Muslim Reformers Part Four

December 1, 2009

Al-Afif al-Akhdar, a Tunisian intellectual, wrote a blistering critique of the Arab world, lamenting that while the rest of the world was embracing modernity, knowledge, and globalization, the Arabs were regressing to the Dark Ages. Why was human knowledge growing except in the Arab world, where all one found was illiteracy, ideological fear, and mental paralysis? "Why," wrote Akhdar, "do expressions of tolerance, moderation, rationalism, compromise, and negotiation horrify us, but [when we hear] fervent cries for vengeance, we all dance the war dance? Why have the people of the world managed to mourn their pasts and move on, while we have . . . our gloomy bereavement over a past that does not pass? Why do other people love life, while we love death and violence, slaughter and suicide, and call it heroism and martyrdom?" Arabs suffer from both an inferiority complex, leading to self-hatred and "national humiliation whose shame can be purged only by blood, vengeance, and fire," and a sense of superiority and the belief that they were chosen by God to lead humanity-in which case why would they want to borrow anything from their inferiors? Despite the Koran’s description of the Arabs as the best nation in the world, their history was a chronicle of failures in the last two centuries, which, combined with a "deep-culture of tribal vengefulness," led to "a fixated, brooding, vengeful mentality," driving out "farsighted thought and self-criticism."Arabs should learn from the Japanese, who understood the "vital necessity to emulate the enemy . . . becoming like him in modern knowledge, thought and politics, so as to reshape the traditional personality and adapt it to the requirements of the time."

Tarek Heggy, an Egyptian intellectual who studied law and management and worked for many years for the Shell Oil Company, wrote, "We have dug ourselves into a cave, cut off from the rest of humanity thanks to a static mind-set that ignores the realities of our time and the new balances of power. . . . We remain locked in a fantasy world of our own making . . . a world in which anachronistic slogans are still widely regarded as sacrosanct, immutable constants. This has resulted not only in our growing isolation from the outside world and in alienating our former allies, but in a disastrous internal situation marked by a pattern of lost opportunities and a climate inimical to democracy and development."

Arab intellectuals have failed to create "a cultural climate and system of values in keeping with the requirements of the age"; instead we now have "an intellectually barren and culturally stagnant landscape which has moved Egypt further away from its dream of catching up with the developed world than it was at the beginning of the twentieth century."

Unfortunately such courageous self-criticisms are rare, and, as Barry Rubin noted in his important study, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East, liberal Arab intellectuals "are few in number and face determined oppostion from regimes that continue to control the media and other institutions." Arab liberal thought, continues Rubin, remains "fragmented, advocated by largely isolated individuals and with little systematic expression. . . . As a result, the liberal case is heard by only a tiny portion of Arabs, its small space hedged about with the thorns of its enemies."