Journey to Jordan, April 2007

I participated as faculty in at the United Nations University International Leadership Institute (UNU-ILI) in Amman, Jordan, April 15-18, 2007. The course was titled Democracy and Human Rights in Transition: Challenges of the Globalizing World. Murad Tangiev, a Chechnyan, organized the course, which was funded by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF). The FNF is a German NGO committed to promoting liberal policy and politics founded by the liberal Free Democratic Party (The FDP is currently the third-largest party in the Bundestag).

Presenting at the United Nations University program Democracy and Human Rights in Transition: Challenges of the Globalizing World, Amman, Jordan, 2007

FNF literature describes the organization’s purpose: “To create an open society FNF is guided by the principles of Liberalism and its message of tolerance and acceptance of diversity. Its core concepts such as the protection of human rights, the application of the rule of law, liberal democracy and free market economy have proven throughout the centuries that Liberalism offers appropriate solutions for the present and the future in public and personal life.” Most of the participants in the UNU-ILI course embraced FNF’s liberal orientation, which caused a few moments of tension, as I challenged their standpoint, namely the downplaying of social rights. More on this later.

This was my second time teaching at the UNU-ILI. I served as faculty in November 2006 in a course organized by Jordanian political sociologist Ibtesam Al-Atiyat titled Youth Leadership, the Politicization of Religion, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East. The Konrad Adenauer Foundation, an NGO founded by the Christian Democratic movement (and named after the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic in 1964), sponsored Ibtesam’s course. In that course, I lectured on the subject of Christian neo-fundamentalism and US foreign policy, chaired a panel on resistance and terrorism, and worked with young people from around the world to develop declarations regarding the hopes of democratization and the problems of politicization of religion.

Whereas organizers aimed the November course at young students, Democracy and Human Rights in Transition was, to quote the brochure, “designed for UN and NGO specialists and representatives, mid-level to senior policy makers, academicians, diplomats, post-graduate students, researchers, practitioners working in the field of democracy and human rights.” The course description reflected its target audience:

Democracy and human rights are considered to be fundamental prerequisites for a sustainable development and long-term peace. Nowadays, many societies of the world experience mass violations of human rights and conflicts which pose a considerable obstacle towards building liberal democratic states. Human rights violations are often particularly severe in the periods of transition during which societies are undergoing significant political, social, and economic transformations. Protection of human rights and improvement of their practices in transition is imperative and must be the central goal for political leadership. In fact, democracy is a system of an open political decision making and it is, in many ways, a system of conflict management that provides predictable procedures in which collective decisions can be taken without the risk that losing a political battle will mean grave misfortune, imprisonment, or even loss of life. Even those societies which have managed to build relatively sustainable democracy still need to make a substantial consolidating effort because new democracies are extremely vulnerable. Their inhabitants lack experience of democratic governance but are hoping for a rapid change and improvement in their living conditions. To lead societies safely to democracy it is vitally important to establish democratic institutions, foster democratic culture, ensure free and just elections as well as to build capacity of political leadership.

The syllabus, written by Murad, states course objectives thusly: “In the era of globalization, establishment of democratic institutions and inviolability of human rights have become an essential condition for political, social and economic development. However, the process of transformation or transition to democracy is extremely complex and poses a serious challenge for the societies in the transitional period. Hence, the main aim of the course is to expose and explore the key challenges on the way to democracy faced by polities and societies in transition in the context of globalization of world politics and economy.” The practical purpose of the course was “to create an international network of activists, scholars, researches, students and specialist who work in the field of human rights and committed to promotion of liberal democracy.” The syllabus explains: “The network will basically provide information exchange on relevant courses, forums, conferences, events, campaigns and etc. on democracy and human rights. It will also provide an opportunity for human rights activists, scholars and researches to share their findings and experience with wider communities. Thus, the network should serve as an efficient think-tank or a rich information resource for all who strive for equality, freedom and development.” (I do not know the success of the course in achieving its goal.)

My task was to introduce the conceptual-theoretical foundations and the history of democracy and human rights. I left it to others to present examples of successful transitions to democracy (as well as failures during transition). The discussion over the course of the several days covered the role of civil society organizations and movements in establishment of democracy and protection of human rights, cultural and religious factors encouraging democratic political culture; challenges of democratization in the context of religious extremism and nationalism, and the role of mass media, women and youth movements.

