This Booklet …
(Knowledge will not give you a part of
itself unless you give it your whole,
And in giving your whole you are treading a dangerous path).
Abu Hanifa al-No'man
(d. Second Islamic century/early 8th century AD).
In my first three books, I presented what I believe was a comprehensive critique of Socialism, the theory and the practices. My writings during this stage covered the period between 1977 and 1981. Between 1984 and 1996, I embarked on a second stage in which I tried to identify and analyze the myriad problems of contemporary Egyptian life. Starting 1997, I entered a third stage in my writing, which proceeded from the premise that the underlying cause of all our problems is cultural in nature and has to do with methods of thinking, the general cultural climate and educational systems. Between 1997 and 2005, I wrote extensively on what I call defects in the Arab mind-set.
Some commentators remarked that the defects I cited exist in other societies. My response was that in highlighting certain negative aspects of the Arab mind-set I was in no way suggesting that they were exclusive to Arab societies. Indeed, the idea never crossed my mind, for to believe that is to believe that these defects derive from the organic makeup of the Arab mind, that Arabs are somehow genetically programmed to think in a certain way, which is, of course, patently absurd. What I believe, rather, is that these defects developed over time as a result of historical, political, cultural and societal conditions which, if they had existed in any other society, would have produced the same defects, albeit to different degrees. There is no such thing as a defective thought process determined by ethnicity; the defects I mention are all acquired, not inborn.
My writings on this subject have been published in more than one book in the Arabic language. This chapter includes the English translation of much, if not all, of what I have written on the defects in the contemporary Arab mind-set.
These defects are mainly the result of internal factors, of our historical experience, our political, economic, social and cultural circumstances and of the most prominent features of Arab reality today, namely, despotism, bad governance and a sharp decline in the educational and cultural climate. Although there is no denying that external factors contributed to the problem, I do not believe they brought it about. The truth is that these defects are a product of our own societies, not of external factors.
The Arab Mind-set & the Conspiracy Theory.
An issue that has been at the forefront of my concerns for some years now is the prevalence in Arab societies in general of the conspiracy theory. As far as many millions of Egyptians and Arabs are concerned, the following propositions have become virtual articles of faith:
The blueprint for our recent history and present reality was drawn up by the great powers, and what we are now living through is the product of their machinations.
The powers responsible for this grand design were Britain and France in the past and the United States, aided and abetted by its protégé, Israel, in the recent past and the present.
The plans were prepared in great detail by those powers, leaving little room for manoeuvre to those at the receiving end, including ourselves, who had no choice but to follow the course charted for them.
Accordingly, we bear very little responsibility for what happened in the past, what is happening in the present, indeed, according to some, for what will happen in the future, all of which is the predetermined result of a grand design it is beyond our power to change.
When the element of Israel is added to this theoretical buildup, the picture becomes even more inflammatory and provocative. Moving from generalities to specifics, it is normal from this perspective to see even the landmark events of our modern history as resultants of the plots hatched by the great powers. These include the 1956 war, Syria’s secession from Egypt in 1961, the Yemen war of 1962, the June 1967 disaster, the failure to crown the glorious crossing of the Suez Canal in October 1973 with the military liberation of the whole of Sinai, President Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977, the Camp David accords signed between Egypt and Israel, the demise of the Soviet Union and the structural collapse of socialism everywhere. By the same token, the emergence of the United States as the sole global superpower, the New World Order, the GATT and many other developments are perceived as the consummation of the plans laid down by the great powers as a blueprint for history.
A paradox worth studying is that this view is shared to varying degrees by the following disparate groups:
All those who can be classified as ‘Islamic’ believe profoundly in the truth of the propositions which collectively form the conspiracy theory. The groups in question include the Muslim Brothers, the Gama’at Islamiya, the Jihad and all fundamentalist movements, indeed, even the most moderate of the Islamic trends. It pains me to have to use the epithet Islamic to designate groups that are basically nothing more than political organizations, because this implies that whoever does not belong to those groups should be classified as ‘non’- or ‘anti’- Islamic. Although I am the first to challenge the validity of this obviously ludicrous implication, I am forced to use what has become the widely accepted terminology to describe these groups. If we had to identify the most devoted adherents of the conspiracy theory, there is little doubt that this dubious distinction belongs to the Islamists.
All those who can be classified in one way or another under the banner of socialism, from Marxists to socialists, passing through tens of subdivisions of leftist or socialist orientation, including the Nasserites, also subscribe to the conspiracy theory, albeit less rigidly than the Islamists. For while they believe in the theory as a whole and, accordingly, in the propositions on which it is based, their belief is not shrouded in what can be called the spirit of jihad or militancy, nor grounded in anti-Christian feelings as is the case with the Islamists. Of course, the difference in the degree of rigidity of the belief and the fervour of the conviction is due to the theocratic ethos of the Islamic groups and the more scientific, progressive and modern spirit of socialist ideas, even if the failure of those ideas to achieve their aims or live up to their slogans proves that they are inherently flawed.
The third and final group is made up of ordinary citizens in the Arab world and Egypt, who belong neither to the Islamic school politically nor to the socialist school ideologically, most of whom are inclined to believe in the conspiracy theory and to accept the validity of the propositions on which it rests without question.
It is essential to remember, however, that the reasons behind the adherence of each of the three groups to the conspiracy theory derive from different sources.
The Islamists, in all their subdivisions, consider that the history of the region is the history of a conflict between Islam on the one side and the Judeo-Christian world on the other. As far as they are concerned, the Crusades never stopped, only now they are being waged not on the battlefield but elsewhere. This group attaches great importance to the Jewish dimension, which it blames for many of the ills besetting the Arab/Islamic world and the disasters which have befallen it.
The socialist group, in the broad sense of the word, views matters from the perspective of the struggle between what it calls the forces of imperialism and the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world.
As to the third group, the multitude of ordinary citizens who subscribe to the conspiracy theory, they reflect the climate of opinion created by the information media, many of the key constituents of which are controlled in this part of the world either by the socialist trend or the Islamic trend, and which repeatedly spout the propositions on which the conspiracy theory rests as though they were gospel truth. In societies not characterized by a high level of education and culture, the information media (including the the mimbar, or pulpit, of the mosque) can be used to brainwash and indoctrinate public opinion. It is enough to recall that the ministry of information in some countries was once called the “ministry of guidance”, a clear admission of the function it sets itself, which is to guide and direct.
Actually, the sources from which the three groups draw their belief in the conspiracy theory are wholly illusory, with no basis in fact, history or logic. The history of the peoples of our region would have been the same, including their subjugation by western colonialism, even if the region had been part of the Christian world. The West did not colonize us because we were Muslims, but for quite different reasons. On the one hand, we were backward and hence susceptible to foreign domination, easy pickings, as it were. On the other, the whole colonial enterprise was motivated in the first instance by economic considerations, and, to a lesser degree, by cultural, or ‘civilizational’, considerations, which constitute a broader framework than religious factors. Although much can be said to refute the naïve view that the region’s history with western colonialism can be reduced to a question of religion, it is sufficient here to cite but a few of the many examples attesting to the contrary to realize how widely off the mark this view is.
Those who maintain that we would not have been colonized but for the fact of our Muslim heritage conveniently forget the dark chapter of our history under the dominion of the Ottoman empire, when the colonized Arab peoples were subjected to the worst kinds of abuse by their colonial masters, despite the fact that both colonizer and colonized belonged to the Muslim faith. Throughout the eighteenth century, our ancestors were in a deplorable state of backwardness, even though they were Muslims occupied by Muslims, the Christian West as yet absent from the scene. The same situation prevailed when the Zionist movement was launched by its Hungarian-born founder, Theodor Herzl, towards the end of the nineteenth century; indeed, we had remained locked in a state of medieval backwardness for more than six centuries preceding the emergence of the Jews as a political force capable of affecting the course of events in any way.
Though in many ways wrong, the socialist reading of our history with colonialism is right in that it approaches the issue from an economic perspective. Certainly the economic factor was the driving force behind the West’s imperialist ambitions in the region over the last two centuries. But this was within a framework quite different from that of the conspiracy theory, as we shall explain later.
As to the group of ordinary citizens enamoured of the conspiracy theory, for all that their logic is impaired and cannot stand up to any sort of serious discussion or analysis, it is in a way understandable. For even the most outlandish statement, if repeated often enough, can come to be accepted as true, especially in a society in which half the population is illiterate and the other half displays only a very modest standard of education and culture. Here lack of sophistication provides a fertile breeding ground for the most untenable, demagogical and unfounded assertions to take root and flourish.
To my mind, the real issue is that most of those who subscribe to the conspiracy theory know very little about the nature and mechanisms of the capitalist economy or what is called a market, or free, economy. The essence of capitalism is competition, a notion which means many things, some positive and wholesome, others negative and unhealthy. But given that all the ideological alternatives to the market economy have failed lamentably, wreaking such havoc in the societies which adopted them that they have been relegated to the museum of obsolete ideas, we must under no circumstances let our nostalgia for the past or our emotional reaction to certain aspects of capitalism drive us back into the world of socialist ideas. Those ideas have caused so much loss, damage and human suffering that they have forfeited the right to be given a second chance. Indeed, experience has proved that socialism (both as an ideology and in terms of practical application) is not a viable system of beliefs.
As we have said before, however, competition, which is the backbone of the capitalist economy, is a notion that carries within it not only positive aspects but also highly negative ones. On the positive side, it works to the benefit of individuals and the enhancement of their quality of life because, by definition, it leads to a process of constant upgrading of the type and quality of products and services, which in turn often leads to reducing their cost or price. On the negative side, it sometimes deteriorates into vicious struggles between the producers of products and services, struggles that can take such diverse forms as driving a rival out of the market, marginalizing the role of others and grabbing the largest share of the market or markets. This feature of the western capitalist system engenders the belief in countries without a long tradition of industrialization and advanced capitalist services that they are the victims of a well-planned conspiracy.
It is this aspect of competition that I want to cast some light on, because unless we understand it well and accept that it is an inevitable if unfortunate feature of the market economy, unless we devise a strategy to deal with it as a fact of life in our contemporary world, we will not attain any of our goals. The competition to which I am referring here, which is one of the main cornerstones of economic life based on the dynamics of a market economy, was responsible for the wars that tore Europe apart in the last three centuries, indeed, for the two world wars this century has witnessed.
But after centuries of fighting amongst themselves, the Europeans came to realize in the last three decades that the advantages of putting an end to the strife that had convulsed their continent throughout much of its history greatly outweighed the advantages of allowing a spirit of contentious competition to continue ruling their lives. And so competition in its extreme form was displaced from Europe into other arenas. The rationale now governing competition in Europe, which continues to thrive in many different shapes and forms, is mutual coexistence and consensus on a framework of checks and balances in which competition is to operate.
To better illustrate the point I am trying to make, I would like to draw attention here to a very simple fact, which is that, in an economic system based on competition, the strategic interest of the producer, or seller, is to remain a seller while ensuring that the buyer of his products or services remains a buyer as long as possible, preferably forever. There can be no switching of roles here. This simple principle is the essence of that aspect of competition which many in our part of the world tend to regard as indicative of a conspiracy. Although in a way it does resemble a conspiracy, it is very different in terms of motivation and the rules which determine its inner workings. This law, one of the laws governing competition in a free-market economy, operates within advanced industrial societies. Its application outside those societies is thus inevitable, expected and unavoidable.
In other words, the economic system in force in the advanced industrial countries (now also advanced technologically and in the services sector) is based on unavoidable conflicts fueled by competition, which manifest themselves in endless attempts to capture the largest possible share of the market. This means that the big fish are constantly trying to swallow the little fish. This process and its negative, not to say ferocious, aspects, operates both inside a given society and beyond (where it is liable to be even more ferocious). The terminology and practices of modern management sciences contain many terms and notions that, in the final analysis, serve competition in its various aspects (both positive and negative). While I do not want to bother the reader with a detailed account of this terminology, the analysis given in this article would be incomplete if I did not mention at least some of the principal notions which have become part of the lexicon of modern management sciences in the contemporary world, such as quality management, global marketing, data confidentiality, the plethora of occupational health systems and environmental considerations. These and tens of other recently-coined terms are tailored essentially to serve the interests of the big fish who, by applying them, can successfully swallow the small fish.
We can now add to the big-fish-eat-small-fish law a new law running parallel to it, which is that the swift and efficient fish will gobble up the fish that are less swift and efficient. The huge conglomerates that have emerged on the global stage in the last twenty years in the fields of industry, services, technology and commerce attest to the growing ascendancy of this new law. It is very important here to distinguish between what we want to see and what we cannot avoid seeing if we do not want to delude ourselves. These laws exist and are fully operational and there is no hope after the demise of socialism of replacing them with laws that can ensure success, abundance and the avoidance of these aberrations (for those who regard them as such).
It must be said that even the most widely-read and highly cultured intellectual would be unable to fully grasp those new realities and laws if his cultural formation is based exclusively on a familiarity, no matter how deep and extensive, with all human and social sciences, but without any knowledge of the modern sciences in the fields of management, marketing and human resources and the tens of new specialized fields which have branched out of them. No matter how deeply a person may have drunk from the tree of knowledge, how familiar he is with the works of thinkers from Socrates to Bertrand Russell, passing though the thousands of names and areas of human knowledge, if his cultural baggage does not include a working knowledge of contemporary sciences in the fields of management, marketing and human resources, he will be unable to grasp the essence of these laws. In a way, he would be like a physicist who devotes fifty years of his life studying physics since the dawn of history with the exception of the last half century. Although he would in such case be well acquainted with the history of the subject, what he knows belongs in a museum of the past and is in no way suitable for the modern world.
