Lost Cause: Trying to Teach Democratic Values Abroad in an Anti-Democratic Era

Many of my Middle Eastern students up until 2016 expressed admiration for American democracy, the country’s emphasis on human rights, the civil rights movement and leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. Turkey long considered itself a democracy, students said, modeled after the US. The Constitution of the United Arab Emirates, written in 1971, stated that the country would transition “toward a comprehensive, representative, democratic regime.”

These countries, and many others around the world, seemed to see the U.S. as an international example or role model for religious tolerance and ethnic diversity. That was until one day in 2016 when Donald Trump, after slurring Latinos, Muslims, blacks, routinely engaging in insults and ad hominem attacks on his Republican opponents, won enough primaries to become the presumptive Republican nominee for president of the US. And then, after losing the national popular vote by nearly three million, he nevertheless became president.

Appalled, my students asked me if I agreed with Donald Trump. “No, I do not,” I said emphatically in class. I felt my standing as a friend to Muslims — Emiratis, Turks, and other Middle Easterners — was on the line. If I did not speak up or speak out against Trump’s Islamophobic statements, I would consider myself a coward and would be seen as such by them, demonstrating that free speech was a sham, even to Americans.

But Trump’s behavior definitely undermined my ability to teach students about the benefits of democratic elections based on majority rule, free speech, the triumph of reason in a marketplace of ideas, and universal human rights. I was required by US accreditation standards to teach Zayed University students about these concepts.

“Your UAE Constitution says the country will transition toward a democracy,” I observed. “What does that mean?” I asked.

“A democracy….like America?” one student answered, with skepticism in her voice.

“Like Donald Trump? Insulting everyone who gets in his way?” another responded with sarcasm. “That would never work here.” In a young society, less than 50 years old like the UAE, trying to unify dozens of tribes, nationalities and religious groups, Trump’s kinds of insults, if allowed, would cause disorder and chaos if not violence and social disintegration, the students agreed.

They wanted no part of a “democracy” that tolerated the kind of hostility Trump expressed toward religious and ethnic minorities, or actually anyone who disagreed with him. They called it “hate speech,” and it would be illegal in their country.

I tried to teach them about democracy in the ideal, going back to the ancient Greeks — Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and the concepts that humans are capable of great reason and of managing their own collective affairs. I talked about the concept of citizenship, that in Ancient Athens, citizens gathered to reason together, to consider the common good and to make decisions about their common destiny. Ancient Greece laid the foundation for the concept of democracy, I told my students.

They wanted to know about democracy in reality as currently exhibited by the US.

One student shared with me an article about the “cult of ignorance” and anti-intellectualism in the US. I could not disagree.

In the UAE, only a tiny minority of the populace, about 12 percent of the one million Emirati citizens has the right to vote. Out of a total population of about seven million people when expats and laborers are included, less than two percent have the right to vote.

After initial excitement with the idea of democracy and self-government during the 2011 elections, in the early stages of the Arab Spring, my Emirati students later complained that their elections were fixed, there was little use in voting, and self-government was an illusion.  More on voting in the UAE. They asked me, skeptically, if this were not also true in the U.S.

I was sure I was on sound footing in class and on social media when I spoke out against Trump’s Islamophobia. But in 2017, when an alliance between Trump and authoritarian governments in the Middle East became public, I began to wonder if even I and my colleagues could become target of a crackdown against democratic values such as freedom of speech and of the press.

And indeed we were. Shortly after Trump’s visit to the Middle East, in which he told the region’s authoritarian rulers he didn’t care about human rights nor the definition of “terrorist,” they demonstrated an increased intolerance of criticism, and launched a sustained assault on freedom of expression, according to Human Rights Watch. The UAE initiated what the Qatari government charged was “mass deportation” of its citizens. The case remains before the International Court of Justice.

In early June, 2017, I noticed that my mobile phone was acting strange as it sat on my bedside table while I was talking to my wife. It suddenly lit up, the camera and record features started automatically. I was certain I had been hacked. And indeed, it’s likely that I was. I have since learned that a software company called NSO Group developed spyware for US, Israeli and UAE governments, that could crack supposedly secure What’s App messages, and is being used to target dissidents, journalists, human rights activists and academics.

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