The Arab World's Travails: History's Burden
By: Hilal Khashan- Middle East Forum 25/12/05
Hilal Khashan teaches political science at the American University of Beirut.
For two centuries, Arabs have attempted to stem their retreat vis-à-vis the West and create the conditions for their renaissance (nahda). Coming into direct and sustained contact with the vastly superior power of Western Europe, their societies underwent significant changes during this period in the hope of catching up without losing their cultural identity or religious beliefs. An atmosphere of intense intellectual debate developed. Religious reformers sought to make Islam compatible with the requirements of modernity, and so to revitalize it. Pan-Arabists aimed at introducing elements of Western secularism in their political discourse and enfranchising Arab Christians. Others had alternate schemes.

These many efforts did not succeed, however; Arabs not only failed to catch up with the West but they did not even modernize. A survey of the Arab countries during the past decade finds that politically the regimes are significantly more repressive than in the past, with an increase in nepotism, corruption, human rights abuse, and general unaccountability. Economically, standards of living are on a steep decline in most Arab countries, including even the oil-producing states.1

What caused this failure? What are its symptoms?

History burdens down the Arabs, who do not seem able to take bold steps to disengage themselves from those elements of their past incompatible with the requirements of the modern age. Specific problems include the following:

Weak institutions. The Arab historical experience did not lead to the rise of political institutions, with the slight exception of the office of caliph, and even that survived mostly as a symbol of religious identification not real power.

Rule by foreigners. Arabs created the Islamic state in the seventh century but lost control of it just two centuries later, when mostly Turkish slave soldiers took control of the ‘Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, beginning a millennium of rule by foreigners. Such a long time exiled from the corridors of power, Arabs find themselves unable to set up well-functioning, institutionalized political systems with clear political identity. In this sense, the roots of contemporary Arab decay date back to the early ninth century.

The survival of feudalism. Local landlords allied with the non-Arab ruling elite prevented the modernization of the means of production and delayed incorporation in the world economy.

Excessive taxation. Peasants were impoverished by having to pay too much to the government, causing most of them eventually to lose their land. High taxes also overburdened traders and artisans, ruined the crafts, and preempted the rise of the middle class.

Cultural thinness. Only members of the upper strata of Arab-Islamic society availed themselves in the period of Arab ascendancy of cultural riches—unlike Europe's Renaissance, whose impact was more widely felt throughout society. The Arabs' Golden Age in the ninth century, including the fabled court of Harun ar-Rashid, declined too soon to become a mass phenomenon. Caliphs who took a genuine interest in promoting culture and knowledge reflected their own personal taste, not societal commitment. If the same can be said of some European dynasties (such as the Medicis), European monarchs generally were state builders and their legacy survives because it established deep roots. The technological breakthroughs that accompanied the rise of European nation-states disseminated cultural innovations, knowledge and the arts, something that never took place in Arab societies.

Lack of innovators. Arab societies did not produce a Martin Luther to break religious monopoly, a Niccolò Machiavelli to free politics from metaphysics, a Nicolaus Copernicus to emancipate the natural sciences from theology, or an English-gentleman-type to provide a link between the aristocracy and the masses. To the contrary, Arab societies have been plagued by self-aggrandizing despots and unenlightened religious mystics.

Futile Ottoman reforms. Nineteenth-century efforts to modernize the political, social, and economic realms did not induce worthwhile changes in society. These failed to spark a breakthrough that could pave the way for enfranchisement and integration in the modern economy. Hudaytha Murad, a leftist activist, locates two reasons for this failure: First, reform did not result from a societal need felt by organized individuals but instead emanated from intense Western European pressure on the Ottoman sultan. Second, reform remained an internal affair involving primarily the ruling and feudal elites.2

Inability to absorb Western concepts. Secularism, nationalism, liberalism were all introduced to the Arab countries but competed inconclusively with the hitherto paramount notions of Islamic law, religious solidarity, and political dogma. Ideological deprivation, intergroup conflict, and an oversimplification of modernity have caused the Arabs to be walled off from the currents that shaped the West of today; as a result, they are currently languishing.

