Passionately committed to the wrong cause
That the test of time would turn me into an ardent supporter of the political and legal ideas proposed by Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu would have seemed a bit of an oddity to those who knew me when I was still in school and an outspoken leftist. Although I knew at that time the Soviet Union was ‘wrong’, I would always retort and add in debates with classmates that the United States was ‘also wrong’. When in 1989 at Tiananmen Square CCP Leader Deng Xiaoping cracked down on the democratic resistance movement endorsed by his Prime Minister and former protégé Zhao Ziyang, I was thunderstruck and depressed for quite a while. Deng gave ‘Opening Up and Reform’ a primarily economic meaning which as a European democrat I found hard to swallow. The episode taught me the political realist lesson that handling power is a vitally important but not particularly elegant craft in societies and one that rarely sits well with wise opinions and fair outcomes. I swore never again to commit the same youthful sin of blindly believing in any ideology beyond human rights and dignity. 25 years later this vow allowed me to predict the current ‘Closing Down and Deform’ policies now raging through the People’s Republic years in advance, to draw my personal conclusions on time and diversify my research portfolio beyond the Middle Kingdom. This time I was right.
Of ponytails and men
Moreover, learning my lessons from liberal and incrementalist political and legal philosopher Montesquieu, I came to see that although personal freedom, checks and balances and rule-of-law would always be essential normative components of a balanced and desirable constitutional framework with administrative elaborations, specific cultural characteristics and preferences in each nation should flesh out what these are to look like in practice. I learned from his Lettres persanes (Persian Letters) how he imagined an Iranian perspective of the practices and malpractices at the French Royal Court under Louis XIV without ever having visited the country. I pondered over his judgment in De l’esprit des lois (Spirit of the Laws) that Peter the Great was right in following Western European men’s fashion to promote short hair, but that he still erred big time in that he should never have forced his male Russian subjects to cut off their ponytails: such an intervention was just too drastic and interfered with local culture. Instead, he should have waited until the residents of Saint Petersburg came to the realization by themselves that short hair was part and parcel of any superior civilization and then codified this beneficial practice into their own lifestyle. In short, Montesquieu did not only contribute legal genius to the world, he also keenly observed how the cultural spirit of regions and nations in the world were crucial to a thorough understanding of the potential and limitations of legislation. It is this empathic and diplomatic insight that seems to be painfully missing in Europe today.
We hate you, please sell us more gas
Whoever had thought that bread and games was the easy way for politicians to keep European citizens and consumers happy in the year 2022 will be disappointed. Not a day passes in which the pleasure of preparing for the football World Cup in Qatar is not marred with admonitions that in French and Belgian cities enjoying matches on large screens with good (albeit noisy and drunk) company in city squares is (or should be) prohibited. It is rare to hear people remark in public that our kings and presidents should pay the customary courtesy visit to the noble sheikhs of the Gulf region and cheer for our national teams. News reports updating the death toll among poor Indian and Pakistani migrants in Qatar working on the construction of stadiums and other necessary facilities are hard to miss. References to the suspicious and corrupt circumstances under which the World Cup was awarded to that loathsome Gulf state are also dug up to reinforce the point. Now that even Sepp Blatter, the famously corrupt ex-president of FIFA, openly confesses that awarding the event to the profusely gas-endowed Emirate was inappropriate, the evidence is clear: Europe would have been a far better and fairer place to host it. Not just now, but always. It is a pity that high-level treason is making this impossible. We are clean and they are dirty; it is as simple as that. But wait…
Despite all this, our teams will still go and play. Our TV consumers will still watch and shout. And we need gas, a lot of it actually. We Europeans want to cut back our dependence on Russia, but we do not wish to reduce our energy consumption even in the face of severe climate change. So, we turn to Qatar: Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, can you please sell us more gas? We hate you but we love you too!
Getting medieval on guest workers
The root cause of the European indignation is the so-called kafala system. This legal ‘adoption’ practice has pulled in over one million male construction workers from all countries of the former Indian sub-continent and the Philippines in the form of forced labor, sponsored by Qatari patron employers who control their working conditions, housing, social and recreational facilities (if any), and legal status all at once and in one package. All respected spokespeople are clearly dismayed at the hierarchical way in which policies are produced in this ‘medieval’ Gulf state. Human rights organizations call the situation in which these guest workers find themselves ‘a state of modern slavery’. In spite of occasional legislative adjustments that slightly modify their status for the better, the injustice and human suffering involved is undeniable and unacceptable according to any moral standard. We would expect the Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Nepalese, Sri Lankan and Philippine governments vocally to stand up for their rights, would we not? But instead, this noble role is played by us Europeans, unrivalled bold human rights warriors. True heroes, and fully entitled to loudly speak up on this matter, since when it comes to historical records on slavery and exploitation of human life we obviously have a clean slate. Fortunately, a clear conscience makes assessing and lecturing others much easier.