Unfortunately a not inconsiderable number of Third World intellectuals are like our fictitious physicist: they know a great deal but their knowledge does not extend to new areas. Not only that, but these intellectuals continue to engage in lengthy debates in which they use obsolete terms of reference which confirm that they are living in the past, and, consequently, unable to comprehend what is happening around them. Indeed, these obsolete frames of reference stand as obstacles in the way of society’s ability to take the only means of transportation that can carry it to the desired destination, or, stated otherwise, its ability to play the game according to the new rules of the game, not according to utopian rules that exist only in the minds of those who remain locked in the past.
Having come this far in our analysis, we can proceed no further without addressing an issue that is inextricably linked to any discussion touching on the subject of conspiracies and the conspiracy theory, namely, the Japanese phenomenon. In a lecture delivered in Tokyo in December 1966, the author of this article credited Japan with playing a vitally important role in his intellectual formation, explaining that its experience had convinced him that the conspiracy theory, whether imaginary or real, was far less potent than it is made out to be. If one believes in conspiracies, then surely there could be no conspiracy more heinous than the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. For by definition a conspiracy seeks to inflict injury on the party against whom it is aimed, and there can be no greater injury than the atomic devastation rained on Japan over half a century ago.
Japan’s refusal to remain locked in the spiral of defeat proves that even assuming a conspiracy does exist and that, moreover, it attains its full scope, which is the infliction of maximum damage on the party against whom it is directed, the conspirators cannot achieve their ultimate aim unless the targeted victim accepts to be crushed. Japan has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of the atomic blasts to become the main rival of the very powers that seemed, in 1945, to have succeeded in bringing it to its knees.
The most important thing left to say about the unshakable belief in the conspiracy theory that seems to have taken hold of the Arab mindset is that it denotes a complete denial of a number of fundamental principles we must never lose sight of:
It proceeds from the assumption that while the conspirators enjoy absolute freedom of action when it comes to exercising their will, the parties conspired against are totally devoid of that prerogative. This endows the former with the attributes of motivation, determination, will and the ability to make things happen while stripping the parties conspired against of all these attributes, reducing them to objects rather than subjects, inanimate pawns moved every which on the chessboard of history according to the whims of others.
It denies the parties conspired against the quality of nationalism while attributing it exclusively to the conspirators.
It makes the conspirators legendary figures in the minds of those who consider themselves victims of conspiracies.
It assumes that there is no way the parties conspired against can foil the stratagems of the conspirators, making for a defeatist and passive attitude that runs counter to pride and self-dignity and to the notion that nations, like men, can shape their own destiny.
All that I have written about the conspiracy theory would be incomplete - as well as contrary to my beliefs - if the reader is left with the impression that, first, I believe that conspiracy and conflict are one and the same thing and that, accordingly, I do not believe that conflict has been a constant feature of human history; or, second, that I am denying that conspiracies too have always been a part of that history.
In fact, I am profoundly convinced that human history is made up of a series of conflicts and that, moreover, the world stage today is the setting for numerous bitter and major conflicts. But I believe conflict and conspiracy are two different notions.
Conflict means persistent efforts by given parties to maintain whatever edge they enjoy over others, or even to expand that edge and the privileges and advantages that go with it. But conflict also means that contradictions are played out in a game that proceeds according to certain rules which differ from one era to the next, so that whoever wants to achieve a position of any prominence must wage the conflict with the tools and according to the rules that will guarantee the optimal results. Here the Japanese model emerges once again as the most salient proof of the truth of this characterization. It goes without saying that conflict is a relatively more open game than conspiracy, and that the degree of ambiguity in which the game of conflict is shrouded (even those of its features that are so ambiguous as to appear closer to magic than anything else) is relatively less than that necessarily surrounding the conspiracy game. Placing matters in the context of a conflict game rather than within the parameters of a tight conspiracy that determines the course of history encourages people to draw on their inner resources of pride, dignity and determination to enter the game as active participants bent on affecting its outcome to their advantage.
This is very different from the state of mind created by a widespread belief in the conspiracy theory as the driving force of history, which encourages people to adopt a passive attitude in the belief that they have no choice but to bow to the inevitable, albeit with much wringing of hands and loud complaints at the often disastrous results coming their way, rather than rise to the challenge by becoming active players determined to achieve honourable results in the game, even if the cards are stacked against them. The experience of the Japanese, who have waged one of the most ferocious conflicts in human history throughout the last half century, stands as a testimonial to the triumph of the human spirit in the face of great adversity. That is not in any way to imply that history is devoid of conspiracies; indeed, the annals of human history are rife with examples of plots and counterplots. What I am trying to say, rather, is that history is not a general conspiracy but the stage for a fierce and relentless struggle on which those who quietly accept whatever comes their way are relegated to the sidelines.
Finally, it is necessary to highlight here another disastrous aspect of the rampant belief in the general conspiracy theory, which is that aspect related to undemocratic rulers like some of those now in power in the Third World.
The undemocratic ruler contributes with his ideas, statements and information media to consecrating the belief in the conspiracy theory, which is a useful fig-leaf behind which he can hide his own shortcomings and failures, in that it allows him to blame the problems and hardships faced by his people, and his inability to respond to their aspirations, on outside elements, i.e. a general conspiracy, rather than on the real reason, which is the absence of democracy and the existence of rulers like himself who are usually not the most efficient, capable, honest and cultured members of the society these rulers represent.
The real challenge as I see it is not a global conspiracy but a global conflict, one that is ferocious, violent and dangerous, which nations can only wage successfully if they are properly equipped for it. And they can only be equipped if their leaders are men of vision operating in a climate of democracy through cadres characterized by a high degree of efficiency, ability, honesty and culture. It is impossible to overrate the importance of this last attribute, for without culture there can be no vision.
In conclusion, it must be said that though the logic of the proponents of the conspiracy theory is based on a patriotic love of country, and though I have absolutely no doubt that they are in fact nationalists who want only the best for their country and people, the sad fact is that, in the final analysis, their absolute belief in the conspiracy theory renders them defeatists and advocates of the line of least resistance, which is to bemoan their lot as parties conspired against without making a serious effort to do anything about it.
Let’s Assume it is a Conspiracy.
As explained earlier, a great portion of the Arabic speaking people subscribe wholeheartedly to the conspiracy theory, firmly convinced that sinister forces are busy hatching plots against them. United in their belief, they differ only as to the motives of the conspirators. Some see them as motivated by an atavistic hatred for Muslims in general and Arabs in particular, others by a fear that an Arab awakening represents a danger that must be averted at all costs. Then are those who attribute the conspiracy to Jewish machinations. Finally, there are those who believe it is part of a grand design for the economic exploitation of the region.
The conspiracy theory has always intrigued me, and I have written frequently, in both Arabic and English, about the theory, those who subscribe to it, their logic and the implications of allowing their worldview to dominate our thinking. The reason I am revisiting the subject here is neither in the aim of supporting those who deny the existence of a conspiracy against us, nor of refuting the arguments of those who are convinced we are the targets of a conspiracy. Rather, it is to try and go beyond the question at the heart of what has become a sterile and demobilizing debate (is there a conspiracy against us?) to another question: assuming we are in fact pawns in a grand design orchestrated by others, is there anything we can do other than lament the fact, which so many seem to think is the only course open to us? In fact, our reaction to the conspiracy – assuming it exists – can proceed according to one of several scenarios.
The first scenario, which is embodied in the reaction of the majority of our conspiracy theorists, is to rant against the conspirators and speechify about how much they hate and envy us. This becomes an occasion to enumerate the qualities that make us an object of envy. I call this the “declamatory scenario.” Then there is the “confrontation scenario,” in which the self-perceived ‘victims’ of a conspiracy adopt a confrontational stance towards the ‘conspirators.’ Finally, there is what I have chosen to call the “Asian scenario.” I decided on this appellation following a discussion I had with a prominent Japanese personality, who asked me why our part of the world was so obsessed with conspiracies and conspirators, in contrast with East and Southeast Asia where, he said, “despite the atomic bombs dropped by the West on our cities, we did not waste our time talking of conspiracies. Instead of indulging in this futile exercise, we directed our attention at building ourselves up internally in all spheres, economic, political, social, educational and cultural. We opted for action rather than words, because we realized the declamatory scenario would get us nowhere: it would neither benefit us nor hurt others. As to the confrontational scenario, setting ourselves on a collision course with the West would have exacted a heavy price, and we would have ended up squandering our time, assets, resources and energy striving for the impossible.”
The Asian scenario, which eschews words in favour of action, was adopted by China in another, very different, matter. Instead of getting bogged down in an endless debate over the respective merits of a socialist command economy based on centralized planning versus a market economy, China quietly pressed ahead with its own version of the Asian scenario, keeping most of its provinces under the old system while allowing a few to follow a market economy. After what had started out as a limited experiment proved successful, China gradually expanded its scope, moving smoothly from the old economic system to the new without tearing society apart by involving it in a polarizing and endless national debate which would have set the pro- and anti-change camps at each other’s throats and sapped the national will to move forward. Too much talk and no action can only erode society’s resolve and, as the old adage goes, “It is a nation’s resolve that can revive it.
My interlocutor went on: “Look at China, which is
theoretically more dangerous for the West (approximately a thousand times more dangerous) than you are. And yet it avoided getting bogged down in useless talk of conspiracies and focused on the process of building itself up internally. I believe that Russia and India, like China, also represent a greater threat to the West than the Arabs do, and yet neither of them got caught up in a war of words against conspiracies and conspirators. Which tends to prove that you Arabs are using this talk of conspiracy for other reasons, maybe an inability to deal with what is essentially a conflict situation as active participants bent on affecting the outcome to their advantage, which entails building a strong, healthy, stable and thriving internal environment.”
I believe that talk of conspiracy can be as demobilizing for a society as talk of the clash of civilizations. Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that we are the targets of a conspiracy, we should ask ourselves what positive action we can take to foil the designs of the conspirators. Loudly bewailing our fate while waiting passively for whatever they decide to throw at us hardly qualifies as positive action. At best, the declamatory scenario is the line of least resistance, a static scenario that locks us into a world of fiery language and prevents us from taking control of our destiny. And if we opt for the confrontational scenario, we must be ready to pay a heavy price in terms of our financial, economic, natural and human resources. In the final analysis, then, it is only by adopting the Asian scenario based on building a strong internal front in all fields, political, economic, social, educational and cultural, that we can hope to achieve our aim of serving this nation and ensuring a better future for coming generations. The point I am trying to make can best be summed up in the words of a character in one of Shakespeare’s plays (I do not recall which), that I will paraphrase here. When asked by another character what was the source of England’s pride, he attributed it to its ability to achieve success. It is an answer that can be used against both the declamatory and confrontational scenarios. The former, in which words take the place of deeds, is incapable of achieving pride, while the latter, in the absence of a strong internal front, can only result in great loss.
I believe it would be easy to convince most people in our part of the world of how ineffectual the declamatory scenario is when it comes to coping with external threats. It is a scenario we have long been familiar with, and we have seen at first hand how it has consistently failed to live up to its extravagant promises. We have also seen how it has all too often led us into situations for which we were ill-prepared, with disastrous consequences. But while most people realize that big talk has cost us dearly, and would be receptive to the idea that the declamatory scenario is no longer an option, they would be less ready to concede that the confrontational scenario too should be abandoned. In fact, there are those who would challenge my contention that the confrontational scenario can only be a losing proposition as defeatism. This accusation is easily rebutted. Even the most fervent believers in a conspiracy theory cannot deny that our internal front is weak and friable and that all our resources must be deployed to address this problem. Nor can they deny that overcoming the problem entails a concerted effort that combines scientific knowledge, modern management techniques, a serious programme for reform and development, an educational revolution aimed at bringing Egypt’s educational system into line with modern educational systems (which are based on creativity not memory tests), expanding the scope of general freedoms and allowing for wider popular participation in public affairs. And if we can easily reach agreement on this point, we should just as easily be able to agree that embarking on a confrontational scenario for which we are not prepared will cost us dearly.
Thus building a strong internal front is the first task we must set ourselves because it is the only way we can deal effectively with the outside world, whether as partners in a state of peaceful coexistence or as protagonists in a confrontational situation. Neither coexistence nor confrontation is possible unless we focus on improving our internal structural buildup. In this connection, a useful lesson can be drawn from the experience of Mohamed Ali. As long as he confined himself to building up Egypt’s internal institutions, he was not subjected to external pressure or dragged into confrontations aimed at clipping his wings. But when he shifted his attention from the internal front, when he began harbouring ambitions to transform Egypt into a great power with a role to play and interests to promote beyond its borders, he found himself facing the same fate as that of countless dedicated rulers who succumbed to the temptation to expand their sphere of influence beyond the borders of their own countries. Like boxers entering the ring before they are ready, that is, without going through a lengthy regimen of training and preparation, they were easily defeated by their stronger and better prepared opponents, who managed to inflict heavy damage, not only externally but also internally.
In conclusion, I have tried in this article to drive home the point that even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that there is a conspiracy against us, we must be aware of the dangers of opting for the declamatory or confrontational scenarios. The former serves only to paralyze society and keep it in a state of suspended animation; the latter, while feeding the psychological cravings of some, satisfying the emotional needs of others and responding to the basic instincts of many, can only deplete our resources and cause us to incur heavy losses we can ill afford. As Shakespeare so perceptively put it, pride can only come from success. It is also useful here to recall another wise saying: There is nothing worse than allowing what is attainable to slip from our grasp while we strive for the unattainable!
The Absence of the Critical Mind.
