In the nearly fifty years I have been involved with the Middle East in one capacity or another, I have observed the slow retrogression of the quality of life for its people. Despite some flashes of bright spots that seem to indicate progress is being made, society soon slips back into old patterns of life with only slightly new trappings of modernity. Modernity to the Arab society has come to mean some importation of Western products and the use of modern means of communication, sometimes with superior skills. But the use of these devices, and social media, for instance, has not altered the fundamental view of life or behavioral patterns. The global village that was supposed to transform the Middle East has simply become a conduit for accelerated reinforcement of old patterns of behavior. For example, media networks like al Jazeera have opened new sources of news, but at the same time their embedded prejudices and editorial orientation simply reach more of an audience and exacerbate existing sectarian and regional animosities.
In my association with Arab friends and their culture I have come to appreciate many aspects of that culture which tend to be pervasive and powerfully addictive to those who have long years of ties with it. I often admire the ability of so many Arabs who come to this country showing initiative and innovation rare in their home culture. However, it is those who strike out on their own to create businesses, in towns large and small across America, not those who flock to the Arab ghettos of Dearborn, Michigan. These are the Arabs who flee the oppression of their culture and society only to try and reinvent it in the United States.
So the question I have often asked myself is why do those Arabs who strike out on their
own demonstrate remarkable initiative, create businesses, and produce goods and services while the same people in the Arab world remain inert and uncreative? For a number of years I have maintained a keen interest in this issue, and in this paper I will attempt to highlight the salient factors. These reasons and factors I term burdens. They are burdens in the social, political, economic, environmental, and educational fields that seem to shackle Arab society.
These burdens could each support many Ph.D. theses, but I want to bring out those which operate and interact with each other and provide a glimpse into the tangled social fabric of Arab society to surface those attributes that retard meaningful progress. In using the overworked word “progress” I mean enhancing the quality of life, not just how many use email or twitter. How could this once great empire, militarily triumphant, intellectually far ahead of a Europe entering the dark ages, the center for scientific and religious thought become so moribund and lag so far behind the rest of the world?
Like The ISIL fighters of today, the early Arab warriors were not successful simply because of religious zealotry. The early Arab armies were sophisticated, had excellent mobilization procedures, excellent generalship, and were used to tribal warfare and hardship. The primary enemy of the Arabs, the Byzantines lacked that just as the Iraqi army does now.
The problem is that with great history and knowing their once superior position in the world, the reality of today is even harder to take in. Many seek to find outside reasons for the diminished place of the Arabs in the world of today. The culprints are always zionism, imperialism, western colonialism, ad Nauseum
The only people in the Arab world able to use the terrain were the Bedouin. Today they constitude less than 2% of the population. The Arab world was always an urban civilization but in recent history the trend has been a steady influx to the city, cities that do not have the infrastructure, water, or other life support to accomodate the new arrivals. The Middle East has also been experiencing a decade of drought which has resulted in a staedy encroachment of the desert. The increasing temperatures have had an adverse effec t on the amount of rainfall.
The primary problem with water is that all the great river systemns begin beyond the Arab world. The Tigris, Euphrates in Turkey and the Nile in ten African countries south of the Sahara. The Turks are building a number of dams all over south east Turkey, recucing the amount of a water flowing to Syria and Iraq. The Nile basin countries are increasingly demanding greater access to the water originating in their countries. At present, under existing agreements reached under the influence of the Brtish colonial governments, Egypt and Sudan get almost all the water. There is little doubt that will eventually change, despite vociferous protests of Egypt.
Moreover in the Arab world there has been little thought put to water conservation. The Saudis have been pumping water from thousands of feet below the surface to water wheat farms, depleting the major aquifers in the region, a practice which as been going on all over the Arab world. In Yemen, the farmers have switched to Qat, a mild narcotic, and a good cash crop in lieu of coffee and other products for which was once famous. The Qat plants are notoriously “thirsty” and soak up huge amounts of water which yemn canot afford. All this leads to not only a lack of g food sufficiecy through the Arab world but a food security ( access) issue as well.
