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Politics & International Affairs magazine

Zaid Eyadat: The major motivation for Arab revolutions was about human dignity

obrázekDr. Zaid Eyadat is a professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Jordan and the chairperson of the Human Rights and Human Development department. He graduated from the University of Southern California, where he continues to teach. He has also taught at various universities in the USA and Jordan and has worked as a consultant for diverse international organizations and NGOs. Recently he conducted a course called Islam and Human Rights at Faculty of Social Studies at Masaryk University in Brno. Editors of Global Politics and Bulletin of The Czech Centre for Human Rights and Democratization spoke with Mr. Eyadat about issues ranging from Arab revolutions to multiculturalism and liberal islam.


The interview was conducted in June 2011

The issue of Islam and human rights seems to be quite far from your original training in methodology and comparative politics. How did you come to this topic?

It is not far. Comparative politics encompasses all of that – political theories, philosophies, different political systems and political cultures. Together with the methodology, it is the heart of political science. So this training enables you to specialize in some area and have more profound theoretical and methodological grounding.

In 2007 I was involved in establishment of the Human Rights and Human Development Department at the University of Jordan. The reason was that Jordan wanted to improve its public policies on human rights and connected issues, so we started a joint English master programme with Pavia, Padova and Lund universities under the umbrella of HDCA (Human Development and Capability Association) founded and led by the great economist Amartya Sen. The challenge of our department is to bridge human rights and human development. They may seem unbridgeable, but thinking of Amartya Sen and others paved the way for us. I particulary wanted to research some topics about Islam and human rights. So my main research interest is the connection between Islamic thought, human rights and human development. These topics I see as foundational for human behaviour.

During our course you spoke a lot about the current situation in the Arab world and you explained it as a „revolution of dignity“. Could you elaborate on this term?

I must say, I am surprised and happy about what is happening, because I am a person who highly values freedom and justice. I was sad about the conditions in which the Arab states were for so long. That is also why I developed my own theory of democratization and wrote my thesis about the alternative path to Arab democracy.

Regarding the concept „revolution of dignity“ – after I gathered information from various sources I came to the conclusion that the major motivation for revolution was all about dignity. People's dignity has been challenged by authoritarian regimes that were humilitating and degrading them. So I think, deep inside the motivations of people, there was cry for restoring their dignity.

Recently, Global Politics held an online symposium about the Arab Spring. One of the questions was about the most overlooked factors in recent events which are of the utmost importance for future development. We've got various answers ranging from activities on a community level to the global context. What would be your answer to this question?

I am personally focusing on contextualizing the revolutions and bridging the gap between micro and macro explanations. My understanding of the way how to explain these events is to combine the nature of existing regimes and their impact on the individuals, their psychology, political orientations and rational calculations. Precisely, we need to find the links between the outcomes of regime policies, psychological developments of individuals and how they together paved the way to overcome the politics of fear practised by Arab regimes.

The situation in Libya, or Syria, is still pretty serious. Do you think the international community will also intervene also in other countries? Assad's regime doesn't seem to be giving up its position that easily…

I think the international community is mishandling the Syrian case. We, I mean the international community, tend to exaggerate the complexity of the situation in Syria. I think this is due to the lack of understanding of what is happening in that country. I guess the international community is as puzzled as the Arab regimes themselves, and it doesn't know what to do. But the people on the streets know exactly what they want. They want to liberate themselves and they know the only way to do it is by being together and collectively pushing the regime out.

So you think the people in Syria will finally succeed?

I have no doubt, and it is not out of optimism, but out of political analysis. As I mentioned, in different places the rational of the regime has collapsed, so the change is a matter of time now. I am not saying it will happen tommorow, nor I am saying it will be at a low cost. But the regime in Syria cannot restore itself as it used to be. At the least, there has to be significant reforms. I am not saying all the Arab countries will have to go the same path as Egypt or Tunisia, but I am saying the regimes will be changed. This change could be by overcoming the regime, ousting the regime, kicking out the regime or reforming the regime. The specific form of change then depends on the sociocultural foundation of each country.

In Libya, it was quite obvious that the regime is massively violating human rights of its citizens, and the army largely switched to the rebels side. But in Syria the army seems to be more or less supporting the regime so far…

Libya has no army, the official army went against Gaddafi and now he is relying on daily-paid mercenaries. In Syria it is the opposite, so far. The security forces, army and other, and not the political regime are handling the situation. What happened in Libya in terms of foreign involvment is another story. Europeans wanted to do something about the events in Tunisia and Egypt, so they placed their bets and picked Libya. Now they struggle with the situation and don't know what to do. Libya could have been for Europe what Iraq is for Americans, and in fact, it still could be.

So what would be your policy if you were in the position of European leaders?

First, I have to say I don't want to be in their position. But I would try to be consistent and combine realism with constructivism in order to conduct my foreign policy. So realism tells me to protect my interests, and constructivism tells me that I have to understand the diverse motivations of people and different realities in various countries. We have to know what Arabs stand for. European policy was, in my opinion, based so far on total ignorance. How could the EU at the same time promote human rights and democratization and align itself with Ben Ali or Mubarak?

Recent polls have shown that even the USA, despite its support for revolutions, is still perceived by the Arab world in a negative way. Do you think this image will change in the future?

Attitudes are not very solid ground for political analysis, because by majority they are changing at very fast rates. If you ask Arabs what they think about the USA after the killing of Osama bin Laden and after Obama's speech on the Egyptian revolution, you'll get completly different answers. So attitudes could only be indicative of politics, unless they are stable for a long time. Then they become opinions instead of attitudes. I think the negative image of America will stay unless two crucial problems are solved. First, the Arab – Israeli conflict and second, the stereotyped image of Arabs and Muslims. If these two things stay the same, this negative image will continue.