Kafala in the polder
Anyone who has followed documentaries on the treatment of migrant workers from Eastern Europe in the Netherlands has perhaps not come across this ignominious word ‘kafala’, but it is undeniable that they are recruited in remarkably similar ways as their counterparts in Qatar. They are offered integrated packages consisting of construction or fruit-picking jobs at pay levels far below minimum wage, deplorable housing conditions usually with a dozen or more people living in one condominium, and are reliant on no or insufficient medical insurance, sometimes with their passports taken from them. The net result is that they live unregistered lives in insalubrious homes, are left with financial conditions which make returning home to Poland or Romania a distant dream and end up ill or on the street if they lose their ability to work. The direct or indirect death toll is unknown, as these people are considered ‘illegal’, and of course what their Dutch patron-employers do is illegal (as it is in Qatar). Unfortunately, (like in Qatar) the public authorities put the cart before the horse in their attempts to improve the enforcement of minimum legal conditions for foreign workers through private contractors who appear to have found an attractive ‘business model’ and fail to develop successful legal and administrative approaches to remedying these malpractices (again similar to Qatar). Or to put it in language many Europeans will comprehend:
Judge not, that ye not be judged.
For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote of thy brother’s eye (Matthew 7: 1-5, King James Version).
A vengeful round of applause
Judge, however, Europeans have done as we all know. Whether their verdict is right or wrong, that seems to matter little. Neither does the question of who has the beam and who has the mote. And there is a price for us to pay: we are increasingly being judged ourselves. In times when the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English and French were powerful in the world, they could pass judgment on the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ that others do without much backtalk. But opening the same big majestic moral mouths they had when they were able to subdue and lecture the rest of the world in an era when, in fact, they no longer have the capability to colonize is playing a dangerous game. It inevitably causes resentment on the part of those who feel judged, and it appears that under such circumstances ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are of shrinking importance. His Majesty Al Thani may complain in public that his good name is unjustly sullied, but still ship his family gas at fat rates to craving European citizens to save their winter. Most Ukrainians and Burmese may still share European dreams of democracy and rule-of-law, but they represent a shrinking minority in the world. Much of Francophone Africa is enchanted with Moscow and the Russian military. To them, anything is better than the despicable French who are perceived as messy, bossy intriguers. Nor may one want to hear Indians speak about Britain and the British; the aftermath of Queen Elisabeth’s death was a good opportunity to acquaint oneself with their true cheerful feelings. And when the United Nations finally published its report on China’s treatment of its Uyghur ethnic minority and there was to be a vote on holding a public debate in the General Assembly about its findings and implications, there was a 19-17 majority of countries voting against the debate with 11 abstentions. Nearly all 17 yes-voting member states were ‘Western’, all 19 no-voting countries were non-Western (including the Islamic states of Qatar, UAE, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Mauritania, and Sudan), and almost all 11 abstainers were non-Western. The end of the vote was characterized by a loud and unusual round of applause to celebrate the outcome. A slap in the face of Europeans and Americans wishing to uphold the human rights of a besieged ethnic and religious minority in the globally most powerful non-Western nation. Need we say more about the vengeful spirit of the times? Is yet more empirical evidence required to make the point that Europeans are no longer in a position to teach others the difference between virtue and vice?
Who is empowered to impose?
Instructions at the start of each flight have it that in case of emergency, adults should put on their own oxygen mask first before helping their children. Perhaps we should not assume that European nations are adults and even less that their Asian or African neighbors can be dealt with as children, but we may nonetheless take this self-evident advice to heart these days. In a geopolitical context in which Europeans more than ever need natural resources from outside their own territories, a haughty tone can be decidedly self-defeating. In a domestic political environment in which Vladimir Putin has become a war hero and Joe Biden an imperialist villain for rising numbers of straying disenchanted Western souls who rely more on dissident media than on mainstream news, caution is due. In a party system in which the political center is imploding and increasingly incapable of addressing socio-economic and ecological crises, boasting that democracy is inherently superior to other state forms is unhelpful to achieve other international objectives. Colonial times allowed us Europeans to claim any natural resources we coveted while being mostly morally wrong; we were empowered to impose our will as right. In postcolonial times, roles have been reversed: we may frequently adduce ethically fair standpoints to the global discourse, but we are clearly powerless to convince anyone else of the appropriateness of our views.
Of Peter the Greater, his boyfriend and the rainbow flags
Let us examine Montesquieu’s words on having long hair in ancient Russia once again for clues on our Qatar quandary. To cut a long story short, Peter the Great simply should have waited longer; that would have made him Peter the Greater. The time is right when the time is right. Cultures do evolve and changing them should be handled with care. Take your same-sex partner with you to the 2022 World Cup and kiss him/her discretely on the cheek during the matches when you are in one of Qatar’s beautiful stadiums. But leave your exuberant rainbow flags at home for your friends’ perusal on the market squares of London, Paris, Brussels or Amsterdam. Virtue signaling is not a virtue, neither in the eyes of any Jewish, Christian or Islamic God nor in those of well-bred agnostics or atheists. When we truly protect and help the victims of human trafficking in the Netherlands, and when moral rectitude is applied on the entrepreneurs who have made a business model out of modern slavery in our own backyard, we stand on much firmer ground to promote our ideals. There are still so many kafala systems to dismantle at home. Who are the Poles and Romanians sleeping in the streets or in overcrowded apartments infested with rats? What extra policy tools do police officers need to arrest malafide Dutch construction firms venting out pernicious package deals to the needy in Warsaw and Bucharest? Listening to the voices of suppressed women in Iran who already speak out loud, or to homosexuals in Qatar who cannot yet do so and hearing what they require earns us Europeans far more respect than telling them to be like us.
Can you see the smile on the face of the Emir as he signs our new gas contract? Goooaaal!