Friday, August 26, 2005

A Sensible Path to Arab Modernity

By Rami G. Khouri

The writer is Editor-at-Large for The Daily Star, Beirut.

What's wrong with the Arabs? Why do so many Islamic societies spawn terrorists? Why are our societies so violent and unstable? What is needed to transform the societies of the Middle East, North Africa and west-central Asia into stable, prosperous countries?

These are the sorts of sweeping, big sticker questions that many people within the Middle East ask every day, looking simultaneously at internal factors as well as external causes of our many excesses. It was heartening and instructive for me earlier this week to have the privilege of sharing in a panel discussion with two of the clearest thinking, most articulate analysts in the Arab world — George Corm and Clovis Maksoud, both Lebanese — as we discussed the impact of the last three Arab Human Development Reports published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The issues they raised and the analytical suggestions they made deserve a wider hearing than the students and staff participating in a summer course on conflict-resolution organised in Lebanon by UNDP and Lebanese American University. I suspect their way of thinking correctly identifies the key challenges facing the Arab world, reflects the views of the vast majority of Arabs, and offers a practical, realistic route out of the Arab world's current dilemma of stagnation, frustration and confrontation.

Corm, a professor of economics at St Joseph University in Beirut and a former Lebanese Cabinet minister, makes the point that the Arab region undoubtedly needs real reform, but there is no consensus on the reasons for this. Is current and historical foreign interference the main problem, he asks? Domestic power distortions? Patriarchal social culture? Polarised societies fragmenting into smaller and smaller units based on ethnicity, religion and ideology? Hostility among Arab states and leaderships?

A combination of these and other reasons explains the burdensome, humiliating fact that the Arab region is the only part of the world where foreign armies today still regularly invade, occupy, and try to remake societies. More troubling is his observation that Arabs today face virtually the same challenge that confronted our societies around 150 years ago, in the late Ottoman period: Why are Arab societies underdeveloped, and dominated by foreign influences, interests and forces?

Among the answers to his questions, Corm mentions the devastating impact of the Arab rentier economies that are not productive or creative, but live off “rent” derived from foreign payments or protection, or from oil and gas production. Rent economies make it impossible to develop liberal, democratic regimes, he says, and so must be replaced with job-creating, productive economies.

Arab nationalists never sufficiently focused on the economic dimension of nationalism, independence and statehood, he says, and Arab intellectuals today spend too much time responding to Western accusations and focus too much on day-to-day politics. Instead, our intellectuals and activists should ignore Samuel Huntington, Bernard Lewis and others of their ilk, and spend more time building our culture and society. We should especially draw on the rich but neglected Arab tradition of thinkers who have sought in the past century to prod reform, modernity, prosperity and genuine national sovereignty anchored in dignity.

The Arab people need and deserve a “second Nahda of Arab freedoms”, he says, referring to the broad intellectual, cultural, political and religious movement in parts of the Arab world around 1880-1920 that has been called the Arab Awakening or Renaissance, Al Nahda in Arabic. Our own continuous quest for modernity and liberalism can be compatible with key religious and cultural values. He defined modernity as that which allows you to promote prosperity, compete globally, defend yourself militarily, and defend the overall integrity of your society from foreign domination.

Maksoud, university professor, columnist, former Arab League ambassador and current director of the Centre for the Study of the Global South at American University in Washington, DC, approaches the same challenge through the eyes of the team that wrote the Arab Human Development Reports, of which he is a member.

“The Arabs are a wealthy nation of poor people,” he notes, who recklessly engage in either confrontation with the West or submission to it, with both options leading to self-destruction. We need to find a way to reconcile the legality of the modern Arab state system with the legitimacy of the wider Arab national idea, he says. The Arab Human Development Report offers an action-oriented analysis that aims to spark a dialogue between the Arab citizen, civil society and the state authorities.

One of our common weaknesses — very evident in Lebanon, he says — is that the individual Arab citizen does not have a direct relationship with his or her state except through the intermediation of ethnic, religious or tribal groups. The narrow identities and interests of sovereign states have come to dominate the two other important dimensions of people's lives in the Arab region — their rights as citizens of a state, and their sense of belonging to a larger Arab national identity of some sort.

He says that “the weakness of patrimonial Arab consciousness has given way to the strength of legal state sovereignty.” Consequently, Arab countries wave their flags vigorously, advocating “Jordan first”, “Lebanon first”, “Syria first” and “Egypt first”; yet their citizens steadily become increasingly angry with life conditions at home and the international double standards they suffer from Israel and the West.

“Anger is an invitation to dialogue,” he suggests, and one of the aims of the Arab Human Development Reports is to spark dialogue that can also plant the seeds of an Arab Renaissance.

Corm brings the argument back to the historical legacy of an Arab region that wants to change, reform and modernise, but has always resisted doing so under foreign pressure or threat. Totally adopting or rejecting Western reform agendas is not useful, he says, and instead we need to spur a genuine Arab reform agenda for modernity and freedoms that primarily builds on our own values, analyses, and priority goals.

These are sensible and timely ideas, doubly significant because they are not unique or unusual; they reflect the richness of the debates that take place every day in homes, schools, coffee shops and offices throughout the Arab world. They also provide a powerful, appropriate antidote to the prevailing nonsense that we hear from quarters of the West, especially the United States, about clashes of civilisation, the need for Islamic reformation, hatred of the West, the madrasa problem, or the inherent violence of Arab and Islamic culture.

The matter is much simpler, and should not be muddled by tangential intellectual fantasies or the silliness of confused, angry small town politicians from abroad: In the past century or so, citizenship and statehood in the Arab world have become mutually dysfunctional enterprises, due to a combination of local and foreign factors that must be treated simultaneously.

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