Friday, June 28, 2013

The Cultural Crisis in the Arab and Islamic World




by Mordechai Kedar
Read the article in the original עברית

Read the article in Italiano (translated by Yehudit Weisz, edited by Angelo Pezzana)

Anyone in the world who takes any interest in the news, whether from newspapers or the electronic media, can immediately discern the difference between what is happening in Europe and the United States versus what is happening in the Arab and Islamic world. In the Western countries, the news usually deals with the economic crisis, visiting leaders, natural disasters, traffic accidents, and criminal acts such as murder, burglary and violence. The perpetrators are usually people acting alone who commit the crimes out of criminal or personal motives, or inadvertently. Therefore, when a terror attack such as that which happened in Boston occurs, the Western media all become alarmed, and ask "why". Why, when three people are killed and about one hundred seventy are wounded in a terror attack, does the event dominate all the media for many days, while larger disasters - for example a bus falling over a cliff resulting in the death of tens of children - get much less coverage?

The answer is simple: When the incident in question is a "home-made" disaster, stemming from the Western way of life - for instance, traffic accidents, murder in a romantic framework or the death of Western soldiers in foreign countries - the media and the public ultimately accept that the disaster is difficult to prevent and is part of life, and return to the normal routine. On the other hand, a terror attack carried out by a Muslim immigrant is perceived in a totally different way: it is seen as a war waged by a foreign culture against the Western culture. Even if many people do not admit it, the sense in the United States after the attack in Boston is that "a foreign, alien culture is waging against us, using people who immigrated to our country, live among us, look like us, and sound like us but are actually totally different from us: they are Muslims". This perception turns all of the media's attention to the battlefield - the streets of Boston and its suburbs in the most recent case - so that we will be sure that the battle ends with the good guys winning and the bad guys losing. It is actually a war between the sons of light and the sons of darkness, us and them, our culture versus their culture and as in war, we must win at any price, even if it costs a fortune and means confining the residents of Boston in their houses for a whole day, which normally would be totally unacceptable in the United States, the land of freedom. That's how it is in the West.

In the Arab world and in a not insignificant portion of the Islamic world, the news is something totally different. The routine coverage during the past two years is of civil wars that cause tens of thousands of fatalities, a ruler massacring his citizens, mass murder resulting from clashes between tribal, ethnic, religious or sectoral groups, massive terror attacks, millions of demoralized  and impoverished refugees, a severe economic crisis and political and economic corruption. Here, three fatalities and hundreds of wounded is the usual bloody toll occurring every few minutes and has become routine, almost "not news". When you compare the news in the West with the news in the Arab world you get the impression that you're dealing with two different planets, two civilizations that are polar opposites from each other: one specializing in development of life and prosperity, and the other dealing with the creation of death, suffering, blood and tears. Here too, the question arises: why is there such a great difference between the Western countries and the Arab world; what causes the Arab world and the Islamic part of the world to be a source of violence, mass murder and almost incessant suffering for whole populations.

Because of the constant crisis prevailing in the Arab world, many intellectuals are critical, especially those who have studied or lived in the West and know that it is possible to live otherwise. Each one of them places blame on a specific component of the Eastern culture - the belief in the life after death, submission to a cruel ruler, nullification of the individual versus group interests, condoning of violence and accepting it as legitimate. Arab intellectuals publish severe criticism about what is happening in their societies and about the attribute of their society that causes, in their opinion, the misfortunes that the Arab world suffers from. These days, the Internet serves as the marketplace where everyone can publish his thoughts. 

Dr. Basil Hussein, an Iraqi who apparently lives in Northern Iraq, writes on the 10th of April this year in an article entitled "Indeed, we are a People of Blood":
"Go to the mosques, to the Shi'ite centers and to the monasteries, listen to the words of the speakers on the podiums, people who act as if G-d doesn't draw them near to him except with letters of blood, with words of blood, with expressions of blood, with prayers of blood. Their cries, their howls, their curses - all is blood and only blood. Some of their beards are colored with blood, with rivers of blood, instead of musk and amber."
About the disunity and sectarianism in the Arab world Dr. Basil Hussein writes:
"When I watch television, I see that the most common words are 'This one is Sunni and that one is Shi'ite", "this one is a Kurd and that one is an Arab', 'This one is Muslim and that one is Christian', 'this one is Druze and that one is Berber', 'This one is a Copt and that one is Nubian' (an African people that lives in southern Egypt and northern Sudan, M.K.) , 'this one has citizenship and that one does not', 'this on is a city dweller and that one is a Bedouin', 'this one is an infidel and that one is something else', 'this one is white and that one is black',"

