The West, the East and human rights

The West, the East and human rights

I am writing this piece in a cafe that is right down from the building where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to global peacemakers, real or perceived. Today, I also learned that this year’s prize is to be given to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, for its “extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons” in the world, including Syria where they were just recently used on the civilian population by the murderous regime of that traumatized Arab country. I must say that I have not been terribly relieved by recent applause for a “chemical-weapons-free-Syria,” for the regime will most probably keep on slaughtering the masses with conventional means, too. But, in an age when “the international community” does more talk than walk, some people are apparently happy with such small gains for peace. 

What brought me to the Norwegian capital is not Mr. Alfred Nobel’s heritage, though. It is a couple of public talks and discussions organized by the Norwegian PEN, the local branch of the worldwide association of writers, and also by NUPI, a foreign-policy focused think tank. The focus was democracy in Turkey and the Middle East, and I, along with three other Turkish writers, shared my views. 

In all such events I attend in the West about the political realities of our part of the world, what strikes me is the intellectual curiosity and ethical concern the audiences show. What happens in Turkey in terms of human rights, for example, really interests lots of Norwegians, Europeans, and, in a general sense Westerners. The reverse is unfortunately not true. In other words, I cannot imagine a conference about “Norwegian democracy” in Istanbul, while Oslo obviously hosts such events on Turkish democracy. 

Some Turks, and Middle Easterners, explain this gap by the “imperialist agenda.” The West, in other words, is promoting human rights only because this concept is actually a cover for much more sinister intentions. 

However, there are less conspiratorial explanations for the Western concern for human rights in the East. First, many Westerners genuinely believe in these values, and really want to promote it idealistically. Secondly, the immigrant communities in the West, some of whom are asylum seekers, advocate their causes and bring troubles in their home countries to public attention. 

However, both of these motives might need some deliberation. First, the idealistic effort to promote human rights must not lead to self-righteous patronizing, which may sometime happen. For a more modest and sober attitude, Westerners should recall their own history with religious bigotry, nationalist zealotry, and moral puritanism – and how recently some of these tendencies have been overcome. In Norway, for example, homosexuality was criminalized until the 70’s; a reality that looks incomprehensible today. 

On the other side, it is good that immigrants in Western countries publicize the troubles within their homelands, but there is also a risk here: Some of these immigrants, especially political refugees, might develop their own bias based on their subjective experiences. Listening only to their rhetoric can lead to a very bleak depiction of much more complex realities. The image of Turkey, I must say, sometimes suffers from this tendency as well, and all the many shades grey realities back at home are painted as nothing but black.