The West censures others for abuses when its own record on illiberal attitudes needs attention, writes Joyce McMillan
POLICE in riot gear drag protesters up a city street, and make multiple arrests. People demonstrating in opposition to the present government and its policies find themselves treated like terrorists or criminals, rounded up and charged with plotting violence; and most of the mainstream media – and majority public opinion – go along with the official view that protesters are suspicious types, whose freedom matters much less than the nation’s “security”.
For a few brief hours on Wednesday, in other words, it was difficult to tell – from a quick glance at the news – whether the city on our screen, with its ranks of riot police confronting protesters, was London or Istanbul. There is no comparison of scale, of course, between Wednesday’s police raid on a squat in Soho occupied by anti-capitalist groups hoping to protest against this month’s G8 summit in Northern Ireland, and the huge popular demonstrations in Istanbul, triggered by the threatened redevelopment of a local park.
Yet in the week when we learned of the massive surveillance systems now in place to monitor all the communications and internet postings of citizens across the West, the tone of voice in which European and western nations often address the Turkish government – and others in emerging economies around the world – begins to seem increasingly inappropriate. Despite all the changes that have swept global politics in the last dozen years, since the 9/11 attacks, there is still a tendency for western governments to talk as if our societies somehow hold the key to values of freedom, democracy and human rights, while those in other parts of the world need to take lessons from us.
Yet while Turkey still has a serious human rights case to answer – particularly in relation to its treatment of the Kurdish minority, and of dissident writers – the position of western governments in the debate over human rights and civil liberties looks increasingly unconvincing. To put it bluntly, ever since 2001 there seems to have been a growing agreement across the United States, the UK, and many other western countries – among governments and citizens alike – that civil liberties and human rights simply do not matter much, when weighed in the balance against what governments call “security”. Real security, of course, is a complex phenomenon, and depends primarily on trust and civility among citizens, respect for the rule of law, and the consent of the vast majority to the basic principles around which society is organised.
For modern western governments, though, “security” means just one thing; and that is an ever-increasing investment of public funds in the elaborate security paraphernalia – from street-corner security cameras to unmanned drones – that make such a fortune for global security and high-tech corporations. And as we saw following the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich last month, every violent incident with a political dimension becomes grist to the mill, both of authoritarian politicians, and of the lobbyists and allies of the security industry.
So today, the UK government is threatening to remove the European Convention on Human Rights from British law, to legislate for further comprehensive intrusion into private communications, and to “crack down”, using anti-terror legislation if necessary, on anyone who has the temerity to organise a public protest against the current economic system; even peaceful marchers now run the risk of being “kettled” in small streets or squares for hours on end, deprived of food, water, and access to lavatories. Nor, in public debate, is there much serious resistance to moves of this kind. Indeed Labour and Conservative politicians generally compete as to who can sound tougher on security matters, who can move fastest to smear the morals and reputation of dissidents like this week’s high-profile whistleblower Edward Snowden, and who can seem most contemptuous of “woolly-minded” liberals who still think that civil liberties matter.
Yet although it is clearly our right, as a society, to go down this authoritarian and illiberal road if we choose, it is absolutely not our right to do so while also continuing to lecture other countries on the meaning of freedom. Of course, our human rights record remains better than that of Turkey; British civil society, and the British media, still contain many proud pockets of resistance to the authoritarian trend.
Yet in this area as in many others, we might now be better employed in addressing dangerous trends in our own society, than in laying down the law to others. Most of the British coverage of the current upheaval in Turkey, for example, effortlessly implies that this is a straightforward good-bad conflict between nice westernised secular city-dwellers like ourselves, and a theocratic government bent on bringing all of Turkish society under the cosh of fundamentalist Islam.
A visit to Historic Scotland’s brilliant five-hour staging of Sir David Lindsay’s Satire Of The Three Estates, in Linlithgow last weekend, came as a sharp reminder of how recently people in Scotland were minded – like the current new constitution-writers across North Africa – to base their political constitution-making on a powerful reformed religion to which every decent citizen would subscribe; not only in 1540, when Lindsay was writing, but as recently as the 1920s, when the Kirk debated whether people of Irish Catholic descent could really be classed as Scots.
So let’s remember, in our dealings with Turkey and other countries across the Muslim world, that for all the sensational reporting that seeks to present people there as somehow “other” than ourselves, there is little going on in those societies that is not instantly recognisable to everyone who knows the history of our own small island. Our secularism is recent, and perhaps only skin deep. And our commitment to civil and human rights is so fragile that it took just one major attack on an iconic western city to make us question whether we place any value on them at all; or whether we are prepared to mock them and push them aside, in return for the kind of “security” represented by ugly blast-walls around our new Scottish Parliament, and the low hum of a newly purchased surveillance drone over the green fields of Northern Ireland, where the G8 leaders meet next week.