If you missed our Democracy Rally last Monday, you can watch it below! It was a memorable evening filled with powerful and POSITIVE voices coming together to celebrate our freedoms. Stay tuned for our next event!
And here's what you need to know about democracy this week:
1. In Confronting Extremism, France Risks Undermining Liberal Values
2. COVID Cold War? Vaccines Become Diplomatic Currency
3. In Myanmar, a Fight to Save Democracy
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In Confronting Extremism, France Risks Undermining Liberal Values
Credit: from the cover of Joan W. Scott's The Politics of the Veil.
Lawmakers in France this week passed a sweeping new bill to combat “Islamist seperatism,” a form of religious extremism that President Emmanuel Macron has said poses a threat to French democracy by “claiming its own laws should be superior to those of the Republic.”
The legislation, entitled “The Law to Uphold Republican Principles,” comes shortly after a young terrorist beheaded French teacher Samuel Paty for displaying a caricature of Mohammed during a lesson on free speech. Paty’s brutal murder recalled memories of the shooting at French magazine Charlie Hebdo, just one in a deadly string of terrorist attacks from 2015 to 2018 which traumatized France and left 249 dead and 928 injured.
Macron claims the new law will prevent future attacks and facilitate the further integration of Muslim immigrants, many of whom now live in poor and insular neighborhoods.Yet though some of the bill contains reasonable measures to confront extremism—like criminalizing polygamy and forced marriage—other clauses have sparked intense debate.
One controversial article prohibits homeschooling for children over three years old, in an attempt to prevent radicalization at home or in underground religious schools. Another provision prohibits non-French citizens from leading French religious associations.
Yet perhaps the most contentious element of the new bill is an article obligating religious groups receiving state funds to sign and adhere to a “contract of Republican commitment” pledging loyalty to the principles of secular French society, including equality of the sexes. A religious group that refuses to sign may be investigated for supporting extremism.
Critics have called the contract “a veritable modern day patriotism test” that only serves to stigmatize believers, particularly Muslims. Yet supporters say the law is necessary to preserve the French ideal of laïcité, or secularism, and to counter illiberal ideas.
1. What is laïcité? And what is its history in France?
Though best translated as secularism, or “separation of church and state,” the French concept of laïcité differs from the American understanding of religious freedom. In the United States, the establishment clause prohibits the government from supporting any religion over another, but gives private citizens free range to practice their beliefs in private and public settings.
In France, laïcité is a much broader concept, with roots in the French revolution against the Monarchy and the Church. Valuing the secular political community above all, laïcité holds that there should be no religious influence on the public sphere, regardless of whether this influence comes from the state or from private individuals.
In recent decades, a wave of Muslim migration from former French colonies ignited a new debate on laïcité. In 2004, hijabs, crucifixes, yarmulkes, and other religious symbols were banned from public schools. And in 2010, France banned the full face veil in all public spaces. More recently, France passed a law penalizing religious groups and individuals promoting extremism, leading to the closure of almost 75 mosques and religious schools in 2020 alone.
2. What do critics of the law say?
Protests against the proposed legislation have spread across France and abroad, as many argue that it unfairly targets Muslims and violates democratic values.
Critics point to the European Convention on Human Rights, signed by France, which holds that “everyone has the right... to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” Defenders of civil liberties worry that France is on a dangerous path towards regulating and punishing not just people's actions, but also their thoughts and beliefs.
Apart from ideological objections to the law, there are strong indications that it simply won’t work to reduce radicalization. Many French Muslims are already marginalized and alienated from French society. Assimilation at the barrel of a gun might just exacerbate the problem. In recent months, some activists have called to replace the French focus on assimilation with a multiculturalist model for integration and acculturation closer to that of the United States.
Regardless of where you stand, one thing is certain: in its fight against extremism, France must be careful not to trample the very values and freedoms it seeks to preserve.
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COVID Cold War? Vaccines Become Diplomatic Currency
Health workers in Kabul, Afghanistan unload vaccine doses shipped by the Indian government. Labels on the boxes read “Gift from the people and Government of India.” Credit: Hedayatullah Amid/EPA, via Shutterstock.
As the global race to vaccinate is underway, China, India, and Russia have shipped millions of vaccine doses abroad in an attempt to buy influence and goodwill.
China sees leading the global vaccination drive as an opportunity to change the narrative on COVID and forge friendly ties through the “health Silk Road.” India seeks to reassert its regional authority after years of watching China make diplomatic gains in South Asia. Vladimir Putin views his Sputnik V vaccine as a tool to bolster Russia’s international credibility. The three countries are eager to be philanthropic as a way of expanding their influence (and in the case of Russia and China, rehabilitating their reputations), each striking deals with large numbers of clients.
Their campaigns of self-interested altruism have become massive undertakings. As of Mon., Feb. 15, through grants and commercial purchases, China has shipped at least 46 million doses to countries including Turkey, Hungary, Indonesia, and Brazil, and India has shipped nearly 23 million to clients such as Nepal, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Russia has also begun to ship doses of its vaccine to Venezuela and Argentina and, as of Feb. 10, has signed agreements to export nearly 205 million doses. (It is worth noting that there are outstanding questions regarding the efficacy of some of these vaccines. Surprisingly, given Russia’s dishonesty regarding COVID, its vaccine appears to be safe and effective.)