In Summary it must be admited that in terms of natural resources, other than oil ( and then only in a few countries) that tghe Arab world got the short end of the stick.As written earlier, the great history of the Arab world conflicts with the reality of today
22 weak divided squabbling nations, almost all with secere internal problems. So history becomes a great burden inspiring endless conspiracy theories and an aversion to self-criticism. History then becomes a burden.
Tereq Heggy is an Egyptian intellectual who frequently writes on the cultural problems of the Arab world. Hume Horan was the finest State Department Arabist of the recent times. Arab professor Khalil Khasan opines that the Arab society has been unable to shake loose from traditional values that basically preclude adopting new ones. He is the primary proponent of the concept that the Arab past is an obstacle to modernity.
Naguib Mafouz was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature. Many of his short stories have been translated into English. It is symtomatic of the current state of affairs in the Arab world that he was stabbed and severely wounded by a religious fanatic .In addition to the political constraints put on intellectual development by the oppressive regimes, in the last decade the cultural and religious oppression has become even more suffocating. Tareq Heggy writes of the self glorification propensity of the Arab elite and their inability to seek the answers to their problems within their own society
It is embarrassing how little research has taken place in the Arab world in comparison s to other parts of the world. In my paper I take note of some specifics. As Mohammed Arkoung, the Algerian intellectual wrote, ” The Muslim societies importbthe most complex tecnological materiels, but the most sophisticated armaments….but all these instruments of scientific modernity have little perceptible effect on the mentalities or even on reflective thought.” Akbar Ahmad, the Pakistani intellectual, wrote that scholars are “…….silenced,humiliated or chased out of their homes. In place of scholars we have sychopants, or the secret service. The wisdom and compassion of the former has been replaced by the paranoia and neurosis of the latter.”
One of the great barriers to an intellectual environment is the Arab education system. Having attended American University in Beirut I noticed the difference between most Arab professors and American professors. Arab professors tended to teach in a very authoritarian style, with little or no feedback expected from the students. My Arab history class was one example of this. The professor expounded on dates and results of battles, but nothing on the analysis or implications of these events. On quizzes the students were expected to regurgitate the lectures of the professor. Over the years in dealing with Arabs, both civilian and military, I have found little change in the way education is conducted to the present time.
There is no doubt that education in Arab society is a valued concept and academic achievement is highly respected, probably more so by Arabs than Americans. I found this to be invariably true throughout the Arab world. It is somewhat puzzling then that so little overall progress has been made in terms of almost every indicator of educational status. Working with various Arab militaries, the effects of a rote- type teaching experience were always marked among soldiers and officers. Even among senior officers who were well read and could quote from various Western military tracts, could not really put them into on-the-ground usefulness.
The ills of the Arab educational system have been well documented, initially by the Arab Human Development Report of 2002. It surfaced three main problems with Arab socio-political system. They were the lack of political rights, the lack of education opportunities for women, and acquisition of knowledge. Subsequent reports noted some progress, but not much.
In instructing members of the Arab military I noticed the great value put on certificates of completion or academic achievements. An army colonel with a PhD. would always insist that his title be “Dr. Colonel.” Bassam Tibi, an author of outstanding analysis of the Arab political culture, in his writings has also commented that the diploma and university are most important, not the education itself.
In more recent times the ” Islamic revival” and the massive problem of refugees ( latest estimate over 13 million) fleeing the many conflicts in the Arab world have totally disrupted educational systems and the children are not going to school. In the so called “Islamic State,” little of value is even in the learning process.
