A Ray of Arab Candor

A U.N. report by Middle-Eastern intellectuals blames Arab culture and Arab tyranny for Arab problems.

by Victor Davis Hanson

City Journal

The just-released Arab Human Development Report, commissioned by the United Nations and drafted by a group of Middle Eastern intellectuals, utterly confirms the deep pathology gripping the Arab world that Western analysts have long noted. Yet what was truly astounding about the account was less its findings than the honest acknowledgement that Arab problems are largely self-created.

Khalaf Hunaidi, who oversaw the economic portion of the analysis, remarked, “It’s not outsiders looking at Arab countries. It’s Arabs deciding for themselves.” And what they decided is sadly ample proof of Arab decline. Per capita income is dropping in the Arab world, even as it rises almost everywhere else. Productivity is stagnant; research and development are almost absent. Science and technology remain backward. Politics is infantile. And culture, in thrall to Islamic fundamentalism and closed to the ideas that quicken the intellectual life of the rest of the world, is “lagging behind” advanced nations, Hunaidi says.

Yet this novel panel of Arab intellectuals, remarkably, didn’t attribute the dismal condition of Middle Eastern society to the usual causes that Western intellectuals and academics have made so popular: racism and colonialism, multinational exploitation, Western political dominance, and all the other -isms and -ologies that we’ve grown accustomed to hear about from the Arabists on American university campuses.

Instead, the investigators cited the subjugation of women that robs Arab society of millions of brilliant minds. Political autocracy—either in the service of or in opposition to Islamic fundamentalism—ensures censorship, stifles creativity, or promotes corruption. Talented scientists and intellectuals are likely to emigrate and then stay put in the West, since there is neither a cultural nor an economic outlet for their talents back home but sure danger if they prove either honest or candid. The Internet remains hardly used. Greece, a country 30 times smaller than the Arab world, translates five times the number of books yearly.

The report didn’t give precise reasons for the growing Arab hostility toward the United States, but its findings lend credence to almost everything brave scholars like Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes have been saying for years. With exploding populations, and offering little hope for either material security or personal freedom, unelected governments in the Gulf, Egypt, and northern Africa have allowed their press the single “freedom” of venting popular frustration against a very successful Israel and the United States.

Instead of discussing elections in Egypt, debating the Sudanese government’s budget, or advocating academic freedom in Syria, state-run newspapers and television stations spin countless conspiracy theories about September 11. They dub the Jews subhuman and worse, promise eternal jihad against the West, and churn out elaborate explanations why a tiny country like Israel is responsible for everything from train wrecks in Cairo to lawlessness in Lebanon.

What can Americans learn from this newly honest Arab self-appraisal? We should put no more credence in the preposterous “postcolonial” theories that ad nauseam argue that Westerners are still to be blamed a half-century after the last Europeans vacated the Middle East. Post-Marxist analyses that claim international conglomerates stifle the Arab world are just as silly. Nor must we believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or our own support for Israel is the problem. Instead, the simple fact is that hundreds of millions of people are going backward in time in an age when global communications hourly remind them of their dismal futures. Frustration, pride, anger, envy, humiliation, spiritual helplessness—all the classical exegeses for war and conflict—far better explain the Arab world’s hostility toward a prosperous, confident, and free West.

But our own academic Left isn’t alone in misjudging the Middle East. The Realpolitik of our own government that allies us with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and other “moderate” Arab states offers little long-term hope for an improved relationship with people of the Middle East. It is no accident that America is more popular in countries whose awful governments hate us—Iraq and Iran, for example—than among the public of our so-called allies. Saudis, Kuwaitis, Pakistanis, and Egyptians, after all, have been murdering Americans far more frequently than have Iranians, Iraqis, and Syrians.

We have replaced our old legitimate fears of godless Marxism in the Middle East with new understandable worries over fanatical Islamic fundamentalism to justify our own continued support for corrupt dictatorships. Yet the old excuse that there is no middle class in the Arab world, no heritage of politics, and few secular moderates will no longer do. It should be our job to find true democrats, both in and outside of the existing governments, and then promote their interests at the expense of both the fundamentalists and the tribal grandees. Chaos, uncertainty, risk, and unpredictability may ensue, but all that is better than the murderous status quo of the current mess.

The contemporary Arab world is like the old communist domain of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, with its political and intellectual tyranny. We should accept that, and then adopt the same unyielding resolve to oppose governments that lie, oppress, and murder—until they totter and fall from their very own corrupt weight. There was a silent majority yearning to be free behind the Iron Curtain, and so we must believe that there is also one now, just as captive, in an unfree Middle East.

©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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