The crisis of Arab civilization

Former Pentagon official Harold Rhode says Arab Muslims often thrive when living in non-Muslim communities in the West, meaning the obstacle holding them back is not the people but the society.

By
September 19, 2015 06:03
Syrian and Afghan refugees struggle to stay afloat after their dinghy collapses

Syrian and Afghan refugees struggle to stay afloat after their dinghy collapses just off the coast of Greece. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 The Arab Muslim world has been going through a civilizational crisis for decades with low economic and educational performance, but the chaos in recent years has brought the region to a nadir.

The refugee crisis in Europe is evidence that the Arab world cannot deal with or contain what appears to be the collapse of the regional order.

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For a region that is quick to blame the West or colonialism for its ills, it now appears that without a helping hand, the region will sink even further and bring Europe down with it.

“At bottom, we are witnessing the consequences of a civilization’s failure either to overcome or to accommodate the forces of modernity,” argued Walter Russel Mead in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend.

Historian Bernard Lewis, trying to explain this crisis more than 20 years ago in What Went Wrong? described it this way: “The proud heirs of ancient civilizations had got used to hiring Western firms to carry out tasks that their own contractors and technicians were apparently not capable of doing.

Now they found themselves inviting contractors and technicians from Korea – only recently emerged from Japanese colonial rule – to perform these same tasks.

“Following is bad enough; limping in the rear is far worse. By all the standards that matter in the modern world – economic development and job creation, literacy and educational and scientific achievement, political freedom and respect for human rights – what was once a mighty civilization has indeed fallen low.”

It was this feeling of inferiority, of having fallen from great heights, that led Arabs to a tendency to scapegoat their failures on others, explained Lewis.

Demonstrating the resort by many Arabs to conspiracy theories, a survey reported by The Washington Post on Tuesday found that 82 percent of Syrians say Islamic State is a US and foreign- made group. One in five say Islamic State is a good thing, showing that some, instead of blaming others, throw their support behind Islamists to fix the situation.

Moreover, the traditional Arab tribal modes of behavior continue to be maintained among urbanized parts of society, which has been an encumbrance to adaptation to modernity.

“Modernization and kinship systems are inimical to each other in many respects,” wrote Prof. Majid Al-Haj, from the department of sociology and anthropology at the University of Haifa in a 1995 journal article titled “Kinship and Modernization in Developing Societies: The Emergence of Instrumentalized Kinship.”

Al-Haj, the founding director of The Center for Multiculturalism and Educational Research at Haifa University, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that his article is still relevant because while on the one hand Middle Eastern countries have become more 
modernized materialistically, with brand-name clothes, food, and so on, “they did not bring real change in the society or culture.”

This has created a "partial modernization" in which changes at the individual level have not been reflected in the larger society.

“The sociocultural system has not changed much,” a system that contains traditional tribalism and kinship elements, he said. This culture has “prevented the democratic culture from progressing in the Middle East.”

Each sect or family group saw its mission to strive for political power or keep the power it already had gained. Instead of building a modern system of political participation, it pushed aside the educated elite in favor of a corrupt system of promoting fellow family members.

Mordechai Kedar, director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam, which is under formation, and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar- Ilan University, told the Post that the important tribal value of honor means that preventing shame becomes a common motivation for behavior instead of other more productive modes of behavior.

This leads not only to corruption within governmental institutions but also to revenge-seeking against those who are perceived to be dishonoring, he said. This cultural element, along with bitter sectarian and religious divisions, he said, are main reasons why the Arab states have failed to replicate the European nation-state model.

Harold Rhode, a senior fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute and a former adviser at the Pentagon, told the Post in an interview on Wednesday that while Islam was stopped twice at the gates of Vienna, Muslim immigrants are now taking planes and trains around the Austrian city.

Rhode, who has traveled widely in the Middle East during his career, said one of the roots behind the crisis in Middle Eastern civilization is the lack of independent and critical thinking, which he blames on Sunni culture.

The gates of independent and critical thinking (ijtihad) to determine matters of Islamic law were closed around 1,000 years ago by the Sunni leadership. This threatened the political leadership, which put an end to the practice in the 10th century, arguing that all questions had been addressed in the previous years since the advent of Islam, explained Rhode.

“All that was left was ‘analogy,’ meaning that if a new problem arose, the Sunnis had to find a similar situation in the past and apply that decision to the new problem.”

In practice, continued Rhode, “that meant the abandonment of science and non-Sunni sources of knowledge, which from then on prevented them from progressing.”

While in ancient times the Arabs were a leading civilization, Rhode argued that presently Sunni culture does not allow people to ask questions.

“Sadly, Arab civilization has not contributed much of anything to modern technology.”

Rhode attributed this to cultural factors, noting that individual Arab Muslims often thrive when living in non-Muslim communities in the West, which means the obstacle holding them back is not the people but the society.

For example, he continued, it has been shown through DNA testing that some Palestinians have DNA similar to that of Jews, which indicates that biologically they are just as capable as Jews; so it is Islamic culture that stifles them.

Regarding the Arab world’s lack of concern for Syrian refugees who are flooding Europe, Rhode said the concept of compassion in Islam is not as prominent as in Western culture.

For Muslims, they seek compassion from Allah but not from each other. Schadenfreude, the German word that means deriving pleasure from the misfortune of others, has its Arabic synonym, but is not found in any other language that Rhode knows of.

An interesting point that further supports his argument, Rhode said, is that a large proportion of the refugees going to Europe are Sunnis.

Rhode also said he understands Russian President Vladimir Putin’s effort to support Syrian President Bashar Assad in building a mini-Alawite state.

“Assad’s grandfather was one of seven Alawite leaders who had asked the French for a state because the Sunnis would not treat them well,” explained Rhode. Assad’s grandfather said: “Look at the way the Sunnis are treating the Jews in Palestine.”

Referring to the European refugee issue, Rhode asserted that “Europe no longer believes in itself.”

He said that at a recent conference in Israel an Italian spoke about the need for North African Muslim immigrants in his country and how they are the smartest and most educated Arab Muslims. The Italian wanted to bring them to Italy so that they could become doctors and treat Italians in their old age, since Italy suffers from a low birthrate.

“I blurted out, ‘That means Italy will become Muslim. You have a great culture and it means the end of your culture.’ The Italian responded, ‘What else can we do?’”


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