There can be no doubt that Arabic is a creative and powerful language that has a pervasive hold on its speakers as well as an unbreakable link to Islam It is to many the language of creation. As Sayyid Abul A’la Maudidi wrote, “If you study the language and fathom deep into its literature, you will be convinced that there is no other language than Arabic which is more suited to give expression to high ideals, to explain the most delicate and subtle problem of Divine knowledge…”
“It is such a rich and powerful language that was needed for the Qur’an, the Great Word of God.” In his masterful depiction of Arab personality traits, The Arab Mind, Raphael Patai eloquently describes the psychological effects of the language with its “…inclination to rhetoricism, exaggeration, over-assertion and repetition, and of his tendency to substitute words for action.” The power of Arabic to galvanize and evoke strong emotion is, at the same time, a drawback to a more reasoned logic. The overly exalted and religious status of Arabic as a language and the “language of creation” is a self–imposed limitation to learning.
The Arab Development Report goes on to mention the difficulties of using Arabic in scientific or technical fields and the overall difficulty of its proper translation. This is a major road block to cultural and educational progress in the Arab world. In fact the concept of the Arabic language itself as cultural glue, hanging together disparate segments of a people called Arabs because they speak some form of Arabic, is indeed suspect.
The fact of the matter is that many young Arabs have problems finding employment not because they do not speak French or English, but rather cannot write modern standard Arabic very well. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is not a spoken language (except for some news anchors on TV). MSA is depicted by one language analyst “…as largely learned, cultic, ceremonial and literary language which is never acquired natively, never spoken natively…” Taha Hussein, the contemporary literary giant, wrote that MSA is “…difficult and grim, and the pupil who goes to school in order to learn to study Arabic acquires only revulsion for his teacher and for the language…”
Sati al Husri, a Syrian nationalist writer, wrote, …”MSA is the preserve of a small, select number of educated people, few of whom bother using it as a speech form. Conversely what we refer to as “dialectical Arabic” is in truth a bevy of different languages differing markedly from one country to another, with vast differences often within the same country…”
So in summary the impact of the eucation system or lack thereof are;
Kuran depicts three main reasons for the economic stagnation: the impact of Islam’s political institutions hindered political development by keeping civil society weak, Islam’s original tax system which failed to protect property rights, and the growth of the religious trusts (Waqfs) which failed to produce enduring commercial enterprises capable of challenging state control. Kuran writes, “These institutions contributed to extensive corruption, low trust, nepotism, and high tolerance for law-breaking. Such features helped sustain modern Middle Eastern autocracies. They also keep the region’s democracies flawed and unstable.”
Another pernicious effect of “Islamic economics” is the contrived and mostly fabricated concept that there is indeed an institution called Islamic economics. It was mostly an effort, particularly on the part of Sayyed ala Mawdudi (Indian Muslim and philosopher) to establish an economic order to conform to Islamic traditions. It consisted of an attempt to re-establish Indian Muslim identity as the British colonialism period ended and culminated in a world-wide acceptance that such an institution unknown in medieval times existed. In effect Muslim thinkers like ala Mawdudi, in their efforts to create a world separate and distinct from the West, promoted “the clash of civilizations” which, ironically, so many Western academics deny exists at all. In fact as Kuran wrote, “The notion of a clash of civilizations is consistent then, with a rapid diffusion of new technologies and goods. In fact, such diffusion may be among its basic causes.”
In today’s Arab world, economies remain mostly stagnate with embedded nepotism, bribery (bakshish), influence peddling (wasta), and the residue of a western import of socialism which only strengthened the power of the state over private economic enterprise, crippling it.
The impact of Arab socialism in a number of what were once considered “progressive” Arab countries has intensified the cultural attribute of “waiting for Godot” syndrome. My observations in Iraq were that people had become so dependent on the state (by Saddam’s design) for fuel and electrical power that for the first few years they constantly bemoaned the loss of services without displaying much initiative to remedy the situation as a community.
The bloated bureaucracies of modern Arab countries have added to the economic stagnation immensely. In this, the need for the regimes to self-perpetuate themselves is the main reason for this massive state apparatus in security and every aspect of life. Putting an individual on a government payroll generally ensures his loyalty to the state and all the Arab states use this system to obtain compliance with their rule. Among the many unfortunate aspects of these stagnated, inefficient bureaucracies, is a need to bribe officials to get anything done, but an even more pernicious effect is to force people into an informal economy, which by some accounts constitutes 20-40% of the economies of the Arab world.
