North Africa, West Asia

European values and the Arab world

Maged Mandour

EU politicians can promote 'European' values by stopping their support for autocratic regimes, and by starting to ask tough questions about radicalisation.

Maged Mandour
10 August 2015
Protest in London. Rob Pinney/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Protest in London. Rob Pinney/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Over the past several months, I have been exposed to a number of scenes that struck me as absurd, not to mention sinister.

The first was of Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, calling for greater cooperation with Arab regimes to combat terrorism.

The second was the visit to Berlin of Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, accompanied by an entourage of actors, in an attempt to create the illusion of popular support. While he was there, his press conference with chancellor Merkel was interrupted with cries of “murderer, murderer” by a woman from the crowd. This was closely followed by Sisi giving a speech at the funeral of the assassinated Egyptian attorney general, in which he called for an adjustment of the already flawed judicial process to expedite “carrying out justice”, a code word for mass executions. 

Third were the attacks in Paris last January, when radicalised French men supposedly trained in Yemen attacked the office of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in an attack that shook France and Europe. Closely connected to this, was a scene where 'Rafael' fighter jets (produced in France) were shown off by the Egyptian military around Cairo. Then a small piece of news on an entire Yemeni family being wiped out in a drone attack.

More recently, was the scene of the British prime minister, David Cameron evoking “British values” and the need to reform “British Islam” in a top down approach, while an official visit from Sisi has been scheduled. 

All of these scenes are connected, and reveal the hypocrisy of European policy towards the Arab world.

It seems to me that European politicians have no moral qualms about supporting autocracy in the Arab world. Concurrently, under the guise of protecting “European values", they vilify those who come to the shores of Europe, especially if they are Muslim or Arab. In essence, these same politicians are creating the forces that push these immigrants to Europe in the first place, and then push them out.

The list of grievances is long, and stretches from the late nineteenth century to date, ranging from direct domination and outright annexations, to support for autocrats. European powers have changed little. The Arab world remains nothing more than a peripheral zone that needs to be reshaped at the will of imperial powers.  

'European values' are being applied exclusively domestically, and not in all cases. Respect for human rights, women’s rights, and minority rights are of no concern elsewhere, as support continues to be extended to regimes notorious for violating these rights.

It is important to note that these autocratic governments are actively supported, both economically and politically; their international supporters are providing the necessary lifelines for them to survive in their dometic struggle with their opponents.

Examples of this are abound, however, the most striking example is that of Egypt. The current president of Egypt came to power after a bloody military coup that ousted the first democratically elected president in Egyptian history.

This was followed by a campaign of mass repression, the worst in Egyptian history, accompanied by human rights violations on an unprecedented scale, including sexual violence by the state. At this point in time, around 40,000 people are languishing in Egyptian prisons for political reasons. Moreover, mass executions have been ordered by Egyptian courts, including that of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi.

I would say that if any regime represents the anti-thesis of “European values” it is that of President Sisi. However, Sisi has become a regular visitor to European capitals, including Berlin, Paris, and soon London, which has only been made possible due to a conscious European effort to rehabilitate him.

Another striking example of the hypocrisy of European political elites is that of the French government. During the early stages of the Tunisian revolution, the French state offered material support to the Tunisian dictator to suppress protests.

All of this is done under the rubric of security, which has become the new ideology to justify the neo-colonial policy of supporting autocrats in the region. The logic is rather simple; we support autocrats because they are the only viable force in combating terrorism, otherwise the region will fall into the hands of ISIL-type groups, which would be an unacceptable security threat to Europe.

This logic, however, does not merely simplify a complex reality, it ignores the fact that autocrats  are the main beneficiaries of the rise of these groups, and have been actively prompting their development in order to justify their repressive measures.

For example, in Egypt, the military committed one of the worst massacres in modern Egyptian history during the dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in after the coup. The main aim of these mass killings was to polarise the political system to such a degree that the ‘if you are not with me, you are against me’ logic would prevail. This polarisation would naturally lead to the rise of political violence from opponents, in essence, leading to the rise of radical groups.

In Syria, the symbiotic relationship between Assad and ISIL is also telling of this dynamic, especially the fact that Assad and IS did not clash until recently, even though other rebel forces have been defeated in ISIL-controlled areas. There was implicit cooperation between them against other rebel forces. It is also important to remember that the Assad government released Jihadists from prison at the outset of the revolution to trigger a similar scenario.

The argument of fighting terrorism is self-defeating, for the simple reason that the Europeans are asking autocratic regimes to destroy the ideological justification for their repression, and some would say their existence.

Until now, this article has assumed that 'European values' or 'western values' or as David Cameron said, “British values” are clearly definable constructs associated with general ideas of secular civil governments, women and minority rights. This might seem clear for some; however, as an Arab, I find this idea problematic on many different levels.

First, the notion that democratic governments and human rights are the sole product of western cultural developments assumes that western civilisation was developed in a vacuum, with no interactions with other civilisations. This, of course, is a historical fallacy. The most striking example is the view, widely held in Europe, that Greece is the cradle of western civilisation. However, as Edward Said argued in ‘Culture and Imperialism’, Greek culture has been westernised by “purifying” it from is Asiatic and African roots in order to in turn purge western values of these roots.

Greek ideas and philosophy developed through constant interactions with other cultures, especially ancient Egypt. Some Europeans also forget that the Judeo-Christian tradition, one of the cornerstones of so-called European values, originated in the Middle East. Thus, the values deemed European are essentially universal values that developed over centuries of societal interaction across the globe.

Second, the assignment of human rights and democratic government as essentially European/western creates a dichotomy between the western and non-western world. It places the non-western world as inferior, and more importantly, threating to the European way of life. This, in turn, places immigrants as an existential threat to Europe, and a possible barbarian fifth column that has successfully infiltrated Europe.

Third, from the perspective of the third or non-western world, European values translate into domination and social destruction in the name of either “civilising the savages” or now, “fighting terrorism”.

One only needs to read Walter Rodney’s classic “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” to understand the devastating effects of European values on Africa, or C.L.R James “Black Jacobins” to get a simple taste of the evils of slavery, and the outright hypocrisy of these values when applied abroad.

Finally, it is important to remember that the colonial world gained its independence through decades of struggle against their colonisers. In other words, 'European values' were not sufficient to curb the European Empire.

This is not a critique of European culture, but rather a critique of European politicians using catch phrases like “British values” or “European values” in order to increase their popularity, and outmaneuver their populist opponents.

This is also an appeal to the European reader, who can, at least theoretically, exercise democratic control over their government. An appeal to understand that the greatest enemies of 'European values' are not immigrants from the third world, nor radical Islamist groups, but rather the politicians who are endangering them by supporting the autocrats in the Arab world causing these problems.

In essence, European politicians, rather than deal with tough questions about the reasons for European youth’s radicalisation, are opting for the easy way out. Diverting attention to the fear of the “other” while following policies that will lead to greater radicalisation in the Arab world.

We need to remember what Fanon said:

“The Third World today faces Europe like a colossal mass whose aim should be to try to resolve the problems to which Europe has not been able to find the answers.”

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