You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 22: Human Rights & the Middle East

Human Rights & the Middle East

According to Amnesty International’s 2018 review of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa, this is not a great time for human rights activists and defenders in the Middle East. That year saw an increased crackdown on civil society in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. In 2019, massive protests took place in Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran.

Against this backdrop, SIS professor Shadi Mokhtari joins Big World to discuss human rights in the Middle East. She shares the current state of human rights in the region (1:35) and dives into the relationship between human rights and political change (5:38). Professor Mokhtari also hones in on the rights of Middle Eastern women and their involvement in protest movements (7:41).

How do US actions toward the Middle East affect protest movements in some Middle Eastern countries (13:51)? Professor Mokhtari answers this question and challenges the perception that people in the Middle East have a resistance to the human rights framework (18:50). Lastly, she discusses the impact of Middle Eastern protest movements on the rest of the world (23:41).

During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Mokhtari shares the five policies she would institute to help Middle East protest movements achieve their aspirations (10:24).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that really matters. According to Amnesty International's 2018 review of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa, this is not a great time for human rights activists and defenders in the Middle East.

0:25      KS: That year saw an increased crackdown on civil society in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Women human rights defenders were targeted. Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in a Saudi Arabian consulate and Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli forces in Gaza. 2019 saw massive protests in Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran, but the Middle East is comprised of 18 countries, and the freedoms enjoyed by the average citizen can vary wildly from country to country or even within the same nation.

0:55      KS: Of course, the situation differs greatly if that citizen happens to be a woman. Today, we're talking about human rights in the Middle East. I'm Kay Summers and I'm joined by Shadi Mokhtari. Shadi is a professor here at the School of International Service. Her areas of expertise include human rights and women's rights in the Middle East and Muslim world, Middle East politics and political Islam. She's the author of After Abu Ghraib: Exploring Human Rights in America and the Middle East. Shadi, thanks for joining Big World.

1:24      Shadi Mokhtari: Thank you for having me.

1:25      KS: Shadi, just to set the big picture for us, if you will, what would you say broadly is the state of human rights in the Middle East today?

1:35      SM: I think, as you foreshadowed in your introduction, we could probably say that the state of human rights in the Middle East, human rights and political change maybe more broadly, is at once both extremely dire and in some ways very promising. On the one hand, Syria, Yemen, and Libya—mired in these rural civil wars for years, particularly the catastrophe that has been Syria. We have other parts of the region where the region's dictators appear to be at once, once again firmly in control, and they're doing this primarily by relying on ratcheted up oppression, very high levels of oppression.

2:23      SM: This is true in the Gulf, we can say the UAE, Saudi Arabia, where dissidents and rights activists are brutally targeted—even when abroad, as you mentioned. This is true in Iran where the government shut down the internet to create a blackout of coverage for its brutal crackdown on protests back in November.

2:45      SM: Certainly, it's true of Egypt after the 2013 coup, to this day, where there are some 50,000 or possibly more political prisoners held by the el-Sisi government, and just an almost unprecedented state of repression, certainly for our contemporary times in Egypt, and much worse than the Mubarak era. All of this kind of represents the dark turn of the Arab uprisings everywhere in the region except for in Tunisia.

3:19      SM: But on the other hand, there are increasingly signs of those underlying aspirations for rights and political change that kind of colored the first wave of uprisings, the green movement in Iran, and also what was popularly known as the Arab Spring, the Arab uprisings of 2011, that those aspirations have not only not gone away but that they are increasingly more pronounced. So we have seen these protests for political change, which really kind of started with Sudan in December of 2018 and Algeria, February of 2019, so a year ago.

3:58      SM: Then we saw protests emerge later in the year, last October in Iraq and Lebanon. Then we've had all these—several waves of protest the last few years in Iran, the most recent two waves being in November and then following this assassination of Qasem Soleimani and then the plane crash in January, another most recent wave of protests in Iran.

4:26      SM: In Sudan, actually, the protest movement has now turned into a transition into political change. There's a transitional government in place, and everywhere except for Iran, the protests are ongoing, and their fate is yet to be determined. But there's a lot of persistence amongst the protesters, and certainly there is widespread—the language of rights and political change are integral to these protests.

