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Martin Parsons: Human rights are more important than democracy in Islamic countries

As David Cameron today becomes the first western leader to visit post Mubarak Egypt, Paul Goodman has highlighted some important questions the visit raises about what British foreign policy in the region should be. Are we pro-democracy in the region, or not? If we are, what does that imply for our relationship with allies that aren't democracies, such as Jordan and Morocco (let alone Saudi Arabia)?

Any approach to the current crises in the Middle East must recognise that since the 1970s the overall trend in most Islamic countries has been towards greater islamisation, rather than towards greater liberalisation.

As such the primary need of such countries is not for democracy, but for basic human rights to be guaranteed. Without this emphasis the advent of democratic reforms are likely to be used by well organised Islamist groups to speed up the Islamisation process, which will itself severely restrict basic human rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, academic freedom and fair and equal treatment for all by the law.

In the period between the end of the second world war the oil crisis of the 1970s there was generally speaking a period of liberalisation in Islamic countries. Many newly independent countries were seeking to ‘modernise’ and although Islamic law (shari'a) was still at least informally applied at a local level, western style systems of law were becoming dominant. The constitutions of newly independent Muslim majority countries were typically based on secular law, although sometimes retaining a special status for certain aspects of shari'a.

However, since the 1970s there has been a reversal of this trend, with increasing attempts to apply and enforce shari'a instead. This has led to serious restrictions on basic human rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion and academic freedom.

For example, between 1982 and 1986 Pakistan introduced the so called ‘Blasphemy laws’ (sections 295b and 295c of the penal code) which effectively made any criticism of the Qur’an or Muhammad punishable by either life imprisonment or execution. This amounted to an enormous erosion of both freedom of speech, academic freedom and religious freedom. Effectively this meant that any non Muslim who was asked whether they believed the Qur’an was ‘the infallible word of God’ faced the most severe penalties.

This islamisation process has not been limited to criminal law, but has also included attempts to replace secular family law with shari'a – moves that effectively deprive mothers of child custody and even access rights and attempts to Islamise the banking and finance sectors by making them shari'a compliant. The latter particularly, has been resisted with varying degrees of success by ruling elites in the Arab world, as they have recognised it would give control over a large area of economic life to Islamic judges.

It is this political power struggle between autocratic, often western leaning governments and Islamic leaders, whether clerics or Islamist leaders, that poses the greatest threat both to basic human rights and to Britain’s long term interests in many Islamic countries. The focus of Britain’s policy in the Islamic world needs to be helping to foster a third way that avoids the repression of basic human rights that both of these represent.

In the light of the current street protests across the Middle East it is understandable that well meaning western liberals will call for democracy to be the number one priority, even while acknowledging that in countries such as Egypt this could lead to the Muslim Brotherhood gaining power. However, such calls are profoundly misguided and likely to lead in the medium term to an even greater repression of basic human rights than those countries have witnessed in recent years.

Some may argue that with the current crises affecting the Middle East it is splitting hairs to argue that we should prioritise human rights over democracy in our foreign policy. However, whilst we do need to respond strongly to events as they happen on the ground, as both the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary are doing in response to the massacres currently happening in Libya, it is even more important that we develop a clear and coherent medium term strategy, both towards those countries currently experiencing instability and those that as yet are not.

To illustrate the importance of prioritising human rights over democracy in our foreign policy let me give two recent examples: The election of a Hamas government in Palestine in 2006 and constitutional changes in Turkey in 2010.

Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of Egypt’s al-Ikhwan (The Muslim Brotherhood) shocked most Palestinians by winning the January 2006 elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council. The reason their victory was so unexpected was that they had quietly developed a medium term strategy to gain power. This involved Hamas members setting up local social care projects, some of them funded by western donors. Then, having gained local credibility from these projects, the Hamas members running them were put up as local electoral candidates under the name of ‘Change and Reform’, which was a front party for Hamas. The strategy was particularly clever as the Palestinian Legislative Council consists of both members elected by local constituencies and others elected by a second proportional vote. Hamas was thus able to win an overall majority of seats, something that shocked many ordinary Palestinians, simply because they got so many candidates elected in local constituency votes. The fact that the Hamas’ share of the vote in the second proportional vote was almost unchanged from elections 10 years earlier suggests that this strategy effectively duped many ordinary Palestinians into thinking that they could vote for a local Hamas MP without there being any danger that Hamas would win overall power. It hardly needs to be said that similar events could now easily happen in Egypt, where Hamas has been gaining significant ground since the 2005 elections.

