Yesterday's session of the UN General Assembly brought fine words from President Obama.
"Humanity’s future," he said, "depends on us uniting against those who would divide us along the fault lines of tribe or sect, race or religion". And yet, despite the noble sentiments, his speech only deepened the confusion and contradictions surrounding the war against ISIS.
If we look beyond our own borders – "if we think globally and if we act cooperatively" – we can shape the course of this century, the president said. So far, so good. But the problems really start when we consider who to cooperate with.
"Where a genuine civil society is allowed to flourish – where people can express their views, and organise peacefully for a better life – then you dramatically expand the alternatives to terror ...
"When young people have the tools to succeed – good schools, education in math and science, an economy that nurtures creativity and entrepreneurship – then societies will flourish ...
"Where women are full participants in a country’s politics or economy, societies are more likely to succeed ...
"If young people live in places where the only option is between the dictates of a state, or the lure of an extremist underground, then no counterterrorism strategy can succeed."
This is the nub of the issue. While "thinking globally and acting cooperatively", Obama is trying to combat religious extremism – aided by some of the countries most responsible for creating it. He is right to say that no counterterrorism strategy can succeed where the only choice for young people is "between the dictates of a state, or the lure of an extremist underground", but that is exactly the choice that most of the Arab countries provide.
Obama is also right to say that you "dramatically expand the alternatives to terror" when a genuine civil society is allowed to flourish – when there is proper education (not endless religious indoctrination), when creativity and freedom of expression is valued rather than suppressed, and when women are treated as full participants in the life of the country.
That is a perfect description of what most Arab countries are not – and especially Saudi Arabia which happens also to be the leading Arab partner in the battle against ISIS.
Interestingly, Obama also held up several predominantly Muslim countries as examples of "positive change":
"We see it in Tunisia, where secular and Islamist parties worked together through a political process to produce a new constitution. We see it in Senegal, where civil society thrives alongside a strong democratic government. We see it in Malaysia, where vibrant entrepreneurship is propelling a former colony into the ranks of advanced economies. And we see it in Indonesia, where what began as a violent transition has evolved into a genuine democracy."
If so, shouldn't the US be treating them as key partners in the struggle against extremism, rather than the autocrats who rule over its breeding grounds?
Cameron joins in
In another speech at the General Assembly, British prime minister David Cameron echoed Obama's sentiments:
"Brutal dictatorship made the region more dangerous not less. More dangerous because these regimes dealt with frustration at home by whipping up anger against their neighbours, the West and Israel. And more dangerous too, because people denied a job and a voice were given no alternative but a dead end choice between dictatorship or extremism."
"Let us judge governments," he said, "not by their religion but by how they act and what they do." In which case, he might reconsider Britain's unwavering support for the repressive government in Bahrain or Britain's growing friendship with what Cameron described as "the new democratic government" in Egypt.
Instead of seeking to have President Sisi arraigned for
the massacre of more than 800 of his citizens, Cameron announced that Britain is setting up a task force to help the Egyptian government recover assets stolen and stashed away by the Mubarak regime.
It will not be at all surprising if, 10 years from now, another British prime minister declares his intention to help another "new democratic government" in Egypt recover assets stolen and stashed away by the Sisi regime.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 25 September 2014