Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for July 10th, 2009

Back to President Obama’s Cairo University speech. There were many good things in it, not least the frank acknowledgment of America’s failure to live up to the values it proclaims to the world. Humility in a politician is so rare that even the most grudging admission of wrongdoing is worth highlighting. And Obama’s admissions were not in the least grudging. Of course, humility is easier when it is the mendacity of the previous administration one is recounting; and one can only hope that Obama will retain the same humility and sincerity when his leadership is truly tested. In the meantime, he deserves widespread support for his bold attempts to reduce nuclear stockpiles and cut back on greenhouse emissions.

In addressing the disparate “Muslim world” from Egypt, it was disappointing that he did not take the opportunity to call for democracy and respect for human rights in his host country. The Mubarak regime is more despotic than successive Iranian governments have been, yet it is regarded as a loyal American ally. So is Saudi Arabia, another Muslim country over which Obama drew a veil. The repressive Wahabi brand of Saudi Islam is propagated around the world to the deep dismay of many tolerant Muslims. And while he called for an independent Palestinian state, just as Bush did, there was no discussion of whether a “Jewish state” was any different in conception to a “Muslim state” or whether it too was incompatible with the democratic freedoms that American people prized.

Obama held up Malaysia and Dubai as examples of progress that Muslim-majority states that the rest of the “Muslim world” should follow. This was unfortunate, in my opinion. Malaysia may boast First World amenities, but it is one of the most “racist” states in the world. Its constitution enshrines open discrimination against non-Malays. The latter are also defined as Muslims and they lose their civic rights if they convert to another religious faith. Moreover, governments since that of Mahathir Mohammed have routinely used the notorious Internal Security Act to muzzle all political dissent and imprison critics. This situation is rarely reported in the Western media, and elicits little criticism from US and European governments simply because Malaysia is an important trading partner.

As for Dubai, to begin with it is a city not a country; and a city comprising 85% expatriates. I was in Dubai last month and much of it reminded me of the biblical tower of Babel. The skyline is dotted with unfinished office towers and empty cranes, testifying to the hugely debt-financed development of the city. It is a place that speaks of insecure egos: the would-be tallest building in the world, the would-be biggest shopping mall in the world, the would-be greatest financial centre in the world, artificial ski slopes, islands and golf courses, and seven-star hotels for the playboys of the Middle East and South Asia. Dubai is a place for making money, which is not a bad thing in itself, but also for flaunting how much money you make. In this it is not unique.

Also, the money-making takes place in a highly stratified, almost apartheid-like, society. At the top of the social pyramid are the relatives of the Arab sheikhs, in their palatial homes and fleets of luxury vehicles. Next come the American and British executives of banks and corporations who have their own private enclaves where they socialise with each other. Below them are the rich Indian and Pakistani businessmen, and lower down are scores of Filipinos and other Asians who do the humdrum jobs in airports, shops, and offices. At the bottom are the tens of thousands of cheap migrant labour from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, employed mostly in the construction industry and housed in conditions that some human rights groups have complained are tantamount to torture.

Finally, we cannot separate history, geopolitics and theology in any meaningful discussion of “Islam and democracy” in the Middle East (or elsewhere). The ordinary people of the Middle East have suffered for decades as a result of the Western world=s (and recently, China=s) insatiable appetite for oil. Oil company executive and investors have propped up their despotic rulers and made enormous profit in the process. The oil industry has so ravaged the planet that global warming threatens to turn the Middle East and North Africa into a vast desert, with nations turning on each other in battles for water. It is unlikely, therefore, that either Islamist militancy or terrorist recruitment will wane in the foreseeable future.



July 2009