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The Prisons of the Arab Mind Print E-mail
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by Tarek Heggy
Exclusive for Al Waref 
 

I have been studying the Arab mindset for the last four decades from several perspectives. For a start, I myself am a product of this Arabic-speaking region and was able to study the phenomenon from the perspective of an 'insider' as it were, as well as from my vantage point as a researcher.

I also had the opportunity to interact with the Arab mindset and culture from a different angle during my years as chairman & CEO of a multinational oil company in the Arab region, when I worked in close proximity with the end product of Arab culture, so to speak – the Arabic-speaking worker in the work environment. The fourth and final perspective from which I interacted with Arab culture and the Arab mindset was when I was called upon to lecture to post-graduate students at a number of universities in various Arab countries on subjects related to modern management sciences and techniques.

The insight into the contemporary Arab mindset that I was able to develop from all these perspectives, in addition to my consuming interest in and close follow-up of the phenomenon over the last four decades, led me to reach the conclusions laid out in my latest book, Arab Culture Enchained, soon to be published by Cambridge University Press. In the book, I describe the Arab mindset as a prisoner held captive within three prisons or shackled with three chains. The first chain is a regressive, dogmatic interpretation of religion that is totally at odds with the realities of the age, with science and civilization. The second is a culture that is not only totally divorced from science and progress as a result of Arab history and the geopolitics of the Arabian peninsula, but, more important, has produced educational institutions and programmes that, rather than foster the values of progress and humanity, actively promote a xenophobic rejection of these values. The third chain holding the Arab mindset back from embracing the spirit of the age is a philosophical dilemma which renders it unable to develop a proper understanding of progress and modernity, and drives it to reject such notions as an invasion of its cultural specificity and civilizational legacy.

The first chain weighing the Arab mindset down and preventing it from joining the march of human progress which, according to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, is moving towards the attainment of transcendental idealism, is the regressive, medieval, Bedouin understanding of religion. A large number of modern-day Muslims have never been presented with an interpretation of religion other than the one propagated by the enemies of reason and free thinking, from Ibn Hanbal in the tenth century to the founder of the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance in the Arabian Peninsula in 1744 (Mohamed ibn-Abdul Wahab, the spiritual father of Wahhabism, whose message was merged after his death with the ideas of Abul 'Alaa Al-Mawdoody) to the ideas of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. More recently, an Islamic state established three quarters of a century ago (the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) took it upon itself not only to stand as the embodiment of this brand of Islam but to export its understanding and spread its message to every corner of the world. In that version of Islam there is no room for the Other (Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or otherwise); there can be no equality between men and women nor peaceful coexistence with others, no possibility of allowing the human mind to explore new horizons, no scope for creativity or imaginative thinking. So firmly entrenched in the past is this harsh and uncompromising brand of Islam that it does not allow for the proper interpretation of the word jihad as meaning the use of force only in self-defense against outside aggression but continues to use the interpretation adopted by Bedouin tribes in the Middle Ages, which is the imposition of their religious beliefs on the whole of humanity by force of arms.

Nine centuries ago, the world of Islam was the scene of a battle of ideas between two trends. One trend, which upheld the primacy of reason, began with the Mu'tazalites and was taken to new Aristotelian heights by Ibn Rushd, who lived in Andalusia just over eight centuries ago. The other opposed the use of reason in the interpretation of holy texts, upholding orthodoxy and tradition and spurning deductive reasoning altogether. This latter trend had many prominent adherents, including Ahmed ibn-Hanbal, one of the four Sunni imams, and Abu Hamed Al-Ghazzali, the noted Islamic jurist. Unfortunately for Muslims, the school which favoured unquestioning adherence to tradition over the use of critical faculties prevailed. The defeat of the school of reason was symbolically represented in the burning of Ibn Rushd's works by the authorities, who elevated the stature of Al-Ghazzali to towering heights by bestowing on him the name "Hujat al Islam" (the authority on Islam). Exalting a man who did not believe the human mind capable of grasping the Truth as ordained by God set into motion a process that continues to this day with devastating effects on the Arab mindset, which has become insular, regressive and unreceptive to new ideas.

The second chain shackling the Arab mindset is a cultural climate which has encouraged the spread of tribal values, including such negative values as individualism (instead of tolerance) and insularity (instead of open-mindedness). As a result, Arab societies were unable to receive and assimilate the values of pluralism, acceptance of the Other, a belief in the universality of knowledge and science, acceptance of the human rights movement and the movement for women's rights – not to mention an institutional rejection of the most important achievement of human civilization, democracy. Educational systems in Arab societies reflect the prevailing cultural climate, which stands as a barrier between the Arab mindset and the march of human progress. One need only look at the educational systems in force in a country like Saudi Arabia to realize that they are creating generations totally unequipped to deal with the realities of the age. Indeed, it is enough to see the opinion leaders of that society to realize how strong the organic link between the cultural/educational climate and the insular, backward-looking ethos in some Arab societies.

Finally, the religious, educational, cultural and media institutions in Arabic-speaking societies have created a mindset that considers the call for progress and modernity a call to accept a cultural invasion and the loss of cultural specificity.

The problem of Arabic-speaking societies as well as of some non-Arab Muslim societies will not be solved by military confrontations, security measures or economic rewards and/or punishments. None of these measures address the core issue, which is essentially one of culture and knowledge. Accordingly, the most effective way of dealing with the problem is by adopting a level-headed approach based on a thorough understanding of the reasons behind the distinctive characteristics displayed by the contemporary Arab mindset.

 

*Tarek Heggy has  twenty books published in Arabic and English (including five devoted exclusively to the Arab mindset and Arab culture).  He is the 2008 winner of Italy's top prize for literature "Grinzane Cavour".


 

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