Sunday,09 December, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1410, (20 - 26 September 2018)
Sunday,09 December, 2018
Issue 1410, (20 - 26 September 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Arabs and Europeans: The way forward

Europe’s view of the Arabs today is rooted in the worst of feelings — fear. How did Europe and the Arab world arrive in this situation, asks Tarek Osman

From the advancement of Islam in the seventh century CE to take on the Byzantine Empire up until the 17th century, we — or, in the European perception, a hazy combination of Arabs, Muslims, Turks and Iranians that up until the early 20th century many in Europe used to call “Mohamedans” — stood in the European imagination as a threat to be encountered (often by invasions) or a wonder to be explored (often in romanticised narratives). This meant that our culture, the religion of the majority of us, our way of living, and our outlooks represented the opposites of those of Europe. Often, this ignited conflict, and often it fuelled mutual cultural enrichment. 

Things changed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Europe jumped over barriers of ignorance, but within their limitations we remained. After that, we ceased to be a threat or a wonder and became, in Europe’s eyes, at best laggards and at worst beyond the realm of civilisation. Crucially, we became much weaker than Europe. As a result, it dominated us. 

This domination lasted until the early 20th century when we managed through the brilliance and hard work of some of our best thinkers and doers, and through our opening up to many European ideas, to create genuine opportunities for advancement. During that time, it was our turn partly to see Europe as an opponent and partly as a wonder. At moments in the early 20th century, there seemed to be a chance that our advancement might get close to where Europe, or at least to where some of the slow-moving parts of the European body, were at the time. But the worst of us trumped the best of us, and we wasted such opportunities. The gap between Europe and us became larger and larger.

This brings us to today. 

 

TWO FEARS DOMINATE EUROPE’S VIEW OF THE ARABS: 

First, major sections of the Europeans are afraid of Islam coming to their societies. Most of Europe has moved beyond classic conceptions of religion. There, Christianity has evolved into a flexible, humane value system, willing to accommodate modernity, science, and individualism, effectively to any extent. In this evolution, Christian theology has become a mere background to the new cultural entity the religion has become in Europe. 

Islam has not undergone any of these changes. From Europe’s perspective, this makes Islam inflexible and raises acute questions about its compatibility with Western culture and modernity. Add to that the fact that it was from within Islamic parts of the world that arose the biggest wave of small-scale violence to have struck the globe in the last 40 years. (Large-scale violence was, and remains, the preserve of primarily Western countries.) This small-scale violence has already attacked Europe several times in the last two decades. Plus, there are other old memories, still alive in some parts of Europe, of “Mohamedans” being the “other”. The combined effect of all this has been a widespread apprehension about Islam and Muslims in Europe. 

Second, there is the assimilation problem. Large groups of Europeans feel that Muslims in Europe have not really assimilated in their new societies. Assimilation here is not about economic integration or respect for the law, but about the internalisation of the European value system. The issue transcends looks (the veil, etc). Instead, it is about an assessment by many Europeans that the vast majority of those coming to Europe from Islamic backgrounds could well be valuable economic agents and law-abiding citizens, but they would not be true Europeans. 

This view of assimilation is a product of the European experience. It did not exist in America, where “being American” was a flexible notion that people from various cultural backgrounds could assimilate into. This was natural for a new society made up of immigrants trying to conquer a vast continent under a vision that saw the new country as a shining city, high up on a hill, that the rest of humanity would in time come to admire and emulate. (The situation in America has changed significantly with the re-emergence of acute-nativism there in the last decade and its merger with the right-wing, literalist Christianity that has been a major force in American politics since the late 1970s.) 

In Europe, however, “being European” (varied as that is) has always been confined to the myriad of the “founding cultures” that had formed the earliest conceptions of Europe (arguably in the eighth and ninth centuries CE). “Being European” underwent different evolutions during the Renaissance and after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, as a result of a long struggle between the sacred and the secular, the class revolts of the 19th century, and of course in the aftermaths of the last century’s World Wars. 

However, throughout all of this the cultural backbone remained the same. This made Europe believe that its current value system and its way(s) of living today are extremely precious, for they are the product of a long journey, by and within its different societies, to arrive at peace, harmony, and prosperity and to sculpt a statue of beauty that many in the continent believe comes close to perfection. 

Any group that comes to Europe and subtly refuses, or fails, to assimilate with (and within) that European value system will be seen as not European. (Of course, there has also been the deep-seated emotional rejection, and often bigotry, of many Europeans towards the newcomers.) Irrespective of the reasons, however, the fact that this group is made up of Muslims (with all the historical and current baggage this entails) makes the assimilation issue more alarming for many Europeans. 

What fans the flames is the fact that recent waves of Arab immigrants have been much larger than anything Europe has seen in over half a century. These are coming at a time when Europe is confronting acute political and economic problems of the sort it has not witnessed in decades. As a result, old fears are reignited in already anxious minds.

 

EUROPE IS RESPONDING WITH CONTAINMENT RESTING ON FOUR ELEMENTS: 

First, the largest number of displaced people in the Arab world (most recently from Syria) must be accommodated in the region. This is why Europe supports countries hosting the largest numbers of refugees, is keen to be involved in the design of a reconstruction programme in Syria if and when there is an acceptable and viable political settlement, and closely follows troubled areas in the region.

Second, Europe needs to ensure that the number of potentially desperate people willing to risk their lives to reach the northern shores of the Mediterranean does not swell. This implies that Europe must ensure that the biggest demographic concentrations in the eastern and southern Mediterranean do not face acute problems. Of course, an improvement in these countries’ economic conditions is a desirable European objective, because it entails the creation of jobs that would absorb the growing demographics. 

