The lonely Arab crowd

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

In the Colom­bian philoso­pher San­ti­ago Cas­tro-Gomez de­scribes René Descartes’s 1637 dec­la­ra­tion “I think, there­fore I am” as the mo­ment white Euro­peans in­stalled them­selves above God as the sole ar­biters of knowl­edge and truth. With this turn­ing point, they be­gan to think of them­selves as ob­servers whose sci­en­tific meth­ods, morals, and ethics over­rode those of other cul­tures.

Cul­tural “zero points” are im­por­tant be­cause they serve as a di­vid­ing line – a clear de­mar­ca­tion of “be­fore” and “af­ter” that holds fun­da­men­tal im­pli­ca­tions for the de­vel­op­ment of pri­vate and pub­lic life. So it is in­struc­tive to con­sider the im­pli­ca­tions of Cas­tro-Gomez’s con­cept for the Arab world. In­deed, it could be ar­gued that much of the re­gion’s trou­bles are at­trib­ut­able to the ab­sence of an in­dige­nous “zero point” onto which a mod­ern cul­ture could be stur­dily pinned.

In the Amer­i­can so­ci­ol­o­gist David Ries­man iden­ti­fied three broad cul­tural types: tra­di­tiondi­rected cul­tures that look to in­her­ited rituals, morals, and val­ues for guid­ance; in­ner-di­rected cul­tures, in which peo­ple be­have ac­cord­ing to self-nour­ished val­ues; and oth­erdi­rected cul­tures that re­act pre­dom­i­nantly to ex­ter­nal norms and peer in­flu­ences.

Ries­man’s frame­work has par­tic­u­lar res­o­nance in the Arab world to­day, where ris­ing lit­er­acy rates and rapid ad­vances in com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy have stirred a mael­strom of com­pet­ing cul­tural nar­ra­tives, with his three types com­pet­ing to de­fine the re­gion’s fu­ture.

Iron­i­cally, it is the com­bi­na­tion of in­creased lit­er­acy and mod­ern tech­nol­ogy that is fan­ning the flames of con­flict be­tween the two types of “re­form­ers” – religious re­vival­ists and Western-ori­ented mod­ernisers. Tak­ing ad­van­tage of their abil­ity to mass-pro­duce and in­stantly dis­sem­i­nate an­cient religious texts and Western-orig­i­nat­ing lit­er­a­ture, the two camps bat­tle for the hearts and minds of oth­er­wise tra­di­tional so­ci­eties.

Ac­cord­ing to the Le­banese pub­lisher Sa­mar Abou-Zeid, how­ever, religious books are among the most down­loaded works of lit­er­a­ture in the Arab world.

The trou­ble is that most religious texts con­sumed to­day in the Arab world ad­dress an au­di­ence of spe­cial­ists that no longer ex­ists and – as Ries­man warned – they are of­ten mis­con­strued. The peo­ple and the times for which th­ese texts were writ­ten are com­pletely dif­fer­ent from the peo­ple read­ing them to­day.

De­vout Mus­lims, of course, have their own zero point: the year 610, when the An­gel Gabriel re­vealed the Ko­ran’s first verse to the Prophet Muham­mad. From then on, many Mus­lims have re­garded them­selves as the bear­ers of a right­eous truth and moral vi­sion that takes prece­dence over all oth­ers.

This has inevitably put religious re­vival­ists in op­po­si­tion to the se­cond cul­tural type vy­ing for pre­em­i­nence in the Arab world: western-ed­u­cated, in­ner-di­rected mod­ernists who hold Descartes’s dec­la­ra­tion as their ref­er­ence point. Th­ese Arabs – of­ten the eco­nomic elite – read, ad­mire, and con­sume prod­ucts of a cul­ture that, de­spite its pro­claimed com­mit­ment to “uni­ver­sal val­ues,” con­tin­ues to be stingily Euro­cen­tric and dom­i­nated by Chris­tian in­tel­lec­tual tra­di­tion. As a re­sult, they are in­creas­ingly likely to feel like ex­iles both at home and abroad.

The fi­nal, other-di­rected strand of Arab cul­ture is ar­guably the most dom­i­nant: those whom Ries­man would have called the “lonely Arab crowd.” Free of roots or tra­di­tion, they take refuge in su­per­fi­cial­ity from the con­flicts that sur­round them, seek­ing ful­fill­ment in con­sumerism, ca­reers, and life­styles. Their zero point is the lat­est fad or fash­ion.

This cul­tural tur­bu­lence is due – at least in part – to the ab­sence of a con­tem­po­rary home­grown in­tel­lec­tual tra­di­tion ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing Arab so­ci­eties with an in­ner com­pass based on lo­cal val­ues and mod­ern per­spec­tives. This cul­tural vac­uum is most ev­i­dent in the mis­match be­tween the re­gion’s read­ing habits and the re­sponse of its pub­lish­ing in­dus­try.

Egyp­tians, for ex­am­ple, read for an av­er­age of 7.5 hours per week, com­pared to five hours and 42 min­utes in the United States. And yet in 2012, ac­cord­ing to Abou-Zeid, the en­tire Arab world and its 362 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants pro­duced just over 15,000 ti­tles, putting it in the same league as Ro­ma­nia (with a pop­u­la­tion of 21.3 mil­lion), Ukraine (45.6 mil­lion), or the Amer­i­can pub­lisher Pen­guin Ran­dom House. To main­tain a sim­i­lar pro­por­tion to pop­u­la­tion, the Arab world should be pub­lish­ing 10-20 times more ti­tles than it does to­day.

The dom­i­nance of old religious texts and Western­pro­duced works has left mod­ern Arab read­ers po­larised, with­out a zero point of their own. It is ironic that in­creased lit­er­acy and adop­tion of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy have con­trib­uted not to in­tel­lec­tual growth, but to re­gional strife. It may be no co­in­ci­dence that Le­banon, one of the first coun­tries in the re­gion to boost lit­er­acy rates, was also the first to tum­ble into civil war.

Un­less Arab and Mus­lim so­ci­eties re­dis­cover, re­vi­talise, and in some re­spects cre­ate their home­grown con­tem­po­rary in­tel­lec­tual tra­di­tion, the re­sult will be cul­tural drift or, far worse, the con­tin­u­a­tion of bloody civil strife.

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