Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 July - 6 August 2008
Issue No. 908
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In Focus:

Galal Nassar

From cradle to grave

The disfiguring hallmark of Arab societies is their culture of fear, writes Galal Nassar

Writing is a leap out of the murderers' row.
Franz Kafka

A glance at the values and conduct of Arab citizens is enough to show how prevalent fear and intimidation have become. Fear is now one of the most pervasive factors in perpetuating political regimes. It holds back human and economic development, stymies the nuclear family and reaches into the highest echelons of power.

The political roots of fear are evident in the way individuals interact with their political systems but it is fear's social roots that are most compelling. This is as true of the family as it is of schools and the workplaces. The political and social realms overlap to reinforce and sustain a culture of fear.

The family is the earliest source of the culture, inclinations and conduct of individuals. The family is the crucial unit in the education of the children, shaping the social skills of each new generation.

What happens when the family tries to promote the interests of its own children while neglecting its civic duty? Children who watch their parents lie, bribe and help them cheat in exams internalise such behaviour. It is the worst form of education, for children have no way of challenging their parents. And the parents think they're doing everything they can for the children.

Such behaviour is the antithesis of a healthy upbringing. It robs children of the ability to interact confidently with the outside world. Insecurity reinforces fear. It leads to the kinds of erratic behaviour that are now a hallmark of our interaction with the outside world.

Minorities fare no better, providing an example of how fear is recycled and perpetuated. Mistrust of the majority leads minorities to channel allegiance to their community and spiritual leaders. Just as most children get their cues from the teachings of the family, minority children get their cues from religious institutions.

It is a vicious circle. Children cannot take a decision without consulting with their fathers. Wives cannot take action without consulting husbands. The children of minorities cannot break free from the views of the leaders of their community. Family, community and clan furnish a false sense of security and the resulting co-dependence makes it hard for the individual to interact meaningfully with the outside world. Fear grows from the dictates of the family and spills over into other social circles, including the workplace, the education system, places of worship and of entertainment.

The workplace in the Arab world stifles renovation, change and initiative. The same goes for our education systems. Schools and universities spread a culture of fear and of unilateral opinion, i.e. the opinion of the teacher or the professor. Workplaces and schools perpetuate the culture of fear and in doing so they reinforce the authoritarian structure of the family.

The infrastructure of fear in the Arab world has been shaped by the various functions of social and political units. This infrastructure may appear clearest in the political realm -- Arab regimes impose a whole range of restrictions on political expression, thinking it their duty to control all aspects of political life -- but it is as deep-rooted in the family, school and workplace.

Constant reliance on the services of various security agencies by the authorities discourages the public from involvement in political life. Many political activists pay a heavy price in terms of personal freedom. They endure constant harassment by security services and spend time in prison. Some are physically liquidated. The degree of repression varies from one Arab country to another. In some, it has been developed into an art form.

Take universities. Although some students engage in political activities the overwhelming majority plays it safe, avoiding political life altogether. Security services have used tear gas, beating and trained dogs to clamp down on student protests. As a result, a majority of students give politics a wide berth, even after graduating. The torture, humiliation and occasional dismissal of students takes it toll beyond the campus.

Universities, supposed to be guardians of debate and intellectual freedom, have, in the Arab world, become part and parcel of the infrastructure of fear. Universities have become a place where young people learn how to keep their mouths shut. And with university professors teaching subjects divorced from reality, the disconnection with everyday life is complete.

When the infrastructure of fear takes root people start spying on their neighbours. Security services recruit informants within various institutions, including the universities. Eventually students and teachers resort to self-censorship. This is the ultimate triumph of authoritarianism, the internalisation of fear, when one carries a private security antenna, a voice inside warns people to stay out of politics and spare themselves the pain. When matters reach this stage anyone who challenges the authorities is treated as a pariah, and not just by the authorities.

If the intimidation lasts long enough victims turn against each other. You find people defending the authorities, criticising anyone who dares belittle the powers that be. Personal interests have something to do with it, of course, for the authorities tend to be generous to those who defend them. Their supporters are showered with perks while the dissidents are left out, deprived and denied.

It is not difficult to name hundreds of outstanding people in the Arab world who are systematically denied the material and moral rewards they deserve. It is all part of the infrastructure of fear. And it afflicts not just politics. It is everywhere in our lives.

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