These countries are able to serve as benefactors due to their strong production capacity and lower domestic infection rates (China in particular). The U.S. and E.U., still reeling from devastating outbreaks, have focused on immunizing their own populations first. While the American-developed Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are being shipped abroad as well, the U.S. government is not currently donating them to allies or pursuing a concerted distribution campaign to expand American geopolitical power.
The U.S. and EU are still suffering from relatively greater infection rates.
Credit: Our World in Data.
Should the international community encourage this vaccine diplomacy?
As usual, it’s complicated.
The global South is in desperate need of vaccines. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the developing world may have to wait until 2023 for widespread access. Inequitable vaccine distribution could double total global deaths and pose huge financial costs even to rich nations.
However, while vaccine diplomacy will do real good, there are also a number of reasons for hesitation:
First, China’s autocratic silencing of early pandemic prognosticators sparked the flames of the pandemic. Does Xi deserve credit for dousing some flames of a fire whose match he largely lit?
Second, there are lingering questions about some of the vaccines being distributed. For instance, a leading Chinese vaccine previously reported as 78% effective was later found to be 50.4% effective. In many cases, vaccines are being distributed before they’ve been approved by the COVAX international vaccination initiative. Is that wise, or safe?
Third, vaccine diplomacy is helping malign foreign powers expand their influence. Russia tested the Sputnik vaccine on humans before it was known to be safe, a grievous ethical violation. Beijing is committing a genocide against a racial minority and, in the words of Human Rights Watch, “sees human rights as an existential threat.” It’s important that global powers not brush aside these abuses in light of these countries’ vaccine exports.
On the one hand, Xi, Putin, and Modi are providing countries in need vaccines before international initiatives like COVAX can. On the other, people will be immunized in a potentially ineffective way that expands the power of bad actors. Is the trade-off worth it? It’s hard to say. \
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In Myanmar, a Fight to Save Democracy
As we discussed in a previous newsletter, there was a coup in Myanmar on February 1 after the military’s political party lost a national election in a landslide. The military arrested Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, as well as many of her allies. She has been spuriously charged with illegally importing walkie-talkies and just recently with violating COVID-19 restrictions. The nation’s army chief has declared a one-year state of emergency.
This week, the military shut down the internet for three consecutive days, from Sunday to Tuesday, while possibly preparing to install a China-esque total internet firewall. On Tuesday, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, issued a dire warning that the military is now mobilizing light infantry and armored vehicles in Yangon, the nation’s largest city in an attempt to crush––perhaps violently––the growing democracy demonstrations.
This is just the latest episode in a long history of the military undermining any semblance of democracy in Myanmar, which includes coups in 1962 and 1990.
1. How have the people of Myanmar responded to the coup?
The people of Myanmar responded in dramatic fashion. Starting on February 2, workers across Myanmar began a nationwide “Civil Disobedience Movement,” walking off their jobs to bring the country’s economy and government to a sudden halt. Fully three-quarters of the nation’s civil servants––750,000 workers––participated in the labor strike. Healthcare workers shut down hospitals. The entire Ministry of Welfare has resigned. Activists called for boycotts of military-run businesses and corporations, like the once popular Myanmar Beer brand.
As mentioned, to maintain order, the military has cracked down on Myanmar’s popular resistance. They have arrested more than 350 politicians and democracy activists without court authority. Intelligence units have raided private homes in the dark of night.
However, the people of Myanmar have remained resolute. For more than ten days, hundreds of thousands have marched in peaceful demonstrations across the country in defiance of the military coup and in support of Suu Kyi. When the military shut down Facebook, use of private messaging apps spiked 6,700 percent. When the military shut down the whole internet, citizens released red balloons––the color of the detained National League for Democracy Party––in solidarity. Individuals banged pots and pans to demonstrate loud and widespread support for democracy. To protect protesters from military convoys, citizens parked their cars in city streets and flipped the hoods up, clogging traffic under the guise of fixing engine problems.
Wednesday, February 17th, saw some of the largest pro-democracy protests in Myanmar’s history. Protesters believe that they can bring down the economy, and thus the regime.
2. How can the free world support Myanmar’s citizens?
Whether or not this popular resistance movement will work depends at least somewhat on foreign powers. To date, President Biden has issued an executive order enabling his administration to immediately sanction the military leaders responsible for the coup. The sanctions will also prevent the new junta from accessing $1 billion in Myanmar government funds held in the United States, as well as imposing robust export controls. As a former US ambassador to Myanmar recently remarked, it will be imperative for other countries, such as Japan, India, and Singapore, with “more skin in the game, more leverage, or at least better relationships with the key players” to respond as well. Given Myanmar’s strategic importance to these countries, this doesn’t seem likely, though it is notable that Japanese lawmakers have asked their government to impose sanctions against the junta’s leaders.
The United States must work with and pressure its allies to support the people of Myanmar.