An interview with OSAMA MOFTAH by JUSTIN KIERSKY
Human rights lawyer, Osama Moftah, took a sabbatical last summer to lead the Jordan course. We caught up with him to discuss international law, leadership and the Circuitous global highway that led him to work with dragons students.
WHERE THERE BE DRAGONS (WTBD): Welcome back to the world of Dragons, Osama. I imagine it has been quite a transition to shift from the mindset of an educator teaching in the Jordanian deserts back to a human rights lawyer working in a Danish office. Thank you for taking time to sit down with us and share your thoughts. To begin, can you tell us a little about the significant events that catalyzed your commitment to human rights and democracy?
OSAMA MOFTAH: The 2005 Egyptian parliamentary election is an event that changed the face of political life in Egypt, and hence, my political views. I was in my third year in university when the Egyptian government allowed civil society, for the first time, to monitor elections. I observed this election and through it was able to learn about democracy and be a part of the first Arab groups who worked on the election. This was the first election in an Arab country to be observed by civil society. The 2005 experience put me in touch with the right people who continue to be dedicated to the cause of democracy and human rights. That was the driving factor that motivated me to work in this field.
When I finished university I wanted to do my master’s degree and, somehow, the University for Peace caught my attention. It is part of the UN academic arm and exists in Costa Rica, the first country to demolish its army. The whole experience was fascinating to me and I learned a great many things while I was there. I also wanted to meet with Oscar Arias, president of Costa Rica at the time, and I managed to do so. He was a fascinating politician who managed to play an important role in conflict mediation throughout Latin America. I had a conversation with him about his political role and I’m always imbued with a sense of pride when I see my picture with him.
WTBD: For the youth who have grown up in Middle Eastern countries embroiled in war, is it crazy to think that hope will one day soon spring eternal? How do we avoid those fatalistic tropes and clichés that suggest it won’t?
OM: Many writers say that the Middle East will have a lost generation. This is the gloomy forecast about the future Middle East. There are two things to stay hopeful about the whole situation: 1) Thanks to big data, we are now in a better position to design policies that tackle the root causes of problems and quicken the pace of change. 2) If we put sufficient resources in play, change will take less time. Take the Syrian refugees as an example. In less than three years, Syrian refugee groups reached different ends based on their destination countries. The more the international community gets involved, the better off refugees will be. I saw this when I worked with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey. Same people, strikingly different results in just three years, depending on international support.
WTBD: Is it mere pessimism to doubt that the global community can aspire to create a world in which human rights and social justice are equally valued because nations will always be unwilling to relinquish their sovereignty? What changes are needed to make the UN effective?
OM: Human rights and peace and security are two of the three founding pillars of the United Nations. After 70 years, we can look back and say we have come a long way and human rights is undeniably a universal norm. We now have international human rights institutions such as the Human Rights Council that include all UN members. Something we never imagined to happen 70 years ago. However, globalization brought complexities that are perceived as threats to national sovereignty by many nations. Therefore, more nations are less committed and some are even considering withdrawing from international agreements. The UN can do more by being a truly ‘global organization’ that upholds a universal understanding of global issues. To achieve this the UN must reshape its programs and place individuals at the center of its work. A quick look at the UN official records will show us that only 3% of the total UN regular budget is allocated to human rights. Moreover, concepts like global citizenship tend to fall through the cracks. The UN can do more by directing its work towards world citizens and not relying as heavily on governments. There is a great chance for success if we raise the awareness of global citizens.
WTBD: What do you feel are the greatest challenges to human rights and international rule of law?
OM: The biggest challenge is the fact that most governments are unable to deliver services and many are in total collapse. The success of the current international system rests on the success of its governments. The global refugee crisis is an example of the failure of our international system. Governments are unable to receive more refugees and do not want to contribute enough to the UN to look for solutions. It is fair to say that ideas such as entrepreneurship and the role of individuals do not exist in the current UN funding plans. There is always a chance to fund UN projects through individuals but this is not considered a legitimate solution yet. Individuals can play an active and positive role in solving international conflicts and the UN can help in reaching this.
WTBD: To many, the Muslim world has become synonymous with divisiveness and intolerance. Can you elucidate a broader, more nuanced, interpretation of leadership in Islam?
OM: It is unfortunate that the good guidance provided in the Quran and Sunnah does not deliver with its wisdom the power of self implementation. We have a duty as Muslims to understand and materialize these teachings in a manner befitting our societies. In the past, Islamic culture played a positive role in the Middle East when it was a blend of Arab, Egyptian, Persian and Greek cultures. This led to strong societies and stunning intellectual achievements. This is what we call the Islamic Golden Age under the Abbasid dynasty. Islamic culture now plays a negative role in dividing Middle Eastern societies, and each culture wants to impose itself upon others. There are different interpretations of Islamic texts right now because we have different types of Muslim intellectuals. In the past, Muslim philosophers used to be scientists who were brilliant in mathematics, physics and linguistics. This was the time when Al-Farabi wrote about the “virtuous city” and described types of societies and qualities of the leader. Averroes, Avicenna and Al-Kindi are examples of Muslim philosophers who translated major literatures into Arabic and described Islamic texts based on this understanding. Due to their intellectual leadership, previous Muslim philosophers invented comprehensive political theories about state administration and state institutions. Some concepts were too advanced for the time, and can be compared to modern institutions. For example, the concept of Mohtasib can be seen as Islamic version of current ombudsmen.