Finally in terms of economic power there is the utter failure of the Arab world to industrialize or produce their necessities. What the Arabs once produced locally has been overtaken by cheap imports from abroad. Even when I first arrived in the Arab world in 1967, one could find a number of household items made locally. It is somewhat ironic in that as the Arab nations emerged from colonialism, the emphasis was establishing an industrial policy, which was depicted by the media as “….the savior of the Arab peoples from the clutches of ignorance, backwardness, and modest living standards.”
In many cases the emphasis was on prestige building rather than efficient useful industries compatible with the environment and the people. Building automobiles that were of poor quality or simply assembly plants to turn out aircraft were examples. In addition there were two particular problems with Arab industrialization. The first was the drive to create an armament industry since all Arab countries feared a cut-off of arms supplies from the West or the Russians. This was done at the expense of the civilian sector, although Egyptian arms factories turn out washing machines as well as artillery pieces. This only suffocates any attempts on the part of entrepreneurs to create a private enterprise sector.
Secondly, all the Arab countries neglected the agricultural sector in the era of the rise of “modernizin,” heavily influenced by the East European model of socialism. Army colonels in the ruling regimes emphasized industry and saw agriculture as a symptom of backwardness, and little was done to assist this sector. Land reform generally only agrivated the problem.
I recall emerging from one of the tombs at Luxor after admiring the ancient wall drawings, one of which was a painting of an Egyptian farmer planting, using a water buffalo to draw water, and then seeing, only a short distance away, the same Egyptian with the buffalo still drawing water the same way.
It is indicative of the dearth of secular Arab leadership that Abdul Nasser and, even to some, Saddam Hussein, are held up as later day Saladins. Nasser, despite his many admiral personal qualities, led his nation into disastrous wars and tried to implement “Arab socialism,” basically emasculating attempts to modernize the economy, drowning progress in overly ambitious schemes.
Into this gaping void of leadership we have seen the rise of religious political warrior leader figures that have only accelerated the decline of the Arab world. They have capitalized on the rise of the most recent “Islamic revival,” a movement, like so many others of the Arab world, based on historical mythology and the belief that Western political imports have failed. Of course, in terms of fascism, communism and socialism, this belief has justification, but there is also a belief that democracy has not worked or is unworkable in the Arab world. Civil society, that most believe is a necessary prerequisite, is simply not there. Tribalism, sectarianism, and familiar comfortable traditions all constitute a nearly impenetrable barrier to democracy taking root in the foreseeable future. In this recent era of Islamic fundamentalism, the proclivity of the people to turn to a more fundamental form of their religion is understandable. Years of unfulfilled promises, vainglorious adventures, and less opportunity for families to live decent lives have undermined the few feeble Arab attempts at democracy. More importantly, the enthusiastic reception of fascistic and socialist concepts by the leaders of previous post-colonial regimes and the resulting diminishment of limited freedoms the people once had created a rich political environment for the simplistic “Islam is the answer,” and increasing power of the clerics.
Today we can observe the power of Islamic “televangelists” such as Yusif Qaradawi. Initially most were apolitical, but as their power became more evident their turn to politics was all but inevitable. Yusif Qaradawi has, in the words of one Arab columnist, “…dedicated most of his public appearances to making political and religious statements that threaten to entrench radicalism within Muslim societies in the region and beyond.” Preachers such as Qaradawi often have rather moderate religious views, which cloak their radical political ideas. As the columnist wrote in his article, the religious views espoused and spread by these radicalized politicized religious leaders give religious cover to atrocious acts of violence such as suicide bombers or the killing of civilians, including children. Even the “quietist” Shi’a highest religious authority, Ayatolah Ali al Sistani has tried to fill the void of Iraqi government leadership by calling on the Shi’a to resist ISIS attacks, and strongly advocating the end of the Al-Maliki regime.
In a number of instances the clerics have promoted the violence, as in in Iraq. In Fallujah, as one astute observer wrote, “These clerics made the place a hotbed for radicalized Islam that became a magnet for foreign Muslim extremists after Saddam fell.”
