Salman Masalha ||
Light comes from the West, nostalgia from the Middle East
For years, Arabs have learned about their glorious past and the greatness of Islam. And for years, Arab intellectuals have made the fundamentally erroneous claim that the root of the Arabs’ miserable condition lies in the hundreds of years of Ottoman rule. The amusing part is that the Turks claim Turkey was left behind due to Arab rule.
Arab intellectual discourse found other excuses, too. It cast the blame on Western imperialism, and not only that. Since the middle of the last century, another cherry has been added to the whipped cream of excuses: The source of Arab backwardness is Israel, of course.
The Arab nations were “liberated” from the yoke of Ottoman rule and imperialism long ago. They have been living in independent states for dozens of years. Officers even booted out the kings and established regimes that decked themselves out in the colorful plumage of pan-Arab nationalism, socialism, democracy, progress, and so forth.
Who prevented them from investing in education, developing their economies and advancing their societies? The Ottomans, who no longer exist? Imperialism, which has retreated? Israel?
All the sweet slogans and all the crowns the Arab regimes gave themselves were devoid of content.
United Nations reports on the state of human development in the Arab world compared to the rest of the world reveal the bitter truth. The Arab illiteracy rate, for instance, is among the highest in the world, and the percentage of people attending school is even lower than it is in developing countries.
All their oil wealth exists only on paper from the standpoint of the Arab people, for the gross domestic product of all the Arab states together doesn’t equal that of Spain alone. And the Arab world’s investment in research and development is among the lowest in the world.
The global knowledge revolution hasn’t penetrated the Arab world. The Arab world doesn’t participate in either acquiring or translating knowledge, to say nothing of creating it.
The number of books translated every year in Spain alone is equal to all the books ever translated into Arabic since recorded history began, according to the UN reports.
If so, it’s no wonder that, in the rankings of the world’s best universities, not a single university from the Arab or Muslim worlds appears. By comparison, three Israeli universities made the top 100 list.
Muslim “intellectuals” have been reiterating for generations that all truth and knowledge can be found in the Koran. Anyone who holds such a view, like a donkey, is guaranteed to remain behind forever.
The great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun dissected this view way back in the 14th century. When the Muslims conquered Persia, he recounted, a huge trove of Persian scientific writings fell into their hands. The commander asked permission from the Muslim caliph, Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, to translate them for the benefit of Muslims. The caliph’s response was, “Throw them into the water, for if there’s anything in them that guides one toward the right path, Allah has given us a better guide. And if there’s anything in them that would lead one to stray from the right path, Allah has spared us this.” And thus, all the wealth of Persian culture was thrown into the water or burned.
The imaginary faith of the Arab past is the principal obstacle facing these nations. Someone whose eyes are always fixed on the past will never see the future. Arab nostalgia for the past has turned into an incurable illness.
More than anything, it show the impotence of this society in the here and now. Both Arab tribalism and the Islamic faith are built on patriarchal foundations and leave no space for the individual to live and create - all the more so if the individual happens to be female.
“It’s true the sun rises in the east,” wrote Egyptian author Salama Moussa in the 1920s, “but light comes to us from the West.” The Arab world needs a real revolution that will give a bill of divorce to its tribal and religious past. Without this, the Arabs will never experience a renaissance.
Published: Opinions-Haaretz, Aug. 27, 2013