Now we have different types of Muslim scholars and, hence, a different understanding of Islamic texts. Current Muslim scholars are not scientists, they are not philosophers, and they hardly speak any language other than Arabic. Their limited capacity can distort the good Islamic texts. This is the plain reality that we live in.
WTBD: While the foundations of the United States establish freedom of religion and a clear distinction between Church and State, violent clashes over ideology and laws of inclusion continue. Does this reality contradict the global vision of the U.S. and its values?
OM: I hear this question frequently and I think it reflects what people see through the media these days. My personal experience in the USA showed me another way of seeing the ‘other’. In 2012, I did a brief fellowship at the U.S. Senate where I learned about American democracy. The highlight of my trip was the meaning that I found in the design of process and even the architecture in DC. There is a powerful drawing on the ceiling of the library of Congress. The drawing depicts twelve cultures, religions or countries that have had the greatest influence on Western civilization prior to the early 20th century. Those depicted are Judea (representing religion), Egypt (representing written records), Islam (representing physics), Middle Ages (representing modern languages), Spain (representing discovery), England (representing literature), France (representing emancipation), Germany (representing the art of printing), Italy (representing the fine arts), Greece (representing philosophy), Rome (representing administration) and America (representing science).
This drawing shows that the USA was established as a country not afraid of others’ identity. In fact, it appreciated their success and built upon it. This is the reason that many desire what is called the ‘American Dream’, the dream to live in a place that combines the best of all cultures and civilizations.
We only advance when we open ourselves to others, even in Middle Eastern and Islamic countries. When I look at our history in the Middle East, I see a similar pattern. Islamic civilization owes part of its achievements to other cultures. The House of Wisdom that was built by the Abbasid caliphates is proof in this regard. It was built as a formal institution mandated to translate books from other languages into Arabic. This translation opened the door for Arabs to learn from other cultures and to build upon them. The House of Wisdom represented the top intellectual institution and nurtured many Muslim scientists and philosophers who shaped our understanding at that time. All people from all religions (Muslim, Christians and Jews) were welcome to study there. It is hard to imagine the Islamic Golden Age without the House of Wisdom and the openness to others.
WTBD: After leading your first Dragons course in Jordan this summer, what unique lessons on leadership did you encounter?
OM: This trip was remarkable in that it allowed me to gain different perspectives on leadership and life in general. The chats we had with Jordanians in cafés and supermarkets in the village showed their remarkable ability to provide solutions to world problems. In one conversation, some people explained to us that major business ideas that we talk about in our daily lives are a replication of the simple solutions that exist in small villages. One gentleman offered that, from his point of view, the ride-sharing concept adopted by Uber is merely a technological advancement similar to what village people have done for many years on their daily trips. There are very few cars in the village, so the solution is to share limited resources for a fee or service. Another example is Airbnb, which is the modern version of a local house sharing business. This is interesting because when we think about all disruptive business ideas, we find them to be more similar to local traditions than outcomes summarized in books on business strategy.
Another example is the use of mobile financial transfers. This practice started in Africa and Arab countries as a way to overcome the inaccessibility of banks. Some mobile companies developed the idea into a business model and it became the mobile bank. In one conversation, a Jordanian told us that it would be better to send American entrepreneurs to local villages rather than MBA programs if they want to be successful. In his view, this is the place to mine for new ideas and solutions. This is a pretty fascinating fact for me! And I think it is true to a large extent.
WTBD: What advice would you give to young Dragons as they become leaders in their world?
OM: Travel more! I cannot see any transformative act that supersedes the perspective that travel offers. I believe that to be a good leader necessitates that one cultivate a love for this shared world. What better way to build empathy than to see how others live.
(This article was featured in the Spring 2017 edition of Dragons bi-annual Newsletter, The Map’s Edge. Each newsletter explores a subject of interest to the Dragons community through the voices of our Alumni, Instructors, Partners, Parents and our International Staff and contacts. Feel free to view our archive of editions of The Map’s Edge or even submit a piece to be featured in our next issue by sending an email to email@example.com)
OSAMA MOFTAH graduated from Alexandria University with a degree in law before pursuing an M.A. in International Law and Settlement of Disputes at the UN-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. Osama currently lives in Copenhagen where he practices international law with an emphasis on human rights and democracy, good governance and legal reform at the Danish Institute for Human Rights.