The use of Islam to spread a totalitarian repressive ideology has become a staple in the Arab world. A most recent example is the image of the leader of the ISIS pretentiously decreeing himself as the new “caliph” of Islam. The ” Islamic State” is trying to impose 7th century rules ( real or mythologized) for society with ultimately disasterous consequnces.
One of the most glaring burdens the Arab world must carry is a politicized and dangerous military. On one hand it is the primary support for the regime, but on the other, it is feared by the regime for its capability to destroy the regime. It is also an anomaly of the Arab society, that the military can be the oppressor of the people and at the same time an institution engendering pride among the people. I found this to be true among the Iraqis. Despite the role of the army in domestic oppression, and despite the army’s less than admirable performance against internal and external enemies, even among the Shi’a there was a sense of pride in the army. Perhaps it was because there was so little else to be proud of.
To preserve the regime the Arab rulers always balance their military and coercive forces,. pitting one against the other, as they do their intelligence and security apparatus. Examples are the division of the military forces of Saddam into the regular army, the Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard, plus the fedayeen Saddam, all having separate chains of command. In Saudi Arabia there is the Saudi Arabia National Guard, and the Saudi Arabia Land Forces under the Ministry of Defense. Again chains of command are separated. Throughout the Arab world one finds similar structures.
I have written extensively over the years on the militaries of the Arab world in both conventional and unconventional war. I have also analyzed the inability of Western training and education methods to take root in the Arab militaries. In my article “Why Arabs Lose Wars,”(Norvell B. DeAtkine, “Why Arabs Lose Wars,” in Barry Rubin and Thomas A. Kearney, eds. Armed Forces in the Middle East Can be accessed at http://www.meforum.org/441/why-arabs-lose-wars
I depicted the basic problems that did and continue to infect Arab military establishments. Among the many problems, I cited the education system, the lack of cohesion between officers and enlisted men, the over-centralization of decision making, paranoia about security, all problems directly related to the politization of the officer corps. I have also written on why the Arabs do much better in uncoventional war than conventional. It is all about the culture. See Norvell B. DeAtkine, “The Arab as Insurgent and Counterinsurgent,” in Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East, Ed. Barry Rubin, (London, Routledge, 2009). 24-45
Since I wrote the “Why Arabs lose Wars” article, which has had a remarkable shelf life, many articles and new sources have validated my conclusions. Two in particular are the memoirs of the Egyptian War Minister Mohamed Fawzi and the accounts of the Iraqi Army performance in the debacle in Mosul against the ISIS. In the Fawzi ( Reconstructing a Shattered Egyptian Army) The editor and translator and translator, Commander Youssef H. Aboul-Enein (USN) contains excerpts not only of Field Marshall Fawzi, but also General Saad el-Din El-Shazli and General Abel-Monein Riad.
The memoirs of these generals illustrate the corruption and political intrigue which permeated the higher leadership of the Egyptian Army, creation of personal circles of power, political aspirations to topple both Nasser and Sadat. The overwhelming over-centralization and top-heavy structure of the Egyptian Army was depicted by the fact that the Office of the Chief of Staff, Shazly, consisted of 5,000 officers and 20,000 enlisted, including 40 generals. In his excellent chronicle of the Egyptian top army leadership, Hazem Kandil, in his excellent book, ( Soldiers, Spies, and Staesmen: Egypts Road to Revolt) told of the intrigue and maneuvering against Nasser and Sadat.