Traditional values too strong. Since the late 1960s, these have made a forceful comeback in most Arab countries, as represented by an increase in religious zeal and the ruralization of major urban centers. Conservative states held back the initiation of even token political reforms while the ruling elites in former "progressive" states abandoned any claim to populism and contented themselves with narrowly-based political systems. The idea of the state as a private enterprise, a characteristic of conservative Arab states in the Persian Gulf, spread to such countries as Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Iraq, Syria and Algeria.

These and other aspects of the historical legacy render Arab societies ill-equipped to devise a workable formula to ensure a smooth transition into modernity. More specifically, the Arab impasse includes the following major symptoms, which we will look at in depth: a political identity in coma, misgovernance, a society in crisis, intellectual stagnation, blurry vision, and seeking sanctuary in past glory.

Sudden involvement with a rapidly changing world, without the shield of a solid identity, caught most Arabs by surprise. A crisis of political identity began in the second half of the nineteenth century. Egyptians responded to British occupation by developing a semblance of European ethno-nationalism, though under the watchful guidance of Islam. In North Africa, a surge in atavistic Islam prompted local resistance to French, Spanish, and Italian incursions. All the leaders of resistance to the Europeans—‘Abd al-Qadir (in Algeria), ‘Umar al-Mukhtar (in Libya) and ‘Abd al-Karim (in Morocco)—were religious men. The most acute form of identity crisis occurred in Iraq and the Levant, mainly due to sharp ethnic and sectarian differences, where Islam retreated in the face of a host of Western ideological and cultural cross currents. In the Fertile Crescent countries, Western penetration ended Islam's hold on identity.

The problem of political identity inevitably followed on the decline of traditional political legitimacy, which had been based on a loose symbiosis between Islam as a belief system and the tribe as a basic unit of social organization. This political arrangement had accommodated the segmentary nature of population formations, something the Western imports did not. Erosion of the Islamic community was not compensated for by the appearance of a new community having distinct characteristics and a clear sense of mission. Civil society was equally missing, without which the construction of a democratic edifice cannot take place.

Unhealthy patterns of interaction prevail in the Arab world and stall progress. Traditionally-minded individuals exposed to the pressures of a modern way of life generate friction and animosity. ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Bakkar, the Syrian director of radio propaganda programs during the union years with Egypt, maintains that "mutual hatred is the modern Arab plague."3 Hatred and suspicion inhibit social change and preclude the fulfillment of nationalistic aspirations; they have assumed a major role in wrecking Arab politics and derailing economic development.

The ascendancy of fundamentalist Islam during the last quarter of the twentieth century is a symptom more of an identity in coma than of a revival. No sane person can find even a trace of "revival" in the slaughter of innocents in Algeria or the massacres of tourists in Egypt. Fundamentalist Islamic movements, out of step with their time and symptomatic of despair, have sought redemption in obscurantism. Their gains attest to the incompetence of Arab ruling elites in dealing with the political, economic, and other problems of society. R. K. Karanjia, an Indian writer sympathetic to Arab nationalism, noted in 1958 the presence of widespread poverty amid plenty and concluded that "the institutional structure of Arab society was unsuited for rapid economic development."4 Not much has changed since then.

Unable to deal with the sources of frustration, Arabs have displaced their aggression from its imagined origins to self-destruction. They tend to belittle the implications of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's intransigence, wink at the impact of the severe U.N. sanctions on the Iraqi people, exhibit no emotion at the horrors of random throat slitting in Algeria, and fail to interact with the heartbreaking consequences of Somalia's drought or flooding.

Arab elites have completely failed at the job of leading their countries. Frustrated nationalistic hopes, military defeats, and despotic leaders combine in what Sa‘d ad-Din Ibrahim, director of Cairo's Ibn Khaldun Center, calls "nationalistic dim-sightedness."5 Bereft of liberal impulses, lacking in experience to govern a diverse society, often solely concerned with personal power, they drove large segments of their populations into oblivion and mistook the purpose of the modern polity.