I spoke on day one. I titled my lecture “Democracy and Human Rights: Development and Historical Perspectives.” Rosemary Foot, of St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, chaired the session. Also speaking in the session were UNU-ILI director Jairam Reddy (“Concept of Leadership”) and Gurchathen S. Sanghera of the University of Bristol (“Democracy and Human Rights: Challenges of Globalization”). Reddy spoke about the problems of leadership, identifying two problems: the crisis of governance and ecological problems. He emphasized the importance of the moral capital of leaders, the excellence of character and the virtue of integrity. Characteristics of good leaders is vision, trust (accountable and predictable), empowerment, and values and principles. He defined charisma as “the power to connect to a different plane of reality.” Not my cup of tea.

I began my talk by noting that many speak of democracy as something they want, and many governments proclaim it. Indeed, democracy must be quite an elastic concept to fit so many different political systems and individual aspirations. I presented a slide that identified in blue those countries that declare themselves democracies in one form or another. Almost every country was blue. This drew a chuckle from the audience. Commenting that democracy cannot be so many things, I asked the rhetorical question “What is democracy?” I began answering this by establishing the core meaning of democracy, namely government by the people. I then divided democracy into two broad categories: (1) liberal democracy and (2) popular democracy.

To define liberal democracy, I presented material from Freedom House, an organization associated with the National Endowment for Democracy and the ongoing United States policy of global democracy promotion, and from The Economist, an influential British weekly newsmagazine covering world business, current affairs, and cultural trends. Both conceptualize liberal democracy as a competitive, multiparty political system, marked by universal adult suffrage, regularly contested elections with secret ballots and minor voter fraud, significant public access to major political parties through media and generally open campaigns. Both link liberal democracy to freedom, emphasizing political rights and civil liberties. While democracy is associated with freedom, they argue that not every democracy provides maximal freedom. Prominent in the literature of both entities is an emphasis on private property and free markets—indeed, if a country did not allow for substantial private ownership of property, then we could not call that country democratic. I presented several maps portraying the analysis of these entities.

To probe the liberal democratic model for problems, I provided the Republic of Cuba as a contrasting case. After discussing the electoral system in Cuba, I noted that, according to the definitions of Freedom House and The Economist, Cuba was not a democracy; it lacks a competitive, multiparty political system and, being a socialist country, it suppresses capitalist logic. But I pointed out that, historically, political parties and free markets have not been fundamental to democracy. I gave examples, ranging from the ancient Indian republics to the governments of the Native America. Moreover, I noted the considerable body of evidence that suggests that too much property in too few hands undermines democracy.

The point to all this was to demonstrate that the liberal argument is ideological. I cited the work of FA Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, influential voices who argue that inequality is a good thing and government intervention is a bad thing because it interferes with liberty which, if done right, creates inequality. Then I cited the work of those who disagree with the liberal viewpoint. For classical liberalism opponents, notions of democracy as political freedom and civil liberties without social rightsis an empty promise, democratic in form but not democratic in content. I further explained that liberal democracy is what Robert Dahl termed “polyarchy”—a system in which a small group of elites actually rules and mass participation in decision-making is confined to leadership choice in elections carefully managed by competing elites (this is a close paraphrase of William I Robinson’s definition of the term). Polyarchy is democracy of the elites. In a polyarchy, if its assumptions are accepted, there is no contradiction between “democratic” process and a social order punctuated by sharp social inequalities and minority monopolization of society’s material and cultural resources (again, a close paraphrase of Robinson).

In contrast to capitalism, democracy is founded on equity(or fairness) and equalityin that, in the ideal, everybody has an equal say in the decisions that affects them and thus reap some benefit from participation. This is populardemocracy, and, in this model, proponents explicitly join politics and economics in a positive manner. Popular democracy involves a dispersal of power throughout society and requires the participation of broad majorities in decision making and policy formulation. I noted that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in articles 22, 23, and 25, speak to the importance of social rights—work, leisure, health care, housing, and so forth. I projected onto the screen these three articles. I pointed out that many governments ignore these rights, including the United States. I demonstrated the point with the case of the hurricane Katrina disaster. The storm killed so many people, I argued, in part because the government failed to keep the nation’s infrastructure in working order and to respond in a timely manner. But it was even more fundamentally a problem of racism and social class that located and concentrated poor people in low-lying flood-prone areas. Katrina was a human-caused disaster, one long in the making. More than a year later, the city of New Orleans is still a disaster, I told them.

I argued that, while poverty is a moral catastrophe, one can also approach the problem of inequality from a practical standpoint, namely the importance of stability along the path of development. I again used the example of my own country. Compared to most European nations, the United States is extreme in its degree of income and wealth inequality. The primary cause of this dynamic is the overbearing character of business monopoly and oligopoly — a system of megacorporations that stands beyond democratic redress. Such conditions are the breeding grounds for extremism, evidenced by the dominance of fundamentalist and neofundamentalist Christianity in the United States, political forces that are decidedly authoritarian and anti-democratic. These forces, I argued, have sharply weakened the democratic culture of my country and have wreaked havoc around the world, a subject upon which I have written about (this was, in fact, the topic of my lecture in November).

