Washington, DC - The aftermath of the Scottish government’s recent release of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the former Libyan intelligence agent who was given a life sentence for the 1988 bombing of PanAm flight 103 over Lockerbie, is a case study of the deep misunderstanding and miscommunication that exists between much of the Muslim world and the West.
Al-Megrahi represents the very image of evil for those who believe him guilty of this atrocity: a man who contributed to the death of 270 people aboard a commercial airliner and 11 people on the ground. Had he been found guilty of the same crime in his native Libya, he would most likely have been executed by the state. But Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill says he released him on grounds of compassion: Al-Megrahi is reported to be suffering from prostate cancer and doctors have given him three months to live.
In ordering his premature release, the Scottish government showed mercy and compassion, two qualities that al-Megrahi certainly did not extend to the passengers of PA103.
Yet upon his arrival in Tripoli, he was given a hero’s homecoming, with cheering crowds transported to Tripoli International Airport aboard buses chartered by the Libyan government.
Notice the contrast between the circumstances surrounding his release and those around his homecoming: on the one hand, a criminal was freed on humanitarian grounds, while on the other, that same criminal is greeted like a rock star.
Why is it that the same man can be seen through such dissimilar lenses?
To even begin to answer this question, we have to look beyond al-Megrahi, Lockerbie or even Libya, and unpack some of the long-standing and tense debates taking place between Muslim-majority and Western countries. One might hold up the Scottish decision to the broader context of European and American foreign policy and very well ask the question: What is it that drives many Westerners, who have long championed the rights of individuals, to care about the life of a single person but think nothing of dropping missiles on entire villages in efforts to kill a single Taliban leader?
The tension between caring for some individuals and disregarding others was also evident when former US President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to obtain the release of two Asian-American journalists who had been detained by North Korean border guards when they ventured into the country. In contrast, the previous US administration thought nothing of incarcerating hundreds of prisoners without trial in Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp and Abu Ghraib prison, or of extraditing individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism to their countries of origin—even when the American officials involved knew these suspects would be tortured.
Such incidents of double standards undermine the goodwill generated by the West’s generous aid to many Arab and Muslim countries, and undo much of the positive work carried out by many Western organisations around the world. Some detractors argue that certain Western policies are even detrimental to the very people that they are supposed to support.
But legitimate grievances towards the West do not justify behaving in an equally reprehensible way as soon as the opportunity presents itself. The Libyan leadership has missed an opportunity to demonstrate that it really is ready to embrace justice and international norms in a meaningful way.
The international community must move forward in an honest way that will require much of both sides. Those of us in Western communities, even as we mourn incidents like Lockerbie, need to acknowledge how often we turn a blind eye to the deaths of those in Muslim-majority countries where strategic objectives take precedence over valuing individuals. Those in Muslim-majority countries can—and should—hold Western governments to international standards, and must try to live up to them as well. This didn't happen when al-Megrahi returned to Libya. If Muslim-majority countries can uphold international human rights and justice in a meaningful way, however, it might be possible that the West could have something to learn from them.
* Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times and a political analyst in Washington, DC. This article first appeared in Kuwait Times and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) as part of a series on analysing Western policies in the Muslim world.
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 1 September 2009, www.commongroundnews.org
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