Syrian journalist Salah ad-Din Hafiz explains the riddle of the Arab elites' debacle by ascribing it to two types of pressure: domestic (poverty, repression, frustration) and foreign (subjugation to U.S. hegemony).6 Whatever the validity of his explanation, it does not absolve the Arab elites of their responsibility for the unimpressive performance of their political systems. They had rational policy options to pick, but choose them not. Some regimes squandered tremendous resources on military adventurism, useless arms purchases and controversial nonconventional programs. Others created façade democracies. All exhibited intolerance of opposition. Development came to a near halt, social problems raged unchecked, and the future seemed more bleak than ever.

Misgovernance made a mockery of independence and alienated the masses. Repressive leaders eradicated dissident groups, sending their remnants underground or abroad. The inability or unwillingness of rulers to achieve a minimum of solidarity dissuaded politically active Arabs from pursuing the goals of pan-Arabism. The preoccupation with territorial nationalism failed for the same reasons that caused the decline of Arab nationalism: both require an anonymous sense of community, something severely wanting in Arab social organization. The lengthy civil war in Lebanon, the massive Arab intervention in it via money and arms to its combatants, vividly demonstrated these problems. But the greatest signs of disorder came from the Persian Gulf in 1990, when the Iraqi army overran defenseless Kuwait. The colossal consequences of that ensuring crisis laid to rest all claims about the existence of an Arab regional order.

Arabs generally have not developed the skills to make complex political decisions. This results in systemic confusion and an overwhelming sense of individual inefficacy, paving the way to a deep crisis in the fabric of society.

In the West, the strength of civil society has generally ensured that rulers cannot with impunity violate public trust; further, the public influences the making of political decisions. This pattern has no equivalent in the Arab world, where the state provides welfare in exchange for unquestioning public obedience. Arab leaders have relied on cooptation and repression to pacify the populace, rather than sincerely try to transform its subjects into citizens.

The gap between rulers and ruled has widened due to elite resistance to change, political incompetence on the part of the masses, and an unsuitable system for disseminating impartial information and sound knowledge. These problems cause tension among the classes to increase and antagonisms to heighten. The populace's growing demands for higher standards of living clash with the elite's use of coercion to extract more resources from an already impoverished population. Unresolved grievances mount, placing the system on the brink of civil strife. For example, as soon as the U.S.-led coalition expelled the Iraqi army from Kuwait, Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf region revoked the promises they made to their populations about political liberalization—or so concludes a study by the International Committee for Human Rights in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula.7

Unwritten covenants give rulers the role of patrons who are unaccountable to the masses. This pattern of elite-mass relationship has occurred in most Arab countries, and especially in those having substantial hydrocarbon resources; they geared their policies to allocate resources, not to generate revenues. The formula has nowhere produced impressive results, as the totalitarian tyrannies in Iraq and Syria, the fifteen-year civil war in Lebanon, and the now six-year civil war in Algeria confirm.

Events in Algeria most clearly demonstrate the magnitude of contradictions and the potential for conflict that exist in most Arab societies, as well as the fragility of existing political arrangements. John P. Entelis, professor of political science at Fordham University, explains the Algerian debacle, noting that by the middle 1980s, "as world oil and natural gas prices declined and massive industrial projects faltered or collapsed altogether, it had become obvious that something had gone seriously wrong."

In other words, the "ruling bargain' had become unstuck as the economic conditions which financed this arrangement began to disintegrate. . . . Autonomous social forces, long regarded as either impotent or subservient to state control, emerged with incredible vigor, if not vengeance, to challenge the hegemony of state power. Workers, farmers, students, street people, Islamic militants, feminists, and Berberists all rose in violent protest to their continued condition of marginality and subordination.8
The nation-state is retreating among Arabic-speaking countries, not in favor of globalization or regional bloc formation as in other parts of the world, but in the face of strong internal pressures. Iraq has lost much of its sovereignty thanks to the two no-fly zones in the north and south, strict U.N. monitoring of its nonconventional weapons programs, severe trade sanctions, and Turkish encroachments across its northern borders. The Sudan is in the midst of a costly and inconclusive civil war that has effectively eliminated the central government's authority from most of the south. Lebanon has effectively become a Syrian satellite state; the Israeli-declared security belt in the south further complicates matters for the hapless government in Beirut.

