Monday, 24 September 2012

Demanding respect for one's values

A news item on the English version of Al-Jazeerah News says that President Morsi of Egypt will asking for respect from the USA for Egypt's values. Morsi is in New-York for the opening of the Fall session of the General Assembly of the United Nations.
Such a headline in the current climate or even any other time will attract attention and raise eyebrows. I can see the comments from some readers enraged by such a request. How can the President of Egypt ask anything given the generous financial subsidies his country has been receiving from many countries for so many years. How can a poor country ask something from wealthy nations. People will view such a request through their own optics and pass a quick judgement call.

We should remember that in 1971 during the first secret meeting between Henry Kissinger and Chinese Premier Zhou En-Lai in Beijing which led to the Nixon visit and recognition of the PRC by the USA in 1979, the Chinese position was that the PRC had its own value system and that they would not adopt American values, the relationship would be one of equals.

What President Morsi is saying has to be viewed in the context of his region of the world and its people and their grievances. It does not matter if you agree or not, it is a matter of listening to what is being said. Many of the countries of North Africa and of the Levant (middle-east) were for centuries dominated politically by the Ottoman Turks and where part of the greater Ottoman Empire. The Turks are not Arabs, in origin they are from Central Asia and migrated about 900 years ago to Anatolia. In the 19th century, with the Ottoman Empire becoming weaker politically, the establishment of a new domination by Europeans started all over North Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria came under French domination, the British took Libya, Egypt and then pushed into the Middle-East with France and created new countries like Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and a protectorate in Palestine. Installing at the same time Arab Princes as Kings of these new countries in the hope that they would do Europe's bidding.

Egypt had a difficult time of it, with Napoleon looting ancient treasures in his contempt for Egypt. To subsequent French and English governments who took over the administration of the country on the pretext that debts on enormous loans were due and since the Khedive could not pay well then we simply take your country and rule it. The Royal family in Egypt were hostages to their colonial rulers. The end of the Second World War saw a diminished Britain and France and a growing USA influence in the region. Finally in 1952 Colonel Nasser overthrew the Monarchy and kicked the foreigners out. But the years of political humiliation and economic subservience were not over. There was the Suez Canal crisis which nearly caused a third World War and where the USA had to intervene to stop both British and French interests and then the wars with Israël and the support of Arab independence around the Middle-East. In the 1970's with the death of Nasser and the failure of his socio-economic experiments appeared a growing Muslim religious movements with strong political and social overtones, asking for economic reforms and social justice.

During the Cold War years the great powers both the USSR and the USA played the Arabs against one another, in Egypt it was over technical cooperation and financing of the great Aswan Dam.  The Egyptian government did not know how to respond to the demands of its own rapidly growing population, not enough schools, not enough jobs, not enough food nor money nor economic opportunities, poor infrastructure and finally generalized poverty in what was in antiquity a great Empire as the ancient monuments attest. The loss of face also in 1967 in the conflict against Israël. The Egyptian population demanded change and change came finally a year ago with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak whose political career went all the way back to 1973 under President Anwar Sadat.

The Egyptians are now looking for a new approach in their diplomatic relationship with Western powers like the USA based on mutual respect. Egypt is an ancient land, 5000 years of history, its important contribution to the advancement of civilization is established.  Egypt is also a conservative society with strong family values, in the West some will cringe at those words. But for all that, Egyptians are an easy going people. It is also a mix society, there is a small  Egyptian-Jewish population, the Christian Copts represent about 10% of its population and the rest Muslims, very few fanatics in either of the faiths.

What President Morsi is saying to us is NO more cartoons, movies, and other insults against Islamic beliefs and religion in general. Is it too much to ask that you do not insult a people's religion or beliefs. It is pretty common for all of us to expect basic respect for what we believe. You may not agree with a person's beliefs but you do not have the right to insult them because you claim the higher moral ground.

You will have clowns who want to burn a holy book, who think that a cartoon is just that, but for many people it has far more meaning, especially if you have a long colonial past of oppression, injustice. and humiliations at the hands of countries who still claim to this day the higher moral ground. The indignation is understandable, it is inconceivable in Egypt that anyone could say deeply offensive things and simply walk away.  One also has to question the motive behind this little movie or the cartoons, what was or is the motive. Such individual damaged our interest and cause untold damage to to others by their behaviour, is that not worth at least a moral sanction and being called to account.
No one has explained so far their motive, not the movie producer nor the editors of newspapers or magazines. When asked they do not give a reason, hiding instead behind general notions of freedom of speech or freedom of the press. Though such freedoms are important in a democratic society they should not be abused for notoriety.

President Morsi is basically saying you respect us and we will respect you, simple enough and do not expect us to adopt your value system. The relationship has to be on an equal footing, no more condescending attitude. The missionary zeal, the lectures are no longer acceptable, we may not agree on every point but we will respect our differences.
We should also not forget that Morsi speaks for the Egyptians who elected him and for their aspirations, which go well beyond religious matters.


  1. Excellent points. It does amaze me tht, at least when I last read about it, the long trailer for Innocence of Muslims is still there on YouTube. It should have been removed immediately for incitement to hatred.

    I too found the Egyptians easy-going, most humorous of all the middle Eastern people I've encountered.

  2. Well written. Sadly I think I understand the motives of the people who made the recent film. They are political and religious extremeist of the exact same stripe as the estremists they claim to oppose. Their actions are based more on hate than ideology.

    The freedom of speech issue is a tough one for Americans but in the end the issue is not about the right to speak but the personal responsibility to behave as a civilized human being.

  3. i have a difficult time with this issue. a fellow atheist, author christopher hitchens once said that religious folk do NOT deserve respect, as their beliefs often are a cloak for all sorts of offensive, violent, racist, misogynistic, and homophobic behaviors. i tend to agree. although when dealing with fanatical groups beliefs, one must use caution, realizing that using offense will only feed the fire, and any goal of influencing beliefs will be rendered impossible. the makers of the video need to be held accountable for their actions, as one would when yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater. as an atheist, i learn to pick my fights wisely, but mostly i just live according to my moral dictates, and hope that others do so as well, and that they leave me alone in the process. sadly, the latter happens all too rarely...