Wednesday, January 19, 2011

No light at the end of the tunnel

Salman Masalha

No light at the end of the tunnel

Relax. What happened in Tunisia is not about to repeat itself in other Arab states. The toppling of a dictator by a popular uprising indeed brings a breath of fresh air and perhaps even a ray of hope to many in the region, but there is still a long way to go before we can celebrate democracy there.

First of all, we have to wait and see if democratic elections are indeed held in Tunisia in two months, with more than one candidate for president and more than one party. If not, then everything has remained the same.

Secondly, Tunisia is not like the other Arab states to its east, because 99 percent of its population is Sunni Muslim. So anyone imagining anything like the Tunisian scenario in other Arab countries is dreaming: He does not understand the forces at work on the ground and has not considered these states' ethnic, religious and governmental structures.

Since the colonial powers retreated, the Arab world has not succeeded in building even one nation-state worthy of the name. The state of Iraq, for example, has not created an Iraqi people, nor has the state of Syria created a Syrian people. In both countries, dictatorship was the only glue that held all the pieces of the religious, ethnic and tribal puzzle together. When the dictatorship fell in Iraq, the whole Iraqi entity collapsed.

A Tunisian scenario is impossible in states composed of collections of tribes and religious communities and ruled by tribal regimes that behave according to ancient traditions of repression. A popular uprising in such a place poses an existential threat to the tribal and sectarian regime, so the regime will perpetrate a bloodbath against the rebels before giving way to yet another repressive regime.

The failure of Arab nationalism to create a civilian nation-state worthy of the name is what brought about the rise of Islam. But this is a mirage, harking back to a distant past. The nostalgia for the "glorious" past is the most prominent expression of these societies' impotence in the present. The backwardness of the Arab world is evident everywhere: in education, health, rising unemployment and pervasive government corruption.

In this world, there is no creativity in any sphere. This is a world of strident consumerism with no hope on the horizon. This is a world in which rulers in their final days bequeath the regime and its corruption to their sons, who will most likely continue their fathers' repression and corruption until the next bloody regime change, and the next.

The Arab world has a ready explanation for all its troubles: a Jewish, Zionist and imperialist conspiracy. Expressions of this conspiracy include distributing chewing gum that causes sexual arousal in women, an intent to corrupt Arab culture and society, and dispatching guided sharks to attack tourists on the Sinai coast in order to destroy Egypt's tourism industry. Spreading infantile tales such as these is a type of opium for the ignorant masses, who seize upon the "Zionist conspiracy" and fall into a stupor. In the Arab world, the "Zionist conspiracy" opiate provides an easy and safe way to avoid genuinely confronting the problems at home.

Disasters and failures are unable to spark genuine debate. The reasons for this are structural, rooted in the Arab-Islamic culture, because unlike other cultures, Islamic culture has not created mechanisms for self-criticism. There is not a single tradition attributed to the Prophet Mohammed that requires the Muslim believer to engage in self-criticism.

The absence of such a principle is the root of this society's problems, because self-criticism in a culture is a mechanism that makes correction possible. Without such a mechanism there will be no correction. And that is why it is difficult to see any light at the end of the tunnel.
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Published: Op-Ed, Haaretz, January 19, 2011

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For Hebrew, press here
For Italian, press here
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Arabic article on the same topic, press here
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