It is my belief that the "critical mind" is almost non-existent today in the Arabic speaking societies. This is largely due to the meager margin of democracy allowed and to the fact that top positions, in many cases, are concentrated in the hands of a few incompetent individuals whose intellectual capacities and management skills are mediocre at best. When we add to this the current proliferation of a reactionary religious culture, it is understandable that there should be a marked decrease in rationality, a lack of participation marked by extreme negativity, and a prevalence of constants and fixed ideas that cannot hope to hold up against the objective criticism that is crucial to true development. This lack of democracy actively hinders social mobility, resulting in a general state of incompetence that in turn leads to a decline in standards at all levels. Invariably, rational thinking takes a back seat.
Eight centuries ago, Ibn Rushd (Averoess) attempted to revive rationality and to draw attention to its merits, only to be met with an onslaught of hostility and criticism from Arab societies. Ironically, he was welcomed in France, where he proved instrumental in the defeat of theocracy. And today? If we but glance at a weekly article in El Akhbar newspaper by an individual with a mind spewed straight from the womb of the Middle Ages, we will soon realize the reason for our rapid decline and sorry state of regression. When a newspaper of repute with a wide national circulation allows what amounts to a weekly demolition force against the values of humanity, civilization and progress, it is small wonder that we should be taking giant steps backwards. The articles bemoan a glorious past that actually never existed outside the writer's imagination, and was in fact characterized by excessive bloodshed and slaughter (which tended to be the norm all over the world at that time). The writer goes into endless tirades against "The Other", who is pictured, quite simply, as the devil, and in true tribal fashion, persists in seeing this Other as a vile enemy intent upon 'destroying' us and who must therefore be fought with words - and with the sword. This kind of 'reasoning' is typical of the desert culture, characterized as it is by tribal values, isolation, and danger lurking behind every dune. In actual fact, the Other is neither devil nor angel; and based upon this premise, we should engage in a constructive interchange of ideas and discussions, that can only benefit both sides and further the cause of progress and of humanity at large. This said, we should bear in mind that the concept of "humanity" is completely alien to the nomadic tribal mind.
The Other played a significant and enriching role in our lives during the past two centuries, and has had a profound and positive influence on journalism, the theatre, literature, translation, and thought in general. I can safely say that Egypt was a melting-pot blending the Egyptian with the Other in a harmonious and productive fusion that resulted in countless works of beauty, refinement and cultural merit. Isolation, on the other hand, has spawned a decline in aesthetic values and an ugliness that few can deny. I have every hope that the minorities in Arabic-speaking countries will serve as a catalyst for the dissemination of progress and refinement, taking society forward towards the age we live in, rather than backwards to a past that belongs to the Dark Ages.
In addition to the absence of a critical mind in our lives today, I have serious doubts as to the existence of a class of intelligentsia in all Arabic-speaking countries. Ever since the Fifties, most Arab regimes have been careful to create what I can only call "the official intellectual". This 'intellectual' may be an excellent reader and researcher, but is almost invariably no more than a civil servant with none of the independence that is crucial to the creation of a class of free-thinking and effective intelligentsia that is not subservient to the ruling regime. It is a sad fact that a large number of intellects in our society have been lured by Bedouin or Baathi petrodollars, while others have fallen prey to the law of attraction to official positions. Thus have most Arab countries become sadly devoid of free-thinking intellectuals, and if further proof be needed, we have only to note that almost all our intellectuals today churn out identical views on most issues, a phenomenon that is - to put it mildly - uncivilized and uncultured.
The picture becomes clearer when we realize that rationality in our society has suffered two major defeats: the first was the triumph of the school of copying in the tenth to the thirteenth century A.D. over the school of reason as exemplified by the students of Aristotle, headed by the brilliant Ibn Rushd. The defeat of the champions of reason saw the end of centuries of relatively enlightened thought and paved the way for stagnation, inflexibility and inertia. The second blow was the defeat of the Egyptian school of enlightenment, exemplified by Ahmed Loutfy El Sayed, Salama Moussa, Taha Hussein, Aly Abdel Razik and El Akkad (before he retracted his views upon his dismissal from the Wafd party). Perhaps the last of these great thinkers were Louis Awad, Hussein Fawzi and Zaki Naguib Mahmoud. Egypt in the Twenties was undergoing an intellectual boom in its capacity as a leading Mediterranean country enjoying the fruits of the Renaissance movement; however, the spread of Fascism in the Thirties and the defeat suffered by Egyptian liberalism put paid to the school of enlightenment in this country. Nevertheless, I am confident that a third school of enlightenment is beginning to make its presence felt here in Egypt, and am confident that it will eventually prevail, even if present-day liberals do not witness this outcome in their lifetimes. It is my firm belief that the battle of progress with reactionary forces can only end in the triumph of the former and the retraction of the latter, though as I say, we may not live long enough to see the end of the battle.
A Denial Mind-set.
For a long while, I believed the first step on the road to progress was the “acceptance of criticism” and the diffusion of a general cultural/intellectual climate which does not adopt a defensive posture towards criticism but welcomes it as a tool of positive feedback, a climate in which self-criticism is practiced without any reservations, constraints or taboos. I believed, and still believe, in Immanuel Kant’s brilliant characterization of criticism as “the most important building tool devised by the human mind.” But regional developments over the past three years have caused me to revise my priorities, and I now believe that another step should precede the acceptance and practice of criticism, namely, the dismantling of the wall of denial behind which we have sequestered ourselves for the last few decades. For it is clear that we cannot embark on a process of constructive criticism of our mistakes and shortcomings before we overcome our insistence on denying their existence in the first place. Our denial is sometimes expressed in positive terms, as when we openly deny the existence of this or that problem or the commission of this or that mistake, and sometimes in negative terms, as when we tacitly deny the existence of a specific shortcoming by simply not talking about it.
Thus our course on the road to progress should proceed in three stages. The first is to break out of the denial mindset in which we are locked. The second is to embark on a process of constructive criticism, while avoiding personalizing the process by using it as an opportunity to vilify certain individuals. The fact is that no one in Egypt is entirely blameless for the predicament in which we now find ourselves, and finger-pointing will get us nowhere. The third stage is to come up with concrete proposals on how best to solve the problems plaguing us. There can be no short cuts here, no way we can jump directly to the third stage before first breaking out of our denial mindset and, second, embarking on a process of constructive criticism of all our defects and shortcomings after we stop deluding ourselves that they do not exist.
It might be useful here to borrow a methodological approach that is central to modern management techniques. One of the cornerstones of management science is quality management, a results-oriented operation that extends over three stages. First the status of a product or service is evaluated at the planning stage from the perspective of quality, a process known as quality audit, which corresponds to what I call eliminating denial. Then its status is evaluated from the same perspective at the stage of execution, a process known as quality assurance. Finally, there is the stage of quality planning, which is the formulation of a future vision on the basis of the conclusions drawn from the audit and assurance stages. This corresponds to the process of laying down new systems and policies in the light of the results obtained from the two processes of eliminating denial and accepting criticism.
Twenty years of working closely with leading establishments in the advanced societies of Western Europe, East Asia and North America have taught me that the presence of too many ideology-driven individuals in any society will invariably impede it from going through the necessary three stages on the road to progress. Indeed, advanced societies tend to look upon ideologists as suffering from a condition that warrants serious study and treatment, and there is not a single advanced society on the face of the earth today whose leading and ruling elite is driven by ideology. Finding solutions to the complex problems of contemporary life entails using a scientific approach based on empirical verification and adopting practical solutions that were tested and successfully applied by others, not doctrinal formulas dreamt up by ideologists to fit their rigid worldview.
In fact, there is a “prescription” for progress, a mix of values, systems and policies drawn from successful experiments, not from theoretical ideas. The ingredients making up the prescription are the end product of the collective human experience, the cumulative legacy of all the different civilizations that propelled humanity forward over the ages. They belong to the whole of humanity, to the march of human civilization in general, rather than to any specific model of civilization, whether European or Western, Jewish or Christian. This is borne out by the Human Development Report for 2003 issued by the United Nations Development Programme, which shows that the leading twenty-five countries in the world belong to different cultural and civilizational backgrounds. Some are American, some West European, some Chinese Asian, some Japanese Asian, some Muslim Asian, like Malaysia, and some Jewish, like Israel. In other words, as I have always maintained, the engine of progress is driven by a set of positive values and systems that were developed and refined throughout history by various civilizations (while not denying that they received a qualitative boost thanks to the European Renaissance).
An ingredient the prescription for progress does not include is ideology. Indeed, once an ideological mindset takes hold among the opinion-makers of any society, that society’s prospects of making any headway on the road to progress are severely diminished. By definition, ideologists are driven by moral certainty in a system of belief, a certainty they can only sustain by suspending their critical faculties and building up a defense mechanism against any challenge to their core beliefs. They tend to take refuge in a bunker mentality which leaves little room for self-criticism and even less for breaking the wall of denial isolating them from reality. Such criticism as they do engage in is reserved for others; when it comes to evaluating their own performance, there is nothing but self-praise.
Skeptics could argue that moving from a culture of denial to one in which people are conditioned to accept criticism and to engage in self-criticism requires a lengthy educational process extending over centuries. This argument is easily refuted by living proof to the contrary. In the last forty years only, eight developed Asian countries succeeded in overcoming the culture of denial and adopting a culture that accepts criticism. Indeed, in the case of South Korea and Malaysia, the process took only twenty years.
I have written extensively on the merits of adopting a culture that accepts objective and constructive criticism in numerous articles, as well as in my book “On The Egyptian Mind” (The Egyptian General Book Organization, 470 pages, Second Edition, November 2003). Accordingly, I will limit myself here to citing a number of examples to illustrate how far we have sunk into a culture of denial, whether by maintaining a resounding silence in the face of problems screaming for attention or by openly denying that they exist.
Countless books, studies and research papers published in the outside world, not only in countries we once described as enemies (like Britain and the United States) but also in many we call our friends (like Russia, India, China, Japan and France) have praised Anwar Sadat’s foresight, wisdom and political acumen in adopting the line he did towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, especially in the last four years of his life. By the same token, they find that the Arab countries, leaderships and intellectuals who fiercely opposed his line at the time committed a grave strategic mistake. Not content with their virulent campaign of defamation against the Egyptian president, Arab leaders met in Baghdad in 1978 (the historical irony will not be lost on the reader!) to announce their boycott of Sadat and Egypt. One of the victims of their relentless war of words against Sadat was the Egyptian minister Youssef el Sebai, who was murdered for no other reason than that he had accompanied the Egyptian president on his visit to Jerusalem in 1977.
The situation is very different today. Many of those who participated in the anti-Sadat campaign at the time are now trying to follow in his footsteps, albeit far less effectively. Most of his former detractors today admit they were mistaken not to support him, with no less virulent a critic of his line at the time than the Saudi monarch’s brother, the Prince of Riyadh (who said in 1977 that he wished it was in his power to shoot down the plane carrying Sadat to Jerusalem), issuing a statement a few weeks ago admitting that Sadat was right and those who opposed him were wrong. Despite all this, most of us are still unable
or unwilling to venture beyond the wall of denial behind which we have cloistered ourselves for so long, or, consequently, to recognize a simple truth that is staring us in the face: Sadat was right, his detractors were wrong.
This rigid denial of reality can only be ideologically motivated (whether by pan-Arabism, Nasserism, socialism or by the ideology of the Muslim Brothers). The denial mechanism is brought into play just as strongly with respect to two defining moments in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although everyone would be more than happy today to accept the partition plan offered by the United Nations in 1947, the solid wall of denial we have built to shield ourselves from painful truths prevents us from openly admitting that we committed a strategic mistake in rejecting the plan. Similarly, if we succeed today in restoring the Golan Heights in their entirety to Syria, in ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and in restoring East Jerusalem we would only be restituting losses we incurred in May and June of 1967. Of the territory lost in the 1967 war, only Egypt has managed to win back Sinai. Even those who claim that Egypt was tricked into entering a dark tunnel that began in May and ended on June 7, 1967, must admit that one of the primary responsibilities of any leadership is not to allow anyone to lead it into a trap. But our culture of denial prevents us from looking these facts in the face, and all the books and articles that have been written, all the lectures delivered and all the television and radio programmes broadcast since then avoid touching on these uncomfortable truths. Thus while foreign analysts are united in their appraisal of our performance on all these occasions (1948, 1967 and 1977) as lamentable, we continue to turn a deaf ear, or, as the Egyptian saying goes, “an ear of mud and an ear of clay”, to the truth.
Although Egypt ranks a lowly number 120 in the UNDP Human Development Report for 2003, our media have highlighted the few points in our favour while totally ignoring the overall picture, which was described by Dr. Hazem el Beblawy as “nothing to be proud of”. But our media, true to form, have been tireless in their attempts to paint a rosy picture of what is actually an indictment of our economic performance, with all the major newspapers carrying banner headlines highlighting the one positive point made by the report and ignoring the many negative points. This is yet another manifestation of the pervasive culture of denial marking every aspect of our lives.
We all complain about the absence of modern management systems and techniques, whether in private and public economic institutions or in government departments and service sectors and admit that we have a serious management problem on our hands. But, like a doctor who proclaims a patient ill without identifying the cause of his disease, we stop short of laying the blame where it belongs, which is on the role of the state in general and of the executive authority in particular. It is a role that has changed little from the days when Egypt was a socialist country following a command economy, and leaves little room for the development of effective management systems. But on this all-important issue too, like on so many others, we continue to be driven by the culture of denial.