Sectarianism, parochialism and the universalization of corruption might, warns Syrian intellectual ‘Abd ar-Razzaq ‘Id, eventually destroy the very idea of the state in Arab societies due to internal contradictions. He connects the dilemma of Arab societies to national movements failing to free themselves from the past, including non-rational religious belief and the denial of secularism. Arab societies have consistently resisted dealing with pressing matters on the emancipation of women, liberal culture, vesting sovereignty in the people. As a corollary, Arabs accepted the fruits of Western technology, not the system of knowledge that produced it (namely rationality and complex analysis).9

A country's intellectual life measures its overall health: advanced societies have vibrant intellectual atmospheres, underdeveloped countries have stagnant ones. Many factors combine to impede Arab intellectual life—political authoritarianism, subservience to the ruling elite, economic underdevelopment, and overdependence on the outside world for political support and economic sustenance. In addition, the Arab ruling elite seems deeply afraid of the consequences of independent thinking.

Many authors have noted these problems. Bakkar claims that very few Arabs deal with reality in an objective and rational manner.10 The most prominent Moroccan intellectual in the late 1930s, Sa‘id Hija, wrote that:

Moroccan thinking has not tangibly developed, as it still maintains the form of the ancient past. The pillars of Moroccan culture [rest on] fragile foundations.... Our contact with the new Western way of life did not aid in effecting a coup de main in our mental concepts and methods of comprehension. We continue to suffer from mostly sagging intellectual life whose roots are stagnant and obsolete.11
What accounts for this situation? Syrian economist Munir al-Hamash connects the intellectual crisis in the Arab world to the feeble inquisitiveness of the masses, which he ascribes to illiteracy and low standards of living.12

But this line of thinking entails conceptual problems; are there grounds to assume that,
without independent mindedness and active political will, literacy and prosperity will on their own enhance the intellectual debate? Husayn Jamil, a former Iraqi minister of justice, is closer to grasping the problem when he points to the denial of basic human rights, including self-expression.13

Better yet, Salah ad-Din Hafiz blames Arab intellectual stagnation on a history of crises and misfortunes that eventually debilitated the Arab mind. Missing the age of science and technology means to him that Arabs also missed the age of reasoning, freedom and progress. The Arab intellectual class has abandoned its role in society; many of its members choose to abstain from taking a stand on burning societal issues (be they political, cultural, economic), contenting itself instead to act as apologists for the regime. This intellectual vacuum makes it easy, Hafiz says, for "the beasts of darkness, the enemies of the intellect and freedom to destroy independent thinking and creativity." Looking to the future, he is not optimistic: "The essence of the current crisis of the Arab mind lies in its inability at innovation and creativity. . . . The continuation of this trend causes extinction in the end!"14

Other factors need to be noted as well. The weakness of civil society in even the most advanced Arab countries (Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco) and its virtual nonexistence in the others (the Persian Gulf states, Yemen, Libya) make it extremely difficult for the emergence of public opinion beyond the views of the government. Its absence or ineffectiveness denies the intellectual life of a society a major tributary.

Regimes worried about survival do their best to confuse the populace by providing them with incorrect information. The Arab elites tell their peoples one thing and do quite another. The state-controlled print media and its intellectual lackeys preach democracy and human dignity, even as the leaders behave autocratically and violate basic human rights. Arab society is plagued with hypocrisy that features the unworthiness of official rhetoric, lack of faith in government statements or actions, loss of self-confidence, deliberate marginalization of sincere individuals, hiding of truth from the public, and forging vital statistics. It is hardly possible for such societies to have dynamic intellectual milieus.

Arabs seem unable to deal with the post-cold war era. Efforts to create an Arab order have achieved few tangible results. The member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman) talk of creating a unified military force to ensure a viable defense against foreign aggression but their narrow interests and personal distrust hold them back.15 Leaders seek peace with Israel but worry about the technological and democratic challenge from the Jewish state.

Unable to marshal adequate popular support for their policies, Arab leaders have difficulty planning the future of their countries. Ill at ease with an emerging international order moving toward globalization, they operate in a fog. The masses, long isolated from the sound currents of analysis, lack the ability to immerse themselves in constructive national politics, let alone in a rapidly emerging international system.