I concluded by arguing that authoritarianism and extremism fill the vacuum left by weak democratic institutions. With observers in every country recognizing that extremism is one of the major problems facing stable development and peaceful governmental relations, understanding the role material inequality plays in undermining democracy’s promise is as important as understanding the ideological content of extremism. Since democracy, in its purest sense, treats common people as constituting the source of political authority, hereditary class or group distinctions and privileges, which give some people cumulative advantages, which translate into more political power, are generally considered antithetical to a functioning democracy. A society in which there are substantial inequities of wealth and power indicate that people are insufficiently free. They may have liberty in the narrow liberal sense, but they do not have the fuller conception of freedom.

Murad had wanted me to give this argument as a lecture ever since he witnessed what happened when I introduced the argument into discussion during the November 2006 course. Then, when I asked the students to consider opening up their conception of democracy to more than the limited rhetoric of liberal-pluralism by considering matters of industrial democracy and collective control over resources, a young woman accused me of advocating communism. I explained that my argument was about democracy and freedom. I pointed out that Capitalism is one of the causes of unemployment and poverty around the world, and that the more unfettered capitalism is the more brutal are its effects. I explained the logic of inequality among the nations, theories of world-systems, dependency, development-underdevelopment and so forth. She was impervious to the science of the matter. In her mind, democracy could only be about political rights and civil liberties. The argument made for highly interesting moment.

The question period following my April lecture was memorable. I had many questions asked of me, but the two that stuck out were these: An American woman, I believe her name is Allison Beth Hodgkins (she is the resident director of the Council on International Educational Exchange Study Center in Amman), argued that democracy was a political system and thus had nothing to do with economics and matters of substantive equality. Much like the student in the November course, Mrs. Hodgkins said that I was advocating socialism (she diplomatically avoided the “c” word). I told her, for one thing, the people of the world have not made up their minds about the definition of democracy and many, if not most, people disagreed with liberal limitations. Second, I explained that I had no practical opposition to markets as long as such arrangements serve social rights (I do, however, oppose capitalist markets at a moral level). A woman in the front row, a Danish woman whom I believe was named Heidi Nygaard (working with the National Center for Human Rights), expanded my point, saying that democracy was a way of life, a basic universal value, and that while the process could differ widely, there needed to be some fundamental things. A Dane would recognize this. A Palestinian woman asked the second question. She referred to maps I presented during the lecture and asked through choked tears, “Can you tell me please, professor, where is my country on your map?”

That afternoon, I chaired the session “Democracy and Human Rights in Transition: Case Study, Part I.” One of the speakers, Uri Dromi, who was to speak about democracy and human rights in Israel, did not show up. I don’t know why he didn’t appear, but it’s probably just as well that he didn’t, as Dromi was a colonel in the Israeli Defense Forces, and had participated in the Six Day War, the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War, and the Lebanon War. He also served as the North American Director of Information for the World Zionist Organization and as Director of the Government Press Office in Israel. Several participants told me they wish he had appeared so that they could confront his war crimes. (Perhaps that’s why he didn’t show?)


His absence was our gain, as his replacements were three wonderful women activists, Tali Nir, an attorney for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Roni Rothler, director of the Disability Rights Clinic and on the faculty of law at Bar Iian University, and Fathiya Husein, administrative director of Adalah, a legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel (this is their web page in English: Adalah). We spent much time throughout the course and in our journey to Petra discussing Arab-Israeli issues. During their presentations, I learned that there are one million Arabs in Israel, twenty percent of which are Palestinians. Arabs are eight-one percent Muslim, ten percent Christian, and nine percent Jews. Thus, the reality of Israel is multicultural and bilingual. Yet the state is a Jewish state in which Arabs are treated as strangers in their own land. Several forms of discrimination were noted, for example immigration; while every Jew around the world is encouraged to come to Israel, displaced Arabs are not permitted to return to their homeland. In fact, families are not allowed to reunite, violating even the basic rules of human decency. Other problems cited were the separation barrier, building laws (even in Palestine Palestinians are not allowed to build), and the allocation of resources (seventy-seven percent of Arab children live in poverty, welfare services are lacking, and educational institutions are in a pitiful state). To address discrimination, Adalah is proposing constitutional framework for the state of Israel “based on the concept of a democratic, bilingual, multicultural state. This proposed constitution draws on universal principles and international conventions on human rights, the experiences of nations and the constitutions of various democratic states.”

