Stagnation in The Arab and Muslim World: Who is to blame?

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“Verily never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves.”

The Holy Qur’an (Sura: Al Ra’d; Verse 11)

Over the last ten years, Arab and Muslim Americans have made great strides in getting their voices heard and have started, however modestly, influencing the political discourse of this country. The terrorist attack of September 11th has made the need for this activism even more urgent. At the same time the magnitude of that event calls for a radical change. As we strive to make the West reexamine its policies towards developing countries in general and Arab and Muslim countries in particular, we must look back and critically examine the roots of the problems plaguing the societies we are trying to defend. The truth is, no matter how easily this accusation rolls off our tongues, the West, at worst, is only partially to blame for the sorry state that most Arab and Muslim states find themselves in.

Colonialism, imperialism and Zionism have become easy and convenient props for our presidents, despots and kings to distract their citizens from their own shortcomings. Western colonialism éexcept for Israel- ended at least two generations ago for most Arab and Muslim countries. Yet there is scarcely an Arab country that has managed to build a prosperous, stable, tolerant, progressive civil society with a representative government responsive to its citizenry. Why is that? Surely it is not for lack of resources either material or human. The biggest obstacle in nation building is our legacy of tribalism and sectarianism. This has resulted in leaders with myopic and provincial political agendas, who, contrary to their public posturing, are concerned first and foremost with preserving their own interests, those of their families, tribe and sect. All other matters, national, regional or international are distant secondary concerns. What follows is all too familiar: nepotism, rampant corruption, a stifling bureaucracy, suppression of free speech and the elimination éwith variable degrees of brutality- of all opposition. These tribal and sectarian loyalties are so entrenched that they are visible whether the governments are monarchies, military dictatorships or pseudo-socialist republics.

Even revolutionary movements with, initially, progressive ideals of justice and equality, promising to replace an entrenched and fossilized system, eventually succumb to this same behavior. The Palestinian saga since 1993 is a case in point. With the signing of the, monumentally flawed and unjust, Oslo accord, Yasser Arafat had nevertheless the chance to start building the nucleus of a civil society as a prelude for a Palestinian state. Arafat, needless to say, failed miserably as he surrounded himself with corrupt sycophants and turned the West Bank and Gaza into a fiefdom for his greedy profiteers. Had he succeeded in the creation of the institutions of a just, civil society, he would have created a much more formidable challenge to Israel’s expansionist policies than has the senseless and ultimately self-defeating, slaughter caused by suicide bombers. He would have had the moral authority with which to mobilize the world, and, yes even U.S. public opinion in favor of a just solution for the Palestinians. Many Arabs would consider it a ludicrous proposition to think that changing world public opinion would matter. But it is precisely this lack of vision for how to affect constructive change that has crippled our societies. The beginning of the Al Aqsa intifada laid bare for the world to see the brutality of Israeli occupation. There was a genuine a palpable shift everywhere in favor of the plight of the Palestinian people. But, with the appearance of the first suicide bomber, the world stopped caring and the butcher of Beirut has since had a free hand. The end result is the needless death of many Israeli civilians, a toll multiplied several fold on the Palestinian side.

The absence of free speech in much of the Arab world has meant that the political discourse in most countries consists almost entirely of government propaganda. Most citizens recognize the biased nature of what they were fed in the government controlled media. Yet governments often succeed in distracting their citizenry by conjuring up outside threats, real or imagined, to cover up their own misdeeds. They deftly exploit the Arab masses’ deep and genuine sympathy for the Palestinian people by highlighting the brutality of the Israeli occupation all the while the covering up the brutality they inflict on their own people.

Another consequence of the absence of free speech and political repression is that opposition movements within individual countries are forced underground and sometimes resort to violence as the only means to change the status quo. Such violence leads to either the brutal suppression of such movements by the sitting government or in a prolonged war of attrition where violence becomes not a means to an end but an end in itself. Such is the case in the gratuitous savagery inflicted by Algerian insurgents on their own people.

Into this morass of a society in disarray step in the likes of Osama Bin Laden. Although purporting to be an agent of change his words belie the same old attitude of blame the “other”. While his wrath is aimed at the United States for it “war against Islam”, he ignores locally grown killers of fellow Muslims such as Saddam Hussein and his own protectors, the Taliban. His methods, though cloaked in false religious coverings are purposeless and morally bankrupt. They are the methods of a man without vision, a complete failure. The mayhem he espouses is, in the end, self-destructive and will hurt most the people he claims to be fighting for.

There must be a radical change in the way Arabs and Muslims think about methods of affecting change in their society. Violence is rarely, if at all, a viable option for constructive change. This is a complex, interdependent and dangerous world. Gone are the days of quick palace coups with minimal loss of life. Armed insurrection inevitably means massive destruction and loss of life and often a complete physical and psychological destruction of a society. No opposition movement ultimately interested in constructive change should take that route. Even in repressive countries with limited freedom of expression, non-violent movements enjoying popular support can achieve slow but constructive change. Change can also be achieved indirectly by having outside, more powerful and influential countries exert political or economic influence to force change. This is where the Arab and Muslim Americans can influence not only the conduct of foreign policy but can also be a force fostering constructive change within the individual countries. Arabs and Muslims should also change the simplistic and monolithic views of the “West”. It is in the end, as uninformed as the biased and monolithic view of the Arab and Muslim world held by the West. There are now 7 million Muslims in the United States and 3 millions Arab-Americans and several million more in Europe. This Arab and Muslim Diaspora should act as a bridge of understanding between the East and the West, an act which will, in the end, enrich both cultures.

Though meant to be critical of Arab and Muslim societies, the opinions expressed above do not absolve the United States and the Western countries from their responsibilities for their colonial and post-colonial exploitation of Middle Eastern countries. We all know of the United States’ multiple standards of foreign policy, at times claiming the moral high ground and at others invoking national interest and at times unable to invoke either reason as in its uncritical support of Israel. However, Arab and Muslim societies must first recognize and deal with problems engendered by failures within their own societies. To continue to hold the West responsible for all their predicaments is to continue on a road of destructive self-deception.

Dr. Rabi Tawil is a physician and activist living in New York State

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