The cover story of the July 5 issue of The Economist magazine, headlined “The Tragedy of the Arabs: A Poisoned History,” offered a brilliant analysis of the causes behind the Muslim Arab world’s present dire situation. However, there are a number of reasons for the Arabs’ failure that escaped The Economist, while in other cases the magazine’s arguments were partial at best or even mistaken.
Every Arab who possesses common sense and minimal integrity will acknowledge the Arab world’s failure. Indeed, it is more than a failure: It is a historical debacle that will take many generations to correct. As with all the regimes of darkness and suppression throughout history, the leaders of the Arab states are encouraging the worst type of psychological repression among their subjects: All are boasting about the prosperity of their countries.
By and large, the multiple causes of this historical failure were surveyed accurately and convincingly by The Economist. Still, not only does the article underemphasize the part played by Western imperialism in creating the current lamentable situation, it also presents that argument as a mistaken theory. But in fact, that theory is perfectly correct. The devastation wrought by Western colonialism is a major cause of the present state of affairs. There are others as well, also ignored by The Economist.
What was the situation when, as the British magazine puts it, Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo “took turns to race ahead of the Western world” and “Islam and innovation were twins”? The article does not elaborate on that situation or on the nature of the innovations. But the answer is astoundingly simple. Islam, in its time – more precisely, the Muslims, in their time – ignored religious law (sharia, al-fiqh), and focused on the philosophical and human aspects of the faith. As the distinguished Muslim scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) observed, they were more inclined to probe the fundamentals of the Islamic creed (al-aqidah) than the minutiae of its laws.
The religion and culture of the Arab nation sprang out of a tribal society that was torn apart by internal wars even as it showed occasional flashes of culture (mainly in the form of poetry). Accordingly, the Arab nation thirsted for renewal and for encounters with other cultures and with science. Thus, Muslim scientists eagerly imbibed the wisdom of Greece, Persia and India.
My understanding is that this is a process that is inexorably undergone by every warrior and colonialist culture (yes, we were the imperialists at that time) that is short on science and a broad human perspective, when it comes up against cultures in which these assets exist. Initially the encounter is violent and bloody, but subsequently it becomes more refined and enters a phase of scientific-cultural synergy. In these conditions, Islamic Arab culture reached its efflorescence.
Intolerance and rejection
Unmistakable differences exist between the Arab world of a millennium ago and that of the modern period, since the end of the 19th century. Those differences, which The Economist ignored, are cardinal causes of the Arab world’s failure. One such difference lies in the tolerance and openness that formerly characterized Arab culture, to the point where it made an effort to attract “foreigners.” Examples abound. The great names among these “foreigners” include the mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarazmi (who came from a region that is now part of Uzbekistan); the leader of the Abbasid Revolution, Abu Muslim al-Khurasani (Afghanistan); and of course Saladin (Armenia).
At present, under the influence of extremist Muslim streams, which sprang up together with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood, not only the ajami (Arabic for non-Muslim, or barbarian) is scorned and rejected – so are Muslim Arabs who do not belong to “your” branch of Islam. This approach fans the struggles between Shi’ites and Sunnis and between their subgroups. Its most blatant example in Israel is the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement. Since Israel’s establishment, the civil and cultural national struggle of Israel’s Arab citizens had been conducted jointly by Muslims and Christians, together with part of the Jewish peace movement. That struggle was perceived as transcending nationality and religion. The Islamic Movement, however, led by Raed Salah, has shunned and excluded Christian Arabs.
At the pan-Arab level, Hamas, Al-Qaida and the rising ruthless star, the Islamic State organization (formerly known as ISIS), are all variations of the intolerance and rejection aimed at anyone who is not a Muslim Arab or does not belong to the “right” branch of Islam.
As The Economist notes, when the Arab Spring revolutions broke out, restless young people from the Facebook and Smartphone generation flooded the streets of the cities. But a closer look at the patterns of technology consumption among the Arabs reveals how technology has actually been the more important cause of the shameful failure. We, the Arabs, are members of a consumer nation that produces nothing. The Arab states have never heard of the high-tech industry. They buy and buy, especially the Gulf states, but at the moment of truth, Arabs are lost when it comes to actually making something. They are completely dependent on the West.
This, by the way, is the principal reason for the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a rich, powerful country, in its war against the United States. As soon as an arms embargo was imposed, every malfunctioning weapon effectively became an unusable piece of junk.
The vast wealth of the oil-producing countries is only temporary and, more important, highly fragile. Libya was very rich. Once. Scientific progress in renewable energy, which is definitely on the cards, will bring about the collapse of the oil producers. The liquid that allows the monarchies to buy off dissent, as The Economist puts it, will not do so indefinitely.
Another aspect of this nonproductive culture of affluence and consumption is the almost complete absence of two salient elements of modern society. The first is the aspiration to invest in scientific research. In 2000, Prof. Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his brilliant pioneering research – but as an American scientist. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who held a ceremony in Zewail’s honor, urged him to return to his native land and contribute to the advancement of science there. Whereupon Zewail fearlessly asked the president: What is the research budget in Egypt? What is the research budget in the Arab world compared to Europe, given the fact that their populations are similar in size?
The obvious question, though, was not asked (mentioning Israel is taboo): How big is the research budget of the entire Arab world compared to that of Israel? The following data are taken from the database of the World Bank for 2009-2013. Whereas Israel’s R&D budget is 4.4 percent of its GNP, and the R&D budget in the European Union stands at 3.1 percent, the average R&D budget in the Arab states is less than 0.1 percent of the GNP.
