Published in The Daily Star on Monday, 26 September 2016
US ELECTIONS 2016
Leading towards a better world? – Dr Fahmida Khatun
President Barak Obama’s speech at the seventy first session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2016 carries great significance. This is not only because it was his last speech at the UN as the US president, but also for its content and message. While his speech has implications for the world today, some are probably more relevant for his own country. Emphasising that the world “must go forward, and not backward”, he spent a great deal of time highlighting the need for global integration and its benefits. He said that billions of people are now enjoying better lives, and the number of people living in extreme poverty has been reduced from about 40 percent to below 10 percent in the last 25 years, thanks to integration of the global economy. Reference to the contribution of immigrants to the US was another notable point of Obama’s speech, as he stated, “Today, a nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself.”
As opposed to what President Obama reiterated within the UN building, a part of the US presidential election campaign has been giving a different message outside. The Republican party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has been crying for tighter immigration rules, building walls, dismantling trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and keeping the US economy closed for the rest of the world. Being the beneficiary of globalisation himself, Trump successfully imprinted the wrong explanation of globalisation in the hearts of a large number of voters. Trump told them that immigrants would take their jobs and create social problems. His supporters, many of whom have lost their jobs following the financial meltdown in 2008 and many of whom are yet to get a place in the job market due to slow economic recovery, believe Trump’s concocted theory. The other cheap and easy-to-sell propaganda is that of terrorist activity by Muslims. While doing so, Trump dangerously equated Muslims with IS militants.
Unfortunately, many Western media often portray Muslims in the same manner. Additionally, his foul and indecent remarks on several people – which he always terms as “jokes” later on – have made him a controversial person. Though initially surprised by even the nomination of Trump, people around the world have now started to realise that Hillary Clinton will have a tough competition with him in the race to the White House.
Is this only because there is a trust gap among voters regarding Hillary? Or because her policies failed? Maybe both. But there is much more to the story than just this. When Barack Obama contested for his presidency for the first time in 2008, history was created. The US could finally vote for a black president. Surely, it wasn’t easy for him to enter the White House. But trust the diverse and multicultural American society. America is the champion of diversity in the world. Its identity as a country of immigrants has been at the core of creation of such diversity. Trump, whose campaign is undermining this, is taking advantage of that diversity himself. His candidature reflects that the US can choose anyone as its president. Relying on this, Trump, however, is taking the opportunity to deviate from the values which America upheld even after the deadly attack of 9/11. This is not to say that American policies towards immigrants are flawless or its treatment towards them is perfect. The attitude towards Muslims has changed post-September 2001. But apparent attempts of tolerance and plurality were eventually taken in the country. Even the Republican Bush administration maintained the tradition of accommodating diversity. But will it be the same after the November 2016 US election?
Obama’s remark at the UN General Assembly that “America has been built by immigrants from every shore” has been truly reflected in academia, the corporate sector, sports, culture, etc. Irrespective of their colour, race, religion and nationality, top universities including Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Stanford and similar centres of excellence continue to enrol students from the poorest countries of Africa or from the Muslim world. They look for talent and innovation. Many students from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) have been directly recruited by large IT companies in the US. Some even work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Here in our own country, many of Bangladesh’s change agents – from civil servants to engineers to professionals – have been educated and trained in the US. Millions of Bangladeshis follow Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Hundreds of Bangladeshi youths have learned speeches of Steve Jobs by heart. They are inspired by these iconic figures to pursue their own dreams and aspirations. It’s the same US that has recognised the talents of a diverse group of people, be it Satya Nadella of Microsoft, Sundar Pichai of Google, Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, Ginni Rometty of IBM, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook or US federal judge Abid Qureshi. Talent and professionalism overruled colour, sex and religion. This is also the reason why the US continues to attract the best from around the world. The US economy cannot sustain if this legacy of diversity and pluralism are discontinued.
The writer is Research Director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue.