The U.S. reaction to the spreading democratic uprisings in the Middle East has been notably selective. The latest state to join the movement, United Arab Emirates, has no political parties and no free elections. The authorities recently cracked down on activists who were calling for constitutional and parliamentary reforms and arrested a number of the movement’s representatives. The Obama administration did not publicly condemn the crackdown and has continued to emphasize its alliance with the UAE government, an ally in the region and in the war on terror and the largest foreign buyer of U.S. defense equipment (as of 2009).
Although it comes as no surprise that businesses would be indifferent to political oppression when their interests are threatened, it is rather discouraging that non-profit cultural and educational institutions also choose to ignore the issue. Partnered with the UAE government, Paris-Sorbonne is opening an extension in Abu Dhabi, this past fall New York University established a campus in Abu Dhabi, and the Guggenheim museum is currently constructing an extension on Saadiyat Island. Despite the letters from Human Rights Watch urging those institutions to publicly condemn the government’s crackdown, they have refused to speak out against the UAE authorities.
They justify their silence with a strategy of gradualism, a belief that global educational and cultural institutions in the UAE will advance a free exchange of ideas and bring social and democratic reform. Martin Luther King Jr. famously criticized this seemingly practical approach during the civil rights movement. One should break the silence, not compromise in the hopes for future change. Tomorrow’s goal of creating an environment of artistic and academic freedom may be rendered impossible by today’s hesitation to speak out against the violations of liberty.
The full column can be read here.