Where are the donations?
The second missing element is the culture of donating to the community, and to science and society in general. Everyone who has attended an institution of higher learning in Israel knows that almost every building, laboratory or library was built thanks to the whole or partial donation of wealthy Jews living abroad or locally. Jews are not alone in donating to such causes. Every year, the world’s wealthiest people donate many billions of dollars for research, education and the wellbeing of their own or other communities. This culture is totally absent in the Arab world. The Muslims have failed abjectly in this regard.
And yet, charity is one of the tenets of Islam. Donations take two forms. One is very shabby in scale, amounting to provision of meals for the needy. The other, involving billions of dollars, goes toward the purchase of weapons that foment wars, particularly intra-Arab wars (Syria), but also worldwide (Al-Qaida). The rulers of the Arab world are out to aggrandize their wealth, which in some cases reaches monstrous dimensions (Muammar Gadhafi, Hosni Mubarak, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and, of course, in the Gulf states). The rich of Ramallah and Nablus have never attained affluence on that scale, but they never stop trying, deceitfully if necessary.
Flagrant examples of such behavior were provided by the “revolutionaries” who arrived in the area of the Palestinian Authority from exile. Instead of using the funds from the donor states to better their nation’s condition, they coveted the refugees’ money and within a few years transformed themselves from indigent refugees into profligately rich individuals, by Palestinian standards. This is a key reason – ignored by The Economist – for the failures of the Palestinian intifadas.
The second most important cause of the dire situation of the Arab world – stemming from the first, the absence of manufacturing productivity – is the immense gap between technology and mentality among the Arabs. The Facebook and smartphone generation is well equipped. Indeed, among the Arabs in general, the addiction to smartphones and apps is highest in the Gulf region, while in Israel it is highest among the Bedouin of the country’s south. In both these populations, and across the Arab world as a whole, it is clear that the Muslims have failed utterly to achieve one of the major goals of Islam: the erasure of all national-tribal identity, other than Islam itself. Fast Internet connection via smartphones was supposed to broaden and globalize the mentalities of Arabs but it did not.
Islam preached unequivocally the annulment of the distinct identities that existed before its advent. In practice, though, the tribal-clan framework remains one of the strongest structures in the Arab world. The full dominance and cruelty of that structure were exposed in the Arab Spring, notably in Libya, Iraq and Syria. One need only read the posts of the Internet commenters in the Arab world in general, and in Israel in particular, to know that tribal-clan attachment remains more binding than any other affiliation.
The supposedly open international community, the individual who is supposedly a citizen of the world, and globalization itself have all left the Arab tribal mentality – with its narrow vision and narrow-mindedness – untouched. In addition, the average Arab technophile has no idea how to use technological tools other than for entertainment purposes. The Arab world is immersed in a bog of satellite channels that broadcast drama series, music that is mostly an insult, and in general whatever can distract the masses from their gloomy condition. It’s a bread and circuses world, with a far heavier emphasis on “circuses” than on “bread.” The overriding message is: Don’t think. The thinking person is the enemy of the benighted regimes.
Another important cause of the Arab world’s situation – the lack of separation between religion and state – is indeed lucidly analyzed by The Economist. But what the article fails to mention is that Islam – and, in fact, all religions – oppose such separation. The reason for this is that religion-state separation will necessarily bring about social openness, enhance the status of women and weaken the traditional leaderships. Such scenarios are the greatest enemy of the obscurantist regimes that exist across the Arab world (apart from in Lebanon).
Over the years, a natural alliance was forged between the regimes in the Arab states and the clerics, and was sometimes exploited in a tragically cynical manner. The arbiters of religious law are completely subservient to the political leaders (in most cases willingly, in return for payment), and so, accordingly, are their rulings. The results are sometimes absurd, notably the fact that we are the only people on earth that doesn’t know the dates of its religious holidays, the date on which its new year starts and when its month of fasting begins or ends. All is decided a day before by “religious sages” who are light-years removed from sagacity.
Modern Islam does not conduct itself in the spirit of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, but in the spirit of Hassan al-Banna (founder of the Muslim Brotherhood), Boko Haram and the Islamic State. These and others essentially want to return to the way of the Salafists, meaning those of the previous generations. Even if they don’t call themselves Salafists, in their view half the society must be neutralized: the women. Haram (prohibition) is the keyword in their interpretation of Islam.
Contrary to the claim of The Economist, Islam in its current form is not a modern creation, and must be completely overhauled in order to fit into today’s world. As long as we continue to espouse the idea that Islam is the be-all and end-all, our situation will not improve. In fact, there’s a high statistical probability that it will deteriorate. The Economist’s criterion for modernity is Twitter use. That’s a distorted view, as this is only a very limited use of high-tech, one that does not influence technology, let alone create it. As for the argument that the proportion of literate Arabs has tripled in the last two generations, I see no causal connection between that fact and Islam, and it seems to me that this is a worldwide phenomenon.
The article ends with a piece of advice to the Arabs as to how to undo their failure: “Secular Sunnis who comprise the majority of Arab Muslims need to make their voices heard.” Really? Why not all the Arabs? My advice is a lot simpler: Arabs, use your money to develop your intelligence, everyone’s intelligence, regardless of race, religion or, most important, gender. Throughout history, many nations, including the Arab nation, have languished at low points. The way out exists, if you will it.
Dr. Abed L. Azab is a chemist and a teacher who lives in Ara.