5:00      KS: You coupled human rights and political change, and this is often linked in discussions about them in the Middle East. I think I'm curious about—so political change can mean change within an existing political system. It can also mean regime change, depending on the type of political system. Do you think that—anytime you look at 18 nations, it's going to be hard to make a generalization—but is the reality that for human rights to improve in the Middle East, there must be a combination of political change in some countries and regime change or systematic change within other countries? How does that break down?

5:38      SM: There's a lot of layers to this question and answering this question.

5:41      KS: It would be a whole episode.

5:43      SM: As you know, there's a lot of variation from country to country, but I think, if you were to look at what is the overarching sentiment of these protests, it is a sense that incremental reform has not gotten us anywhere through these existing structures of power, through these governments that are seen as not only corrupt in the sense that they are lining their pockets, but just morally bankrupt.

6:16      SM: There is a popular sense of, we need to start from scratch in terms of our political structures and arrangements. It's a little bit deeper than reforms, although I think I would just caveat that by saying if existing governments really came through with sincere, meaningful reforms, they could be embraced by these populations. But nonetheless, people don't believe that these governments are really that capable of coming through with meaningful reform agendas. It is much more of what could be considered a revolutionary outlook of "we really need to challenge these structures."

7:01      KS: Shadi, I'd like to kind of zoom in a little bit on women specifically, and as you look at the day-to-day way of life in the Middle East and compare and contrast it with other countries in Asia or Europe or the Americas, kind of a broad question, but what's it like to be a woman in the Middle East, and how would one's experience as a woman vary among, say, Qatar or Iran or Israel in terms of general mobility and autonomy? What does that look like for a woman living there now?

7:41      SM: Okay. Again, it does vary from country to country and region to region, and you have more conservative societies in the Gulf area in particular. Most places there is legal discrimination against women, usually through the family code, and there are a whole set of social norms that give women, I hesitate to say second class status because it feeds so much into stereotypes of women in the Middle East, but there is this second class status.

8:22      SM: There is widespread social and legal discrimination, but, and there's a big but there, that is really in flux, and it has been in flux for many years in Iran. Starting with the revolution itself in 1979, where women are politicized by Khomeini himself saying, "Come out into the streets and depose the Shah." And then, once that objective has been reached and we have this revolutionary government, Khomeini saying, "Okay, now go back into the home where your proper place is."

8:58      SM: Then all sorts of discriminatory laws are put into place that really impact women's lives when it comes to divorce and child custody, but the social reality is very different from—there's this huge gap. Iran in particular is a great example of this, where women are present in every realm of society. They are political actors in many respects. Part of that is participating in these protest movements. Once they step into these public spaces where they had previously not really been allowed or it was not considered their space, once they step into those public spaces, into the Tahrir Squares of the region, they're not going back, and their interactions with men within their society, with their parents really become transformed. They become political actors. Their status in society is significantly changed.

10:11      KS: Shadi, it's time to take five. This is when you, our guest, get to wave a wand and change the world. Specifically, what five policies would you institute to help Middle East protest movements achieve their aspirations?

10:24      SM: First and foremost, I would put any and all pressure on foreign and domestic actors that are fueling wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Obviously, these wars are causing tremendous human suffering, are needless, and in many respects are being fueled by governments in the region and supported to varying extents by governments outside, whether it's Russia or the United States.

10:56      SM: Second, I would stop strengthening dictators in the region through arms sales and other business dealings, and through these diplomatic niceties where you meet with these leaders—photo ops and press conferences—and basically the message being sent out is, all as well. Nothing to see here. Then, this is not necessarily a policy but it would be an appeal that I would make to the media and the rest of the world. The Green Movement and, again, the 2001 uprisings as we discussed, really captured the attention of the world.

11:42      SM: But the recent wave of protests, I would argue are no less significant, and they are getting considerably less attention, and that attention can really matter. A fourth, I would say, foreign governments pursuing principled policies that support not just these protest movements but particularly Tunisia and Sudan.

12:07      SM: Tunisia, where we have had significant inroads towards rights and political change being upheld—a democracy for several years, even if we may want to say it's not fully consolidated, but a democratic experiment that is moving forward.

