This following guest opinion by Ahmed E. Souaiaia appeared in The Daily Iowan. Souaiaia is a UI associate professor in International Programs, Religious Studies and the College of Law.
During the first day of class, I asked students enrolled in my survey course on the Islamic civilization to think of an important event from around the world. The first student to speak pointed out the return of a dictator to Haiti. The second student said that China flying its first Stealth airplane was a very significant event. Three other students spoke, pointing out various events, before a student mentioned the ongoing Tunisian revolution.
I asked how many students had even a vague idea about what has happened in Tunisia since Dec. 18, 2010; around 10 percent of them raised their hands.
Sure, there is no shortage of significant events that have taken place in the last month or so.
However, a revolution taking place in Tunisia ought to be compelling even for those with benign interest in international affairs. So why is it, then, that only 10 percent of students taking a course on the Islamic world were aware of this revolution?
The answer is simple: lack of media coverage — or, should I say, selective coverage — and therein lie serious ethical, political, and security problems for the United States.
I am sure that more than 10 percent of students and the public remember that, a year and half ago, elections were held in Iran, and supporters of the losing candidates protested violently against results that gave the current president a second term in office. Then, cable-news channels, major television networks, and the print and online press provided around-the-clock coverage. The Obama administration, too, came out in support of the Iranian people. It was all done in the name of supporting democracy and human rights in the Islamic world.
In Tunisia, thousands of people revolted against one of the most brutal dictators of the Arab world, Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali, and his corrupt regime.
For 54 years, two despots ruled the country with iron fist. They banned credible political parties, tortured political prisoners, exiled opposition figures, curtailed the freedom of the press, limited access to the Internet, embezzled state funds, and increased poverty to subhuman levels. An unemployed youth was so unbearably desperate that he set himself on fire in protest, an act that triggered the revolution that forced Ben Ali out and put the country on a path to the unknown.
So, why should students and the American public care?
Ethically, they should care because the killing of 78 innocent people, wounding of hundreds, and imprisonment of many more by a dictator’s security forces is a big deal. The shared humanity, the common aspiration to pursue life and happiness, and the universal capacity to mourn the loss of innocent life should move anyone to sympathize with the Tunisian people.
Politically, if the suppression of protest in Iran was deplored by the U.S. administration and reported as a lead story by the US media, the killing of people who rise up against oppressive rulers in Tunisia should receive the same attention. Short of that, it becomes a double standard, exposing the West to allegations of selectively highlighting human-rights issues to achieve political goals.
Tunisians feel that the West’s affinity with Ben Ali’s regime made it ignore the plight of people fighting corruption, brutality, and usurpation of national wealth.
When Western media and governments stand by regimes at the expense of the freedom-seeking peoples, global security is compromised. Supporting dictators and ignoring the people’s right to self-rule puts the lives of Americans abroad at risk and builds walls between nations. Countries of the West ought to recall their ill-advised support of the shah of Iran or the apartheid regime in South Africa to grasp the long-term implications of misplaced support.
In today’s interconnected world, what happens on the other side of the planet can and will affect the way we live at home. When civilian lives are lost at the hands of dictators, the least we can do is to follow their news and sympathize, instead of ignoring the shameful brutality of rulers who happen to be serving our short-term interests.