By Barry Rubin *
Arab liberals have become vocal critics of their societies in recent years, making the question of democracy one of the most important issues facing the Middle East. But what do the reformers actually say about the problems facing their countries and the shortcomings in the current systems there? This article presents the key arguments of the liberals, and those opposing them, showing both their common analysis and the different viewpoints or strategies making up the reform movement.
This article is excerpted from Barry Rubin, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley, 2005). For more information and to order this book: http://www.wiley.com.
The Arab liberals' most impressive achievement has been to provide a thoroughgoing critique of what is wrong with Arab society. This is such a persuasive indictment that it is critical to remember it is also one relatively hardly heard in an Arab world flooded by a sea of official statements, self-congratulatory proclamations, calls to militancy, and claims of victimization by outside villains. As a result, many Arab liberals show a profound frustration about their inability to convince others of what to them seems so obvious.
One of the most compelling such analyses is that by the Paris-based al-Afif al-Akhdar, a Tunisian leftist intellectual. It is no accident that this essay appeared only on a liberal website where few Arabs ever saw it. Akhdar, formerly a columnist for al-Hayat, had been fired by its owner, Saudi Prince Khaled bin Sultan, after an October 2002 television interview in which he called the Saudi regime barbaric for amputating criminals' limbs--a punishment sanctioned by Islamic law--and for its treatment of women.
Everyone in the world, Akhdar complained in his analysis, seemed to be advancing toward modernity, knowledge, and globalization while the Arabs were racing in the opposite direction. Whereas Eastern Europe rejected Communist dictatorship in exchange for peaceful, rapid progress toward democracy and economic development, in the Arab world one bloodthirsty dictatorship succeeds another. While other peoples progress, the Arab regime moves from "backwardness into sub-backwardness and from poverty into sub-poverty" in a sort of anti-progress.
The causes of this sad fate are multiple to say the least. "Why is it," he asked, that the Arab world is so wealthy in natural resources and poor in human resources? Why does human knowledge elsewhere steadily grow while in the Arab world what expands instead:
…is illiteracy, ideological fear, and mental paralysis? Why do expressions of tolerance, moderation, rationalism, compromise, and negotiation horrify us, but [when we hear] fervent cries for vengeance, we all dance the war dance? Why have the people of the world managed to mourn their pasts and move on, while we have…our gloomy bereavement over a past that does not pass? Why do other people love life, while we love death and violence, slaughter and suicide, and call it heroism and martyrdom…?
His answer, in brief, is the contradiction so central to the Arab self-image and world-view. On one hand, Arabs suffer from an inferiority complex, a sense of failure, self-hatred, and "national humiliation whose shame can be purged only by blood, vengeance, and fire…." On the other hand, there is a sense of superiority at believing they are designated by God to lead humanity. Why would they want to borrow anything from the rest of the world which is both their oppressor and inferior?
The Koran called Arabs the "best nation" among humanity. Yet life contradicted this self-image from Napoleon's easy conquest of Egypt in 1799 to the Arabs repeated defeats by Israel two centuries later. Wounds from these events joined with a "deep-rooted culture of tribal vengefulness" to create "a fixated, brooding, vengeful mentality" driving out "far-sighed thought and self-criticism." The Arabs have failed to understand, as Japan did after its disastrous defeat in World War Two, the "vital necessity to emulate the enemy…becoming like him in modern knowledge, thought and politics, so as to reshape the traditional personality and adapt it to the requirements of the time...."
By rejecting the West in general, he continues, Arab politics lost the chance to adapt such positive Western innovations as pragmatism in setting goals, strategy and tactics; analyzing the balance of power in a detached manner; managing crises through negotiated compromises; and building a rational decision-making process. Instead, public discussion is dismissed and negotiation is rejected both in domestic and foreign issues.
That dead-end approach feeds the Arab world's obsession with what Akhdar calls, "This insane obsession with vengeance" against the West and Israel which has made reasonable thought impossible. Rather than learning from experience people curled "up within themselves like frightened snails, to brood about their dark thoughts" of revenge. They tried to lash back at others by adopting suicidal policies that injured themselves, blundering "from one destructive war into the next, much fiercer war." The Arab world became virtually the sole place on the globe incapable of identifying its real problems and priorities. Akhdar warns, "This is your last chance, Oh masters of the missed opportunity."
This self-imposed closing off from the world, rejecting ideas as threatening precisely because they came from elsewhere, was called self-imposed ghettoism by the Lebanese professor Radwan al-Sayyid. Among its elements, writes an Arab diplomat writing under a pseudonym, is a mentality that "concentrates on the past, lives in it, and longs to return to it…." Justifying positions on public issues by claiming one has divine authority inevitably brings intolerance and violent struggle. In contrast, the Western approach on religious matters is flexible, focusing on spirit rather than narrow adherence to texts. There, religion is a personal matter and no one is supposed to harass others in its name.
"A society that lives in a state of internal fear," he concludes, "avoids investigating its causes" or learning from different cultures. A society that blames all its problems on others "cannot escape from being encased in its shell." Successful societies are neither ashamed nor harmed by exposing their problems and making changes. On the contrary, such behavior helps them improve themselves.
But who is going to lead in creating a new society? Elsewhere in the world, such groups as students, intellectuals, businesspeople, professionals, and the working class had been the motive power of democratic change. In the Arab world, though, the proletariat remained tiny. Businesspeople are largely dependent on the government for patronage and are often partners in the regimes' corrupt practices. Intellectuals are champions for the rulers, wedded to ideologies that justify their deeds. Professionals--like lawyers, engineers, and doctors--fit all these categories and are frequently strongholds for the Islamists as well. Moreover, much of the intelligentsia is public employees, part of the dictatorial regimes rather than independent thinkers or a true opposition.
Democracy is the key missing idea whose absence has brought this tragic outcome, explains Shafeeq Ghabra. It is not the people who block progress but the rulers who depend on power rather than logic, on slogans rather than action, on tribal solidarity instead of law, and on the enforcement of conformity rather than diversity.
The Egyptian Usama al-Ghazali Harb, a professor and editor of al-Siyassa al-Dawliya, agrees. Ordinary people, who speak in "timid whispers," know the status quo is very wrong. The intellectuals have become the enemy of freedom, ordering everyone else to believe in the official line. Internal decay, not foreign threats, is the Arab world's fundamental problem. The best way for Arabs to defend themselves is to have democratic societies and legitimate systems of government. Despotism weakens the nation's ability to resist outside challenges rather than the other way around. But no one ever shouted out these truths until the West "came to knock on our doors and break into our homes demanding that we institute democracy."