12:23      SM: Sudan, similarly, there's a transitional government and the EU, other governments, can play a significant role. Again, I hesitate because a lot of times when foreign actors are supporting, there's all sorts of strings attached and it's problematic, and so this is why I say principled policies, helping these transitions really turn into models for democratic change in the region, and last, seeing the Middle East not through a lens of our interests, not through the lens of geopolitics, which is very dehumanizing as a recent commentary had noted, but to see the Middle East through the lens of the aspirations of its people and the rights.

13:11      SM: This discourse of universal human rights is not something that you apply only to your own citizens, but you actually believe that every human being is entitled to certain rights. Obviously, this has always been the conundrum of Western foreign policy has been rights and vocal participation for us. But when it comes to other societies, other governments, only second to our interests. So if we can get over that hump in some way, that would be very helpful.

13:45      KS: That's great. Thank you.

13:46      SM: Thank you.

13:51      KS: Shadi, as we look at the US's actions toward the Middle East, our efforts and outcomes vary widely and always have. There are no US alliances in the Middle East that are simple or especially straightforward. How do US actions affect protest movements in some countries?

14:11      SM: I think to answer that, I think we should look at what precedes these protest movements. There is the actual US policies and US hegemony in the region, what I think charitably called alliances, but you could also call patron client relationships, where certain repressive regimes, dictatorships, agree to uphold by and large US interests, in exchange for arms deals and very beneficial economic and business trading, and sometimes aid, significant military aid in Egypt for example.

14:57      SM: In exchange, US interests are thought to be upheld by these leaders. In addition to the broader context of Western governments, interventions in the politics of different countries in the region and how they've shaped outcomes in many respects not least of which Iran and with the 1953 coup against the only democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq.

15:22      SM: That whole history creates a psychology. A psychology of, if we are going to really have genuine political change, it's not going to come from us because we cannot overcome these international political structures. It has to come from these Western governments. So we have to appeal to the United States to be true to its rhetoric on human rights and democracy, rather than us being able to bypass that and just directly challenge our governments. That has, over the last 10 years, been I don't want to say all together dislodged, but we have moved away from that psychology.

16:00      SM: That's a very positive development where people are saying, forget waiting on the US to become true to its asserted ideals. This is our fight to have. The other dynamic that is interesting here has to do with governments throughout the region appropriating anti-imperialist sentiment, appropriating people's resentment of precisely these Western policies.

16:27      SM: In a way that, if you are in the opposition, you become labeled as someone who is promoting Western interests, and there is this binary created of, either you're with us, the government, or you are with the West. In the past, this was really difficult for activists to kind of maneuver, particularly in Iran because of the anti-imperialist roots of the revolutionary ideology, the dominant ideology and power, activists often had to just go to great lengths to distance themselves from that label of being Western or being against the Iranian government or the nation.

17:12      SM: There's a fascinating statement put out by students from Amirkabir University in Iran, following the assassination of Soleimani and then the shooting down of the Ukrainian airplane in Iran by the Iranian government. They say, essentially, "We are challenging the totality of our oppression. We do not accept American imperialism as we've experienced it historically, but also, what just happened with the Soleimani assassination, but that is not reason for us to stay silent on the oppression of our own government." I see this playing out throughout the region. They're escaping the trappings of that binary.

18:05      KS: There is a perception, and it may be born of some bias, but there's definitely a perception by some in the West that people in the Middle East have a cultural or religious resistance to human rights. I'm curious if you would say that this perception is born of a type of Islamophobia, or is the perception a response to a specific brand of political Islam that has less to do with people who are not Muslim being Islamophobic and more to do with them responding to political Islam and not really understanding the difference. Where do you think that perception comes from, and is it coming from a place of bias or not?

18:50      SM: This is my current research undertaking.

18:51      KS: Oh, yay.

18:52      SM: Is around this broader question of... So for years, the running assumption seems to be that people in the Middle East, and the Global South more broadly, have some kind of a resistance to the ideas encapsulated in the human rights framework, to the moral norms, the content of human rights.

