Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Book Review: What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East?

Patrick Seale - Posted Feb 9, 2010

British journalist Brian Whitaker has written a provocative and disturbing book about the Middle East. His title is the one I have put at the head of this article. His book is not kind to the Arabs, since it exposes the profound contradictions and weaknesses in their society. But it should, nevertheless, be translated into Arabic as a matter of urgency and be required reading by Arab elites from the Atlantic to the Gulf.

His aim, he says, is to stimulate debate. If the Arab world is to catch up with the rest of the developed world, it would do well to ponder Whitaker’s conclusions and heed his recommendations.

Whitaker has travelled widely in Arab countries and was Middle East editor of the Guardian newspaper for seven years. He evidently knows the region intimately. His strength, in researching this book, is that he has not restricted himself, as most journalists do, to seeking the views of political leaders and government officials, but has instead moved outside the strictly political sphere to interview a great many thinkers, academics, students, opinion-formers, bloggers, and ordinary people in many countries across the region. He has looked beyond Arab regimes to society as a whole. That is the originality of his book.

So, in a word, what does he say is wrong with the Middle East? In chapter after chapter, he dissects the “stultifying atmosphere where change, innovation, creativity, critical thinking, questioning, problem-solving… are all discouraged.” And that is not the end of it. To this list he adds “systematic denial of rights that impinge on the lives of millions: discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality or family background; inequality of opportunity, impenetrable bureaucracies, arbitrary application of the law; and the lack of transparency in government.”

Whitaker’s first powerful chapter deals with the failure of education in the Arab world—which he says is central to the region’s problems. If change is to be meaningful, he declares, it must begin in people’s heads. He quotes the 2004 Arab Human Development Report in saying that teaching methods in the Arab world—especially rote learning—“do not permit free dialogue and active, exploratory learning and consequently do not open the doors to freedom of thought and criticism.” On the contrary, “the curricula taught in Arab countries seem to encourage submission, obedience, subordination and compliance.”

The result is a “knowledge deficit,” hampering the development of a well-educated, technically skilled workforce.

Whitaker’s recommendation is that “Arab countries need to reform their educational systems and prepare themselves for the future.” But, he adds pessimistically, “the high value placed on conformity in Arab societies is suffocating change.” His controversial conclusion is that “the Arab countries cannot develop knowledge-based societies without radical social and political change.”

Another of Whitaker’s targets is asabiyya—solidarity between members of a family, clan or tribe. Such solidarity can provide security and protection for individuals but the reverse of the coin is that (in the words of the Arab Human Development Report) it “implants submission, parasitic dependence and compliance…”

Whitaker argues that the obsession with kinship in the Arab world undermines the principles of meritocracy and equality of opportunity. Nepotism hampers economic development and places Arab countries at a disadvantage in relation to those parts of the world where such practices are less prevalent.

His conclusion is that “Arabs cannot emerge into a new era of freedom, citizenship and good governance while their society continues to be dominated by the obligations of kinship, whether at a family or tribal level…” This, he affirms, is the central challenge the Arabs face today.

Another of Whitaker’s provocative chapters deals with the relationship between citizens and their governments. The typical Arab regime, he declares, is both authoritarian and autocratic—authoritarian because it demands obedience and autocratic because power is highly centralised and concentrated around the head of state.

He acknowledges that there has been much talk of reform and modernisation in Arab countries to keep pace with the rapid world changes, but he remarks gloomily that “actual reform, as opposed to mere talk of it, has been far more limited… Much of what passes for reform is just window-dressing for the sake of international respectability.”

One of Whitaker’s most controversial chapters is entitled “The politics of God,” and deals with the tide of religious fervour that has swept across the Middle East during the last thirty or forty years. Religion, he argues, is one response to what has become known as the “Arab malaise.” For millions of believers, religion provides a comfort zone of certainty and hope in a world of doubt and despair.

He quotes his sources as suggesting that the lurch towards religion began with the Arabs overwhelming defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967. But further impetus to the trend was given by the success of the mujahideen in driving out Soviet forces from Afghanistan, and by the success of Hizbullah in driving Israel out of Lebanon in 2000 after 22 years of occupation. The idea took root that military success was achievable when inspired by religion.

Religion, Whitaker notes, provides a sense of identity, of belonging and of solidarity in the face of threats from outside. But he warns that treating religion as a badge of identity can lead to a heightened emphasis on its outward, physical aspects at the expense of spirituality and ethics.

Moreover, as the religious tide swept across the Middle East, more extreme versions of Islam gained in prominence, more rigid in their interpretations of scripture and less tolerant of alternative views. This has sometimes bred growing intolerance, and even acts of violence like the occasion when, in 1994, the 82-year old Egyptian man of letters, Naguib Mahfouz, was stabbed in the neck outside his house. He survived, but his right arm was partly paralysed.

Equal rights, Whitaker argues, cannot exist without freedom of religion. In the Arab countries, this is probably the biggest single obstacle to positive change. In his view, freedom of religion requires a state which is religiously neutral. Separation of religion and state is therefore essential, he believes, to any serious agenda for reform.

Whitaker’s book contains a lively discussion of corruption and illegal commissions in Arab society, as well as the phenomenon of wasta, that is to say the use of connections, influence or favouritism. There is also a long and well-informed section on the Arabic media, which is too rich to be summarised in a line or two.

Whitaker wants the Arabs to break free from a culture of dependence and helplessness and for westerners, in turn, to break free from their history of colonial rule and military intervention, so that both sides can set their relationship on a productive footing of inter-dependence.

This book will anger some and excite others. It is one of the most ambitious attempts in recent years by a western writer to analyse what is really wrong with the Middle East.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.

Copyright © 2009 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global - SOURCE: Agence Global


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