When People Turn a Blind Eye and Leaders Go Deaf

Rio Helmi, 10 February 2011

Democracy is a term whose precise meaning is elusive, especially so in developing nations. For leaders more worried about superficial legitimacy than actually taking on the task of improving the lot of their people, ‘democracy’ revolves around elections and how to get through them intact. It has become something of an industry standard; when others dispute results and methods, one can always refute these protests simply with “Hey, we held free elections”. Somehow human rights end up secondary on the display shelf.

Naturally, not only do elections supposedly legitimize regimes in their own countries, but they also legitimize other more powerful democracies (the “West”) dealing with these regimes towards their own ends. These are marriages of convenience between parties that come to an understanding mostly without really understanding the other party, something of an agreement between thieves. Human rights issues are just minor thorns, burrs caught on the trousers of powerful men striding across new fields to be plowed.

One may claim that 20th and 21st Century intelligence gathering serves to properly brief their respective governments, but intel blunders amongst super powers are legendary, whether as a result of compromise or incompetence (Think “weapons of mass destruction” farce). It is rare that actual members of foreign administrations venture deep into the psyche’s of their counterparts, it’s an area left to academics and eccentric expats from whom only sound bites are heard.

It is politically incorrect for well educated people to have biases against race and religion, but many still carry the coding of centuries of such bias in their cultural DNA. There is scarcely a ‘modern’ western nation now where one does not find sizeable and growing neo-fascist movements, and concern about migrants..

On the other side of the moat things are hardly better. The first encounters between most countries with western powers were filled with attitudes of vast superiority, suspicion, miscommunication, betrayal, and often widespread blood shed. So no matter how absurd it might seem to us, it is not too difficult to stir up suspicion and hatred again – terms like Great Satan sounds ridiculously tinny to many of us, but to embittered, disempowered people it resonates.

I’m sure this all sounds simplistic, but it is a 1-100,000 scale map of the heart of an old world that is gradually dying: a product of centuries of violence and invasions (e.g. Alexander the Great, Jingghis Khan, Chinese imperial despotism, the Turks beating on the gateways of Bavaria, the Inquisition, the persecution of Jews and Moors in Europe, European colonialism, slavery, the two World Wars, Stalin, Vietnam – in no way an exhaustive list).

Some how the anachronistic zeitgeist of the first seven decades of the 20th Century is still lurking in the hallways of power of even the most ‘advanced’ nations, despite decades of political evolution since the 70s when Kissinger embarked on his détente with the USSR and Nixon landed in Peking. It took decades before the world media could even bring itself to write the name properly as Beijing. Some even created a myth that the PRC had changed the name in the 80s, when all they were doing was correcting the Latin script spelling. A small but telling example. But look at it from the other end: imagine if Egyptians or Indonesians would refer to Obama’s birthplace as the “Isles of Sandwich”?

To segue Obama into all this, his current stilted position on Mubarak, his VP’s dealing with Egyptian VP Suleiman, a known military iron fist, the US administrations reiterated praise for the “restraint of the Egyptian military” whilst Egyptian military police continue to ‘disappear’ protestors – all of this is a sign that traces of this outdated, poisonous zeitgeist is still flowing through the ventilation shafts of Washington DC.

Even the fact that that the verb ‘to disappear’ has become transitive in colloquial language is a sad indication of language reflecting the non evolution of US power policy, arrested by 9/11. Somehow the increased mobility and tech connectivity we have seen in the last decades hasn’t led to more understanding, it is simply translated as  more opportunity for the materially and politically ambitious. Obama, I was happy when you were elected, and the speech in Cairo was great. But you are seriously losing traction on ‘change’ here.

What we are seeing in Tunisia and Egypt is beginning of a movement that may still be brutally suppressed but not stopped. It is the new world that is coming. Islamic fundamentalism grew out of colonial meddling. But now many Islamists are getting a sense of something new in the offing. The Muslim Brotherhood is not Hezbollah, far from it. The Tunisian Islamists want to work with others, they are not the Somali fanatics that Ayaan Hisri Ali ran from. And the intellectuals are cautiously engaging with them. They all know that they could be rewriting the ground rules.

This is a civil movement started by a new, younger generation: intellectuals, professionals, and now older workers. They are inspiring others to join. And many of the older generation are galvanized by them. This was especially the case when an emotional TV interview with an Egyptian Google executive, Wael Ghonim whose was released after 12 days of captivity, was broadcast, blindsiding Mubarak’s administration.

In Indonesia a similar thing happened 13 years ago – it was the students who took the initiative, we all followed. But the reform on the government’s side has stagnated. Yet the civil movement is evolving as we speak, perhaps not in an organized formal manner, but people are more informed and engaged. If the older leaders can’t open their hearts then they shouldn’t lead. To lead is to inspire, to inspire your people to work their hearts out for their country and for the world. Leaders that think of their people as cattle to use an electric prod on belong in Gulags.

In relation to Egypt, here in Indonesia we have something of a different but related situation. The anachronistic zeitgeist here is the wisps of a mindset that has its roots back in the first decades days of the Republic, during which several attempts to create Islamic states failed – but it has been cunningly reinfused as movement against immorality.

This is what fuels the fundamentalist mobs  such as FPI who have brutally harassed bars, attacked “non-believers”, burned churches, even killed Ahmadis on camera. And of course there are the more infamous bombers, whose spiritual leader, linked to Al Qaeda, is set for trial next week – Abu Bakar Ba’asyir calmly told reporters Thursday that “The Prophet was like me”. If he wasn’t such an old fox one would suspect he was delusional. But he is definitely holding on firmly to another world vision for which it is clear that there is detailed game plan. A clear and present plan.

Our President has dragged his heels for years. It is clear that these mobs have transgressed the constitution. He has finally decided to be more firm with the mobs (so far mostly in  words). Their answer: “We will ‘Ben Ali’ you SBY”. Yet these thugs, who dote on all things Arabic, have no clue that Tunisia was not an Islamist movement, nor that things are changing drastically. They too are stuck in a defunct time zone. Many of us have turned a blind eye to the outrages they have perpetrated. And our leaders have become so deaf, engrossed in their own political survival that it has taken a long-growing clamor for them to finally hear. But whether they will respond adequately is not yet clear. If they don’t, we will all suffer.

What we all, whether super-power or just a power in our own backyard, need to remember is that the world situation is constantly evolving, we are constantly creating it. Others react to what we do, as a result opinions and attitudes are formed much, much faster now. Time to be brave: embrace the future.

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