The second recent event, which attests to the continuing validity of “Why Arabs Lose Wars,” is the total collapse of the Iraqi Army facing the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). The collapse of Iraqi forces was analyzed in the on-line periodical War on the Rocks. It was Saddam’s army redux, with one exception. The Shi’a instead of the Sunni, and Al Maliki’s family, instead of Saddam’s, were the primary culprits in the “new Iraqi Army.” Corrupt officers, fragmented by sectarian divisions, with soldiers untrained and poorly treated, led the Iraqi Army. In many cases, as with the Egyptian Army in 1967, the officers simply abandoned their men when the ISIS appeared. As the article goes on to describe, “coup proofing” was the primary objective of the Al Maliki regime as it has been with every Arab post-colonial regime. The problems with the Iraqi army were surfaced very well by an American of Arab descent, serving with the Iraqi security forces. He noted the lack of cohesion between officers and enlisted men, the lack of a professional non-commissioned officer corps, the inability to delegate responsibility, with the training of officers so meager that many are unable to read a map, etc.
It was difficult to understand why some analysts faulted American Army training for the failures of the Iraqi Army. Throughout the history of the Arab world, Western attempts to train Arab armies have either failed or had only temporary effects after the Western training missions departed.not See my, “Western Influence on Arab Militaries: Pounding Square Pegs into Round Holes,” at http://www.gloria-center.org/2013/03/western-influence-on-arab-militaries-pounding-square-pegs-into-round-holes/
Some might point out the Jordanian Army as the exception, but in reality as time has passed (particularly after the death of King Hussein) the Arab military virus of nepotism, sectarianism (Palestinian vs. east bank Jordanian), and the predilection for façade over reality has gradually crept back in. The Arab talent for “Show and Tell” military demonstrations to impress visitors has often created a false impression in the monds of casual observers.
It seems that Western advisors (or Russian) continue to make the same mistake of having a rather arrogant attitude that they can/could remake the Arab Army they are working with and remake it into their own image. In this regard it should be recalled that even Winston Churchill made the same mistake over a hundred years ago in pronouncing the “new” Egyptian Army, trained by British officers as evolving from an “Oriental” one to a European one.
One of the greatest and most disturbing burdens that has limited Arab world progress is the betrayal by those with the education and scholarly credentials to inform and influence the Arab public. Even exhortations by these intellectuals to reform their societies are not predicated on an Arab renaissance to better the quality of life for the individual Arab, but rather to match the power of the Israeli state. In fact probably there is no other factor that has had a greater adverse effect on the Arab world than the intellectual dishonesty and moral cowardice of the intelligentsia. As A. I. Tannous wrote, “All too often it was assumed that the elite who spoke English or European languages spoke for the masses.” Moreover the intellectuals themselves assumed the same. But as Raphael Patai in his Arab Mind pointed out, the gap between the intellectuals and the masses is huge. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the elites` role in the Arab world is their lack of moral courage. As Ishaq Musa Al-Husayni wrote, one of the major crises in the Arab world is “…the absence of courage, ideological freedom and self-criticism.” Ira Lapidus notes the predilection of elites to flow with the trends. The elite “…adopted first Islamic modernist, then secular nationalism, sometimes socialist conceptions, of national transformations, and became committed to secular or even Western concepts of state and society.” Until very recently, when macabre videos of Islamist terrorist brutality were widely circulated, many Western and Arab intellectuals continued to make apologies for Islamist terrorism as merely a response to the old nemesis of Zionism and imperialism or another Western “construct.”
The reality is that, with few exceptions, many of the elite became compliant, or tolerant first of regime brutality and later of Islamist terrorism. Those who dared swim against the current had to do so from outside the Arab world. Probably the most damning picture of the Arab world intelligentsia was Kanan Makiya’s Cruelty and Silence: War Tyranny Uprising the Arab World. In this book Makiya described the Arab elite indifference to the people’s suffering, and willingness of the Arab elite to make common cause with tyrants, flattering and supplicating their favor. “The political culture based on fear, spitefulness and the self- serving interests, a gift of the Arab intelligentsia’s cultural heritage, and remains part of the collective consciousness.”
