Sunday, February 27, 2011

The EU's Libyan failure

Through all the storm and stress that has marked the recent history of the European Union--voters in France and the Netherlands opposed to its voluminous constitution, then outright rejection by the Irish, now the endless controversies over how to manage a common currency--the Union has remained for many an article of faith. There must be an EU, they intone, because the world cannot dispense with the universal values embodied in the war-weary, post-colonial, globally aware, democratically committed, in short, the enlightened vision of Old Europe.

If such indeed is the ideological ballast required to keep the EU and its EMU afloat through the perilous seas of ongoing financial crisis and economic contraction, it would make all the more serious, as Le Monde's editors suggest in yesterday's edition, Europe's failure to flourish its values in the face of Libya's humanitarian disaster. But alas, the divisive, sauve qui peut side of the European mentality is what heaves into view at moments like this. Will the EU call for Gadhafi's resignation and removal? No, because two member-states, Italy and Malta, are afraid of precipitating a refugee crisis. And in a sense they are right: apparently, as I learn, the Treaty of Dublin is the vehicle by which other EU countries decline to share the refugee burden with fellow member-states unlucky enough to be the point of landfall. If those Libyans make it to Lampedusa, they're yours forever, Signor Berlusconi, and every article of the Declaration of Human Rights is yours to share with them. Don't bother to call Brussels--where Lady Ashton is busy anyhow making idle pronouncements in the absence of any clear diplomatic agenda.

Part of what is so tawdry in this scenario is the clear fact that Libya, for all the difficulties posed by its 42 years of tribal rule, is Europe's neighbor and Europe's problem. It was only yesterday that all the heads of government, from Tony Blair to Sarko to Merkel, were lining up for photo ops--and oil contracts-- with the Guide of the Revolution. And wasn't Libya supposed to be a mainstay of the Mediterranean Union?

Other voices, sometimes dismissed as demagogic or anachronistic, have questioned whether the EU idea is anything more than window dressing for an international business cartel whose mission is continued exploitation of less developed economies. I personally would like to believe in a better EU, whose espoused values are close to my own. But honestly, if the sight of a dictator shooting down his own people in the streets of the capital isn't enough to excite the EU's humane reflexes, one has to wonder what the use is of all that high-minded rhetoric.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Star (and Crescent) Is Born?

Has la diversité opened a new chapter in French politics?

Ilham Moussaïd became a cause célèbre a year ago when she appeared as an NPA candidate in the French regional elections wearing a head scarf. As I noted a few months ago ("Au Revoir, Ilham," 12/2/10), she and some colleagues eventually left the NPA when it appeared the party was in no hurry to resolve its position regarding women, head scarves, cultural identity, and their relationship to republican politics.

Now the social service organization she helped found to address issues in the immigrant quartiers of Avignon has declared its intention to form a political party, with Moussaïd as its candidate, in this spring's local or cantonale elections.
Does she have a chance? As self-acknowledged novices she and her co-workers are modest in their immediate goals. But she proved herself a formidable presence at the microphone, under fire, during all the controversy surrounding her previous candidacy. She has a clear understanding of her own values--solidarity, equality, opportunity, cultural diversity--and the insurmountable obstacle that is the capitalist system. Within the limitations of a new, modestly funded party she will be a credible candidate.

But the stakes could grow much higher. France's 2nd-generation immigrants, citizens all, are a numerous bunch, and unlike previous smaller cohorts, they may be a lot less eager to shed their particularist identities in order to amalgamate with the larger citizenry, as republican tradition would require. Ever since the 2005 riots across the immigrant districts (if not sooner) it has seemed possible, if not inevitable, that French political establishment would have to reconsider its relationship to the ethnic identity politics we take for granted in the US. No, not in France, many say from all sides of the political spectrum, or perhaps not yet. But Ilham Moussaïd is a determined young woman, not willing to be told "no," or "not yet." Others may follow her example. The winds of change that are blowing through Tunis and Cairo, and even Tripoli and Rabat, may reach Bobigny or Clichy-sous-bois or the quartiers of Avignon. If they do, Ilham Moussaïd and other young leaders like her will be there, ready .

Friday, February 11, 2011

Islamic democracy: inexorable fact or oxymoron?

Amid today's cataclysmic events in Cairo, I felt the thrill of the new medias as the NY Times and other papers brought me minute-by-minute updates in the form of blog posts and tweets, video feeds and live streaming, along with regularly updated commentaries by a team of seasoned correspondents. When the dust had cleared I was left with a sense of drama, lots of subjective accounts of individual heroics, and a shared feeling for the collective wave of emotion that stretched from hope to outrage to jubilation as the day unfolded. Only in turning to Le Monde, though, did I find analysis that measured up to the seriousness of the events, in the form of a pair of articles: one by neo-conservative Islamophobe Hirsi Ali, the other by Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan. Together their remarks placed the events in an intellectual framework that made clearer the world-historical stakes of today's revolutionary events.

Hirsi Ali, a Somalian refugee whose extraordinary life's journey has brought her to the American Enterprise Institute by way of a term in the Dutch parliament, is by her own account a recovering Muslim. She won sanctuary in the Netherlands after suffering genital mutilation and forced marriage (she later lost her resident permit when certain details of her story proved false), and during her brief, controversial public career in Holland she proved equally tenacious in support of Muslim immigrant women and in opposition to the patriarchal strictures of Islam. She has suffered much at the hands of the Islamic authority, and her piece in Le Monde draws on her tribulations. "When I see images of the masses in Cairo," she writes, she is inescapably reminded of the "collective prayer" of her early years. The "mosque" is for her the "key to understanding" the Egyptian uprising; in the Islamic world all political roads lead to Islamism. "Conspiracy, manipulation, intrigue, and corruption": these are the stock in trade of any Muslim politics--and have been for 1400 years! Only by building intermediate structures of civil society can the Egyptians, or any other Muslim people, hope to escape the endless cycle by which today's liberators become tomorrow's despots.

