Saturday, April 26, 2008
Saturday, April 19, 2008
This year is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which all countries member of the UN claim to adhere. Yet... I had an interesting conversation today with six Jordanians, all elite and educated.
At more than one point in the conversation, I heard "I agree with these principles, but this is impossible here in Jordan". After going home I thought about it and asked myself: are there such things as universal values anyways?
Later at night I joined a group of foreigners, artists and NGO workers. As a coincidence, they were also puzzling at the impossibility to apply some very basic principles in Jordan.
I was pointing that this Article 1 of the Declaration is the product of great thinkers: all men are born equal, and have the same rights, regardless of their religion or colour of skin. I know... some breakthrough ! It's yesterday's news ! Guys sweated out this idea about 200 years ago, at a difficult time. Still... it hasn't reached the Middle East. Not even a "modern" city like Amman.
I remember in University, my sophisticated Arab classmates would defend their countries when someone would question the ability of their homelands to embrace "Universal" values. They would say "We Arabs are modern now, what do you think ? You westerners believe stereotypes based on negative TV propaganda". Is it so ?
Here I'm not even talking about rural areas or religious extremist groups or particularly poor communities, for whom there would be the excuse that they're not exposed to "Universal" values. I'm talking about official State policies, about modern cities, and about values among the educated upper class.
The policy of stamping one's official ID card and passport with one's religion or ethnicity is widely accepted, for example. It means you're marked at birth with a tag that becomes your identity, and modifies the way society and its laws treat you for the rest of your life and that of your children. Incidentally it also creates a specific divide within one's country and society.
In Jordan, you can't obtain the license to open liquor store if you're a Muslim. A non-muslim cannot marry a Muslim woman. You can get away with DUI if you're a Christian...
This may seem like minor details in the quiet Hashemite kingdom, but transpose the situation in Lebanon or Iraq, and you immediately seize the problem: it can become a matter of life and death, when civil wars have been declared in the past or present on entire populations, based on their religion or ethnicity.
In many countries of the Middle East, "enlightened" leaders pride themselves with western education and progressive views. Recently, Queen Rania made statements on Youtube, that she would prove how modern and forward-thinking the Arab world could be, and get rid of "stereotypes".
Still, in her country, the issue of official identity is left to customary tribal classification. And no one is really thinking about questioning it.
This official policy is deeply rooted. People still think in terms of belonging to a tribe, or to an ethnic-religious group, before they belong to their country. In Iraq you're an "Arab" or "Kurd" or "Turkmen".
In Egypt you have to choose between three religions ("Christian", "Jew" or "Muslim") to even GET an ID card. You cannot be Buddhist or atheist or drop your religion and convert. And without an ID you can't get an education, register to public services, or get a driving licence. You are non-existent.
In any Middle East country, if you're a Palestinian, your grandchildren's children will still be considered as belonging to a separate group.
It seems paradoxical because as a political entity, the State's interest should be to unify its people under the only identity of "citizen".
It feels strange to explain to a contemporary audience these very basic concepts as if they were new. It's like re-inventing the wheel: you feel either very silly, or for a moment pretend to be a revolutionary political genius. Neither is very rewarding.
The repercussions of this division and classification are infinite, and they're perpetuated through heredity, hindering any hope of melting a population into a unified nation, paving the way for more frustrations and possible wars.
Sometimes it reaches absurd levels, comical even. Colombian singer Shakira, for instance, is widely considered in the Middle East to be Lebanese, because her Grandmother was a (Christian) Lebanese. Any other branch of her family and heritage is dismissed, due to a strange concept of superiority of Middle Eastern blood in defining one's identity.
The case of French President Sarkozy is a true gem. He's from Hungarian descent, therefore in Middle Eastern minds he's "a Hungarian", not a "true French" (try explaining that to him !). But, wait for it. One of his grandparents was Jewish. Therefore, "he's Jewish" (as stated by Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram), no matter his upbringing in a catholic family and his own creed. That's no detail in Middle Eastern eyes.
Strangely, a reverse identity crisis was happening in France these past 30 years. Children of Algerian immigrants fought for their rights to be recognised as full-fledged French citizens, regardless of their origins. Rightfully so, because they were born in France, knew no other culture and defined themselves as French, albeit proud of their ancestors. But definitely and totally French.
It's tragic to see that in the Middle East, their identity would be denied: no matter what, they'd be considered as "Arabs", and so would their children's children.
This racist, distorted line of thought is extremely disempowering, stripping the individual of the freedom to define himself. It also is unfitting to an open world where people mix and mingle, marry beyond their "tribe" and travel. A political persona like senator Barack Obama would be completely unthinkable here (they even think he's a Muslim, because of his name).
I feel sorry for those last tribes who are ill-prepared to deal with a changing world. They don't know what's coming at them. In the 21st century, if you don't go out in the world, the world comes right at your door, and there's no stopping it.
So: are Universal Rights something reserved exclusively to "the happy few", developed countries of the Northern Hemisphere ? No. It's not a mere product of European values, impossible to transplant elsewhere.
The people who drafted those Universal Rights did not base them on a specific culture, but on a shared Human capacity for reason, a universal language of logic and common sense that's spread on all continents. This is why they are one of mankind's greatest achievements and are worth defending still, 200 years later, in a Middle Eastern restaurant, as if you were re-inventing the universal wheel. And it may even make you feel like a bit of a philosopher yourself.