Back in Petra

Speaking after them was Walid Salem, who lectured on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He argued that as long as the dispute over the occupied territories remained in the political framework it would be easy for Israel to fail to change course. Therefore, it is important to move the discussion into the framework of international law. The separation barrier was the symptomatic of the problem. Israel argues that the separation barrier is necessary in order to protect its citizens from violence. Thus, the wall is self-defense against terrorism. However, the wall runs through the occupied territory and thus represents a backdoor attempt to annex illegally obtained land (it is a crime under international law to annex territories obtain through war). Salem argued that Israel expands the anti-terrorist argument to their policy of pre-emptive and preventative warfare, even claiming the right to attack nonstate actors, which necessarily involves attacking “combatants” in civilian areas. But the international law is quite clear: either persons are combatants or citizens. If an occupied territory then the Geneva convention rules apply, yet Israel argues that human rights only apply in the context of a state. The settlements are clearly illegal. Finally, there is the matter of collective self-determination, namely the right to a state, a right that Rabin recognized (he was assassinated) and the UN says is obligatory. Israel violates this by arguing that self-determination does not require a state.

Joost Hilterman (“Civil War and Human Rights in Iraq”), Anya Wollenberg (“Concepts of Broadcasting in Iraq), and Patricia Gossman (“Transition to Democracy in the Post-Conflict setting in Afghanistan”) followed Salem. Hilterman gave a very detailed presentation of the problems in Iraq, but he made a serious conceptual error when he defined “Islamist” as “devoted Muslim.” As Ibtesam pointed out, “My mother is a devoted Muslim. Is she an Islamist?” Wollenberg’s presentation was interesting. I learned much from it. Gossman’s presentation was, frankly, horrible. One would think from her writings that she knew the history of the Afghanistan conflict, but her presentation was a whitewash of the West’s involvement. So consumed was she with blaming everything on the communists that she grossly distorted the historical record. To hear her tell it, the Evil Empire invaded Afghanistan because the Afghan communists weren’t slaughtering civilians fast enough.

At a cafe with sociologist Ibtesam Al-Atiyat t who made all this possible in the first place

Patricia Gossman identifies herself as an adjunct professor in Women’s Studies at Georgetown University and a lecturer at the Johns Hopkins Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. She has worked for Human Rights Watch and evidently holds a Ph.D. in South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago. Here’s a sample of her writing (from Middle East Report): “The United Front might be new allies, but they are certainly no strangers to the US. Most of the factions currently allied in the coalition fought against the Soviet Union and Afghan communist forces in the 1980s. Some, but not all, benefited from the CIA pipeline that funneled funds and weapons to the Afghan mujahideen (resistance forces).” Note how she characterizes the mujahideen as “resistance forces.” This is a lie. The mujahideen were CIA-backed terrorists whose purpose was to destroy progressive entities and movements in Afghanistan. The mujahideen was organized and led by Middle Eastern practitioners of Salafism or Wahabbism, for example, Osama bin Laden, the son of a wealthy Saudi contractor. It was CIA activities in Afghanistan that led to the successful brutal regimes that ruled Afghanistan. One of these regimes was the Taliban.

Day two involved another long day of lectures. Among the several speakers during the session Democracy and Human Rights in Transition: Case Study, Part II, Rosemary Foote spoke about the changing approach to democracy and human rights in China and Murad spoke about the communist legacy and transitional democracy in the Russian Federation. The following session, “UN, Civil Society, Democracy and Human Rights,” had a very interesting presentation by Adnan Huskic on “Role of the Human Rights NGOs: Bosnia and Herzegovina.” But the highlight of the session was a lecture titled “Women Movements in Democratic Political Process,” delivered by Ibtesam Al-Atiyat. Rosemary Foote leaned over to me during the talk and said, “She is a brave woman.”

Day three involved a study visit to the Political Development Ministry and the National Centre for Human Rights in the morning. I learned that the Jordanian police are not distinct from the military and that there is no internal affairs division. After lunch, we pursued group work. I was in Group One, concepts and their relevance. There were several questions that can be summarized thusly: What kind of democracy best serves human rights and why? Is the concept of liberal democracy universal or a product of the West? Are there universal standards pertaining to democracy and human rights or should each country develop its own standards in accordance with cultural traditions and current political challenges? My group detected that a false dichotomy was afoot and devised an argument that bridged the gap between universal human rights and tolerance for cultural diversity.

This is getting long, so I will wrap it up. I visited Petra again, as well as an ancient theater and stables built by the Roman Empire when it included the land of Jordan, built during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (169-177 AD). I also had a chance to break away from my handlers and tour the Palestinians neighborhoods with Ibtesam. On my way to the airport the cab driver lowered his voice and asked rhetorically, “You know the democracy they say we have? Not so much.”

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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