Since that time there has been no appreciable change. In fact today one Lebanese writer, predictably living in the U. S., posits that, “The Egyptian media and the intellectual community are among the primary causes of the alarming proliferation of gnats, mosquitoes, and the viruses of terrorism, which places the Arabs at the lowest level and on the lowest rung of progress…”
As Lee Smith ( An exellent observer of the Arab scene and author of the book, Thje Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations) ) sagely observed, “Arab media is a conversation between Arab elites, used to influence opinion, promote interests, and tinker with the internal design of rival regimes.”Al Jazeera, once touted by Western observers as the flagship of a new era of Arab media, has primarily been a mouthpiece to promote the outsized ambitions of the Qatar royal family. Secondarily it has promoted Sunni Arab interests at the expense of the Shi’a and thirdly it has directly or indirectly supported the Muslim Brotherhood and radicalism, for example, by featuring Yusif al Qaradawi, a cleric with a moderate social message but a radical political viewpoint.
With the advent of al Jazeera and a few other Arab news outlets there was a rush of enthusiasm among Western academics for a new era in the Arab world. This was accompanied by the rise in the use of cyberspace to do an end run around the various regimes` control of the media. But, overall, in the last few years the increased amount of news sources have been accompanied by increasing polarization and violence within the Arab world. The Shi’a/Sunni divide has been exploited and violence promoted by news media. There is no doubt that the Iraqi media help fuel the current violence. Every event is viewed in a sectarian context.
In my long experience with the Arab world and their people, it can only be depicted as a tragedy that their countries ranks so far behind the rest of the world in almost every indicator of human endeavor. Knowing the people, it is difficult to reconcile this with the innate characteristics of the Arabs themselves. They are hospitable, warm-hearted, animated, quick on their feet, amazing in their linguistic abilities to learn Western languages, and individually very talented in many respects, but collectively their world not only is stagnant, but in a number of aspects is retrogressing. It would seem that a basic problem is occidentosis, “…a disease akin to tuberculosis, whereby the West infects the East.” It seems that many Arab intellectuals and the elite want to distance themselves from the West and in their quest to do so shun learning anything from it. They believe they must Arabize media, education, thinking, every aspect of human life and in so doing shut themselves off from the world. In a strange way it seems the Arab world has come full circle; the violent shattering of their complacency induced by the era of self-sufficiency, by the French invasion of Egypt in 1798, and reentering it in this era.
There is always a fear of Western cultural imperialism, evidenced in constant exhortations to Arabize their intellectual and scientific efforts. In a seminar probing the problems of the Arab media, for instance, Arab media journalists were being urged to form their journalistic schools, and abjure using Western journalistic methods, as if this was the core of the Arab media problem. Learning in the Western schools of journalism was somehow depicted as “media imperialism.”
Viewing it in the context of a religion and belief system, Islam is not one of the retardants of social or political progress in the Arab world. The religion of Islam has played a very big part in the cultural definition of the Arab people, as has history, the natural environment, tribal traditions, etc., but the over-emphasis on Islam as a way of life has created a misconception, not only in the West but among Arab intellectuals. The concept of Islam as an engrained way of life has created postulations on the Islamic way of war, the commodification of Islam, Islamic economics, all contrived, and factors in the continuing gulf between the Arab world and the influence of world’s mainsprings of civilization. The efforts of the Arab elite to separate their world from the West using outworn phraseology of imperialism and the futile search for “Arab roots” have been detrimental to what the elite all proclaim as their objective, i.e., parity with the West and specifically, Israel. One Egyptian intellectual insisted that even the measures of quality of life in political and economic freedom used to assess those in the Arab world are a Western construct. Therefore even the measures of human endeavor are apparently different in the Arab world. In contesting the supposed view of the “orientalists,” He is in effect, supporting their “essentialism.” A word used within Western Academia to denote stereotyping and reductionism. ( a bad thing to their minds). In his own illogical way he is depicting the Arabs as an alien race with a culture that is impervious to democracy, reason, and other attributes applicable to the rest of the world.
But always the optimist, having spent many years living with, studying, or working with Arabs, I reject the belief that they are predetermined to descending levels of darkness. As I wrote in beginning, the indivdual Arab has extremely attractive personal qualities but thry have been buried under the collective dyfunctionality of the Arab society. But there is no pre-determinism that imposes these burdens in perpetuity.