Joe Sarkisian is a foreign policy analyst under private contract and a columnist at PolicyMic. He was previously a teaching assistant at Umass Boston, taught a class on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and is an expert on U.S./Iranian relations.
You can follow him on Twitter @joesarkisian
LGBTQ advocates, women’s rights groups, democracy pimps and pushers, and others who stand atop the Western bully pulpit are very good at shedding light on the “other”: the disenfranchised, dehumanized, helpless masses of the East. They assemble a constituency and then twist arms into conformity on whatever the hot topic of the day may be. If you disagree, you’re castigated as heartless and reptilian, potentially even losing your livelihood.
But for all their good intent, they forget a crucial point time and again: you can’t force culture, you can’t rewrite history, and the inability to take a step back and look at things on a macro level can quite literally lead to destruction.
Everyone knows the formula: reach for the low-hanging human rights fruit – women not being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia for instance - and then write a paternalistic article that seeks to spotlight such issues that are, quite frankly, of little interest to the majority of people there, including women. Such issues, while technically a problem, serve Western human rights advocates more than anyone, because they serve as rallying points for their agenda and garner political attention for their organizations. But rarely do you hear about a human rights advocate being dubbed an expert in any specific geography, culture, religion, or sect.
This crucial link in the value chain is where advocates need to dig deep.
Saudi Arabia is the perfect case study (the Kingdom gets more than its fair share of hairy eyeballs)...
Founded in 1932, the dream was a united Arab nation that transcended tribal conflict, using Islam as a uniting force for good. From that period until the 1970s, Saudi society seemed more progressive than it is today; women didn’t have to fully cover, they were widely seen on television as news anchors, and respectful intermixing of the sexes was commonplace.
But in 1979 a new, puritanical version of Islam took the nation by storm, and instead of dealing definitively with the movement --which eventually morphed into Al-Qaeda-- the country’s leadership appeased it.
It is this now middle-aged contingency of the Saudi population who grew up in such times and was influenced by this powerful, ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam that is the main reason the Kingdom has had a hard time adjusting to the pressures of the Western world.
If rights groups understood the first thing about Saudis and their affinity for Islam, they’d realize that there exists a power struggle –albeit a covert one— between the progressive King Abdullah and the more conservative religious establishment. While it may not be red, white, blue, and served with a slice of apple pie, it’s still a form of democracy. These same battle lines are drawn within the Saudi population itself.
The westernized version of this story --that Saudis are living under an Islamic dictator that forces a strict version of Islam upon them-- is a harmful myth.
Recent attempts by the western world to democratize, civilize, or subsidize the Middle East have been blatant failures, and the underlying reason for such wanton misery amounts to a complete lack of empathy and understanding of the dynamic and intricate history, culture, and religious values of the region.
If the best minds in Washington have failed to rapidly transform the region, what makes human rights activists think they can do it better?
Take the radical women’s rights group, FEMEN, for example. These so called “rights activists” think that the best way to change a country’s culture is by insulting the religion that forms its very nucleus. FEMEN couldn’t be a better microcosm of the problem: misinformed groups of people who believe that morality is cut and paste, that their misguided prescriptions for cultural revolution have no side effects, and that the political situations of those they seek to help are as malleable as the western ones they’re used to.
In Saudi Arabia, the common image is one of paternalism and Islamic arm-twisting. But if that were the case, the Kingdom’s enormous youth population --60% of which is 30 years of age or younger— wouldn’t be so happy with their leader. According to Caryle Murphy of the renowned Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars:
“Like most Saudis, young people express genuine respect and love for King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz because he is widely seen as pious, kindly, and someone who has the best interests of Saudis at heart. Many of his subjects also admire his reformist stance in such areas as education and women’s rights. While those warm feelings do not extend to everyone in the ruling royal family, the Saudi political structure enjoys widespread legitimacy among Saudis, including young people.”
For western rights groups to then harass Saudis into rapid change is a damaging waste of effort in a situation that looks more like a push by activists to realize a self-fulfilling prophecy than to actually help anyone.
Instead, allowing Saudis the right of self-determination, combined with giving a nurturing pat on the back through the tougher times, is the best way to reach our allies in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia is 82 years old. America is 238. It took the United States 144 years to allow women to vote and 189 years to allow black people the same right. It allowed slavery for 89 years, imprisons more people per capita than any country in the world, and has colonized, plundered, overthrown, assassinated, stolen, and manipulated other countries and their people from the earliest days of its existence, while shouting incessantly about how barbaric and backwards the “other” is.
The West has always been pushy about getting the third world to adopt its norms, and the classic examples like Afghanistan and Iraq only prove what we’ve all had to learn at the cost of money and blood alike: the theory of neocolonialism has failed, and human rights groups must learn from its mistakes.