It is perhaps clear from this grim assessment why Hirsi Ali is conservative Washington's favorite ex-Muslim. She articulates with some authenticity the old thesis that Arab societies are incapable of democracy by virtue of their cultural traditions. It is only a short step--though she doesn't take it--from her analysis to the view widely expressed in Israel and Washington that it would have been prudent for the Obamists to hold onto Mubarak for as long as they could. These Arab masses need guidance--"leadership," she calls it--from cooler heads not mesmerized by the call to prayer. Her logic leads back to de facto restoration of the old colonial protectorates, while a modern civil society takes the time to grow out of its old habits of Muslim subordination.

While Hirsi Ali has thus internalized the subaltern position of cultural inferiority, Tariq Ramadan reverses the argument, and lays Egypt's problems squarely at the feet of the old imperial powers. Ramadan, of Egyptian origin, was born in Geneva, also to refugees: his grandfather was in fact a founder of the much reviled Muslim Brotherhood. Long a proponent
of a modernized Islam compatible--but not identical--with Western values, Ramadan teaches at Oxford, after the Bush administration refused to allow him to enter the US to take up a professorship at Notre Dame. Seen as an apologist for certain objectionable traits of Islam--in a debate with candidate Sarkozy Ramadan argued that Sharia law might best be discussed, not summarily rejected--Ramadan is cast, in the US at least, as the bad Muslim opposite Hirsi Ali's good one. No accident, then, that his opinion piece appeared in Le Monde rather than the NY Times.

From his position as insider/outsider to the Western intellectual tradition, Ramadan is able to speak refreshingly past the ideological truisms that mystify so much commentary about the Egyptian situation. In the face of pious claims of support for 'democracy' emanating from North America and Europe Ramadan cites their long, sad history of sustaining the most obdurate forms of authoritarianism throughout the Muslim world. Even the most extreme forms of Islamism, he notes, placed in the proper geo-strategic light have won the endorsement of these self-proclaimed advocates for 'democracy.' Be wary, he counsels us citizens of the Western democracies, and avoid the naiveté that would accept our governments' professions of concern for those democratic values we have sold down the river in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, in Mubarak's Egypt and countless other situations of expediency and national interest.

So while Hirsi Ali offers a sober reminder of how much needs to be done--for she is surely right that civil society must be shored up if not invented in Egypt and throughout the Islamic world--Ramadan offers some useful caveats to the received and somewhat paternalistic truisms circulating in Western punditry just now. Democracy, if it comes to Egypt, will be won by the Egyptian people despite our national interests and diplomatic initiatives, and we would be foolishly naive to think otherwise. Obama may to his credit play a less heavy-handed, more supportive role than some of his predecessors--or then again he may not. But already the Egyptians in the street have disproved the most damning of Hirsi Ali's parroted disclaimers, and the visionary optimism of Ramadan, inconceivable only months ago, has shed its wishful character. On to the new era!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Tunisia, viewed from the left

Olivier Besancenot is just back from Tunisia, and he's excited about what he saw there. It was his first trip: unlike foreign minister Alliot-Marie, he doesn't spend his vacations jetting around there with rich friends. He doesn't even own a vacation condo, like Socialist Party honcho Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Instead, as he reports to the NPA membership in this video, he spent his time hanging around on street corners, where as he notes, political discussions sprang up spontaneously at all hours. "One or two people start talking, then more, soon 40 or 50 people are there discussing politics--a general assembly on every corner." In a rare personal moment, OB notes that, although a revolutionary since the age of 14 or 15, this was his first chance to participate in an actual revolution, and the atmosphere obviously suits him.

What insight has he brought back? Unlike most commentators, he is not so interested in the sectarian questions. Rather, this uprising, along with the one in Egypt and the possibility of others, points to a new stage of the globalized economy, the moment when people start to fight back against the precariousness and inequality globalization has brought them. He sees a revolutionary wave forming in the wake of the global crisis, a wave that has by no means crested. Is this an accurate assessment? I'd say it's too soon to tell, but an interesting counterweight nonetheless to the mainstream commentary, which chooses to localize these events as a phenomenon of the 'Arab street.'

Less consciously, though, OB's simple joy to be part of the popular discourse on the streets of Tunis may say something more substantial about the sort of revolution he isn't shy about calling for in France. In that revolutionized world, we will all be outside on street corners, talking about politics with our neighbors. We will all be as absorbed in public questions as the handful of party activists are today. We will care about process and policy and all the arcana that disappear, in our sub-revolutionary worlds, into the black box of public administration. This is the utopian vision of the NPA, the new, wholly participatory democratic socialism that would have almost nothing in common with the closed process of yesterday's politbüros. Could such a truly engaged populace be sustainable in a new social order? Perhaps not, but it speaks to the fundamentally democratic impulse in Besancenot--so often maligned as a party centralist, an authoritarian, a would-be commissar--that what he likes, what moves him, is the fact of masses of people taking their destiny into their hands. Some find that threatening, but I join him in feeling the exhilaration.