This week the West was unanimously morally outraged at the racist diatribes by Iranian President Ahmadinejad during what was supposed to be an anti-racism conference by the U.N. I share this outrage, but find it quite hypocritical. Not because Ahmadinejad’s presence at a world conference on anti-racism is as absurd as that of a neo-Nazi at a Holocaust commemoration, to make the most vulgar of comparisons. We knew that beforehand, and many Western countries—unlike Belgium—wisely stayed away so as not to grant Iran the symbolic credibility of a world stage.
My ambivalence towards Western indignation goes deeper. I do not join those who downplay Ahmadinejad as a crazy character on the world stage. I take his words seriously. They translate into a deep chasm between what the West on one hand and some countries in the Muslim world on the other define as “discrimination.” This chasm tears the entire terrain of human rights to pieces.
A month ago, the Human Rights Council of the U.N. approved a resolution against the defamation of religions. Introduced by Pakistan – a known model of toleration and human rights – the resolution is an unadulterated attempt to play the Muslim outrage card. There is lamentation over the so-called “attempts to equate Islam with terrorism, violence and human rights violations.” The fate of Muslim minorities is denounced. Criticism of religion is labeled as blasphemy. The resolution has been approved by a majority of Muslim and African countries against a minority of Western countries.
Who can still say that human rights are universal? The bitter reality is that some basic rights, propagated by humanity through the United Nations and other organizations since the end of World War II, are no longer considered human rights in the Muslim world, but Western rights. This global discord is becoming increasingly apparent in the United Nations itself, but also in Western countries as they change their ethnic and religious color.
This brings me to President Obama’s recent charm offensive in the Muslim world. Behold the Great Communicator, extending a hand to the whole Muslim world using Internet messages and the pulpit of the Turkish Parliament, preaching respect, promising to listen and seeking to bridge misunderstandings. These are all heartwarming intentions and a welcome change of tone compared to the war rhetoric of the Bush years. But between dreams and actions there are laws and practical objections, as the sober Flemish writer Willem Elsschot knew. And reality is much less rosy.
Obama praises Turkey as a secular democracy, one that he would like to see become part of the European Union as a strategic partner of the U.S. But every observer knows the deep and persistent tension between the secular mission of the state of the Turkish republic and the religious DNA of a large part of the Turkish Muslim population. Turkey stands accused at the European human rights tribunal in Strasbourg. The current Turkish government is pursuing a national course of mild “Islamification.” Only a week ago, dozens of secular leaders, intellectuals and media people among them, were arrested for alleged conspiracy. Internationally, Prime Minister Erdogan argues against the westernization of the Turkish Diaspora in the European Union, argues for Hamas and for Iran’s nuclear program.
And then there are Afghanistan and Pakistan, the other strategic Muslim countries where the U.S. would like to bring stability and reconciliation with the West. Last week in Afghanistan, a law was passed permitting rape within a marriage while the Pakistani government formally imposed Sharia law in regions controlled by the Taliban. Human rights, anyone?
I am very concerned about the amount of illusion in the diplomatic message President-Preacher Obama is proclaiming. Just think of his pious wish to rid the world of nuclear weapons. In Iran and North Korea, they’re still laughing away. Sweet rhetoric will have to make way for hard reality. Respect and listening are not the same as folding. We will soon notice that the West will have to put its money where its mouth is in order to achieve a result that does not equal defeat. But do the United States and its president have enough resolve despite the crisis and the trauma of Iraq? Many Western allies—Belgium included—do not.
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