Robert Fulford: Hope for the Arab world?
Friday, Jun. 10, 2016
Contributions by Elie Mikhael Nasrallah
Culture Stifled The Arab Awakening
Jan. 25, 2016 | 12:11 AM
Elie Mikhael Nasrallah| The Daily Star
“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Thus wrote the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
The triumph of culture over politics in the Middle East is now complete. The central conservative cultural truth has won the battle across the Arab political landscape. The cultural forces that permeate societies, the way of life that shapes us, that builds or retards us, that molds and refines us, are coalescing into an unstoppable force in most Arab countries, making it clear that what matters most are the cultural packages that people carry from past to present on their way to the future.
People all over the world are asking a serious question these days that imposes a credible answer: What happened to Arab culture and its peoples? What is really wrong with the modern Arab world given the existence of a glorious Golden Age?
The answers to these questions are the subject of my forthcoming book titled “Hostage to History: The Cultural Collapse of the 21st Century Arab World.” In it I argue from the start that, to borrow from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign slogan, “It’s the culture, stupid!”
It is culture that imprints on the minds of millions of people that their own family, tribe or sect are the only legitimate and trustworthy entities socially, politically and morally. It is culture that makes societies treat women – often equivalent to half a country’s population – as second-class citizens. It is culture that regards religion and faith as the only lenses through which one ought to see, feel and think of the world and its complex problems. It is culture that makes people consider the diversity of peoples and opinions as sinful and unwelcome. It is culture that allows individuals to worship authority figures and consider political and religious leaders as icons to be revered like saints.
The onetime U.S. secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, was correct when he wrote that to understand any society or polity, one had to look at two fundamental factors: Demographic changes and human psychology. Both are cultural factors.
Looking at the present state of the Arab world, one finds that Kissinger’s axiom is strikingly relevant. How and why? Since the end of the 13th century and the defeat of the Mutazilite school of thought that had given rise to Arab supremacy by using rational discourse and scientific methods, and the ascendency of the rival school of the Ashaarites and its dependency on anti-rationalism, Arab culture has been waging a losing battle with modernity.
In my book I show how the lack of freedom, oppression of women, sexual repression, illiteracy, political tyranny, outdated educational systems, the mixing of religion and politics, the lack of civil society institutions, the lack of a concept of citizenship, tribal and familial habits all coalesced to create a cultural landscape that suffocated the Arab awakening that began in Tunisia on Dec. 17, 2010.
Furthermore, the demographic realities of the Arab world since the ’80s have been a ticking bomb. The youth-bulge phenomenon is scary: 40 percent of the Arab population is under 15 years of age; 60 percent is under the age of 25. The median age in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and others is in the mid-20s. Unemployment in some countries is in the 30 percent range, and sometimes higher.
In fact, the Arab Human Development Report of 2002 issued by the United Nations Development Program was the first alarm bell. However, it fell on deaf ears. The lack of serious reading in Arab culture is one more reason for the region’s cultural meltdown. Spain, for example, translates more books in one year than all Arab countries did for the past 1,000 years.
Blaming Orientalism, colonialism, imperialism, Zionism, the Cold War, Ottoman rule or other influences is unconvincing. As Plato said in 400 B.C., “This city is what it is because our citizens are what they are.” These days where else does one find the mayhem, suicide bombings, ethnic cleansing, beheadings, summary executions of minorities and sectarian infighting that one finds in the Arab Middle East?
Therefore, to halt Arab decline and decay and to start preparing for a better future, a process of self-examination must be initiated. Reforming cultural practices are a fundamental aspect of any Arab renewal.
Elie Mikhael Nasrallah is the author of the forthcoming book “Hostage to History: The Cultural Collapse of the 21st Century Arab World,” available in March from Friesen Press and Amazon.
He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.