It is common knowledge that our educational system produces graduates who are totally unfit to compete in the international job market. They are unfamiliar with the concept of teamwork, their English-language skills are practically non-existent and they are formed by an educational philosophy based on rote learning which actively discourages personal initiative and creativity. Moreover, they are raised to believe that there exists only one model of pure, absolute Truth, with the result that there is very little room in their intellectual baggage for pluralism, dialogue, acceptance of the Other or tolerance. Another feature shared by the vast majority of graduates churned out by the system is an inability to express their ideas in writing or to conduct research in a scientific manner. But here too we follow the pattern of denial, patting ourselves on the back for our “achievements” in the field of education while turning a blind eye to serious structural defects in the educational system which lead most international organizations in advanced countries to systematically turn down job applicants who received their education in Egypt.
Then there is the question of women’s status in society, which is in dire need of serious review. Not only do women constitute half the population, but their societal role, in terms of the influence they wield as mothers, is far greater than their numerical weight. Unfortunately, the status they are accorded in no way reflects this reality. To redress the situation, we must first stop hiding our heads in the sand and acknowledge the existence of a real problem. Once we break out of the denial mindset, we can set out to make a critical appraisal of the situation, using a methodological and systematic approach, preliminary to laying down concrete policies designed to enhance the status of Egyptian women in line with what they deserve and with the requirements of the age. Here the wall of denial is at its highest: we are constantly congratulating ourselves on how well women are treated in our culture, how they are given rights not enjoyed by their sisters in the West. The example most often cited to prove this point is their independent patrimony. We also hold up exceptional (and symbolic) cases in which women achieved prominence as proof of the equality enjoyed by women as a whole, a myth we are able to perpetuate thanks to our amazing ability to hide behind an impenetrable wall of denial.
It is a wall that serves us well when it comes to the issue of corruption. Of course, corruption has become so rampant in our society that we cannot actually deny its existence. Instead, we deny its significance, playing down the urgency of the problem by convincing ourselves that corruption is a universal phenomenon and that it exists in all societies. While this is certainly true, it is also true that the extent, degree and spread of corruption differs from one society to the next. A society in which corruption has become a way of life cannot be compared to those in which isolated cases of corruption are dealt with as aberrations. The same is true of crime: while human nature is the same everywhere, some societies have low rates of crime, others have moderate rates and still others have low rates.
Our complacent attitude towards the issue of corruption is yet another example of how adept we have become at using the denial mechanism to shield ourselves from unpleasant truths. The list of examples is endless, but I believe the ones I have given are sufficient to prove the point of this article.
What is required at this point is to organize a conference or symposium that will bring together some of our top intellectuals, government leaders and prominent civil society personalities for the express purpose of finding a cure for the malignant social disease of denial. Our inability to come to grips with the many serious problems plaguing us is a direct result of the pervasive culture of denial which is keeping us in a closed loop and preventing us from moving forward on the road to progress. We must break out of this culture before we can move to the stage of objectively criticizing our role in allowing the problems, defects and shortcomings of our reality to achieve their present gigantic proportions, and from there to the stage of devising solutions and laying down policies to overcome them. Finally, there is a fourth stage we need to cover, the stage of implementing these solutions and policies. Allowances must be made for human error, that is, for the possibility that some of the proposed solutions and policies need to be modified before execution. It was precisely this that led to the introduction of the stage known as quality audit in modern management science.
The Arab Mind & the “Big-Talk” Syndrome.
In our tongues so glib
Our very deaths reside
We have paid dearly for our gift of the gab Nizar Qabbani
No wonder the war ended in defeat, not victory,
For we waged it with all the Orient’s gift for oratory,
With quixotic hyperbole that never killed a fly,
Fighting in the logic of fiddle and drum. Nizar Qabbani
In the sixties, we (in Egypt) claimed to be the stronger military power in the Middle East, a claim that was revealed to be nothing more than an empty boast on the morning of June 5th ,1967. To the same extent that we overrated our own abilities, we underestimated those of our historical enemy, which we dismissed as “a bunch of Jewish gangs”. Events were to prove that the enemy was far more dangerous than we had talked ourselves into believing . Nor were these the only instances of “big-talk” during the sixties, a decade that has become synonymous with hyperbole. A number of notorious examples come to mind, as when we described the British prime minister as an effete sissy – a particularly offensive characterization in the Arabic language – or when we taunted the United States of America by inviting its president to “go drink from the sea, first from the Red sea and, after it is dry, from the Mediterranean”, or when we spoke of the Qaher and its sister missile the Zaher as the ultimate weapon.
When we listen to the rousing national songs composed in the sixties, we find that, despite their high artistic standard and beauty of the national and pan-Arab dream they celebrated, their lyrics are replete with big-talk . The tendency to indulge in bombastic and high- flown language continued and, in fact, grew, throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties , and is now such an integral part of our public life that anyone using a different language today strikes a discordant note .
Thus when we talk of our history, we do not use scientific and objective language but invariably sink into grandiloquent rhetoric that drowns the truth in a welter of words .The same pattern applies in our approach to the here and now. Even a victory by the national football team provides an excuse for a veritable word fest. Although our standard in the game ranks somewhere between “average” and “poor” at the international level, on the rare occasions our players score a victory on the football field we are not in the least embarrassed to hail them as “conquering Pharaohs” or to use similarly overblown language to describe what is, after all, nothing more than the outcome of a match.
The use of superlatives is rampant in our media where, as a look at the front page of any newspaper will show, big-talk is the order of the day. Thus any meeting is a “summit” meeting, any decision a “historic” decision.
It must be said in all fairness that our propensity to use big-talk is in no way contrived: we are only doing what comes naturally. High-flown language has become part and parcel of our code of communication, both oral and written. It is not associated in our minds with obsequiousness or fawning; we do not use it in order to curry favour or to ingratiate ourselves with the object of our flattery but as a spontaneous form of expression. Sadly, this reflects a serious flaw in our mental buildup that has become deeply-entrenched in our culture. Even the few who are conscious of the problem are themselves not above succumbing to the big-talk syndrome on occasion, proving that the problem has pervaded our cultural climate to the point where no one is immune to its effects.
An example that graphically illustrates how this feature has come to dominate the cultural landscape in the country is the coverage by Egyptian television of the marathon that took place around the pyramids shortly after the Luxor massacre in the autumn of 1997. Viewers were treated to the amazing spectacle of about ten foreigners, interviewed separately and supposedly at random, who all said the same thing in virtually the same words, as though reading from a prepared script: “Egypt is a safe country in which we feel secure .. terrorism does not exist only in Egypt but in all parts of the world .. everyone wants to visit Egypt and see its wonderful antiquities”.
The twenty years I spent in one of the largest industrial establishments in the world gave me the opportunity to discover that this feature is unique to our culture, a mark of dubious distinction that sets us apart from other members of the community of nations, whether western or eastern.
Cultural evolution in the countries belonging to western civilization, including North America, has proceeded along a course that equates big talk with ignorance. Human knowledge is a complex web of interconnected strands in which there is no room for big talk, only for moderate language that tries as far as possible to reflect the unembellished realities of science and culture.
As to eastern civilizations, the reserve that has always been and continues to be one of their most prominent characteristics shields them from any temptation to indulge in big-talk.
The picture is very different in the Arab world, where the temptation is indulged to the full. Indeed, the big talk syndrome is endemic to our culture, which has a long tradition of declamatory rhetoric that places more value on the beauty of the words used than on their accurate reflection of reality. Nowhere is this more evident than in the rich body of Arabic poetry, which is full of poems eulogizing or vilifying this or that ruler for reasons known only to the poet and often having nothing to do with reality . The dichotomy between language and truth is not only acceptable in our culture, it is actually honoured in a famous saying “The most beautiful poetry is the least truthful” (a’thab al sh’er ..akthabo).
No less authoritative a source than the Quran itself addresses the issue when it denounces poets as “drifters in all directions” and of not practicing what they preach.
The writer of these lines believes it is incumbent on all those who are aware of this distortion in the Egyptian mind-set to raise national awareness of the dangers inherent in using big talk that is totally divorced from reality . To that end , they must expose the negative effects of a phenomenon which has led some to describe us a “culture of words” or, with scientific progress, “of microphones”.
Educational curricula must be designed to alert our youth to the highly detrimental effects of this phenomenon, which not only distorts our image in the eyes of the outside world but keeps us imprisoned in a fantasy world that we have created for ourselves with no basis in reality. It also holds us hostage to a past we evoke in such glowing terms that it becomes more attractive than any present. There is no doubt that the big talk syndrome is linked to number of other negative features, such as lack of objectivity, escaping into the past, excessive self-praise and inability to accept criticism . Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that it is the bridge that links all these negative features together.
It is also important to emphasize the link between the big-talk syndrome and the narrow margin of democracy. In a cultural climate dominated by hyperbole, it is as difficult to expand the margin of democracy as it is easy for political forces to win adherents through the use of demagogy. Those who claim that their political project represents “the solution” to all of Egypt’s ills are merely serving up another course in an interminable and indigestible meal of big-talk. Economic and social problems today are far too complex to be cured by a slogan rooted in the big-talk syndrome.
As I listen to our public discourse drowning in a sea of hyperbole, I turn to the words of Nizar Qabbani, who eloquently sums up the situation in these words:
“We have donned a thin veneer of civilization
While our soul remains mired in the Dark Ages.”
The Arab Mind Sings its Own Praises.
The wise man’s mind will even in bliss cause him misery,
While the fool in abject misery will a happy man be.
It is futile to separate from his ignorance
He who does not repent,
Or to address him who lacks sagacity. Al-Motannaby
This chapter will address another defect of the Arab mind-set, one that has come to manifest itself conspicuously in the discourse of the majority of our compatriots. I am talking of the tendency to indulge in excessive self-praise and the aberrant social values this defect has spawned in our everyday lives. Nowhere is this tendency to sing our own praises more evident than in the mass media which, day in, day out, feed our self-infatuation by tirelessly extolling our virtues and glorifying our achievements. The same pattern is repeated at the individual level, where boastfulness and self-promotion are fast becoming the norm.
This has not always been the case. If we compare our mass media today with the newspapers and magazines that appeared in Egypt half a century ago, we find that this feature, so much a part of our lives at present, is a recent phenomenon. And if we compare our mass media with those in other parts of the world, more particularly in the developed countries, we find that we are unique when it comes to an overweening sense of self-satisfaction expressed in a constant torrent of self-praise.
In an effort to trace the origins of this phenomenon, I personally went through hundreds of back issues of Egyptian newspapers and magazines that appeared in the ’forties and found them to be completely devoid of the least hint of empty self-praise. The phenomenon only began to appear, in a diffident sort of way, some twenty-five years ago, reaching its present brazen proportions in the last twenty years, with a noticeable leap in the last decade.
It is virtually impossible to read a newspaper or magazine today without coming across one or more articles and/or news items lauding our achievements, superiority and virtues. Often these paeans of praise are attributed to a foreign source, as though this imbues them with greater value.
Although much of the material published in this respect inspires more incredulity than credibility, the phenomenon shows no signs of abating, and we continue to indulge an apparently insatiable need for self-aggrandizement by loudly and incessantly proclaiming how wonderful we are.
For example, not a day goes by without one of the following or similar statements appearing in our papers:
The international community praises Egypt’s economic reforms.
The World Bank praises the Egyptian model of economic development.
According to this or that university, the Egyptian economy is strong and stands on solid grounds.
According to such and such a centre for economic studies, the Egyptian economy will never be exposed to an economic crisis like the one that shook the Asian tigers.
UNESCO decides to implement the Egyptian experiment in this or that area at the global level.
What does this mean? And why do we not read similar statements in any French, German, English, Japanese or American newspaper? How to explain our constant harping on the same theme? The explanation lies, to my mind, in a desire to escape from a harsh reality into a fantasy world we have created to fulfill a psychological need for a reality more to our liking. Escapism is by definition a negative reaction, a passive acceptance of the status quo and a tacit admission of inability to change it.
The only way we can change the status quo and overcome our many problems is to adopt a more positive and constructive approach to the reality we are living. This entails admitting that we are beset by huge economic and social problems, that we are, unfortunately, (and, it must be said, unnecessarily), a Third World country, and that these problems are a direct result of the way public life in Egypt was administered in the century and a half since the death of Mohamed Ali in 1849.
It is only when we abandon the pattern of excessive self-praise, which we all know to be empty of any real substance, and start admitting and facing up to our problems that we can begin to achieve progress at all levels.
Of course, stemming the torrent of self-praise in which we are now drowning and diverting it in the opposite direction of constructive self-criticism is a far from easy undertaking. Its success depends on our ability to sow the seeds of positive values in young minds through educational curricula. But these will only yield fruit in the long term. In the short term, we must begin from the top of the pyramid, not its base. Once we admit to ourselves how bad the situation really is, the next logical step is to ask why we have reached such a sorry state of affairs.
The answer lies in the ineptitude of some of the leaderships which ran our public affairs in the middle of the previous century. It is important here to emphasize that evaluating the performance of public officials in today’s world is not based on their adoption of specific ideologies. Efficient administration depends, rather, on the availability of an ‘executive cadre’ at the summit of society with a pragmatic approach to problem solving, more concerned with implementing the results of experiments that proved to be successful than in getting bogged down in futile ideological debates that only hamper progress and perpetuate the status quo.
The phenomenon of excessive self-praise is organically linked to another set of negative values that have pervaded our lives in the last few decades. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the traumatic events of June 5, 1967, have had the greatest impact. The most important of these negative values are:
A discrepancy between words and deeds has gradually transformed us from a society attuned to reality to one more comfortable with empty rhetoric. This phenomenon is generalized in a very prominent way throughout the region to which we belong. It goes back to distant dates and deeply-entrenched cultural factors. Of all the nations of the world, we sing more loudly and frequently of our history, our past glories and our superiority to others. If we compare our attitude with that of a society like Japan, for example, we find that although the Japanese are extremely proud of their nation and heritage, they do not constantly express their pride in grandiloquent language, oratory and slogans.
