Thursday, May 28, 2009

Mutual Respect Starts with Ending Political Paternalism

    Thursday, May 28, 2009   No comments

by A. E. Souaiaia

After eight years of unilateral interventions and simplistic governance through a formula that divided the world into people who are with us and people who are against us, the Obama administration took office with a transformative promise. For the first time in the country’s history, the President of the United States promises in his inaugural address an era of cooperation with the Muslim world based on “mutual respect.”

Indeed, that was a powerful message delivered to the Muslim masses who have lost hope in changing their own fortunes and despaired in wishing to see a U.S. government taking the side of the people not that of the ruling elite.

But the realism of politics and the ill-advised steps taken so far are rendering the message of hope and mutual respect into a narrative of grandeur for self-healing. The new era he promised is yet to materialize and the steps taken by the Secretary of the Sate and the Vice President vis-à-vis Lebanon are not encouraging at all.

Lebanon is a barometer of Middle Eastern political trends. A country that emerged from civil war and religious conflict is now governed through a delicate arrangement that forgave the old corrupt guard and forced the post-civil war generation to navigate conflicting narratives of history.

This June, Lebanese voters will select members of the parliament the composition of which will help determine the next generation of political leaders. The ethnic and political map of the country mirrors the competing interests of the regional and international powers. The Bush administration advanced the formula of moderate and extremist Middle East and, for some reason, that formula is still guiding the diplomacy of the Obama administration. The problem with that formula is that it necessarily negates the promise of mutual respect advanced by President Obama. At minimum, mutual respect would mean that people in a sovereign nation are not told whom they elect or not elect.

Notwithstanding his guiding principle of mutual respect and mutual interests between the US and the Muslim world, the Obama administration has dispatched Secretary Clinton and Vice President Biden to Lebanon to deliver an old message: “U.S. is on the side of the moderates.” This intervention may prove to be so offensive that Lebanese voters would vote for the opposition (led by Hezbollah) just to send a message to the U.S. that they do not appreciate their interference and their paternalism. Mutual respect starts with respecting the will of the people; that is one easy way of promoting democracy in a region governed by rulers who think they are God’s gift to peoples who cannot be trusted with decision-making.

No one can make the argument that Canadian politicians, for example, may tell the American citizens how to vote, why would U.S. politicians think they can tell Lebanese citizens of the citizens of any other independent country how to vote? That is not mutual respect.


Prof. A. E. Souaiaia is an Adjunct Faculty, College of Law, University of Iowa; he is the author of Contesting Justice: Women, Islam, Law, and Society.


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