Speaking of stereotyping Arabs and Islam, there seems to be rising level of islamophobia in Europe within last ten or fifteen years. How is this issue viewed from the Muslim perspective?

In my opinion, the islamophobia is dead. Muslims and Europeans have recently come very near to each other's positions, and the fault lines between Huntington's ci­vilisations are diminishing. So this islamophobia exists only in the mindset of small conservative circles, while at mainstream level the sense of commonality has risen. Europe doesn't fear Islam any more. It is a media-made myth. While talking to people I see some problems, but I think they could be overcome in a liberal and humanistic fashion. So we should focus more on how we can reconcile the differences between our positions than on the differences as such.

But this – as you say – myth has some serious implications. Far-right political parties are gaining votes from their hard position on Islam and immigration…

My point is that this is more just general xenophobia, than a specific fear of Islam. Furthermore, their criticism of Islam is often based on pure ignorace of facts and lack of understanding what Islam is really about. For example the issue of honor killings, which are in fact violations of true Islamic principles. This xenophobic view of Islam is more about politics than about reality.

Recently some European politicians have said that multiculturalism is dead, and we should find some new way to deal with immigration. Where do you think we should go after multiculturalism?

Multiculturalism cannot be declared dead because of these statements. However, it certainly has its own challenges. The old model of multiculturalism doesn't work anymore, and it needs some innovations. But the basis provided by a multiculturalist approach is still valid, and that is the ethics of recognition, tolerance and respect. These are ethical principles that cannot be declared dead just by saying so. But multiculturalism is also a theoretical model that must be developed over a time and I think there is some very good work done in this manner, mainly by Will Kymlicka and Charles Taylor.

But I am afraid the idea of multiculturalism has become quite hard to sell to general public, and on the other hand, the rhetoric of identity and otherness has became a vote-winner.

I am not sure this is a valid argument. Public opinion is shaped by politicians, and they work heavily to exploit it for their own purposes. But I think if we tackle the identity fear-mongering from the humanistic and open point of view, the fear will go away. Hopefully.

You came to Brno to teach an interesting course about Islam and human rights. How is it to teach about religion and human rights in one of the most atheist European states? What do you think about Czech students?

It is a challenge in one way, but I am really impresed. First, by the number of students who came to class, and then by the quality of them. I assumed the students wouldn't know much about Islam, wouldn't be much interested in it and maybe there would also be some language problems. What surprised and positively impressed me is the awarness and mind-set of interest. The people in the class actually want to learn something. I am also impressed by the discipline. I work with American students, and we have to teach them how to behave to professors from foreign cultures. In the USA, my students call me Zaid, but if they did this to Jordanian professor, it would be regarded as a strong insult. On the other hand, I think the class lacked the broader knowledge of political theories and theories of human rights. You can't study international relations and human rights without knowing the fundamental political theories, such as works by Rawls, Habermas, etc.

How is it to teach human rights in Jordan? We still regard it as a sort of authoritarian regime that surpresses some human rights. Could you compare it to, for example, your teaching experience in USA?

I have to say that I consider myself lucky for being able to teach in various countries and cultures. This experience confirmed one thing for me – the common humanity. It will maybe surprise you, but I found the most enthusiastic students of human rights in Jordan. Not only because they lacked them, they don't in fact, but because they are aware of human rights and human rights movements worldwide. Also, regardless of political freedoms, Jordan is, according to international standards, scoring on one of the highest levels in human rights, particulary in civil rights and human development. Among the Arab states it is absolutely number one. However, there is lack of especially political freedoms, but as I said, the human rights movement is on the rise and making its demands. So teaching there is enjoyable and not risky at all. Moreover our human rights programme has the support of the queen, so that tells you that even the people in power try to push human rights agenda.

During the class you mentioned the project you are working on, which you have called The Muslim Enlightement. Could you please say more about it?

I am really glad you are asking me about this, because it is actually my personal intellectual and scholarly project. Islam has been victimized for so long due to the dominance of conservative and traditionalist understanding of Islam and the lack of opportunities for liberal minded Muslims to promote their ideas. To my mind, the recent philosophical and theoretical development related to the concept of postsecularism is only a confirmation of Islamic enlightement thought.

This intellectual movement could sound really new, but in fact, it goes back to the early days of Islam and its rational aspect, that has been for long time neglected and marginalised. So we are trying to restore Islamic tradition that adhere to reason. Various scholars paved the way for us, such as earliest Islamic modernism and liberalism in late 19th century, followed by Nasr Abu Zayd, Mohammed Arkoun and others. Also, my course on Islam and human rights is theoreticaly based in this approach.

You say „we“. So there is some kind of network?

Yes, it is a network, and I cooperate with some other scholars, some of them are, for example, my teachers – but there are also others. Lots of them were working individually on this topic, and my contribution to the project was bringing them all together. The project should now lead to the series of books, workshops, conferences, seminars and articles.

Our last question is going back to the topic of recent Arab revolutions. How do you see future development? Do you think that we can still expect some important moments during the next few months?

Well, all options are out there, and the outcome is not decided yet. I refer you to the golden rule of politics, which is uncertainity. However, we see some trends and patterns of democratization in both Egypt and Tunisia, and this is very encouraging. We still feel people's sentiments about their strength and power. They still believe they can change something. Unlike Fukuyama, I'm an optimist about future development. I hope for a new Arab age, where liberal and democratic thinking is in the heart of society and not limited to scholars and intellectuals.

Thank you very much for your time and for your interesting answers.

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Jan Daniel a Kristina Horňáčková
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18th July 2011