Turkey has been seen by many as an exemplar of how an overwhelmingly Muslim country can be integrated into the modern free world, including potential membership of the EU. However, recent events there also illustrate the danger of western foreign policy prioritising democracy over constitutional guarantees of human rights. The current president Recap Erdogan, who is an avowed Islamist instituted a referendum last September to amend 26 articles of Turkey’s constitution. These constitutional changes. which had previously been rejected by the Turkish parliament, gave himself more powers and lessened the role of the military and judiciary, who had been the constitutional guardians of Turkey’s secular state. Both the US government and the EU applauded the move as a step towards greater ‘democracy’. However, what the constitutional changes actually did in practice was to allow a Turkish government to turn the country into an Islamic state with the enforcement of shari'a, which would inevitably seriously limit basic human rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion and equal treatment for all by the law.

Whilst there are many considerations that inevitably must affect foreign policy I would suggest that British foreign policy towards Islamic countries should include the following elements:

Medium to long term aims, prioritised over short term gains. Too much western foreign policy in the Islamic world has been focused on short term gains whether strategic (such as the Bush administration turning a blind eye to the Pakistani ISI’s support for Islamists training for jihad in Kashmir, provided that the Musharraf government handed over al-Qaeda terrorists to the Americans) or commercial (such as the apparent prioritisation of potential trade deals with countries such as Libya and more recently North Sudan over other considerations).

Focused on developing a functioning civil society. One of the most dangerous aspects of the suppression of civil society by western leaning autocratic governments is that it has left the mosque as the only area of public meeting and protest. This has enabled Islamist groups to use the cover of the mosque to become the primary focus of opposition to autocratic governments. However, a functioning civil society allows alternatives to Islamism to develop and flourish. This is a point that must be forcibly made to western leaning autocratic governments that are rightly afraid of growing Islamist movements in their own countries.

Focused on the promotion of basic human rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion (which includes freedom to speak about one’s faith with others rather than simply ‘freedom of worship’ as recent foreign policy statements by Hiliary Clinton and others appear to have downgraded it to), academic freedom and fair and equal treatment for all by the law.

Prioritises the promotion of these basic human rights over the promotion of ‘democracy’. Liberalisation can ultimately deliver democracy, but we have yet to see democracy deliver liberalisation in an Islamic country. One should not forget that universal suffrage in Britain was preceded by more than a century of liberalising reforms.

Recognises that the medium term trend in most Islamic countries is towards greater Islamisation, rather than towards greater liberalisation. As such it must be realistic about the strategies being adopted by Islamist groups. Some of these, as in the examples from Palestine and Turkey given above, may appear to run parallel to the aspirations of a free democratic society, but they are seen by Islamists simply as vehicles towards achieving power themselves. Seeking to prevent the spread of shari'a enforcement throughout the world should be a key part of our foreign policy, not merely because of its repression of human rights, but also because it is in our national interest to do all we can to stop the spread of Islamism of which the enforcement of shari'a on the willing and unwilling alike is one of the ultimate goals.

In essence, this approach is seeking to develop a third way between, on the one hand autocracy, which whilst in many cases western leaning, has repressed basic freedoms for its peoples; and on the other hand Islamism, which gains much of its popular support by its opposition to autocratic rulers, but itself ultimately aims at a form of government which is at least equally repressive of basic human rights. It is about the Conservative principle of pushing for gradual reform, in order to avoid the danger of violent revolution. One should not forget that the 1979 Iranian revolution started with very moderate people voicing legitimate grievances, it was many of those same people who later suffered when radical Islamists were able to sieze control.

Lord Salisbury arguably one of Britain’s greatest foreign secretaries and prime ministers summed up a Conservative approach to foreign policy when he said ‘Our first duty is towards the people of this country, to maintain their interests and their rights; our second is to all humanity.’ In an increasingly globalised world stopping the spread of Islamism abroad is fundamental to both Britain’s own interests and our duty to humanity.


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