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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 8/10/11

A Proposal for Honoring Type B Political Activists

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   When a political activist speaks out against the atrocities committed against his ethnic group or the oppression of his country at the hands of a dictatorial regime, he is considered a hero and enjoys popularity within his ethnic/national community. There have been many such heroes all over the world and they are best exemplified by the dissidents who opposed the communist regimes in former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe before 1989. Some of these dissidents such as Vaclav Hovel of former Czechoslovakia were elected to high political offices after the fall of communist regimes.   In this article I refer to such activists as the type A activists. There is however, another type of political activist that raises his voice in protest against what he considers the unjust behavior of his own ethnic group or country against others. Such an activist not only receives no praise from the majority of his own people/nation but is often accused of being unpatriotic and even treacherous.

   I like to refer to this type of political activist as a type B activist to differentiate it from the former. The best example of a contemporary type B activist is Noam Chomsky who has been a strong critic of American foreign policy toward third world countries for more than five decades despite being an American himself. Type B activists whose number is far smaller than type A activists, serve a valuable cause by challenging the members of their own society to be fair to weaker nations or minority groups. For this service they deserve to be recognized and rewarded so that others will follow in their path. I propose the creation of an annual international award to recognize and honor type B activists.      Abuse and exploitation of the weak can occur under different political systems. With the spread of democracy to many countries of the world the number of non-democratic governments has declined in the past two decades and billions of people now live under political regimes that are responsive to the rights and aspirations of the majority of their citizens. Yet unfortunately the democracies, old and new, do not necessarily respect the rights of the minorities or the weaker nations. As recent history has clearly shown a powerful democratic country can wage war or engage in covert operations against smaller nations in pursuit of its national interest without facing any challenge from other nations or international organizations.

   Often the only force that can prevent a superpower from victimizing other nations is the political will of its own citizens. Frequently the majority of people in many democratic countries remain indifferent toward the atrocities that their own governments commit against others. In some cases this indifference is a result of the mainstream media's biased portrayal of events, that misinforms the citizens about these atrocities.   In other cases the public indifference is a reflection of the political values of the majority. Some people in democratic societies support the aggressive behavior of their government because it serves the national interest while others take pleasure in their country's power and domination over others.

    It is precisely because of such ethno-centric and apathetic tendencies among the mass of the people in most countries-democratic and undemocratic alike- that type B activists are so rare and their activities are so valuable. It is the type B activist that rises above blind patriotism and selfishness of his own people and calls for a just behavior toward others.   There are many historical incidents where type-B activists have served as agents of change and their activities have helped the cause of justice and freedom.

    During 19th and 20th centuries, there where many type B activists in Europe, who spoke out against European colonialism. In the 1940s and 50s there were also many liberals in the United States, from the majority white population, who actively supported the black civil rights movement when the white society was overwhelmingly and openly racist. These white activists were treated harshly and labeled as race-traitors by the majority. Yet their activities gradually raised the conscience of the white majority and made a valuable contribution to the success of the civil rights movement in the United States.

    In the past few years the world has witnessed a few Russian journalists and political activists who have spoken out against the atrocities of the Russian government against the Chechens. Unfortunately some of these activists have lost their lives because of these protests but their voice has alerted others around the world to this issue, although more needs to be done. Overtime the struggle of these activists and growing international attention could encourage Russia to adopt a more humane policy toward Chechnya.

    Last but not least, one should mention the various Israeli groups and Jewish   activists such as Uri Avnery, the Bet Selem, and Jews for Justice for Palestinians who have repeatedly protested the harsh treatment of the Palestinians and the occupation of Palestinian territories.  

    The dedication and struggle of type B activists in Western countries has also had a positive influence in the policies of multilateral agencies such as World Bank and International Monetary Fund. These two powerful international agencies exert a significant amount of influence on economic policies of developing countries. Throughout 1980s and 1990s IMF and World Bank imposed market oriented economic reforms on indebted third world countries as preconditions for financial assistance and debt rescheduling. In some countries these reforms   resulted in higher levels of inequality and poverty.  