19:21      SM: What I'm arguing in my current research is that, actually, there is much more resistance in the Middle East to how human rights is practiced around them. I don't want to say every single human rights norm is broadly embraced by everyone in the region, certainly not. But there are these core principles and this emancipatory ethos of the human rights project that really overlaps with the direction that these protest movements are going and the aspirations, popular aspirations, in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

20:03      SM: This is kind of a very incomplete picture or perception that people in the region need to be taught the merits of human rights and—I've been thinking about—I lost my father last April, and I have spent a lot of time kind of thinking about his life. He, since he was a teenager, sat and listened to BBC Persian almost every day that he could. He would just seethe, and he would just shake his head. He was a soft spoken person, so he wasn't loud about it, but he would cringe with every story of torture and imprisonment of dissidents, and corruption that led to the impoverishment of the population in Iran, whether it was at the time of the Shah or whether it was during this 41 year tenure of the Islamic Republic.

21:04      SM: I would see that, and over 20 years of field work in different countries in the Middle East where I've traveled, and there's this one retort that I keep hearing. People ask me, "Why are you here?"

21:18      SM: I say, "I do research on the politics of human rights." And as soon as I utter the expression "human rights," the response I get is, "What human rights? Human rights don't exist. Human rights are a window dressing. It's all for show." It's this kind of indictment of not what—they are not saying, "We don't want human rights." In essence, they're saying, "We wish that human rights was real." The language of human rights is co-opted by the Americans. Post-9/11 era—all of these abuses: Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Muslims and Arabs being subjected to such ill treatment, while it's done in the name of spreading democracy, freedom in the middle...

22:07      SM: This is absurd to people. Their governments sign human rights treaties, have human rights bodies that they create, create their own NGOs, governmental, non-governmental organizations, all speaking of human rights to create this image of, "Yeah, we're on board," but it is not at all meaningful. Even NGOs and some of the human rights activists who operate in their societies seem to be playing a certain game with human rights where they have meetings in five star hotels.

22:40      SM: There's trainings and there's conferences, but nothing changes. So it seems like everyone who's talking about human rights is doing so in a way that's very disingenuous and corrupted. The actual human rights framework is corrupted for them.

22:56      KS: They're profiting off the framework and not actually delivering anything.

22:59      SM: It's meaningless. Again, it's not the content, it's not what human rights promises. They actually, in many respects, wish that what the Human Rights Project promised was true, but it's the practice that's not principled for them.

23:14      KS: Shadi, in closing, I'd like to pull back out to a broader global view of human rights and protest movements. With that in mind, over the last decade, would you say that protest movements in the Middle East have had an international impact, whether it's inspiring other countries' protest movements or of changing practices toward these governments that are being protested against, and if so, what has that impact been?

23:41      SM: This return to the streets. These protest movements in the modern era seems to have been inaugurated by, first, Iran, to some extent in 2009, and the Green Movement. But then really, the Arab uprisings, they really captured the imagination of the world. Then we saw Occupy Wall Street, we saw protests in Tibet. There seemed to be a significant global impact. A lot of what these protest movements are doing, to the extent that they use the discourse or human rights activists are involved is, there's this new generation that is making human rights more meaningful. Whether it's the social movement activists or a new generation of human rights activists themselves who are very connected to their communities, who have very holistic understandings of human rights as a more political project.

24:43      SM: We need to challenge underlying economic and political structures to really get to human rights and being willing to do that. I'll say that in the last few years, there have been some very high profile academic challenges to the human rights framework, the human rights paradigm. One is called The Endtimes of Human Rights.

25:04      SM: A lot of them are forecasting the decline of the human rights era, that it has passed. It had a peak, it had a time where it was highly influential, but for a variety of reasons, that is now over. Not just the Middle East, but a lot of the protest movements that we're seeing in the Global South are transforming human rights and what it means to be a human rights activist and the form of human rights claims in a way that is resurrecting the project.

25:39      SM: For many, many years, the idea was, as we discussed earlier, that it's human rights that's going to save the Middle East. It was the savior model of deploying human rights to save vulnerable women, to save religious minorities. Maybe with the new ways that human rights is being invoked and practiced and transformed in the region, it may just be that the Middle East and the broader Global South will save human rights from these forecasts of its impending decline, essentially by making it something that is really much more meaningful than it has been in practice, particularly as experienced by the people of the Middle East.

26:24      KS: That is a very positive note to end on. Shadi Mukhtari, thank you for joining Big World. It's been a pleasure to speak with you.

26:30      SM: Thank you very much for having me.

26:32      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you leave us a good rating or review, it'll be as great as an extra week of peak cherry blossoms. Our theme music is, It Was Just Cold by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Shadi Mokhtari,
professor, SIS

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