your independence. You cannot have honor and dignity with a colonial state in your midst subverting all efforts at regional reconciliation, killing Arabs with impunity, wagging its tongue at your impotence – it will destroy your independence.
Please leave us be, FreedumbAndDemocrazy. If you don’t, Honor and Dignity will be forced to teach you the meaning of Consequence in a way it would rather not. Leave the Mideast to chart its own course, discover its own strengths and make its own mistakes. Do it now.
And take your conditional aid and military bases with you too.
About the Author
Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East, and a Senior Associate at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in both journalism and Mideast studies. Follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.