The insult hurled by Italian President Silvio Berlusconi at the Arabs and Islam, when he branded their culture as inferior, continues to exercise Arab intellectuals - perhaps even more so than the bombs being dropped on Afghanistan.
"It is difficult for us to absorb this rapid turnabout," says an Egyptian writer. "A few days before the terrorist attack in New York the Arabs believed they had a superior cultural status, or at least a culture no one would dare take issue with. The Durban conference against racism, which everyone has already forgotten, was an event that demonstrated Arab power. Everyone there implored the Arabs to agree to moderate their definition of Zionism a little. They felt that they could dictate the direction of the intellectual winds, they succeeded in expelling the United States and Israel, and remained with the `cultural' mediators, the Europeans. Yet now, it is Europe that is turning its back on the Arabs and Islam."
Islamic and Arab intellectuals are beginning to do some mental stock-taking, and not in secret. "We have our own Berlusconis," Ali al-Raz wrote in the Lebanese paper Al-Nahar, "and until we see a hundred thousands Arabs demonstrating against the declarations of their leaders, all we can expect is more of a policy of curses ... If only a quarter of the Arab responses against Berlusconi were aimed against the `Arab Berlusconis,' it might be possible to say that the cultural controversy was beginning to be grounded in shared values."
Other intellectuals are now talking about "alienation vis-a-vis the West" instead of the West's alienation vis-a-vis the Arabs, about annexing Western terminology but without adopting their content. They see a need for a "journey of self-quest such as the Arabs and the Muslims have not conducted for generations," in the words of a Lebanese publicist.
In Beirut last week a new think-tank was established called the Arab Institute of Thought; its aim is to prepare for the new culture war. Its founder, a Saudi prince named Khaled al-Faisal, donated some $24 million for the new institute and the Arab League gave him its blessing. About $2 million will be devoted to what is described as "strengthening the Arab press, because, according to al-Faisal, "wars are no longer fought with arms and ammunition, but with thought, culture, economics and the media."
But that is just the problem, a Jordanian journalist said sardonically about the new institute. "We have money to acquire culture and buy thought, but where is the thought itself?" Both this sarcasm and the genuine effort to examine "where the Arabs made their mistake" show more than anything that the unoriginal coinage of the sociologist Samuel Huntington, the "culture wars," doesn't have much of a leg to stand on.
For if the aspiration of the Arabs and the Muslims is to return to the Western fold and to cleanse themselves of what they (and the world) see as the shame of the terrorist attacks, to equalize the cultures, or at least to support the Western campaign against terrorism, which today is categorized as Islamic terrorism, where exactly is the culture war in all of this?
And if it is a culture war, why are bin Laden and his supporters targeting the United States and not Europe, the cradle of Western civilization? However, just because the concept of the culture war is shown to be inaccurate doesn't mean that there is no true battle of values being fought.
This is not a struggle between the advocates of democracy and its abominators, as the Arab regimes insist their methods are also democratic, even if their definition is not accepted in the West. Nor is it a struggle of capitalists against the poor, as most of the Arab states have in their possession vast capital. Similarly, it's not a war between infidels and believers, as the majority of the Islamic states do business with the infidels and adopt their cultural symbols.
Perhaps it is above all a war of honor, between those who are arrogant and those who are fed up with arrogance, between the members of the club and those who have been left out - between Western racism and Eastern racism.
It is a war between those who believe they are the owners of culture, and those whose culture is being rejected. If so, it is probably a never-ending war.
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