A whole long list of NGO officials have come out in criticism of Human Rights Watch and its CEO Kenneth Roth, slamming Roth for his hypocrisy in supporting Islamist regimes that are serial abusers of human rights. As usual, my bold:
You say, “It is important to nurture the rights-respecting elements of political Islam while standing firm against repression in its name,” but you fail to call for the most basic guarantee of rights—the separation of religion from the state. Salafi mobs have caned women in Tunisian cafes and Egyptian shops; attacked churches in Egypt; taken over whole villages in Tunisia and shut down Manouba University for two months in an effort to exert social pressure on veiling. And while “moderate Islamist” leaders say they will protect the rights of women (if not gays), they have done very little to bring these mobs under control. You, however, are so unconcerned with the rights of women, gays, and religious minorities that you mention them only once, as follows: “Many Islamic parties have indeed embraced disturbing positions that would subjugate the rights of women and restrict religious, personal, and political freedoms. But so have many of the autocratic regimes that the West props up.” Are we really going to set the bar that low? This is the voice of an apologist, not a senior human rights advocate.
Nor do you point to the one of the clearest threats to rights—particularly to women and religious and sexual minorities—the threat to introduce so-called “shari’a law.” It is simply not good enough to say we do not know what kind of Islamic law, if any, will result, when it is already clear that freedom of expression and freedom of religion—not to mention the choice not to veil—are under threat. And while it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood has not been in power for very long, we can get some idea of what to expect by looking at their track record. In the UK, where they were in exile for decades, unfettered by political persecution, the exigencies of government, or the demands of popular pressure, the Muslim Brotherhood systematically promoted gender apartheid and parallel legal systems enshrining the most regressive version of “shari’a law”. Yusef al-Qaradawi, a leading scholar associated with them, publicly maintains that homosexuality should be punished by death. They supported deniers of the Holocaust and the Bangladesh genocide of 1971, and shared platforms with salafi-jihadis, spreading their calls for militant jihad. But, rather than examine the record of Muslim fundamentalists in the West, you keep demanding that Western governments “engage.”
A side note, but the term “sharia law” is a tautology – Sharia means “Islamic law”.
Meanwhile, the parts in bold are very important. All across the Muslim world, horrible acts like honour killings become the norm not necessarily because they are official state policy, but because regimes will publicly condemn these acts whenever they are criticised while not actually taking any steps to prevent them.
In fact, they often condemn with one arm while encouraging with the other – as the letter above pointed out. Qaradawi is not a fringe radical, he is a celebrity cleric with his own show on Al Jazeera Arabic and one of the most prominent spiritual leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood; yet he encourages violence, terror and intolerance with impunity.
This is another example of the “third-worldism” that I wrote about recently. HRW are refusing to listen to the Muslim Brotherhood when they say that homosexuality is a crime punishable by death, Jews are a plague on humanity and should all be killed, Christians should be expelled from Egypt and women should be not seen and most definitely not heard. All it takes is for Muslim Brotherhood members to say “we are committed to the rights of women” and HRW believes that they must be “moderate”. Remember that the “rights” that they speak of are not what our Western minds think when we hear “women’s rights”.
The HRW response is also very revealing:
In the introduction to Human Rights Watch’s most recent World Report, released on January 22, Kenneth Roth wrote that Western governments cannot credibly maintain a commitment to democracy if they reject electoral results when an Islamic party does well. That was the hypocritical stance of the West when, for example, it acquiesced in the Algerian military’s interruption of free elections that the Islamist Salvation Front was poised to win and then in the brutal suppression of that party in the early 1990s, or when President George W. Bush cut short his “democracy agenda” after Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006 and the Muslim Brotherhood did better than expected in Egyptian parliamentary elections in 2005.
Western governments should reject this inconsistent and unprincipled approach to democracy. Human Rights Watch called on Western governments to come to terms with the rise of Islamic political parties and press them to respect rights. As rights activists, we are acutely aware of the possible tension between the right to choose one’s leaders and the rights of potentially disfavored groups such as women, gays and lesbians, and religious minorities. Anyone familiar with the history of Iran or Afghanistan knows the serious risks involved. However, in the two Arab Spring nations that have had free and fair elections so far, a solid majority voted for socially conservative political parties in Egypt, and a solid plurality did so in Tunisia. The sole democratic option is to accept the results of those elections and to press the governments that emerge to respect the rights of all rather than to ostracize these governments from the outset.
Notice that they pulled the “Bush card”. This is an argument reminiscent of the Reduction ad Hitlerum fallacy, a corollary of Godwin’s Law, whereby anything that George W Bush did is considered to be wrong by virtue of the fact that he did it. It’s an argument used by the kind of idiots who genuinely think Bush was comparable to Hitler, not to mention the kind of idiots who would assume that something must be bad just because someone they don’t like did it. That said, Bush was wrong – HRW just don’t understand why.
Bush was not wrong to reject Hamas after they were elected, he was wrong to let them stand for election in the first place. Hamas was always very open about what it was: an organisation that opposed democracy, advocated Medieval morality, called for genocide and committed violence – hell, you can learn all that by just watching their TV channel:
What Bush and HRW do not understand is that the mere fact that a government is “elected” does not make a for a democracy. This is a historical fact that actually can be proven by a Hitler comparison: the Nazis were elected into power in Germany. A measure of whether a government is democratic is not how it comes into power initially, but how it stays in power.
Elections are the last step in forming a democracy, not the first. The single most important component of a democracy is the rule of law – the rulers must be under the law, there must be some kind of peaceful mechanism for removing them from office. In order for that to happen, the society needs a separation of powers – the rulers must be accountable to the legal system and not the other way around; the use of physical force (i.e. army and police) must be separate from both. There also has to be some kind of mechanism for the legal system to find information about the rulers’ activities to see if they must be removed from power and the rulers must be unable to stop this information from getting out: you need freedom of political communication.
Even a society with: the rule of law; free speech; and an independent judiciary, army and government; is not ready for popular elections. For the people to elect their leaders, they need to be informed enough about the different options to make a decision; there needs to be a well-established media and at least two realistic options to vote for who can scrutinise each other, otherwise any election will automatically go to whoever has the most widespread networks (i.e. the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood).
Also, it is perfectly acceptable to exclude parties who are openly anti-democratic. Israel has banned “Jewish terrorist” Meir Kahane’s party from running in the Knesset for that exact reason.
Finally, the most important thing to realise is that democracy does not happen overnight. Rushing into elections is stupid, it will only put revolutionaries into power and if there is anything to be learned from post-colonial Africa, it’s that revolutionaries do not generally make great rulers.
Let Islamists be Islamists and treat them like Islamists
Tragically, while HRW are (I believe genuinely) trying to avoid imposing Western morality onto the Arab people, they are in fact doing something arguably worse. Rather than openly trying to change Arab societies into something resembling Western ones, they are approaching the Arab peoples with an entirely Western mindset and just treating them as though they are Western, no matter how much they themselves reject Western values. This attitude is extremely destructive, it will result in more Afghanistans and less Indonesias.
We must be honest with ourselves and we must be willing to take Arab parties at their word. We want an Egypt that does not oppress women, homosexuals, Jews and Christians; we want an Egypt with democratic institutions where people are not persecuted for anti-government or “un-Islamic” activities. The Muslim Brotherhood do not want this Egypt and they say that openly – why do we refuse to believe them?