Islamophobia and the Arab spring

If the opportunity can be seized to help more people to build prosperous lives of liberty in their own countries, perhaps Europe’s Islamophobes will be able to stop worrying about immigration or insecurity.
Paul Norton
31 March 2011

Despite the belated and partial response to Colonel Gaddafi’s onslaught against his challengers in Libya, Europe’s Islamophobic obsession with immigration and Islamist terrorism is obstructing it from responding in its own interests to the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings in the Middle East. This, in the counter-productive way of these things, makes it likely that a golden opportunity to solve some of those very issues of immigration and security is about to be missed.

The ongoing upsurge in Islamophobia in Europe is, at least in part, a symptom of a half-won battle. Even racists do not want to be seen as racist these days and feel obliged to obscure their real views.  Islamophobia has provided a useful substitute as the hate that dare speak its name. The flames have been fanned by a broad coalition of ‘useful idiot’ Muslim extremists, the right wing media and ostensible liberals drawing on stereotypes to manufacture offence against their principles. Much of this involves citing horrendous practices such as the ‘honour killing’ of women to stigmatise Muslims, despite it actually being a cultural abomination that is no more a part of Islam than it was a tenet of Catholicism when it was practiced in parts of Italy until disturbingly recently.

Weak western leaders such as Sarkozy, Merkel and Cameron have been queuing up to pander to this sort of bigotry, making ‘dog whistle’ speeches about the inadequacies of ‘multi-culturalism’ and the failure of immigrants to integrate – there being no blame attached to the host nations here, of course. The new German Interior Minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich is the latest to have joined this club. Even in the current climate, it was staggering that he thought the best way to announce his arrival in post was to inform four million of the citizens for whose security he is responsible that their faith had no place in Germany.

Against such a backdrop, it is no wonder that there has been a faltering response by European governments to the pro-democracy uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. Rather than seeing the potential benefits of their southern neighbours joining them as liberal democratic societies, many European leaders only seem able to look at the inspiring events in the Arab world through the distorting lenses of immigration and security threats. This is unlikely to produce an adequate reaction in support of the people who have succeeded in casting off their dictators.

Even a cursory examination of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and the protests across the region shows how viewing them in terms of immigration and security risk misses the point. I have yet to see or hear a protester who had decided to risk getting shot in the town square in order to secure a place in a leaky boat to Lampedusa or life as a second-class citizen in a crumbling banlieue.  Nor is there any sign that many of the protesters got involved because they wanted to improve Al-Qaeda’s chances of blowing up trains in Europe.

The revolutionaries rose up because they wanted to make the places where they live better. Their demands are free speech, jobs and an end to the corrupt dictatorships that deny them these rights. The French documentary Tunisie: La Revolution en Marche, filmed amongst the revolutionaries in the deprived town of Kasserine provides just one of many detailed illustrations of what the uprisings are all about. It follows particularly closely a 29 year old demonstrator, Safoua Bouazzi. She is a former law student, who has been unemployed for four years and joined the protests because she has had enough of being silenced and denied the opportunities her obvious intelligence warrants.

In a recent debate following the screening of the film at the International Human Rights Film Festival in Geneva, Bouazzi made absolutely clear that she and others like her had no desire to leave their homes and families. Nor did they seek charity. What they wanted was help in building democratic, non-corrupt systems of governance and generating opportunities for employment.

Europe has ample recent experience of assisting countries in making the transition to democracy and a market economy from the period following the similar wave of revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe twenty years ago. Much of what is required in the Arab world need not even be as all-encompassing. Unlike much of post-communist Europe, most of the countries concerned already have some functioning elements of a market-based economic system in place.  As the protests showed, they also have ample supplies of under or un-employed graduates, such as Bouazzi, and creative, energetic and organised people of all types. The steps these people have taken to remove the dead hand of regime corruption provide a great opportunity to rebuild their societies in ways that will enable them to unleash their full potential as productive citizens.

If this is to happen, then a sustained programme of assistance from Europe will be required. Some funds are already available for this, allocated under the EU’s lacklustre Barcelona Process. This should be completely overhauled in order to respond to the new realities on the ground and could perhaps be co-funded by the petrodollars of those Arab states who share an interest in building genuine stability in the Arab world.

Inevitably, it will take time to construct a long-term ‘Marshall Plan’- style programme for the Middle East. There are, though, some useful actions that could be undertaken immediately. One such step would be for European governments to go further than simply blocking the bank accounts of Ben Ali, Mubarak and company. European banks should never have been allowed by their governments to solicit and profit from these ill-gotten gains in the first place. Instead of blocking accounts, those governments should order that the money be returned immediately to the countries from which it was stolen. If this proves difficult due to legal challenges, then the banks should be required to match the assets they hold with interest-free loans to a new fund for small business start-ups and job creation, to be delivered via purpose-built local NGOs in Tunisia and Egypt. These loans could be reimbursed to the western banks from the frozen assets, as and when they are freed up. This should encourage them to cooperate with the legal process, unlike on previous occasions when countries have sought the return of former dictator’s assets. Similar schemes could be set up for other Arab countries as and when their regimes fall.

Safoua Bouazzi’s plans to set up a vegetable oil business with her sister have long been stalled due to lack of access to finance. What better way of rewarding her efforts in overthrowing the dictatorship and redressing Europe’s complicity in supporting the old regime than by enabling her to do it with some of the funds Ben Ali and his clan stole from her and millions like her?

After all, if the opportunity can be seized to help more people to build prosperous lives of liberty in the places from where they come, then perhaps Europe’s Islamophobes will be able to stop worrying about immigration or insecurity quite so much.

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