Shirin Atayeva. Shirin is a senior at Capital University and served as the International Rule of Law and Security Program Summer 2019 intern. She is originally from Turkmenistan.
Shortly after my arrival in the United States, the dean of my university, trying to help to integrate us into a new society, told the international students that there was no “bad” or “good” culture, no “bad” or “wrong” way of thinking or doing something. Instead, people’s approach to challenges might simply be different than what we were used to. That perspective and certain experiences I encountered during my time in the US demonstrated to me that it is vital to understand other cultures in their own context rather than purely through our own lens.
When I was in Croatia earlier this year, I talked with a number of students from various developed countries, including Norway, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and the United States, about diplomatic engagement with totalitarian regimes. One student mentioned the tragic case of Otto Warmbier, the American student from Ohio who was arrested while visiting North Korea. Following a disputed incident at a hotel in Pyongyang, he was arrested and imprisoned. He died shortly after being released 17 months later to US custody.
Most of us focused on the troubling nature of the story, but a student from Norway asked, “Why would you even go to such a weird country?” Originally from Turkmenistan, which is governed by a strict authoritarian regime, I felt quite confused, and even hurt. Many thoughts raced through my mind. First of all, people living in totalitarian regimes are often not able to vote for their representatives and lawmakers. Even when there are presidential or parliamentary elections, they are usually not free, fair, or democratic. Second, laws in totalitarian states are unilaterally determined by the unfairly elected, or unelected, government or leader. They are thus the ones who make the system abnormal or “weird.” Therefore, the undemocratic behavior of these regimes, which might be called “weird” by those who never experience such conditions, does not necessarily mean that the populations subjected to these regimes are themselves “weird.”
I found it extremely sad that the conditions that millions of people living in authoritarian regimes face—from the total absence of freedom of speech and any semblance of liberty, to suffering constant human rights violations, often with little hope for a change in their conditions—were dismissed as “weird.”