September 1, 2016
Invariably, controversies that erupt in the West about Muslims will find themselves being critiqued and criticised in the Arab world. That controversy might be about a policy designed to counter violent extremism in the UK or proposals to ban various types of Muslim clothing in other parts of Europe. Often, the response from many within the West will be: “If you don’t like it in the West, you don’t need to be here – you can go back home. And if you’re not here, look at what you do in your own countries first.” The retort is flawed, but it also has a very specific kind of merit.
Variations of that kind of retort are based on wrong assumptions. The first is the idea that those in the West who criticise certain policies, particularly Muslims, are not really westerners. Muslim westerners, irrespective of their ethnic origin – and many hail from families that have been in the West for generations – are westerners. As such, they’re not going anywhere, they’re already home.
By virtue of being westerners, it is also irrelevant to bring up policies that exist in the Muslim world. Do Catholics in Canada have to account for the policies of the Vatican? Or do all Jews have to do the same for Israel?
There are more than 50 countries with Muslim majority populations. Few Muslims would be able to name all those countries, let alone be responsible for their policies. If Saudi Arabia doesn’t allow women to drive, it’s irrelevant to the discussion around civil liberties and counter-terrorism policy in Germany. If Iran insists that women wear a hijab in public, it has nothing to do with restricting female Muslim dress on French beaches. It is only a foil with which the justification of repressive policies is made easier.
But there is a genuine point to be made around double- critiques. When those within the Arab societies issue statements attacking, for example, flawed police brutality in the US, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Depending on the Arab country in question, it may have its own issues with police brutality to be concerned about. That isn’t simply inconsistent, it’s also hypocritical.
That kind of double-critique is especially important today when a vast variety of information is shared across borders and with great ease. Ignorance of the world in which one lives ought not to be an excuse any more. But there are important provisos to be kept in mind before one jumps to attack hypocrisy among those in the region who criticise the West.
The first is simply that many in the region still do not have effective access to different types of information.
They might be internet-savvy, but they might lack certain languages to engage with different sources of information – and it is true that to get a fully informed picture around what is taking place in the region, you cannot simply rely on one language. This has become especially true in the past five years, since the outbreak of the revolutionary uprisings of 2011.
The second condition is that even if the situation is fully understood, it may carry certain risks to express one’s opinion about it. Let us be frank here – for an Arab in Kuwait to voice criticism about a Dutch proposal to ban the niqab is not remotely as risky as an Arab in Syria to voice criticism of any kind with regard to the Syrian regime. To try to compare the two is not simply to compare apples and oranges, but knives and feathers.
The final proviso around this critical double-critique is rooting it within the region itself, as opposed to making it simply a reaction to the West, which is often the case. When issues around women, for example, are legitimately raised in the region, the backdrop should be a rooted, indigenous and powerful assertion of gender empowerment in the public arena. It shouldn’t be the promotion of some kind of neo-western project that is disconnected from the region’s history and values.
As the world grows more interconnected, the sense of a global village increases. But while the sense of it exists, the reality is fraught with complexities that we all need to be aware of. A double-critique can and should take place within the region – but we all need to be aware of what it entails, and not use it to thwart, ironically, valuable critique.
Dr HA Hellyer is a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London
On Twitter: @hahellyer
Source: The National