Dr. Basil Hussein explains why the Arab world has become an ocean of blood in another article, that was published on the 20th of February this year entitled "A Society of Hatred":
"It is difficult to deny the fact that the level of hatred is increasing among Arab societies. Moreover, we have an industry that has turned hatred into an art. I was amazed, and it could be that many intelligent people were shocked together with me,  at the level of hatred, resentment and hostility which exists in the political, religious and cultural arenas and at all levels, so much so that moderation has become a fault, the voice of wisdom has become treason, excessive hatred has become a good thing and it has become desirable to trade in it."
Tariq Heggy, an Egyptian intellectual, wrote a penetrating article a number of years ago entitled " The Arab Mentality": 
"In the process of the ten last years I have written many books and articles on the flaws of the Arab mentality, all of which are cultural flaws, which is to say, flaws that are acquired, from three main sources, which are: a general atmosphere of tyranny, a backward educational system and media that were created in the general atmosphere of tyranny to serve the goals of the tyrant. Some of the obvious flaws of the modern Arab mentality are:
  •     Limited tolerance of differing ideologies
  •     Low acceptance of ideological pluralism
  •     Limited acceptance of the "other"
  •     Inability to accept criticism, and it is rare that anyone engages in self-criticism
  •     Opinions that stem from a tribal or religious basis instead of from various ideologies
  •     A deep-seated feeling of inequality compared to others in achievements or in productivity, which is expressed in a feeling of strong and exaggerated honor. But this (exaggerated honor) is just respect based on words, rather than respect based on achievements.
  •     We are given to exaggerate in bragging about ourselves; we give to the heritage of the past greater weight than it actually had.
  •     We often exaggerate in speech in an effort to cover up for the outrageous lack of practical achievements. Sometimes this culture causes a situation where a person's words are more important than his deeds.
  •     We are inflicted with a limited ability to relate objectively and a tendency to personalize.
  •     An unhealthy nostalgia stirs within us for the past and a desire to return to it.
  •     The culture of compromise is unknown among us, there is no respect for it because we feel that compromise is a kind of defeat and loss.
  •     We believe in not relating to women with respect
  •     We are prisoners of mental patterns and stereotypes
  •     It is extremely common among us to believe that behind everything there is a plot and that the Arabs are always the victims of these plots of others.
  •     We do not understand the nature and essence of national identity - are we Arabs or Muslims, Asians, Africans or members of a Mediterranean culture?
  •     There is often a connection between the citizen and the ruler, based on exaggeration and imbuing the leader with a quality of holiness outwardly, with a general tendency to glorify people.
  •     There are many people who know very little of the world, its trends and the true balance of power.
  •     We have a limited ability to value the individual, and so the connections between us are, for the most part, connections of tribe, family, customs or nationality. Humanity is not held to be the most obvious and strongest common denominator.
  •     We often have a mentality of fanaticism that stems from a number of factors, chief among them are the Arab tribal mentality at various levels of severity.
  •     Because the Arab mentality is characterized by insufficient freedom and cooperation, there is reticence towards freedom and its mechanisms.
Any expert in Middle Eastern affairs can add additional flaws to this list. But all of these flaws are acquired flaws, and therefore they are given to change." 
This concludes the citation from the words of Tarek Heggy.

Women writers in the Arab world today focus more on the problems of women in a patriarchal, exploitative and violent society. The Saudi publicist Wajihah al-Huwaydir suggests for Arab women to remain unmarried because men in the Arab world are not suitable to be life partners. Dr. Nawal al-Saadawi, an Egyptian physician, for many years has focused her criticism on the barbaric custom of female genital mutilation, neglect of women's health issues and exploitation of women in both the private and public spheres. 

Most modern intellectuals in the Arab world conclude that the source of the problems that Eastern societies suffer from is within those societies themselves, and therefore the solution can and must come from within them. In the past it was more acceptable to blame the West, colonialism, the United States and of course, Israel, for every problem in the Arab and Islamic world, but the more severe the internal crisis in the Arab world becomes, the more the number of fatalities, wounded and Syrian refugees increases, the deeper the constitutional, economic, social and political crisis in the countries of the "Arab Spring", especially in Egypt, and the more the fear of the nuclear project of Iran, an Islamic country, increases, then the more the traditional tendency to blame Israel, the United states and the West for the troubles in the Arab and Islamic world  decreases.

Israel is perceived as an orderly country of a "normal" people, loving life, progress and development, the exact opposite of what is happening in the greater region within which it lives. And the sharper this perception is, the stronger and more intense the envy becomes. On the other side of the Atlantic there is another "normal" country, the United States, where another people lives, basing its existence on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The envy towards Israel and the United States that permeates the Arab and Islamic world becomes hatred directed against these two countries.  This is the source of the names "the Big Satan" and "the little Satan", which is how Iran, the regime of darkness and oppression, refers to them.

The terror aimed at buses, restaurants and hotels in Israel; economic centers, government centers and the marathon race in the United States, is a result of the envy of the Arab and Islamic societies, which are going through a deep crisis; it is envy that turns into hatred and terror.

They envy and hate the West not because of what the West does, but rather because of what the West is: a healthy, progressive and prosperous society, carefully supporting human rights and law and order, while the Arab and Muslim societies suffer from chronic illnesses expressed in violence, neglect, backwardness, dictatorships, corruption, illiteracy and terror. It is not I who say this but Dr. Basil Hussein, Tarek Heggy, Wajihah al-Huwaydir, Nawal al-Saadawi and many, many others, including their friends who, each year, research the Arab world and publish the United Nations Development Report, and understand where the problem lies but are powerless to redeem their societies, which are sinking into the fire, blood and tears of the cultural quagmire of their own making.



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Dr. Kedar is available for lectures

Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Mordechai.Kedar@biu.ac.il) is an Israeli scholar of Arabic and Islam, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. He specializes in Islamic ideology and movements, the political discourse of Arab countries, the Arabic mass media, and the Syrian domestic arena.

Translated from Hebrew by Sally Zahav with permission from the author.

Additional articles by Dr. Kedar

Source: The article is published in the framework of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. Also published in Makor Rishon, a Hebrew weekly newspaper.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the author.

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