What is wrong with Arabs? [Archives:2008/1179/Opinion]

August 7 2008

By: Khalid Batarfi
An American reader, Gordon Reade, sent me the following question, which is no doubt on the minds of many:

“In America our history books say that while Europe was mired in the dark ages, the Arabs led the world in art, education, science, math, philosophy, military power and you name it. According to our books, a thousand years ago the Arabs were every bit as powerful as America is today.

But what our books don't tell us is what went wrong. The Arabs of today would be virtually unrecognizable to the Arabs of the past. Clearly you guys suffered some tremendous catastrophe long before 1967 and long before 1948. What went wrong and when did it happen? Do the Arabs have a name for it?”

I answered him: True, we ruled and enlightened the world for some thousand years, reaching China, India, Central Asia, Africa, Spain and northern Europe.

Our contributions to science and culture were immeasurable. They included the invention of the zero, algebra and the astrolabe and the discovery of blood circulation.

We translated Greek, Indian and Persian literary treasures and added our own. Then, we fought each other and the Ottoman Turks took over the Islamic Caliphate and united its disintegrated empire. While the Turks are not Arabs, they are Muslims.

At the time, they used Arabic alphabet and ruled our world in the name of the Prophet (peace be upon him) as his successors “Caliphs”.

The Ottomans were once the most powerful nation on earth. They ruled supreme for many centuries. At the end of 19th century, they began to decline. Their mistake was the one oft repeated by many empires.

They felt so invincible that they had no need to consult with anyone regarding anything they did in the world, no matter how vital or colossal. Arrogance and mistreatment of subject people led to revolts, including some in Arab countries. Still, their rule continued until World War I when they and their allies, the Germans, were defeated.

The Western victors then took over and colonized the Arab world, lasting up to the late sixties. They left behind dictatorial regimes; most still rule today with Western support. America, alone, installed some of the most horrible regimes and leaders like Saddam Hussein and others.

Today, the Arabs suffer from a decline on all fronts. Politically, most of us are prisoners to emergency and revolutionary rules.

Economically, altogether we produce every year less than Spain. Culturally, we print fewer than one percent of the books in the world. We have questionable levels of poverty, quality of education and unemployment rates. That says it all.

Arab world is a basket case:

The Arab world is a basket case, economically and politically (morality we can debate another day). One handy statistic: If you subtract oil, the total exports of the Arab world ) i.e., the 500 million people comprising all of North Africa and the Middle East, minus Israel ) amount to less than those of Finland: a country with one hundredth the population. So convinced that some outside force ) imperialists, Jews, oil companies, America, the CIA ) is responsible for the failings of their once-great civilization, Arabs cannot handle any blow to their self-esteem. It's not so much dead Arabs which grates on their psyche but, the sting to their pride which comes when non-Muslim, non-Arabs do the killing. This is what makes smart people act stupid.

Indeed, this is hardly unique to Arabs. All over the world and throughout history national pride and cultural passions have driven nations to violence and folly. As Yale's Donald Kagan has written, “The common practice of calling such motives 'irrational' reveals how narrow the professional understanding of what matters to people has become in our day.” He goes on: “The notion that only economic benefits, power and security are rational goals is a prejudice of our time, a product of the attempt to treat the world of human events as though it were the inanimate physical universe, susceptible to scientific analysis and free to ignore human feelings, motives, and will. Such an approach is no more adequate to explain current behavior than to explain the actions of human beings throughout history.”

But if Arabs want to define their national interests in terms of pride and shame ) as NR's David Pryce-Jones has argued so eloquently ) that's fine; that's natural even. But that decision has serious costs. If the Iraqis side with pride and totalitarianism over realism and liberty; if the Arab propaganda machine and suicide-bomber networks decide that it would be better for Iraq to be a giant Lebanon free of Americans than to be an Arab Sweden with our help; if they decide that even one dead Iraqi at the hands of “infidels” is worse than 100,000 at the hands of Saddam; if they greet this rescue mission with bullets, then things will only worsen for the Arabs.

For that's what this is, a rescue mission. It may have been launched out of American self-interest, but that should make no difference to the Iraqis. And I still hope that the Iraqis will snap out of it and recognize we're there to help. Indeed, if they greet the U.S. with gratitude there really will be no end to American charity and assistance. We can point to Japan, South Korea, and Germany as evidence of the prosperity and decency we can help usher in. Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, et al., can offer only Lebanon or some phantasmagorical Brigadoon plucked from the fantasies of jihadists. To those who can see clearly the interests of their children, this should not be a hard choice.

But it is a choice. If even after Saddam is gone, they shoot at the lifeboat and spit at its crew, America will simply confiscate the weapons we came for and leave. Many, many Americans will conclude that democracy cannot take root in Arab soil after all, and if they don't want our help we will say “to hell with them” ) as we did to the Somalis. We will strike deals with murderers and thugs whenever profitable and contain those murderers when not. To borrow a phrase from Le Monde, we will declare “We Are All Frenchmen Now” and we will let Arabs kill Arabs (and yes, probably Israelis too) because it won't be our business ) all because some desperate people are too proud to stop acting stupid.

Source: Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Weekly