Judgements are formed in the logic of love or hate. This leads to the prevalence of subjectivity rather than objectivity and ultimately to the formation of judgements from a purely personal perspective.
The Inability to Compromise.
Many years ago, I discovered that there is no equivalent in the Arabic language, classical or colloquial, for the English word ‘compromise’, which is most commonly translated into Arabic in the form of two words, literally meaning ‘halfway solution’. I went through all the old and new dictionaries and lexicons I could lay my hands on in a futile search for an Arabic word corresponding to this common English word, which exists, with minor variations in spelling, in all European languages, whether of the Latin, Germanic, Hellenic or Slavic families. The same is true of several other words, such as ‘integrity’, which has come to be widely used in the discourse of Europe and North America in the last few decades and for which no single word exists in the Arabic language. As language is not merely a tool of communication but the depositary of a society’s cultural heritage, reflecting its way of thinking and the spirit in which it deals with things and with others, as well as the cultural trends which have shaped it, I realized that we were here before a phenomenon with cultural (and, consequently, political, economic and social) implications.
For nearly twenty years, I had the opportunity to work closely with people drawn from over fifty different nationalities in a global economic establishment which remains, after a long history stretching back to the nineteenth century, one of the five largest establishments in the world. What I noticed over the years is that people with a west European background use the word ‘compromise’ more often than those coming from an eastern cultural tradition. As the study of cultures is one of my hobbies, particularly when it comes to comparing the Arab, Latin and Anglo-Saxon minds, I could not help noticing that just as those with an Arab mind-set use the word compromise less than those with a Latin mind-set, so too do the latter use it less than those with an Anglo-Saxon mind-set. There is a simple explanation for this. If one’s way of thinking is based on a set of philosophical/religious principles, then it is normal that people raised in an Arab culture should be less inclined to use the word compromise than those whose minds were conditioned in a Latin context, where, although the philosophical dimension looms large, the religious dimension figures less prominently than it does in the Arab mind-set. It is also normal that Latin societies use the word less than societies with an Anglo-Saxon cultural formation. The Anglo-Saxon way of thinking, which has come to dominate the world in a manner unprecedented in history, is based on an altogether different set of rules.
One of the principal influences on the reforming thought of the nineteenth century, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), believed all systems, laws, institutions and ideas should be based on the principle of utility (utilitarianism). The United States, for its part, produced two renowned philosophers, William James (1842-1910) and John Dewey (1859-1952), whose works reflected Bentham’s ideas but with modifications dictated by the passage of time and the unfolding of events and under the different name of pragmatism. The notion of compromise spilled beyond the Anglo-Saxon world into societies belonging to different cultural traditions. In Asia, for example, people of Chinese, Japanese and Indian stock managed, while jealously guarding their cultural specificity, to learn the meaning of the English word compromise before they learned its linguistic form, tending in all their dealings to find solutions based on compromise. Even the Latin countries adopted the notion before the word became part of their political lexicon, as anyone following political discourse in the Latin countries can see. Today it is not unusual to tune in to one of the French satellite channels and find a prominent economist speaking in English, which would have been unheard of as recently as three decades ago, presenting ideas based on the notion of compromise.
Moving to our region of the world, we find many people, even educated people, associating the word compromise with such negative terms as ‘submission’, ‘retreat’, ‘capitulation’, ‘weakness’ and ‘defeat’. These are terms that do not occur to a westerner when he uses the word compromise, because whatever his educational formation, whether it is in the field of science, humanities or liberal arts, he knows that all ideas are in their essence nothing but compromises. Indeed, he is taught early on, during his school years, that most natural phenomena are also compromises. Moreover, the cultures of merchant nations (of which Britain is perhaps the most notable example in human history) have instilled the idea of compromise in all spheres of life, intellectual, political, economic, cultural and social, even in human dealings. Thus while our popular sayings reflect a negative picture of the term compromise, hundreds of popular sayings in Britain do just the opposite.
Although Islamic scripture is totally compatible with a culture characterized by compromise, Muslim history (especially its Arab chapter) has proceeded in a spirit that is antithetical to the notion of compromise. Our recent history is made up largely of losses which could have been avoided had we had not persistently rejected the notion of compromise as tantamount to submission, retreat, surrender, capitulation and even, as some of our more fiery orators put it, as a form of bondage to the will of others.
This all-or-nothing mentality is self-defeating. Any dispute or conflict is, by definition, a struggle between people or nations with different views and at different levels of power. It follows that any resolution of their differences that is not based on a compromise is impossible, because it would entail the total subjugation of the will, interests and power of one of the parties to those of the other. Such a conflict-resolution approach is doomed to fail because it runs counter to the laws of science, nature and life itself. Some prominent Egyptian intellectuals, like Dr. Milad Hanna, who has tirelessly expounded his theory on the need to accept the Other, and Dr. Murad Wahba, who has written extensively on the theme that nobody can claim to hold a monopoly on absolute truth, are making a valuable and noble contribution to the process of instilling the rules and culture of compromise in our society.
I do not claim to be the first Egyptian writer who has addressed this issue. In the mid-fifties, the late Tewfik el-Hakim touched on it in his book, Al-Ta’aduleya (Equivalence). But on the one hand he was living in a time very different from the one we are living in today, which was reflected in the final product he presented, and, on the other
and I hate to say this because I have the highest esteem for el-Hakim’s genius he did not address the issue in sufficient depth. Perhaps the culture prevailing in Egypt at the time was an objective constraint preventing him from delving as deeply into the subject as he would otherwise have done, not to mention the fact that the word ‘equivalence’ is very different in meaning and connotations from the word ‘compromise’.
I believe the spread of a religious culture based on strict orthodoxy, or the textual reading of scripture, was one of the reasons for the failure of the concept of compromise to catch on in our culture. If we were to talk to Ibn Rushd or Al-Gaheth (a renowned Mu’tazalite literary figure), we would find it easy to explain to them and they would find it easy to grasp the notion that all thinking, all dealings, must be characterized by a spirit of compromise, with all its implications. That would not be the case if we spoke with proponents of the orthodox school, strict textualists like Ahmed bin Hambal, Ibn Taymeya, Ibn Qiyam al-Juzeya, Mohamed bin Abdel Wahab or with the dozens of their contemporary counterparts who preach a dogmatic adherence to the letter rather than the spirit of religion, slamming the doors shut in the face of rationality. Attempting to explain the notion of compromise to members of this school would be as much of a lost cause as Ibn Rushd’s vigorous defense of the primacy of reason eight centuries ago. Actually, it would be even more of a lost cause because, although Ibn Rushd was vanquished by the textualists in the Arab/Islamic civilization, his ideas took root in the Christian culture. There is no doubt that the ideas of this great Islamic philosopher prevailed over those of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, thanks to his many disciples in the University of Paris at the time and the so-called Latin Averroists. Perhaps history will one day admit that an Arab Muslim was behind the victory of reason over dogma at a time the prevailing culture in Europe was inimical to intellectual initiative and freedom of thought. Had the outcome of the battle for the hearts and minds of the Europeans favoured the other camp, Europe today would have been at the same stage of development and enlightenment as Africa.
A similar battle is now underway in our country, a battle whose outcome is uncertain. If we want reason to prevail over obscurantist thinking, we must take immediate action. For a start, a team of intellectuals with a cultural formation made up of a synthesis of Arab, Islamic and other humanistic cultures should come together and lay down a charter to instill the rationale of compromise in the minds of the young people of Egypt through educational curricula and by promoting the idea that compromise is the strongest product of nature, life and the march of civilizations and cultures, while a rigid refusal to consider the merits of anyone else’s opinion and to insist on obtaining all one’s demands runs counter to the logic of science, nature, humanity, culture and civilization.
In view of the fact that I was unable to find one Arabic word that corresponds to the English word compromise, I have been forced to do two things in this article that I would have preferred to avoid. One was to write the word compromise in Latin letters throughout the article, the other was to use the common translation of the word, the unwieldy ‘halfway solution’, in the title. But because I am a great believer in compromise, and because I also believe in the popular saying that “who cannot obtain all does not give up all”, I decided to write the article anyway.
A Stereotype Culture.
The English word “stereotypes” has no equivalent in Arabic, but is usually translated into two words (al-afkar al-namateya), literally meaning “standardized ideas.” In my search for one Arabic word that could best denote the meaning I intended, I dismissed the word “cliché” which, though commonly used in colloquial Arabic, is originally French. By stereotypes I mean the hackneyed expressions people use in a more or less automatic fashion without stopping to think what they really mean, that is, without exercising their critical faculties to determine whether these expressions are right or wrong and, accordingly, whether they should accept or reject them. It is, of course, easier to unquestioningly accept generally held ideas than to exert the mind searching for the deeper meaning behind them. A common feature of human behaviour that exists, to varying degrees, in all societies, stereotyping is nevertheless an extremely negative phenomenon that does nothing to foster greater understanding between peoples. Many of the West’s perceptions of other societies, civilizations and cultures are based on stereotypes, while we too are guilty of perceiving the Other through the prism of stereotypes which acquire an aura of truth through endless repetition. The universal tendency to accept stereotypes at face value rather than subject them to critical examination is a triumph of rhetoric over reasoning. While this tendency is part of human nature and, as such, can never be completely eradicated, I believe steps can be taken to limit its spread.
To that end, it might be useful to try and identify the main reasons for the profusion of stereotypes that have come to dominate people’s perceptions in today’s world. I believe there are four main sources for the phenomenon. The first is the lack of a rich store of knowledge that can serve as a shield against the blind acceptance of stereotypes. The second is the absence of what I believe to be the main enemy of stereotypes, namely, a free and uninterrupted dialogue. The third is the lack of a human dimension in the process of globalization currently sweeping the world, which proceeds from an economic/political premise with little regard for humanistic/cultural considerations. The fourth is a psychology dominated by a defensive mindset. I will try to cast some light on each of these four sources before moving on to the intellectual tools by which I believe the phenomenon of stereotypes can be cut down to size.
The first source from which the phenomenon springs can be found in societies where the store of knowledge forming the intellectual sensibility of the population in general and of the educated and cultured elite in particular can be characterized as either limited, flimsy or insular and hence inhospitable to opinions deviating from the norm. Even though some members of the educated and cultured elite could have a reasonably rich store of knowledge on which to draw, their frames of reference are often rooted in the past, whether a distant past stretching back for centuries or a more recent past going back only a few decades. As a result, their approach to questions of the day does not take into account modern developments in various fields of knowledge, especially in the field of social science. Many are the intellectuals, especially in the Third World, whose store of knowledge belongs more to the fifties and sixties than to the present day. Many are those who are imprisoned in a mindset that is incapable of breaking free of the shackles of parochialism to explore wider horizons. In some cases, these intellectuals may display a store of knowledge that is rich in some aspects and poor in others, notably in the area of modern social sciences. It is thus clear that the existence of a store of knowledge (for the ordinary citizens as well as for the educated elite) that can be characterized as strong, non-parochial and capable of expanding into new areas is society’s only shield against the spread of stereotypes. It is in such a context that critical faculties can develop and allow people to choose between several alternatives rather than blindly accept stereotypes as the line of least resistance.
The second source for the phenomenon of stereotypes can be found in societies whose educational and cultural constructs are not built on a solid foundation of dialogue. When educational techniques rely on rote learning and memory tests, when relationships in the world of education and in society at large are based on based on monologues (transmitters and receivers) and not on dialogue, this creates an ideal climate for the propagation of stereotypes. The opposite is true: dialogue is an effective tool by which their propagation can be limited.
The third source is the failure by the advocates of globalization to give a humanistic/cultural face to a project that has so far succeeded in portraying itself exclusively in economic/political terms. There is a pressing need to introduce a human dimension to globalization in order to allay the fears of many in the less developed parts of the world who regard it as a device to promote the interests of others at their expense, worse, as a weapon designed to destroy the structural underpinnings of their societies, whether political, economic or cultural. As one who has no problem recognizing that the West, where the notion of globalization was born, is firmly ensconced in the driving seat of progress in every sense of the word, I am convinced that the introduction of these two equally important dimensions, humanistic and cultural, to the globalization process is up to the West. I also believe one of the main reasons for this serious deficiency is that global leadership is now in the hands of the United States. In fact, it is not only the notion of globalization that suffers from this deficiency: the same is true of such other vital notions in today’s world as ‘human rights’, ‘general freedoms’ and ‘democracy’. The West, which developed these notions in its own societies, needs to add a humanistic dimension to their application by dealing with them as universal (not regional) values whose sovereignty extends to the whole of humanity. Otherwise the West will continue to be accused of applying double standards. Worse, it will render these values meaningless for those in the underdeveloped world who hear that they exist in the West but have seen nothing in the last fifty years to indicate that the West is overly concerned with extending their benefits to the rest of the world. I believe the failure to develop the globalization process in such a way as to place humanistic/cultural needs on the same footing as economic/political considerations is one of the main sources for the propagation of stereotypes.
The fourth and final source is a general psychological climate characterized by a perceived need to adopt a posture of self-defense. A sense of achievement and progress renders the members of any society less susceptible to two things: the need to be on the defensive and the feeling that they are victims of a conspiracy. These two factors create an ideal climate for stereotypes, which are usually used by people to cover their feelings of inadequacy and shift the blame for their society’s lack of progress from where it rightfully belongs on to the shoulders of others.
These then are what I consider to be the main sources of stereotypes. While it may be impossible to eradicate the phenomenon altogether, given that it exists in all societies to one degree or another, there are mechanisms by which its insidious spread can be reduced to manageable proportions.
