The Arab World's Quagmire

Only a society that can engage in introspection and self-examination can emerge from its dark past and march confidently to a different future. Otherwise, it will continue to sink into the same marshy swamp.

Salaman Masalha
Salman Masalha
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Salaman Masalha
Salman Masalha

The "king of kings of Africa" is just one of the many titles that Muammar Gadhafi bestowed upon himself over the years. Last week, the entire world watched as the "king of kings" lost his life, along with all his appellations.

In a macabre dance flickering across the screen in a cellphone video, the curtain came down on the colonel's regime. He wasn't wearing one of his colorful robes or turbans, nor did he have a golden staff in his hand or a crown on his head. His hair was wild, his shirt was torn, and blood was pouring from his head and covering his face.

Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi on April 27, 2004.Credit: Bloomberg News

At his death, the "king of kings," who was trying to run for his life after 42 years of despotism, was surrounded by cheering throngs seeking to overthrow the Libyan Molech - the biblical diety to whom worshipers sacrificed their children.

The blood streaming from Gadhafi's head was not unfamiliar: Indeed, the man, a member of a tribe called Gadhaf al-Dam ("bleeder" ), had spilled much blood during his reign, both of Libyans and of others. He didn't even merit the show trial usually reserved for tyrants, like the one that preceded the execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Instead, the "king of kings" got another type of justice, in accordance with the rules that have prevailed in the Arab desert for generations. This is a desert in which a real spring refuses to take root. The cries of victory and of "Allah Akhbar" that surrounded the deposed "king" were the appropriate backdrop for this infernal altar. This time the joyful cheering was not covering up the cries of pain of a sacrificed child, but the final groans of the Molech himself.

This is how Arab leaders have died throughout their history; indeed, nearly all the caliphs that reigned in the Muslim world died similarly. Every Arab pupil learns this in history class. There are numerous examples, such as the murder of Mohammed's third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan. A description of his murder can be found in the writings of Mohammed al-Tabari, the leading Arab historian of the ninth century: "Amru al-Hamq pounced on Uthman, crushed his chest while he was still breathing, and stabbed him nine times."

Tabari even brings quotes from the assassin himself: "I stabbed him three times for the sake of Heaven. The other six times I stabbed him because of all the vengeful feelings I harbored against him."

What's more, the sources tell us that after the caliph died, people threw his body into a trash heap. He was only buried after three days, when stray dogs started to tear his body apart.

That's how this world has conducted itself from time immemorial. It sinks again and again into the dark tribal quagmire, and can't pull itself out.

The biggest impediment posed by Arab culture is the absence of a mechanism for self-correction. To understand the problem this obstacle poses, it's enough for us to remember that of the thousands of sayings ascribed to the prophet Mohammed, there isn't a single one that calls on man to conduct any kind of self-examination. And without self-examination, there can be no correction - neither for the individual, nor for society.

As long as the Arab world cannot manage to insert into its lexicon such concepts as "former president" or even "former king," it will not be able to extricate itself from the chronic backwardness in which it has been stuck for hundreds of years.

Only a society that can engage in introspection and self-examination can emerge from its dark past and march confidently to a different future. Otherwise, it will continue to sink into the same marshy swamp.



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