February 28, 2017

Human Rights and Culture in the Contemporary Arab World

Contemporary Arab WorldStockholm. A l’invitation de l’institut de la Culture Arabe de Stockholm avec la coopération de l’ABF 21/05/2005

I would like to express my profound gratitude to the organizers for giving me the opportunity to meet you and to be your guest in this wonderful city.  It gives me great pleasure to speak to you today about a difficult enigma: The future of the Arab world.

 Last Tuesday aboard my flight from Amman, a colleague asked what I intended to speak about in Sweden.  Would I discuss the future of the Arab world?  And if so, would I touch on Iraq?  Only two days earlier, three distinguished reformers and members of the ACHR were sentenced to six, seven, and nine years of prison respectively.  The cases of Abdallah al-Hamed, Matrouk al-Faleh, and Ali Domini send the message that the promotion of human rights can be considered a crime against national security. No protest is heard from the American administration because business is business, petrol is petrol, terror is terror; American democracy is not necessarily in contradiction with arbitrary detention.

 With the globalization of the state of emergency since September 11, we have witnessed an incredible transformation.  Before this tragic event, we had to contend with state of emergency at the local level and martial law. Now, to that we must add the war against terror, a host of terrorism-related laws, and American-fueled pressure on the international ad hoc anti-terror alliance.

A neo-conservative reading of democracy is clearly evident in all of this.  Democracy-building via direct occupation has meant the generalization of violence, a civil society increasingly identified with sectarian ideals, and corruption as a way of life.   From the first day of the Anglo-American occupation, the greatest casualty after human lives has been that of Culture: the damage is incalculable.  In the Baghdad National Library, some one million books were burnt, including early editions of Arabian Nights, mathematical treatises by Omar Khayyam, and tracts by the philosophers Avicenna and Averroes.  The Venezuelan writer Fernando Báez has drawn attention to initial reports indicating the disappearance of over 170,000 important cultural items, including 14,000 archeological artifacts of which some 25 were classified as extremely significant. An amnesty for the looters led to the recovery of around 3,500 items according to U.S. colonel Matthew Bogdanos who headed an investigation into the looting.

In addition to the National Museum and the National Library, the al-Awqaf library, with its more than 5,000 Islamic manuscripts and university library collections – notably that of Bayt al-Hikma – was hard hit.  In total, not less than 10 million documents have been lost in Iraq in what Báez has called “the biggest cultural disaster since the descendants of Genghis Khan destroyed Baghdad in 1258.”

The destruction of Iraqi memory is carried out in parallel to the destruction of three principal freedoms in the Arab countries: freedom of expression, association, and organization.  The “Press Law” in many Arab countries represents a modern-day Inquisition, helping the State to maintain a “black hole” when it comes to communication of information.  The “Press Law” and the “Exceptional Law” combined form a veritable armada of repression.  The old school can no longer provide answers to the challenges of our time; the formula of the law of counterterrorism has filled the void.   With a common but expansive definition of terrorism, the sky is legally the limit.  The most recent draft of Bahrain’s anti-terror law (modeled on Qatar’s which itself mirrors Egyptian terror legislation) reads as follows:

Article one: As regards the implementation of the provisions of this law, terrorism shall refer to any act, regardless of motive or purpose, for which the perpetrator, whether acting individually or collectively, resorts to the use of force, violence, threats, or fear to disable the provisions of the constitution, laws, and/or rules; to disrupt the public order; to expose to danger the safety and security of the kingdom; or to undermine national unity or the security of the international community.  Terrorism shall also refer to any act that causes people fear or harm, endangers life, liberty, or security; damages the environment, the public health, and/or the national economy; or that endangers institutions, businesses, and public and private assets through occupying or causing damage to them or in otherwise preventing or obstructing the authorities from carrying out their duties.

The culture of the state of emergency is a culture of emergency; this horrible environment spares no one.  Do not be surprised to find many neo-liberals calling for the prohibition of political parties or the limitation of press freedoms such as was seen when one of Saddam’s former henchmen, now an Iraqi delegate to UNESCO, called for the closure of the Aljazeera, Alalam, and Al-manar news bureaus in Iraq. Transatlantic Society (sic) is trying to convert the European Commission to its ideals.  How can we speak of freedom of expression if violence is the only vehicle of expression in these countries?

 In Syria, you can be arrested for writing an article, giving a lecture, or receiving a message in a web forum.  Repression does not discriminate: Kurdish Party supporters, members of civil society groups, political exiles, and even the vice-president of a legal study center – all get the same treatment from the misguided security forces.  In Tunisia, Mohamed Abbou has been sentenced to three and half years in prison for having compared Bin Ali to a famous man of peace (Ariel Sharon).  All of this inspires pessimism and a sense of woe.   Today it seems that societies, States, and international decisionmakers have carte blanche to carry out their respective agendas.  To counter this trend, those who reject government and foreign intervention are endeavoring to forge democratic solutions based on their own experiences.

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