Crisis in Arab civilization

In a globalizing world, deeply ingrained traditions and value systems have outlived themselves.

arab gunners in latrun b&w 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
arab gunners in latrun b&w 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
There has never been such a thing as the “Arab Spring”; a true Arab spring can only develop when the Arabs start developing civil societies. But until now the value systems of ethnicity and tribalism, which fit organically within the value system of Islam, have been crippling obstacles to the development of such Arab civil societies, societies in which politicians peacefully transfer power to the newly elected.
Because of the lack of independent civil institutions which neutrally guarantee the continuation of the state, the only effective way of running an Arab nation-state is by dictatorship. The sense of loyalty to the state is weak compared to the sense of loyalty to the tribe and the religion. Corruption and tribalism always appear as twins. Therefore, expectations that a Palestinian state-to-be would function as Denmark is a cruel illusion. Only the introduction of the basic elements of a vital civil society can force a dramatic change in the Arab world, which is struggling with existential questions.
In order to find their place among the great nations of the world, the various tribes, ethnicities and peoples of the Arab and Islamic world have to find a way to overcome the traditions which have been part of their survival strategies – with often amazing success – since the seventh century. In a globalizing world these deeply ingrained traditions and value systems have outlived themselves.
The process of decay started about 200 years ago, after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, and took a structural downwards turn with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Various solutions have been tested to prevent the Arab-Islamic way of life from imploding, from pan-Arabism to extreme religiosity. In the present world, which demands radical levels of individuality, equality between the sexes, personal autonomy, creativity, the ability to question authority and to do research and development without the limitations of religion or self-censorship, the tested Arab and Islamic value systems have proven to be impotent. The Arab nations cannot participate in the great adventure of human progress but are being crippled by paralyzing cultural traditions.
The cruel violence among ethnic and tribal brothers in Syria is indicative for the depth of the crisis in that civilization. No coalition of warriors can open the way to the creation of an open civil society. The identities of the groups are being defined by ethnicity and/or religious affiliation. If a coalition of warriors would be able to defeat the other coalitions, a new dictatorship will be created – and this new dictatorship can only equal the old one since there is no prospect of successfully suppressing the traditional value systems while introducing those of liberal open societies.
This is a bitter dilemma for the ruling classes running Arab dictatorships: giving up complete control over the security forces and media to freely elected politicians, the initial conditions for a civil society, leads automatically to unleashing the extremist powers which would immediately overthrow the ruling classes – in other words: giving up control is a form of suicide.
In order to legitimize their hold on power, dictatorships by definition need antagonists.
The ideal enemy is Israel, the land of the Jews, who have been ridiculed by the Arabs since the very beginning of the Islamic religion.
The obsession with Israel (which rules over a relatively small group of Arabs whose educational and medical situation is relatively better than those in most Arab countries and creates higher life expectancies than Turkey) is not restricted to the ruling and media classes.
Israel has to be destroyed, otherwise some of the core tenets of the Islamic religious revelation as described in the Koran will be proven to be false – which is impossible since the Koran is Allah’s book which has been devised before time existed.
According to Islamic theology, Jews have refused Mohammed’s message and therefore are condemned to live within precisely defined limitations as a second-class people.
It is impossible to accept a state run by Jews on soil considered to be part of the Islamic Arab cultural heritage – land which has been Islamic will be Islamic for ever. The issue is tiny in size (Israel is about the size of New Jersey), but enormous in meaning. Within the context of Islamic tradition, the existence of Israel is the denial of the truth of Mohammed’s acts and sayings.
In civil society, by its nature, church and state are separated – civil society can only be a secular society in which religious sensibilities belong to personal habits and preferences.
But Islam, which can be considered the universal and mostly monotheistic translation of tribal values, is an essential aspect of the Arabs’ identity. And because they lack the sense, and the institutions to carry it, of being individuals in a civil society, the culture of the Arabs is paralyzed in its own existential crisis, which is being fed with hatred of Israel, the ultimate “other,” the dynamic and prosperous and mighty denial of Islam’s truth and claim on the holy territory of Palestine.
World powers try to find an understanding with the non-Arab Islamic nation of Iran – which shows the same deficiencies as the Arab nations. Its religiously legitimized dictatorship cannot be but obsessed by Israel, which by its very existence is an actual denial of the Islamic message. The Iranian dictators can only function as protagonists focused on antagonists – they have to operate as warriors because they serve a universal religious message (“the world will be Islamic because of the truth of Islam”) which needs to be proven true in the real world. And the proof in the real world lies in the destruction of Israel.
Muslims can only liberate themselves from their cultural paralysis when they start accepting Israel’s existence. That means that they have to re-interpret Mohammed’s message.
A peace treaty with non-Arab Iran will be an empty gesture as long as Iran doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. The dilemma is: it cannot do that since by recognizing Israel, Iran would betray Mohammed’s message.
Destroying Israel is the ultimate consequence of Iran’s religious tenets and of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which is defining the direction of world history as a movement towards global Islam and the victory over world Jewry. No peace treaty can soften that ambition.
The political, religious and military leadership of Iran legitimizes its hold on power by the pledge to execute Allah’s will. So peace can only be established by a re-interpretation of Allah’s will as expressed in the Koran and the Hadith.
Nobody knows if that is possible. Still, Western nations should strictly keep on demanding the recognition of Israel; the only way to an Islamic reformation, and the road to Arab civil societies, lies in the re-interpretation of Mohammed’s legacy.
An Arab nation that can to live with Israel will automatically put in motion a cultural and religious reformation. Recognition of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is the only hope for the Arabs and Muslims to join the rest of mankind in healing the world.
The author is a novelist and political commentator for Holland’s main newspaper, De Telegraaf.