Rulers busily quell the opposition to stabilize their increasingly vulnerable regimes, then blame their troubles on foreign powers. At the same time, many appear more concerned with recognition abroad than respect at home. They pay only lip service to political participation by introducing sham democratic steps. They continuously bombard their populations with pep talk about an imminent developmental breakthrough that never comes to pass. Arab rulers who oppress the masses and stifle their hopes for meaningful living bear false witness to the quagmire of their societies.

The masses desire change but show little readiness to political mobilization unless it wears a religious cloak. They dream about democracy without struggling to achieve it and yearn for modernization without a readiness to work hard to realize it. In other words, they aspire to enjoy the amenities of Western life unencumbered by the responsibilities these entail. Deprived of information about domestic affairs, international developments, and the influx of ideas on free thinking spurred many Arabs to return to the imagined peace of past glory.

To establish a legitimate basis for separation from the Ottoman empire, early Arab nationalists such as Butrus al-Bustani (1819-1883) and Jurji Zaydan (1861-1914) revived Arab culture and extolled the heroism of Arab warriors. But the collapse of Arab nationalism transformed a carefully rewritten legendary past into an exercise in nostalgia. Many Arabs today turn to the sanctuary of past glory, seeking in it refuge from the unpleasantness of contemporary life. Deprived of outstanding achievements in the modern era, they revel in medieval accomplishments. The legacy of the past imposes itself heavily on Arabs in the present.

Examples are legion. From school curricula and political speeches, authoritative sources routinely glorify past achievements, while denigrating those of Europe. Bookstores in Arab countries display an extraordinary range of titles from the medieval period or dealing with its legacy (turath). Writers proudly collect the contributions of medieval Arabs to philosophy (al-Farabi), mathematics (Abu Kamil), geography (al-Mas‘udi), and history (at-Tabari). One author a Syrian historian, Anwar ar-Rifa‘i, locates an Arab origins for just about all the ancient peoples of the Middle East (Egyptians, Sumerians, Acadians, Babylonians, Arameans), credits Arabs for the great ancient civilizations (Pharaonic, Sumerian), attributes the Code of Hammurabi to Arab legislative genius, and even identifies Hannibal as an Arab hero.16

In a similar spirit, Muhammad ‘Abdu as-Salam Kafafi, a Lebanese writer on Arab-Islamic culture, asserts that it was Arabic culture, bolstered by the advent of Islam, "that unified our hearts as well as our aspirations and high principles, and still possesses a strong influence on the determination of our future."17 Like many Arab authors, Kafafi derives great satisfaction from the tenets of Islam, Arab poetry, way of life and system of governance. Nowhere does he recognize the need to modify or renovate these medieval aspects of Muslim life.

Arabs who wish to deny the need to learn technological skills and new behavioral traits can always turn to the past. Medieval glories offer a way to hide from the necessity to cope with the foreign cultural imperatives. Ahmad ‘Abd ar-Rahim as-Sayih, a Saudi writer on matters of religion, for example, dwells on the bright aspects of Arab-Islamic civilization and implores Arabs to return to pristine Islam and establish a direct association with God—nothing here about using past success as a basis to launch a new nahda. Sayih quotes Qur'anic verses ("Call on Me; I will answer your [prayer]," 40:60.) that discourage initiative. He suggests that Arabs and Muslims need only to "rediscover the Islamic legacy" to break out of their backwardness. After establishing a causal relationship between religion and the medieval successes of Islamic society, Sayih demands applying an Islamic code of behavior to discharge all the functions in society. 18

These excuses have importance, for they discourage Arabs from going to the sources of Western creativity and impede their ability to grasp the nuts and bolts of modernity. Add to this the failure of all the major Arab drives to modernize, from Muhammad ‘Ali of Egypt to Saddam Husayn of Iraq, and the result has convinced many in the region to escape from the complexity of the modern age. This leads to intellectual paralysis and a loss of political will.

Two centuries of reforms followed by setbacks amount to a full cycle, with Arabs once again finding themselves at the starting point, facing the same basic issues that long ago so tormented them. Unfavorable historical developments decimated the first Arab-Islamic nahda and prevented reformers of the two centuries from attaining their goals. Twentieth-century Arab statesmen hoping to modernize their societies failed in this objective because they overlooked the importance of political transformation and shied away from limiting the public role of religion. An accumulation of unresolved societal problems and a bleak political outlook create a sense of systemic impasse.