The most effective mechanism is education –curricula, philosophy, teachers and the general learning environment. Only education can plant such values as pluralism in society; only education can form critical minds that require proof before accepting the truth of any proposition; only education can imbue people with a sense of the primacy of reason so that they test any idea through a reasoning process rather than through ensuring its conformity with set formulas. These are the tools which can limit the spread of a culture of stereotypes. However, in the short and medium term, information media can be more effective in exposing the incoherence and intellectual shallowness of stereotypes. They can also show up the link between a culture of stereotypes and other defects like the big talk syndrome, the tendency to indulge in self-praise and the irrational belief in conspiracy theories. For there can be no denying the existence of a dialectical relationship between all these negative phenomena.
A Mind Full of Apathy.
The pattern of behaviour displayed by the victims of poverty differs from one culture to another. In some cultures, it takes the form of a defiant refusal to succumb to the grip of poverty and an openly rebellious expression of that refusal; in others it engenders an attitude of resignation marked by a docile acceptance of what fate has decreed. Many factors determine which of the two patterns will prevail. Societies which have been subjected for much of their history to tyranny and oppression and with a tradition of venerating their rulers will tend to exhibit the second pattern, accepting their lot philosophically and expressing their disillusionment by using the weapon of sarcasm against public officials, but only in private conversations conducted behind closed doors. In some countries, this mechanism gives rise to political jokes which reflect what people would have wanted to say openly but which, in the absence of available channels, they are forced to express in epigrammatic form. The ability of some of the political jokes thus spawned to encapsulate prevailing opinions and impressions in terse, witty aphorisms is sometimes nothing short of brilliant.
Despots realize only too well that their people’s economic independence and the existence of an economically self-sufficient middle class can have disastrous consequences for them. For it is this which allows a people to move from apathy to action, from a resigned acceptance of whatever the ruler decides at his absolute discretion to active participation in political life. To be answerable to his subjects is the last thing an absolute ruler wants, knowing that his grip on power cannot survive open questions on the source of his legitimacy or on the legitimacy of the privileges he and his cronies enjoy.
Modern educational systems in advanced societies are not based on traditional teaching methods in which the teacher is relegated to the role of a transmitter, so to speak, and the student to that of a receiver. They are based, rather, on a feedback process involving student participation, dialogue and exchanges of view. One of the main features of this process is the division of classes into groups which are required to seek for themselves answers to given questions by accessing available literature on the subject, whether in libraries or on the Internet, comparing notes, consulting together and finally presenting the conclusions reached in the light of their research. This sort of group endeavour promotes a team spirit among its members, develops a sense of participation and the conviction that every individual is entitled to seek the truth for himself and to express the truth as he sees it openly and fearlessly. It also promotes tolerance and a respect for the right of any member of a group to differ from the majority opinion without this necessarily rupturing the overall cohesion of the group. At the same time, it develops the critical faculties of the students and ensures that they will not elevate anyone to the status of all-knowing oracle, neither teachers, authors nor, by extension, political leaderships.
Students raised under this system, which recognizes and consecrates the value of teamwork, grow into citizens equipped to participate effectively in the life of their community. By the same token, students raised under the system of learning by rote, where the relationship between student and teacher is a one-way street, never develop a team spirit and are content to remain passive recipients of information that will never be translated into active participation in public life. Nor is the material they are spoon-fed by their teachers processed by the students, who merely learn it off by heart and reproduce it word for word in their exam papers.
An educational system which is based on the quantity of material that can be stuffed into young minds rather than on the quality of the values that should go into their formation; which consecrates the cult of personality and fosters blind obedience to diktats from above rather than the spirit of pluralism that is the driving force of progress and civilization, and which does not teach students how to accept criticism and engage in self-criticism can only produce a breed of passive citizens incapable of rising up to the challenges life will throw at them, let alone of participating in the political life of their community. Not only is the inflexibility of the system by which they were governed throughout their formative years capable of killing any initiative, but the fact that it denied them the right to choose, which is the essence of political participation, instills in them a spirit of apathy and a sense that any attempt to change the status quo is an exercise in futility.
Most political systems in the Third World claim to uphold the rule of law, but this is usually an empty boast rather than an accurate reflection of reality. The majority of these systems operate according to the absolute will of an absolute ruler who is answerable to no one for the decisions he makes. More often than not, these decisions serve to encourage the spread of corruption and protect the vested interests of the ruling establishment, in the total absence of either democracy or the rule of law to which these political systems pay continuous lip service. It is not surprising that in such a climate apathy should spread. People are only motivated to participate in public life when it is governed by the rule of law. Conversely, when the decision-making process is clearly designed to serve the interests of a select few at the expense of society as a whole, people will retreat into their shells and resign themselves to accepting what they cannot change. There is thus a direct relationship between the absence of the rule of law and the apathy of the citizen.
The discourse of most undemocratic systems of government is rife with reverential references to “the People”. Following a time-honoured tradition which began with Hitler and Mussolini, they glorify the people as an abstract concept but do not display anywhere near as much respect and concern for its constituent elements, viz, the individual citizens. There is a glaring discrepancy between the glorification of the entity known as “the people” in the official discourse of the state and the abasement of the citizen on a daily basis at the hands of the system, whether in government offices, police stations or hospitals, where no attempt is made to translate the dignity accorded to the people collectively into common courtesy for the individual citizen. In short, undemocratic systems of government pay lip service to an abstract non-existent entity known as “the people” while treating citizens much as the Mamelukes treated their Egyptian subjects in one of the darkest chapters of our history. The tyranny and oppression to which the Egyptians were subjected by a caste of slaves they themselves had bought and to whom they then inexplicably handed the reins of power have left traces in our general cultural climate. The best description of the long shadow cast by nearly three centuries of Mameluke rule on our present reality can be found in a book entitled “The Serfdom Heritage” by an eminent Egyptian author.
I tend to believe that undemocratic systems of government engender a cultural climate which can only be described as a “herd culture”. Under these systems, the government treats people like cattle with the result that citizens gradually come to display many of the characteristics of a herd mentality, including a retreat of individualism which, along with democracy, is one of the greatest achievements of human civilization and a prerequisite for the consecration of human rights –in the real sense of the term, not in the sense it is bandied about by some of the most despotic systems of government today. Once a herd mentality takes hold in any society, the members of that society will develop a passive attitude incommensurate with the requirements of good citizenship. A positive attitude that leads citizens to involve themselves in the workings of their society requires a perception of self as an individual human being, not as an anonymous member of an abstract and dehumanized group known as “the people”. A useful device for despots, the term “the people”, which is not necessarily the same thing as “the citizens”, allows them to benefit from the apathy and indifference of their subjects. This indifference, one of the main symptoms of a herd culture, is most graphically illustrated in the low turnout at the polls by educated voters who simply could not be bothered to participate in the electoral process.
An Extremely Localized Mind.
Myriad reasons accumulate to make most of the modern Egyptian citizens heavily dosed up with localism . At the same time, the same reasons gather to make “The hue” of universality for the same citizens so minimized !
On the one hand , citizens of ancient societies suffered a lot from being foundering in Localism. The “World” for them was first and foremost their homeland hence the saying goes : “Egypt is the mother of the World”. On the other hand . Throughout the sixties and Seventies of the twentieth century (symbolically “the jumping- off place” for the external World owing to the eruption of the Communication Revolution, the downfall of separatives to the isolating barriers between nations and people, the starting – point of the extension of mass media beyond nations borders and economy following the same array) we had been wading in localism, evading farther communication with the outside world.
Furthermore, our educational curricula had incessantly concentrated on the interior (local history, civilization and literature) in a way contradicting with, for example, education programs in France where the curricula shows a great interest in the history of ancient Egypt, China, and Greco-Roman Civilizations … an interest equal to its interest in the history of France.
In addition, the establishment of the mass media in Egypt as “ the long arm” of the government and similarly the local newspapers had made the massage of the Egyptian mass media for long years “A sheer local message” . The discrepancy between our news bulletin and that in many other countries is enough evidence : local news is preponderant, making a clean sweep whereas the news bulletin world – wide follows and covers events whenever they are .
The growth of the – relatively backward Ideology in our society had been a grand triumph for “Localism” at the expenses of the “ Universality” the future of the entire world , most properly, has been witnessing relative shrinkage of “localism” . This takes place on the economic , cultural, educational and Mass Media spheres .
Consequently, our negligence of the necessity and significance of assiduous scientific research to effect a balance formulae between (localism) and (universality) might make us unable to deal, effectively and positively, with the mechanisms of the new globalized universe.
More than once I have mentioned in my articles and lectures that “the engine” the institutes, firms and societies are going to rely on is “the efficient management”. I add – in this respect – that the “Management (in our case “bureaucracy”) foundering in localism is too crippled to play the game of the future successively and stay ahead of the game . The basis of this game is two – folded:
- Effective management (that is, profitable leadership).
- Kaleidoscopic knowledge of the substantial element of the game on the international level.
This is applicable to the economic aspect of societies futurity and the political aspect as well.
A Mind-set with Dwindled Clemency.
(For you your belief, but I have my Religion) [ the Holy Quran ]
The human being, by nature, has a propensity to be high-strung and refusing (on many occasions “hostile”) to those dissimilar to him in many ways . Different religions, races, faiths, mores, sacred precincts, in addition to civilizational and cultural differences that are part and parcel of this disparity. Throughout different eras, this discrepancy, not to mention differing self-interests, added fuel to flames of war and myriad conflicts, time and again, the conflicts the human history had been replete with.
However, it is very true to state that the history of humanity witnessed positive shift in the progress of man’s acceptance of these differences as natural if not hanging on to life on earth . In other words, the human being, throughout centuries, became less refusing, less seething at these dissimilarities, rather, he showed more acceptance to co-exist with them. With evolution of urban life, this change erupted and grew. Simply it was not human but rather barbarian, to blame someone for being different.
Islamic Civilization had been relatively superior to other olden civilizations as being tolerant of others. The discrepancy between “Muslims” and “Christians”, throughout Medieval Ages, is a dogmatic evidence. On the other hand, under the umbrella of Islamic sovereignty “Christians” and “Jews” ’s life was close to normal .
On the other hand, Muslims had been exposed – after the exodus of Arabs from Spain to persecution and uncouth torture. As they lived in “ghettos” as virulent diseases.
It’s worth mentioning that as the Jews and Christians of the Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt lived under the banner of Ottoman sovereignty it was so easy it to do – at least- what the Christians had done to Mulisms in Andalusia when the Muslim Sovereignty declined there !
As far the Modern Age, tolerance, that is, acceptance of the others’ dissimilarity in many aspects as : religion, race, traditions, sacred precincts and conventions was, and will always be , primarily a culture phenomenon. The more the society is saturated in education and culture the more people were tolerant of others, showing more acceptance of the fact that diversity among people is quite normal and should witness tranquil co-existence!
The Western Civilization, I believe, was marked by racial fanaticism, virtually, the western boom and prosperity of the west made people more tolerant. It suffices us to cite the grand transformation, in the last fifty years, in the Europe stance on the Palestinian issue. Israel, nowadays no more aided nor backed up by Europe, as was the case in 1948 .. as the culture buildup and awareness made most of the Europeans approve of the legitimacy of the Palestinian Right, as they witnessed Israel Showing the double- standard. If it had not been for the culture awareness of these European countries they would have been wading in erroneous stances as they had been for the last fifty years.
This does not apply to the united states for conspicuous considerations, most importantly, the American citizen’s cognizance of the outside World is shallow to a ludicrous extent, not to speak of the fact that the American citizen is not all cultured !
Back to our region since roughly half a century, the general cultural climate as freighted with a lot of settled human values deep down in our hearts, by and large, and for the cultured stratum that the led people.
Dissimilarity is a mode of life, a landmark of human existence on earth . this culture climate made us farther from “ the intellectual formula” that grew eventually and made people rank between “we” and “they” . At the same time, we is on the right track whereas “They” on the wrong one. This formula can be described at the very leasy as :-
“Inhumane” and “Hostile” and representing a complete cultural and intellectual contradiction of the modern scientific and cultural facts !
“Non-peaceful” , that is, proceeding vitally in conformity with this formula does not leads to our co- existence on earth with others, it is a formula leading to “confrontation”, “Contrariety” and “collision” with others!
A formula that does not attune to the profound spirit of peace and humanity mentioned in our deeply- entrenched religious doctrines, both Muslims and Christians.
Fifty years ago, tolerance prevailed, due to the cultural milieu. Nevertheless, the statues quo witnessed some manifestations of defeat, later on, forcing this cultural atmosphere to shake. In the morning of the fifth of June 1967 the collapse of an entire political current was manifest and during the following years landmarks of general defeat in managing our economy, followed by grand rift in our social status , When these Various manifestation were embodied, some people though that their suggestion were the best . when the status quo permitted them to carry on propaganda for these intellectual suggestions- totally estranged from the spirit of the Sge, civilization and Science- these suggestions had not a jot of intellectual tolerance !
It is highly significant to try the cultural reformation of this perilous defect that distorts our modern mentalities by professing a fact, highly momentous, that is, the essence of the problem, nowadays, we are less tolerant, and more fanatic about our faiths to the utmost. Never had we dealt with this defect, substantially or scientifically, hence this will widen the gap between us and the world (especially the world on the track of progress). In addition, there is a deeply-entrenched relationship between this defect –in our mental buildup, that is the recession of tolerance – and another blemish, the bizarre belief in the conspiracy theory. These two defects will lead us to grand isolation from outside world, especially the economically, culturally and strategically important parts of the world.
The majority’s belief in these two defects (the ultimate belief in Conspiracy theory annexed to the recession of tolerance) made mutual understanding and dialogue between us and the influential powers in the outside world totally missing.
So these two defects made our historical enemies in a situation much superior to ours.
