"Allah Will Not Change the Condition of a People"
by Salim Mansur
Middle East Quarterly
Culture, Civilization and Humanity. By Tarek Heggy. London and Portland, Ore.: Frank Cass, 2003. 391 pp. $64.50 ($26.50, paper).
Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. By Tariq Ramadan. New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 2004. 272 pp. $29.95.
Islam under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World. By Akbar S. Ahmed. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2003. 213 pp. $19.95, paper.
In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, historian Bernard Lewis crystallized the key question about Muslims by asking "What went wrong?" Nor was Lewis alone, for a number of Muslim writers have authored books in response to it. Among the most prominent are Tarek Heggy and Tariq Ramadan, the former an Egyptian and the latter of Egyptian descent, and Akbar Ahmed, a Pakistani living in the United States. Heggy and Ramadan publish not only in English but also in Arabic and so transcend audiences. Ahmed's books, too, are widely translated, even appearing in Indonesian and Chinese. Significantly, all three live in the West. Such important and active debates are simply not possible in countries that still punish dissent and open intellectual discussion. By choice and circumstance, they find themselves dragomen and diplomats between two worlds. Their writings reflect the Muslim dilemma of how to separate Islam as a transcendent faith of universal appeal from the immediate history of Muslim societies. All three are well regarded in their home communities. Their works are widely read and followed, and their commentaries on the state of Muslim politics and society earnestly sought by a diverse global audience interested in Muslim affairs.
Individual Vs Society in the Islamic World
Tarek Heggy's Culture, Civilization, and Humanity is a collection of his essays providing insight into contemporary politics in the Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East with emphasis on his native Egypt. Partly polemical and partly analytical, Heggy seeks to awaken Arabs to how extensive is their collective responsibility for derailing themselves from progressing as a civilization. Heggy does not offer any striking new perspective to explain how and why the Arab world has fallen so far behind the West. The United Nations Development Program's Arab Human Development Report for both 2002 and 2003 have provided a catalogue of reasons as to why Arab countries have shown such poor socioeconomic development compared to other late-modernizing societies such as South Korea, Malaysia, and even India. But what Heggy's essays lack in originality, they make up for in the frankness with which the author discusses the historical and cultural failings of Egypt and the Arab world which retards the human potential of nearly 300 million people in a region stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf.
In a culture preoccupied with form over content, and where collective honor trumps collective self-examination of the gap between rhetoric and reality, Heggy explains his purpose:
I write to urge Egyptians to accept criticism and to engage in self-criticism because, unless they are willing to do so, they will not discover the root causes of the ills they complain of today â€¦ I write in defense of freedom of belief but not in the context of a theocratic culture that places our destinies in the hands of men of religion. No society should allow its affairs to be run by clerics who are, by their nature and regardless of the religion to which they belong, opposed to progress â€¦ I write to call for an end to the Goebbels-style propaganda machines operating in Egypt and the Arab world and their dangerous manipulation of public opinion.
Heggy thus highlights the tensions between the individual and the community. Egypt remains caught in a vortex of contradictory pressures in respect to individual rights, rationality, and democracy in a clash with tradition that venerates the past while holding the future at ransom. While important to voice, there is nothing new about such discussions within the Arab world. The late Oxford historian Albert Hourani chronicled this intellectual ferment in the Arab world in his important study, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939.
Heggy does not limit himself to repeating the ideas of intellectuals of the past and is not afraid to critique socialism and Marxism, a subject to which he has devoted some of his writings. This is important because both Marxist ideology and the patron-client relationship between the Soviet Union and Arab states influenced the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and the politics of Arab nationalism. Nasser borrowed not only his state-centered economic planning but also his political vision of a single party state from his Soviet patrons.
Heggy's most important contribution is to shed light on the mind set of a culture responsible for the attacks of 9/11. He describes a society in part held hostage to the "Big Talk" syndrome, a situation in which a society is beholden to exaggeration, inflated rhetorical flourishes and bragging as individuals and groups strive to outdo each other in verbal displays of superiority. While in the modern age, "there is no room for big talk, only for moderate language that tries as far as possible to reflect the unembellished realities of science and culture," Heggy observes that in the Arab world, "our culture â€¦ has a long tradition of declamatory rhetoric that places more value on the beauty of the words used than on their accurate reflection of reality." Such a cultural trait hampers critical assessments and contributes to a failure to understand lack of progress and defeats such as those suffered in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Instead, the "Big Talk" syndrome promotes an indulgence in nostalgia to escape from the demands of the present and punishes individuals who break the collective code of honor. Heggy explains,