Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 July 2009
Issue No. 956
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

None but us to blame

While imperialism has left its mark on the Arab region, it alone cannot be blamed for the failure of the Arabs to build modern states, writes Hussain Abdul-Hussain*

So far America and the world have tried several tactics in the Middle East since 2003. The United States unilaterally toppled Iraq's autocrat, Saddam Hussein, using military power, while the world multilaterally supported a popular uprising in Lebanon, isolated the Syrian regime, and forced elections in the Palestinian territories. None of these policies have resulted in any significant gains in Arab public life.

America and Western capitals are now reversing their course as US troops withdraw from Iraqi cities and the world ignores the results of the June parliamentary elections in Lebanon, re-establishes links with Syria, and strives to revive a Palestinian national unity cabinet as a prerequisite for Palestinian-Israeli peace.

At the risk of sounding overly pessimistic, the new Western plans for the Middle East will soon prove futile. Many of these blueprints have been tested and failed in the past, and there is little reason to believe they will succeed now.

At face value, a lack of democracy stands behind the failure of Arabs in building modern states. But such a diagnosis only scratches the surface. Modern states need citizens, and these are nowhere to be found in Arab countries.

Citizenship is a modern concept that has been evolving in the West since the age of the European Renaissance. In its rudimentary definition, as per its early drafters Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, citizenship starts when the individual gives up on the usage of violence for self-defence. The individual then delegates to a group of elected officers the right to use violence on his or her behalf, for preserving security in public spheres.

Individuals also contribute parts of their income to provide officers, now part of a system called the state, with more tools to be used in the interest of the public. The system operates based on a social contract and constitution, also drafted based by the will of an absolute popular majority. The basic tenant of any constitution is the equality of all citizens before law, as opposed to older hierarchies based on divine right.

While the above description of state and citizens seems outdated and unnecessarily academic, it forms the cornerstone for any state building, in Arab or other countries. If not absorbed at a popular level, the Arab world will remain chaotic and no amount or combination of Western strategies will ever help change its situation.

The Arab world witnessed a glimpse of renaissance between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries. After being provoked by a vastly superior French force landing in Egypt, under Napoleon, Arab thinkers, mainly in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, strived to answer the question of "What went wrong?" by which the Arabs, once a leading civilisation, lost their world primacy and were relegated to Third World status.

The answer of Arab thinkers to that question varied at the time, and a vast amount of ink was spilled over how to restore Arabs to their former days of glory. Even though the answers were sometimes contradictory when some suggested the restoration of the Islamic state and others argued for modernisation and the endorsement of liberal values such as women's liberation, secularism and democracy, the debate -- later known as the Arab Renaissance -- was timely and sobering.

Then oil reserves were discovered in Arab lands and this proved to be a double-edged sword. While subsequent colossal revenues allowed for the building of modern infrastructure and the creation of jobs in the region, the mega- billions remained in the hands of religiously dogmatic conservatives from both branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia.

Conservatives as they are, they used money power to kill genuine debate and entrench the traditional tribal structure, the antithesis of the modern state. Popular understanding of the state went awry as the region took the direction of reinventing Islam in its most puritanical form, which in turn pushed the Arab peoples to further fanaticism, less debate and more misery.

As such, regime intellectuals were forced to come up with justifications for Arab failure; enter greedy Western imperialism, which the Arabs have been blaming for all their ills for more than a century now.

True America and Western capitals have committed grave errors in dealing with Arab peoples, but blaming others for all of one's faults can hardly be a remedy. After all, India -- a rising power now -- won its independence from imperial Britain in 1947; a few years after most Arab countries -- still struggling to figure out how to build a state until today -- had been independent.

Reform from the inside out is the best bet for an Arab future. This starts by cutting free from endless and unfounded conspiracy theories that blame "the other". This should be followed by building proper understanding of religion as an act of personal faith, rather than a blueprint for state-building, and the acknowledgement of individual equal rights and liberties, for all men and women.

Blaming America, Britain and domestic leaders will not cut it for Arab development. After all, Arab leaders are only the product of their own societies and are its reflection. When society is fixed, Arab states will get leaders who match their aspirations. Until then, free spirited debate is the best path towards finding proper answers to the new and old question, "What went wrong?"

* The writer is a journalist based in Washington, DC.

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