Certainly, the recession of tolerance is a defect not only blemishing our mental buildup but affects our interior situation. In other words, in our interior dialogue we are possessed by this stupendous defect to a great extent, in addition, varying opinions in every front wrangle with a spirit at one with the recession of tolerance!
Undoubtedly, educational institutes, mass media and all cultural milieus are pulpits powerful enough to tackle scientifically and objectively with this venomous and lethal defect in the mentality of the great majority. Unfortunately, any success in this is extremely difficult as the yield of any effective reformative program – in the aforementioned pulpits- never give harvest in the near future. All reforms taking place in education, mass media and culture are long-term investments, yet the resultant is guaranteed, profitable and effective on the long run and it has no alternative!!
A Mind-set that does not Tolerate Criticism.
Working, for two decades, at one of the largest Industrial cooperations in the globe gave me a priceless opportunity to visualize, manifestly, the extent of disparity between many cultures (including the western’s) and our culture from the “tolerance to criticism” stand- point. During the second half of that period and being on the top executive management level made me adopt a deeply rooted belief that “criticism” is the substantial mean of thinking which developed the western societies and that “criticism” is to be directed to the higher layers of the societal pyramid as well as it would be addressed to the other layers of this pyramid .
This twenty – year experience picturized before my eyes the magnitude of the gap between our culture and some other cultures in this respect. Criticizing phenomena, concepts, and axioms is a milestone of culture that set up the most advanced societies.
Criticism is a tool that every human being in the advanced societies acquires since the dawn of his conciseness. The atmosphere, Man, in these cultures, is embowered with, enables him to air views and outspoken criticism from the very start. The little child is taught how everything around him is subject to criticism. At the same time individuals practice criticism under the umbrella of general acceptance, forbearance remote from wrath and stress caused by criticism in other culture milieus (such as many middle Eastern Cultures).
Educational curricula consolidate this interest in criticism. The general atmosphere (politically, Socially and culturally) strengthens this same interest in criticism as an extremely constructive device and most probably a stupendous means of promoting all systems, establishments, concepts and practices! Nonetheless, our culture proceeded on the emotional track laden with vexation at criticism especially criticism to axioms! We, in many respects, regard criticism as sabotage and destructive act to treason (and in many cases this reaction looks adequate because we seldom critics with a calm, objective and polite attitudes) .
Intolerance to criticism, deeply – entrenched in the mental buildup of our society, consolidated as a milestone of our culture. Other negative aspects disseminate in our contemporary through and make the issue extremely acrid : when intolerance to criticism is annexed to shrinkage of leniency and augmenting subjectivity , narrow-mindedness (reading others as either “with” or “against” us), fanaticism (or may be “phobia”) about our past and overweening inclination to self – praise. Then the intensity of intolerance to criticism escalates and reaches its zenith .
Criticism is synonymous with wrath, anxiety and sneaking suspicion of intentions in addition to the existence of perils, lying in ambush to complete the conspiracy (plot) against us .
Our general atmosphere suffers a great deal from intolerance to criticism. I think I do not need to give examples. During the last few decades, many stereotyped cases were repeated, symbolizing this phenomenon, asserting that it is a characteristic of myriad intellectuals and cultural figures. So the debate on intellectual issues is a novel emblem of the high intensity of our intolerance to criticism and vexation at being criticized !
Let me give only two examples:
- Those who call for celebrating the two- century- relationship between Egypt and France exchange accusations and slanders with the polemists who disapprove of this celebration !
- Those who believe that holding a parley/ dialogue with our “ Historic Enemies” is the only way – out to escape from wounds- laden reality face a strident campaign of vituperation depriving them of any honorable attribute even patriotism.
Our mass media, throughout the last thirty years, have been void of an article or an interview including constructive criticism to any of our governments major choices (except to former governments !! ). This’ s adequate evidence that we do not recognize criticism except when drawling slogans (or launching into a harangue). If we really believe that “no problem, we agree to differ” so there should be an article or an interview in any of our mass media, including criticism of one or more of our main policies. If there is no piece of evidence, then this will be an adequate proof of intolerance to criticism to an extent that make us worried and keen to treat and remedy this cultural disease with all means that help the growth of our acceptance of criticism without which we can not set up the future we had for long sought for and longed to.
In addition to all what was stated earlier in this article, “Total Quality Management” is undeniably the “Driver” of the vehicle called “Modern Management Systems” Total Quality Management (TQM) is the main reason that makes any economic activity succeeds. In a few words and without getting into technical details, “Total Quality Management” is based on three corner stones : Quality Planing, Quality Control and Quality audit. The third corner stone means that every economic unit should critically audit its performance, the goods it produces or the service it renders to discover through this critical process what is needed to achieve further progress before the competition. Here we are before an extremely clear situation where the economic success is directly related to the benefits of criticism that aims at a continuos process of improvement to ensure the sought competitiveness before a market that will have no place “or marcy” to those who continue to have short falls.
In short, there is no more eloquent saying that of the great philosopher Emmanuel Kant which I had mentioned in the preface my book “Critique of the Arab Mind”: (Criticism is the most constructive tool ever produced by human mind).
A Mind-set of Violent Intimidation.
Foreign students of contemporary Egyptian affairs believe there has been a marked decline in the civility of public discourse in recent years, particularly when two opposing points of view contend over an issue of public concern. I have given a great deal of thought to this phenomenon, which I tried to place in a historical perspective by comparing the language of debate in use today with that used earlier this century. My research centered on the now-defunct review, Al-Kashkool, specifically, on the issues which appeared in the period between 1923 and 1927. To my surprise, I discovered that the scurrilous language which I thought was the product of the last few decades was already in use in the `twenties. But further readings of the political and cultural writings of the period revealed that, side by side with the unfortunate tendency to resort to name-calling and slander, a tendency we suffer from to this day, was a sophisticated debating style that resembled that of the West. When Taha Hussein published his controversial book on pre-Islamic poetry, he came under attack from many critics. Some argued their case soberly, using civilized language and confining themselves to an objective critique of the book, but others stooped to unacceptable depths of calumny and personal attacks. One such was Mustapha Sadeq Al-Rafei, whose book, On the Grill, overstepped the bounds of decency in the virulent personal attack he directed at Abbas Al-Aqqad.
In other words, public discourse in Egypt was conducted along two tracks simultaneously: one track observed the rules of civility and objectivity, shunning the use of insulting language and personal attacks, the other belonged to the no-holds-barred school of writing, which had no compunctions about resorting to vilification and mudslinging to discredit the opposing party.
During the last fifty years, the objective school of public debate has gradually lost ground to a defamatory style based on hurling insults at the opponent, in which polemists find it easier to demonize the proponents of the opposing point of view than to argue their own case on its merits. Numerous examples attest to the prevalence of this phenomenon in our cultural life today, where differences of opinion over a specific issue are often expressed in the form of vituperative exchanges of accusations and personal insults.
Take the strident campaigns launched on a periodic basis by some opposition papers over one issue or another. All too often, these campaigns degenerate from an objective discussion of the issue over which they were launched in the first place into an all-out war against the person holding the opposing viewpoint, whose personal integrity and morality are called into question and who is accused of all kinds of private and public wrongdoing. At first, I thought this was because a public debate offers an ideal opportunity to give vent to the pent-up feelings of anger and frustration some of us harbour because of the many problems we face in our day-to-day life. I have since come to believe that, although this is certainly one of the factors behind the phenomenon, the real reason is a fascist trend that has marked public discourse in this country for close on half a century.
In the last five decades, public life in Egypt was strongly influenced by two main realities. The first is that the regime which came to power in 1952 was extremely intolerant of any opposition, indeed, even of the mildest criticism. I am not making a value judgement here, merely stating a fact. From the start, the regime brooked no opposition, using all the apparatus of state to crush dissidents, including the media, which launched devastating campaigns against anyone who dared raise a voice against the regime. The other reality is that the strongest underground opposition movement in the country was the Muslim Brothers, a party that was and still is notoriously averse to the least hint of criticism, dealing with whoever refuses to toe the party line either with an iron fist or with floods of speeches and writings that are no less fascist. Thus we were caught between a ruling establishment that crushed its opponents with all the means at its disposal and an underground opposition movement that destroyed its opponents both materially and morally.
In the context of a fascist climate where any divergent opinion was ruthlessly crushed, whole generations grew up with no knowledge of the rules of civilized debate, generations raised to believe that opponents and critics were fair game for the most ferocious attacks on their probity and honour, and that personal insults and abusive language were par for the course.
Such a climate is not conducive to the promotion of such values as tolerance of the Other, accepting criticism, engaging in self-criticism, expanding the objective margin in thinking and debate or genuinely embracing pluralism. There have been a number of notable exceptions to this general rule, but these are unfortunately far outnumbered by the examples of oral and written debates conducted along fascist lines, which represent the dominant trend in our public discourse at this time. It is a trend that is likely to remain dominant for some years to come, until the process of economic reform now underway has been successfully completed. The fundamental changes this is expected to introduce to the components of public life will make of those who now feed the fascist trend relics of a bygone time, products of a stage which left its mark on the attitudes of some members of our society until the new global changes divested them of their very raison d’etre. However, this is still several years down the road and, in the meantime, we will continue to suffer from the fascist trend that dominates public debate in Egypt today.
The Arab Mind Biggest Puzzle/Dilemma.
(I decided to incorporate this sub-chapter as I firmly believe that the “Israeli issue” invited most of the contemporary Arab Mind misconceptions to appear on the stage patently clear).
There are those in the Arab world today who do not recognize Israel’s right to exist in the first place, and whose ultimate aim is its destruction. Despite our complete rejection of their logic and the premises from which they proceed, and our conviction that they have set themselves a goal that is not only unattainable but one that will bring about unimaginable loss and destruction, we will content ourselves here with merely expressing our profound disagreement with their viewpoint, without resorting to the mud-slinging tactics they do not hesitate to use against whoever disagrees with them. We want to state for the record that, on the one hand, their logic is seriously flawed and that, on the other, they are, thankfully, in the minority. The vast majority in the Arab world, at the grass roots level and at the level of political movements and organizations, favours a settlement along the lines of the Arab initiative endorsed by the latest Arab summit in Beirut. Initially launched by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, it was previously known as the Saudi initiative. In other words, the majority of Arabs would like to see a final settlement based, either in absolute or relative terms, on the following five points:
1- The creation of a Palestinian state on all or most of the territory occupied by Israel in June, 1967.
2- The establishment of a capital for the Palestinian state in Arab Jerusalem, and an end to Israeli control over important Muslim and Christian holy places.
3- A unanimous Arab recognition of Israel, an end to the state of hostility and the establishment of normal political, economic and cultural relations between the Arabs and Israel.
4- Removing all Jewish settlements from the Palestinian state, which are a tinder-box waiting for a spark.
5- Solving the issue of Palestinian return in a manner acceptable to both parties, not on the basis of the absolute right of return but on the basis of a set of compromise solutions (and indemnity agreements) agreeable to both parties.
It is to this majority that the present article is addressed. If the vision outlined above is acceptable, it follows that political negotiations conducted around an agenda made up of the five points proposed as the basis for a settlement are the only way to end this bloody conflict. It also follows that if the Israelis are not ready to conduct peaceful negotiations, the Palestinians are entitled to resort to armed struggle to bring an end to the occupation and achieve their national aspirations. However, I believe the right to armed struggle is subject to limitations, the most important being that it be directed against the occupation forces, a limitation that was strictly observed in the first Palestinian intifada. Overstepping the limits and focussing on suicide operations against civilians inevitably swells the ranks of Israeli refuseniks opposed to a peaceful settlement; it also erodes international sympathy for the Palestinian cause and alienates global players who might otherwise have played a more forceful role. As I write this article, the BBC has just broadcast a statement by a group of prominent Palestinian intellectuals, including Hanan Ashrawi, condemning the suicide attacks in principle, and accusing them not only of not serving the Palestinian struggle but of provoking a backlash detrimental to the Palestinians. This viewpoint is shared by most of the Palestinian intelligentsia, whether those in the diaspora or those who did not leave their towns and villages since 1948, who are now known as Israeli Arabs.
In my opinion, and notwithstanding the unforgivable excesses and atrocities committed by the Israeli side, the Arab side urgently needs to make a sober reappraisal of its positions and policies and to realize that years of allowing itself to be driven by passion, years during which it suspended its critical faculties and turned its back on reason and common sense, has sucked it into a vortex of tragic losses and missed opportunities. For example, if reason had prevailed in 1947, the Arabs would have accepted the Partition Plan; if it had prevailed in 1948, they would not have been led into a war by leaders who knew, or should have known, that the outcome of a military confrontation would not be in their favour. Similarly, creating a climate that led to the 1967 war was far from rational. We are still reeling from the devastating effects of that war, still scrambling to recover part of what the Arab side lost in less than one fateful week in June 1967. Lack of reasoned judgement, of the ability to make a sober assessment of political imperatives, manifested itself once again with the stand taken by most of the Arab world against Anwar Sadat in the late nineteen seventies. It was also evident in Yasser Arafat’s decision to abort the efforts made in Taba in early 2001 to work out an acceptable and balanced framework for a final settlement, when common sense dictated that he accept what was on offer in principle while announcing that a number of issues remained unresolved.
This aversion to allowing considerations of rationality and wisdom to prevail is one of the main reasons why Sharon and his like-minded cohorts were able to come to power in Israel in February 2001, running on a platform that defies all modern political norms. For they represent a political ideology predicated on theological considerations running counter to all that humanity has achieved, invoking what they call ‘religious rights’ and others see as beliefs rooted in mythology and legend to pursue what is clearly a political agenda.