For Arabs the way to break out from under the yoke of cultural encapsulation and analytical frigidity requires an expansion of their worldview, a broader awareness of what goes on in this vast village called the globe. They need to attend to their tremendous societal problems by fully joining the world—a difficult step that requires self-confidence, attention to abstract issues, and commitment to hard work. Elites and masses alike need to revisit their understanding of political and cultural identity with an eye to accepting political plurality and tolerance of ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity—and they must do so in deeds, not words.

1 Per capita gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen dramatically in some of the largest Arab countries. Algeria saw a decline from $2,802 in 1986 to $563 in 1994 (in current dollars), Egypt from $1,143 to $760 in the same period, Iraq from $3,056 to $2,855, Jordan from $1,534 to $1,095, Libya from $5,473 to $4,220, and Sudan from $365 to $62. Statistical Yearbook, 46th issue (New York: United Nations Department for Economic and Social Information and Policy Analysis, 1996).
2 Hudaytha Murad, al-Waqi‘ al-‘Arabi, (n.p., n.d.), p. 9.
3 ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Bakkar, al-Ma'zaq: Misr wa'l-‘Arab al-Akharin (Damascus: Dar Ulas, 1987), p. 40.
4 R. K. Karanjia, Arab Dawn (Bombay: Jaico, 1958), p. 40.
5 Sa‘d ad-Din Ibrahim, al-Khuruj min Zuqaq at-Tarikh (Safat, Kuwait: Dar Su'ad as-Sabbah, 1992), p. 109.
6 Salah ad-Din Hafiz, ‘Arab bila Ghadab (Beirut: Dar Nafa'is, 1996), pp. 7-8.
7 Huquq al-Insan fi'l-Khalij al-‘Arabi (N.p.: al-Lajna ad-Duwaliya li-Huquq al-Insan fi'l-Khalij wa'l-Jazira al-‘Arabiya, 1994), p. 5.
8 John P. Entelis, "Civil Society and the Authoritarian Temptation in Algerian Politics: Islamic Democracy vs. the Centralized State," in Civil Society in the Middle East, vol. 2, ed. Augustus Richard Norton (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996), pp. 45-46.
9 Abd ar-Razzaq ‘Id, Azmat at-Tanwir: Shar‘anat al-Fawat al-Hadari (Damascus: Al-Ahali li't-Tiba‘a wa'n-Nashr wa't-Tawzi‘, 1997), pp. 9, 11, 12.
10 Al-Bakkar, al-Ma'zaq, p. 39.
11 Muhammad ‘Abid al-Jabiri, "al-Haraka as-Salafiyya wa' l-Jama‘at ad-Diniya al-Mu‘asira fi'l-Maghrib," in al-Harakat al-Islamiya al-Mu‘asira fi'l-Watan al-‘Arabi (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-‘Arabiya, 1987), p. 212.
12 Munir al-Hamash, an-Nizam al-Iqlimi al-‘Arabi (Damascus: Dar al-Mustaqbal, 1995), p. 88.
13 Husayn Jamil, Huquq al-Insan fi'l-Watan al-‘Arabi (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-‘Arabiya, 1986), p. 168.
14 Hafiz, ‘Arab bila Ghadab, p. 7-9.
15 On which, see Turki al-Hamad, "Imperfect Alliances: Will the Gulf Monarchies Work Together?" Middle East Quarterly, Mar. 1997, pp. 47-53.
16 Anwar ar-Rifa‘i, Hadarat al-Watan al-‘Arabi al-Kabir fi'l-‘Usur al-Qadima (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1972), pp. 62-85, 87-103.
17 Muhammad ‘Abd as-Salam Kafafi, al-Hadara al-‘Arabiya: Taba‘uha wa Muqawimatuha al-‘Amma (Beirut: Dar an-Nahda al-‘Arabiya, n.d.), p. 11.
18 Ahmad ‘Abd ar-Rahim as-Sayih, Adwa' ‘Ala'l-Hadara al-Islamiya (Riyadh: Dar al-Liwa', 1981), pp. 39, 195.