   A small group of Type B activists took notice of these adverse consequences and began a grass roots awareness campaign against IMF/World Bank policies. Eventually more people joined these campaigns and mass protests were organized during annual IMF/World Bank meetings for several years. As a result of this widespread and decentralized movement the IMF and World Bank were eventually forced to change their perspective and put more emphasis on anti-poverty programs in their policy recommendations to low-income countries. The organizers and participants in this protest movement were all citizens of industrial nations and deserve recognition as grass roots type B activists.     

     Abuse of weaker nations is not limited to the industrial countries of the (geopolitical) North. There are many incidents of minority abuse and aggression toward weaker neighbors within the South. The people of Tibet have lived under Chinese oppression for centuries. Morocco has dragged its feet for decades in recognizing the rights of the tribal people of Western Sahara. The population of Kashmir is 98% Muslim but its demand for independence has been ignored by India ever since the end of British rule. Meanwhile, Kurds are scattered in four Middle Eastern Countries (Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria), none of which are prepared to address the Kurdish aspirations for independence. In Africa the treatment of civilians in West Darfur by the Sudanese government has received international attention in recent years but there are numerous other cases that can be listed.

   Unfortunately it is very hard to find type B activists in these non-Western countries who are willing to question such abuses. This is partly due to the harsh punishment of such activists by their respective governments in non-democratic countries which lack legal protection for free-speech. The rarity of type B activists, however, is also partly a conscious choice on part of the intellectuals who share the majority view. For example, even the Chinese political activists who live in exile in the West and are beyond the reach of Chinese government rarely offer any support for the rights of Tibet people although they are eager to raise their voice for democracy and human rights in China. The same is true of Pakistani intellectuals in the West who take no position on the abuse of Qadiani minority group or the Iranian exiles who remain silent on the oppression of Baha'is in their homeland.

    Another factor that leads to the tolerance of injustice toward weaker groups is the past grievances and injured pride of a people which is used to justify an ongoing injustice. The vast Ottoman empire of the 18th century was reduced to modern day Turkey by early 20th century as it was defeated repeatedly by European powers. This historical defeat has resulted in a reactionary pan-Turkish nationalism that was fervently opposed to recognizing the cultural rights or political aspirations of the Kurdish minority up until a few years ago. A similar reactionary nationalism is noticeable in many other non-western countries that have suffered historical humiliation as a result of Western colonialism and imperialism. In these cases a collective sense of victimization is used as an excuse to suppress an ethnic minority or deny independence to an occupied territory. In rare occasions that a type B activist supports the rights of these oppressed groups, in addition to the risk of formal punishment, he or she will face a very severe social backlash in mainstream intellectual circles of his own society. Establishing an award for type B activists will pay tribute to the courage and sacrifice of these rare breed of activists who often pay a heavy price for their political views.


Concluding remarks

    In the post-cold war world, the international order resembles a chaotic jungle in which the strong nations threaten the weaker nations and try to impose their will on them. Unfortunately there is no international body that can effectively intervene and the only effective force that can discourage a powerful nation from praying on weaker nations is the moral character of its citizens. The moral conscience of the world community has gradually improved after world war two and democratic industrial nations no longer approve of overt imperialism or colonialism. This has come about, in no small measure, as a result of the efforts of type B political activists in Western societies.

    Better communications and the easier access to the news coverage of international events have also played an important role. The weak nations however, are still vulnerable to covert intervention and more subtle forms of implicit economic and political domination. Type B activists in advanced countries that have the power to exploit and abuse the weaker nations, serve a valuable purpose by raising the political consciousness of their citizens about these abuses. Type B activists also make a valuable contribution in all societies   by standing up for the rights of oppressed minorities and social   groups. The type B activists deserve to be recognized for this valuable service and one way to do so is through an annual award. I call on progressive political activists worldwide to express their views about this proposal and if there is enough support for it, exchange views on practical steps needed to set up such an award system.

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Nader Habibi is the Henry J. Leir Professor of Practice in Economics of the Middle East at Brandeis University's Crown Center for Middle East Studies. His research has focused on economic and financial conditions of oil-exporting Middle Eastern (more...)

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