The West cannot afford to be the global village idiot

The West is seemingly losing the capacity to truly listen to others – particularly when it comes to Middle East dictatorships.

Rouhani at Asia Society forum 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Keith Bedford)
Rouhani at Asia Society forum 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Keith Bedford)
Western technology and brainpower have ensured we are just a click away from the rest of the world.
But in perfecting the ability to broadcast, the West is seemingly losing the capacity to truly listen to others – particularly when it comes to Middle East dictatorships.
Western leaders nobly repeat the mantra of democracy and liberty. Yet, when the rulers of oppressive regimes repeat the very same concepts back to us, it is routinely regarded as a sure sign of their agreement. Subsequently, everyday autocratic repression in Egypt, Syria and now Iran is all too often treated as interfering “white noise” to the sweet rhetoric of progress. Now more than ever, such confusion must be replaced with clarity.
Western delusion over Middle Eastern pretentions of democracy is nothing new. Although initial hopes were high, the Arab Spring has surely shattered any illusions that the region stands at the dawn of a new age of freedom. President Barack Obama eagerly proclaimed hopes of “genuine democracy” in Egypt following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, lapping up initial talk of real reform. When free elections ensued, they proved to be a mirage, instead paving the way for an attempted Islamist power grab. A return to military repression soon followed. In Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring, stability hangs in the balance following opposition assassinations and government resignations.
And of course in Syria, the blood-letting continues unabated.
Let us not forget that as recently as 2011, Hillary Clinton, secretary of state at the time, suggested that President Bashar Assad was a “reformer.” This is the same Assad who was feted at Downing Street and granted an audience with Queen Elizabeth in 2002 – his stint studying ophthalmology at a London university had been considered a virtual guarantee that Assad would shun his family’s taste for violent rule.
It is no wonder that many in the West go weak at the knees at the very mention of “democracy,” “reform” and “progress” in the Middle East. After all, the region has become a byword for strife, violence and intractable conflict. Who would not want to think that the tide is turning? However, without a dose of reality, such optimism is mere fantasy. The truth is that the Middle East is not 1989 Eastern Europe, where democracy was the only realistic alternative to Communist rule. Czechoslovakia could point to a healthy democracy just 50 years prior to its “velvet revolution” while East Germans had spent decades literally peering over the wall at democracy in action next door.
By contrast, when Mubarak fell in Egypt, and should Assad be defeated in Syria, democracy is just one of many possible shades of government which may emerge. For most Middle East countries, colonialism, monarchic despotism and nationalistic dictatorship are its historic reference points.
Democracy remains by and large a distant concept, both literally and figuratively.
That is not to say that the historic absence of political freedom precludes democracy ever taking root in the Middle East. However, Western minds must acknowledge that for large swathes of this region, enthusiasm for the “modern fad” of democracy is unquestionably trumped by deep-rooted ancient loyalties.
For example, Assad’s flirtation with meritocratic Western education did nothing to dent his unwavering commitment to maintain minority Alawite rule using any means possible. In Egypt, democracy and equality for all remains a fanciful notion with many Egyptians seemingly more concerned with the advancement of Islamist rule on the one hand or the preservation of military benevolence on the other.
THROUGHOUT THE wider region, alliances are forged based on tribal Sunni and Shi’ite fidelity rather than values-based or economic allegiances.
In the West, these loyalties can be difficult to fathom.
Western citizens are bound by a social contract of common principles which renders ethnicity, race and religion little more than individual quirks – so much so that European national borders have been all but eroded. Where democracy, freedom and equality bind Western society, deep-seated communal and religious bonds remain king in the Middle East.
All of which brings us to the rapprochement in the offing between the West and Iran. A conflictweary West is understandably keen to embrace the overtures of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. Utilizing the same seductive rhetoric which raised hopes towards the start of the Arab Spring, Rouhani’s talk of “reform,” “change” and “hope” has predictably pricked up Western ears.
His time as a post-graduate student in Scotland has been cited as evidence of a liberal outlook.
Rouhani has even used the modern-day proof of progress, Twitter, to make his case (of course social networks remain blocked for ordinary Iranians).
More importantly, Rouhani’s attempt to allure the West must not be allowed to obscure the essence of his political being. Having spent 11 years as Iran’s National Security Adviser and two as Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Rouhani’s career is dedicated to serving Tehran’s strict dictatorship.
His loyalty is unquestionably deeply rooted in a regime which prides itself on religious and ideological opposition to the West. It is a regime in which freedom and liberal equality are viewed as threats, not aspirations.
Appropriating the reassuring language of progress, Middle Eastern dictators have time and again adeptly elicited Western hopes of genuine change. Iran’s leaders are just the latest to pay lip-service to progress. However, of all the pretenders to reform, Tehran’s nuclear ambitions pose the most potent threat to regional and indeed global security. As such, those Western leaders hoping for a new age of Iranian detente must look beyond the enticing rhetoric and view Middle Eastern reality with absolute clarity.
They must see that even in today’s global village, language and indeed values still very much divide.
Failure to do so risks the advent of a nuclear dictatorship at the heart of the region in which they so hope to see democracy flourish.
The author is a PR and communications professional.