In focusing on Arab mistakes and miscalculations, I am in no way absolving the Israelis of blame for missed opportunities. A great deal can be said about the number of times Israel has slammed the window of opportunity shut, the way it has seized every chance it could to abort any settlement, starting with Ben Gurion in the early fifties up to Sharon half a century later. But our concern here is with our own mistakes; for it is only by correcting those mistakes that we can hope to move forward.
To that end, we must first review the file of how the Arabs have been dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict from the nineteen forties to the present day in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes. An objective and neutral person looking through the file will discover that the position adopted by the Arab communist parties in 1947 (as well as by a number of prominent Egyptian politicians like Ismail Sidki and Hussein Heikal, even by Mahmoud Fahmy el Nokrashy before he too succumbed to the war fever, and by the renowned thinker and writer Taha Hussein as defined in his literary review, “The Egyptian Writer”) was the most rational and sensible position, even though we all attacked it in the past. A review of the file will also lead to the inescapable conclusion that the Palestinians are in dire need of a new leadership that is very different in terms of background and educational and cultural formation from the cadre that came back from Tunisia after Oslo. Not only does the current leadership have a dismal record of missed opportunities, but it has been instrumental in reinforcing the status of the Israeli right. To watch the members of the current leadership spouting the resounding slogans of which they are so enamoured is to realize that they are fossils from another age, exactly like the representatives of the extreme right in Israel, some of whom are even more out of step with the times.
It is essential for the countries sharing common borders with Israel-Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt- to realize that ending the Arab-Israeli conflict is the gateway through which they need to go before overcoming the many other problems they are facing, the only way they can embark on a process of democratic reform, economic development and social peace and not fall prey to forces opposed to education, civilization and modernity, indeed, to the values of progress in general. Long before the conflict attained its present unmanageable proportions, that is precisely what the Egyptian Marxists were advocating in 1947 and 1948. We condemned them for their stand, but we now know that theirs was the voice of reason. As we see the predictions they made at the time turning into reality before our eyes, we can only admit that they were among the few whose vision was rational and far-sighted.
The time has come to translate this vision into reality. This can only come about if Arab public opinion is made to see that the five points outlined at the beginning of this article, which are the essence of the initiative endorsed by the Arab summit in Beirut, are a matter of life or death for the region. The Arab public must be made to realize the dangers of blindly following the school of ‘big talk’ which has cost the countries and peoples of the region dearly and which is capable of costing them even more if they continue to follow slogans which, though apparently nationalistic or religious, are in essence an invitation to remain in thrall to a conflict that is destroying the very fabric of our societies.
To that end, we need to focus on forming new generations driven by reason rather than by volcanic passions fuelled by voices which give themselves the right to speak in the name of religion or nationalism. It is a task that is rendered all the more difficult by the victim mentality that has developed in our part of the world, where a deep conviction has built up over the last few decades in the minds of many that everything negative in their lives is the result of conspiracies hatched against them by the outside world. True, conflict and competition are facts of life, and the annals of history are rife with conspiracies. But what is certain is that our responsibility for the negative aspects of our life is far greater than that of anyone else. What is also certain is that the world is not made up exclusively of wolves waiting to pounce on us. Here we must have the courage to ask ourselves an important question: Four decades ago, India, China, Japan and Russia (the Soviet Union at the time) supported us on many issues, including the Arab-Israeli conflict. Today, these countries are not only no longer as close to us as they once were, but have moved closer to Israel than ever before. Why is that? The answer to that question holds the key to a solution of many of our problems. Most societies are concerned today with improving their lot by optimizing their potential in all areas: industry, construction, services, economic life and social welfare. We, for our part, are locked in a time warp. We alone continue to talk in the language of the Cold War, not realizing that no-one today can remain in a cave isolated from the rest of the world. We must wake up from the dream that any country can be important outside its own borders without first ensuring that it is internally strong, stable and solid and without contributing to the march of history. Any country that is weak on the domestic front can only be weak on the international front; there can be no exceptions to this rule.
It is all too easy to get caught up in the big talk syndrome, to succumb to the resounding slogans and impossible, not to say illogical, demands made by those who pass themselves off as warriors battling against impossible odds, when in fact they are nothing but false prophets drawing the gullible into a net of false hopes and dreams. The worst of it is that it is not they who bear the consequences of their irresponsible talk, but the destitute denizens of the refugee camps. What is more difficult is to adopt a position based on reason, common sense and a realistic assessment of the situation, and which does not involve making enemies of influential parties capable of affecting the course of events. Big talk deals with impressions and generalities, common sense with facts and specifics. The record of the former is abysmal; the latter can be the way to a brighter future.
I am well aware that in writing this part I am inviting trouble. The self-appointed knights in shining armour riding on their steeds of big words and empty slogans will rush to fire their arrows of insults against my person and accusations against my integrity. For personal defamation is the fate of all who dare to cross them, regardless of whether their proposals have any merit. This will not deter me, however, from calling on Arab public opinion and on those responsible for shaping it to turn their backs on meaningless slogans in favour of reason and common sense. It is all too easy to play to the gallery, to tell people what they want to hear. But the task of any intellectual who is consistent with himself is not to pander to his readers but to write what he believes can contribute to creating a future better than the dark days our region has lived through for over half a century by suspending its critical faculties and allowing meaningless slogans rather than rationality to shape its destiny.
The Arab Mind versus the Anglo Saxons’.
A few years ago, a prominent Egyptian figure was running for an exalted international position. This personage (who, I may add, was a distinguished academic) was well aware that he was strongly backed by the French government, who fully supported his nomination for the post, as did other countries of note such as Russia, Germany and China, in addition to several Third World countries. He was, however, extremely concerned about the situation with regard to two major powers: Britain and the United States; namely, the Anglo-Saxon attitude towards his nomination. As I was at the time heading what was then the largest economic institution in Britain and Europe, the renowned professor kindly invited me to discuss the situation with him with a view to ascertaining the extent to which giant economic entities could influence the decision-making process in Britain and the US. This initial invitation led to a series of meetings during which I endeavored, in my own small way, to help this eminent Egyptian attain a position of international standing.
I was able to study this unique personality at close quarters, and discovered that in addition to several strong points in his character, there were a number of weaknesses. His impressive store of knowledge and learning stemmed from both the Latin and the Arab/Egyptian cultures, and it was with more than a little consternation that I realized that he tended to view Western civilization as a single cultural entity, whereas my personal experience had taught me that the opposite was in fact true. During our meetings, it became clear to me that this learned professor, whose intellectual make-up was largely of Latin origin, seemed totally oblivious of the fact that the Anglo-Saxon mindset differed radically from the Latin, and that the two sides viewed matters from an entirely different perspective and with different objectives in mind. I therefore ventured to suggest to him that he should in no way attempt to change the British stance towards him, because he would quite simply be wasting his efforts, as the foundation upon which the British had formed their opinion differed radically from that of the French. In any case, the British had already reached a conclusion and I knew full well from experience that they were not likely to change their minds once a decision had been made, especially as this decision had been reached in accordance with what the British perceived as their best interests. As for the American frame of mind, while it was certainly an offshoot of the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking, it was nevertheless less rigid in its "Anglo-Saxon-ness" (if I may use such a term), and as circumstances were favorable in that the US Administration had not yet announced its decision, I felt we stood more of a chance here. I recall that I repeatedly had to remind the Professor of the need to bear in mind the history and roots of the Anglo-Saxons in order to realize how very different they were from the descendants of the Greeks and Romans.
Sure enough, in December 1991 the Professor assumed the prominent international position, much to the joy and pride of millions of Egyptians. However, after only one year in office, the American political press began a harshly critical campaign against the Professor and his working methods. This campaign, together with the attitude of both British and American diplomats, made it only too clear that a clash was forthcoming. My long years of close contact with the Anglo-Saxons rendered me familiar with the path that such a difference of opinion would take, the way in which it would express itself, and the ultimate and inevitable escalation of events that would lead to the final confrontation. And when the Professor's mandate approached its final year, it became quite clear that US and British policies would allow for nothing less than an abrupt end to his period in office, for they thought only in terms of power and their own interests. The events of 1996 proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the two sides – the Professor and the Anglo-Saxons who held sway over the world – belonged to two completely different schools of thought. The refusal of the latter to accept the Professor had nothing to do with his being an Arab, and Egyptian or an African: it was simply that his mindset was completely alien to the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking. Nor would his impressive academic achievements stand him in good stead when the prevailing objective of his adversaries was the consolidation of their interests and power. It was with more than a pang of sadness that I later read the book written by the distinguished Professor in some four hundred pages covering his five-year term of office, for every page provided fresh proof that the clash that I had predicted could in no way have been avoided.
Notwithstanding my admiration for the Professor and his intellectual capabilities, my own experience with the Anglo-Saxon intellect have led me to the conclusion that dealing with these powers can only take one of three forms:
-An outright clash, the outcome of which is only too clear as evidenced by the fall of the Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein, Milosovich, and the president of the Central American state who was arrested by US forces inside his own capital and who still languishes in an American prison.
-Total submission to the will of the Anglo-Saxon superpowers, bearing in mind that the Anglo-Saxon "master" allows only meager leavings to those who offer their services in such a servile manner.
-To create a need whereby the Anglo-Saxons see an advantage in maintaining a good relationship with the non-Anglo-Saxon entity (dealings I may add that bear no relation whatsoever to anything as emotional as friendship or goodwill), and to market their role skillfully and in a manner that furthers their own interests in no lesser degree than those of the Anglo-Saxon party.
My objective here is to highlight that at this stage in our development, these are the only three options available for dealing with the Anglo-Saxon powers that hold sway over the world today. I would caution against the dire consequences of the second option as much as the disastrous results of the first.
The Phobia of Cultural Invasion.
Over the past forty years, an unfounded fear of cultural invasion has taken hold, permeating the thoughts of many in our society. Ever since the Eighties, when the division of the world into distinct "Eastern" and "Western" blocs came to an end and the concept of globalization emerged, the issue of what is termed "cultural globalization" has been extensively discussed here, with the fear being voiced that this global culture will overwhelm our cultural specificity. I have written extensively concerning this issue, and have stressed repeatedly that only those with a modest store of cultural specificity are thus threatened; countries with a vast cumulative legacy of cultural specificity such as ours, whose cultural identity is interwoven with historical and geographical factors, have little to fear: like the Japanese, our cultural specificity is too deeply entrenched to waver. Those who describe the Japanese as having been culturally invaded by outside influences cite only inconsequential, culturally negligible phenomena such as eating fast food and wearing American-style clothing; however, human relationships, the veneration of elders, strong family ties and the dedication to work quintessential to the Japanese culture, have all remained unchanged for the past sixty years, during which Japan has been actively and overwhelmingly exposed to dealings with the West.
Nevertheless, while it could be understandable that some might raise concerns over our ability to maintain our cultural specificity when confronted with the wave of globalization sweeping the world, the question of progress is a completely different matter. The principles and values underlying progress are completely in accordance with the principles upon which our cultural specificities are based: no one could possibly allege that the fundamental beliefs of Egyptians, Arabs, Muslims and Copts conflict with concepts such as the value of time, dedication to work, the global nature of knowledge, team work, the culture of systems and of individuals, and a firm conviction that management is a key tool in achieving success. In fact, I would have imagined that many of us would lay claim to the fact that these very principles were inherent in our history hundreds of years before they became the mainstay of present-day human civilization. It might be thought that what I said applies to most of the values quintessential to progress, but would be difficult in the case of pluralism, for it is believed by some that Muslim religious thought is based upon one model of pure, absolute truth; this in my opinion is a grave misconception, for there are numerous texts in the Koran which support pluralism, the most significant of which is perhaps the text which points out that if God had wished all people to follow one single religion, He would have done so. The Sunna (the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed) also abounds with texts that provide ample proof that pluralism is an inevitable fact of life.
It would indeed be strange to assume the existence of a conflict between our cultural specificities and between values such as respect for time or dedication to work; such an assumption simply propagates primitive, backward ideas. In fact, if additional proof be needed that the values of progress do not conflict with our cultural specificity, it is enough to note that such values flourished in Egypt during the last century, and only dwindled at a later date when what some people term "the disintegration of Egyptian society" took place.
I remember during the Eighties when I was working for one of the most spectacularly progressive entities in south-east Asia, it was generally held by most economic institutions in the area that there were two distinct work forces, the Chinese and the Malawi; and the prevailing belief was that for work to be done efficiently and well, it was best to rely on the Chinese, who were known for their dedication, good team-work and strong work ethic. The Malawis (who were Muslims) were, on the other hand, known to be lazy, inept slackers with no respect for the work ethic. This belief prevailed until one man took over leadership of a country where more than seventy percent of the inhabitants were of the denomination categorized as ineffectual and unlikely to achieve: the country was Malaysia, where the population is predominantly Muslim. This leader was able to achieve a miracle, taking his country to the highest levels of distinction in every field, so that in a period of less than twenty years, all the values of progress were manifest in this country which had previously been wallowing in a mire of laziness, ineffectuality and backwardness. The world thus discovered two major truths:
-First, that backwardness is not due to unalterable biological factors, but rather to circumstances which, if changed, could reverse the situation completely.
-Second, progress can be planted and flourish in Christian, Buddhist or Muslim environments and is not exclusive to anyone.
It is worth noting that all Malaysian cultural specificities pertaining to human relationships, family ties, and religious values remained unchanged in this age of progress and did in no way diminish. And to those who venture to say that this progress was brought about by the Chinese minority in the country, I would simply reply that this – if true – simply goes to prove that progress can be contagious, which is actually not a bad thing at all, though to refute this theory in the case of Malaysia in particular is easy, for the simple reason that the Chinese minority had always been there in Malaysia – what had been missing was a formula that enables the Chinese minority to be the engine of the Malaysian train - which is precisely what happened.