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vendredi 13 mars 2009

Bernard Lewis and the future of Arab Freedom..

Historian Bernard Lewis breathes a fresh perspective into the cultural conflict between the Arab and Islamic world and the west. Even as early as 1950, he had thought that the end of this conflict with the west would come from Moslems themselves if they could find a way to modernize themselves, rather than going back into the conservative, non progressive radicalist ideology.

Today I was reading an article by Bernard Lewis, a British Jew, now considered to be most erudite historian of Islam and its people and a doyen of Middle Eastern studies in America and the most influential post war historian of islam and the Middle East…and there are many more accolades.

The article was in March-April Issue of FOREIGN AFFAIRS, a very influential monthly of western analysis of what happens around the world. The title of the article is Free at last? The Arab world in the 21st century.

I would like to summarize the article.

Until recently, Arabs (like the Indians in India) have been ruledby outsiders; Europeans and then Ottomans.

After the death of Gamel Abdel Nassr of Egypt, there has not been any great Arab leader and the idea of Pan Arabism has come to an end.

There are sizeable minority of non arab moslems who live in Arab lands who are beginning to clammer for some form of freedom. They include: Kurds in Iraq, Syria and also in Iran and Turkey. Berbers in North Africa.  (Zidane the French football star is of Berber origin, as are a large proportion of so called “ arabs” living in France).

Arab refusal to recognize the existence of Israel for the past sixty years is a serious problem. ( four wars fought, all won by Israel). Some demagogues in Asia (notably Mahathir of Malaysia) also had taken this blind approach, mainly in countries which had converted to Islam. ( A good read is VS Naipaul’s book on The Land of Believers).

The Oil wealth has actually increased Autocracy of rule and actually has decreased economic development.

Over the last quarter of a century, real GDP per capita has fallen throughout the arab world.  1999 GDP of all arab states was 532.2 billion dollars, similar to that of Spain. Today the total non-oil exportsof the entire arab world ( more than 300 million in population) amounts to less than that of Finland( less than 5 million in population).

The number of books translated into Arabic in the entire arab world is 1/5 of books translated into Greek in Greece. The number of books, original or translated, per million people is at a dismal low level, much lower than asia. (the above also applies to Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapour but not to India. The lowest number of books published per million is in Sub Saharan Africa)

In the field of Science and Technology, the news is BAD.

Israel registered 7652 patents in 20 years in the international arena. Egypt 77 Saudi Arabia 171Kuwait 52 Jordan 15 Syria 20

Compare this to South Korea 16 328.

The Arab world also has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world.

There is a list published of the 500 best universities in the world which is revised annually. None of the 200 universities in the arab world has made into the list ; not even into the less restrictive Asia Pacific section of the list.

This cannot be attributed to the “imperialists” but to the people themselves.


The primary one is the lack of power of Women.

Only Iraq and Tunisia has some form intellectual freedom given to women, so that they can become judges, journalists, lawyers.

Treatment of Immigrants to the Arab world. We are always talking about the treatment of the  arab immigrants to the west but very seldom we hear about the sad plight of the immigrants to the arab world, such as the south Asians to UAE

The third is the Information Technology and the availability of information which the regimes are unable to control, so that the people with access to information, can gauge their progress within their individual countries and compare their levels of expressions and freedom with those of other countries. ( this may be a factor for Malays also in Malaysia. After 50 years of independence and unequal treatment of the immigrants, they are in no ways better off).


Some important milestones:

1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran

1991 Fall of the Soviet Union

US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan

All these events have given an impetus to the rise of radicalism.

Perhaps this very radicalism that would drive moderate arabs into making peace with Israel, since the threat from their home grown Islamic Militants is far more dangerous than the threats from Israel.

None of the Arab states could be said to represent their peoples consent or participation, but are governed on Loyalty or Obedience and oppression.

Under normal circumstances, opposition parties or groups will have to bow to democratic principles, but religious opposition parties like Hamas or Hizbullah don’t have to.

Lebanon is the only country in the region ( with the glaring exception of Israel) that has had any experience with democracy. Islamic theocracy leads to lesser development in the Islamic world. Democratization as has taken place in Lebanon, with healthy democratic rather than religious opposition parties may be a step ahead.

By choosing to treat themselves, including the intellectuals and women amidst them, and also the foreigners and immigrants, in a more just and equitable manner, perhaps the Arab society would define its place in the history of the 21st century.

Even though I am Jewish, I would very much like to see the Arab and Islamic societies move into the 21st century. The hypocrisy of going back to look for answers when every one is moving forward is metaphorically illustrated by designer veils in Iran and Malay girls wearing fashionable shoes and jeans and then cover their heads..

I also applaud France for limiting public expressions of private faith. School children cannot wear clothes which proclaim their religion, or symbols of the religion. Religion is a private matter and it should be held privately. Fundamentalism in any form is bad, in any religion. The fact that the conservative religious thinkers in the USA of various Christian sects have not produced any great intellectuals shows the probability that blind faith in a religion actually makes you blind.. to what is going around you, especially at a time, we are invited to participate, know, learn and enhance with all the wonderful things that is happening in this world..