The third element of containment is intended to isolate developments in the Arab world from becoming givens in the European strategic calculus. In other words, Europe wants to make sure that further deterioration in the Arab world does not force Europe into certain defence, political, or economic policies. There is a strategic imperative here that rests on two premises. 

The first is that from the European perspective the Arab world has become a laggard, and one that save for its oil wealth could well become a major burden. Second, this moment is history is one of immense transformation: there is the rise of China, an economically declining and potentially antagonised Russia, a US whose commitment to European defence is far from certain, divisions within the European Union regarding its shape and future, and, with all of that, colossal technological changes that will reinvent socio-economic and public policy. Europe (effectively an empire forging its way amidst these changes) does not want its resources squandered on reacting to the problems of its laggard of a neighbour (the Arab world). It wants to focus on the moves of its advancing partners and competitors (the other empires).

Strange as it may sound, within containment, rests compassion. For Europe, its ability to act compassionately to lessen the impacts of some of the crises the Arab world suffers from is a manifestation of its own values. It is interesting to reflect on the rhetoric that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has used in explaining to the German public the rationale behind her decision to allow a million Syrians to enter the country. At the heart of her rhetoric, the significance of the decision was about what it means to the idea of Europeaness, as much as what it means to the lives of those who will be granted entry. Moreover, for Europe compassion is a feature of prosperity. For rich societies that see themselves as having arrived at a certain level of human enlightenment, the reaching out to help others, for example by becoming major donors of development projects in poor places such as the Arab world, is a key tenet of such societies’ views of themselves. 

For the Arab world, the fact of the matter is that Europe is its largest donor in almost all aspects of humanitarian and economic needs. And this brings us home: to the Arabs.

 

LOOKING BACK IN ANGER: 

The Arab world used to look back in bewilderment, and often in anger. For at least two centuries, scores of Arabs and Muslims have pondered “where we were” (builders and custodians of one the Middle Ages’ greatest civilisations) and “where we are” (far from where power in the world is and human achievements are). 

Repeatedly, that reflection gave rise to anger — at the “colonialists who plundered us”, at the “local rulers who took over from them and proved corrupt”, and often “at the people, the masses, who are ignorant and are condemning ‘us’ to our current situation”. As much as this reflection at times generated introspection that fuelled development (for example, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), at other times, especially in the last half century, it has generated anger that has bred antagonism, aggression, and confusion. 

 

LOOKING FORWARD WITH DESIRE: 

Something interesting is happening, though. The new generation currently dominating the Arab world (the 160 million in their teens, 20s, and early 30s) is not really angry. They are hungry, in the way “hunger” is defined in the finance or sales industries. They are hungry for entertainment, sex, decent living conditions, new technologies, and, surprisingly for many, knowledge, though how they define “knowledge” is often intriguing. 

Because of the deterioration in Arab educational systems over the last half century, the vast majority of this new generation does not know much about its history. The dangers of that are clear. But one notable consequence is that the majority are not encumbered by what was, what could have been, who did what, why, or how. This generation is concerned with the now. 

They are huge in numbers. They live in extremely crowded, polluted, noisy cities. They see the world (through the Internet), but they do not experience it because their world is limited and limiting. Perhaps because of the pace of their age, the technologies they grew up with, and even the music and games and videos they delve into, they also do not understand patience as older generations do. They want their desires to materialise now. 

 

THE SOLUTION IS ON THE OPPOSITE SIDE OF FEAR: 

Strategy is an overrated discipline. Over the last half century, it has produced some of the most impressive-sounding and presented mental models, analysis-tools, and decision-making processes. But when it comes to predicting the variables that shape the future, and prescribing what should be done about them, its record has been dismal. And so any approach anchored in geo-strategy will almost certainly fail to take the Arab world away from its ills and fail to dissolve the corresponding state of fear in Europe.

Geo-strategists might argue that this fear is merited, and that those tens of millions of young Arabs embody nothing but peril to the European ideal. However, this would be just another failure in seeing the dynamics of the future — for, again, it is desire, rather than anger, that fuels the vast majority among this generation of Arabs.

The classic recipe, in which both Arabs and Europeans can and must cooperate, is based on two elements. The first is a new form of education for children and young adults, in which their minds are engaged and stirred, rather than indoctrinated. The second is about supporting the creation of jobs in small and medium-sized enterprises — the domain of employment where the vast majority of those young adults could have a chance of finding jobs in the coming two decades.

In both of these areas, governments (Arab and European) could make a difference. But social development is like navigating in a fog. It helps to steer the ship in the right trajectory. But survival and success are always in the hands of the crew. 

That crew is the young generation of Arabs. The mistake will be to try to control them. Both Arab and European circles of influence must grow out of top-down, condescending views of those millions of young Arabs. Those circles of influence must respect the young Arabs’ rights to their own wants and desires. And if those circles of influence want a safe arrival in a calm harbour, they must support the materialisation of those wants. With that, true meanings in the lives of those young Arabs will take root. And with that, the vast majority will build, grow, and truly live in their own lands, which are rich and giving. 

On the other hand, if those circles of influence treat these young Arabs with condescension, this will put their backs up. If they try to dominate them, they will sooner rather than later rebel. And if their ideas about society, religion, culture, love, and markets are ignored, they will go underground and slowly but surely will give rise to disruptive ways of doing things. Specifically, Europe must not look at them as a plague, for that will create within them a sense of insult. And that will ignite a new flame of anger. 

If there is to be cooperation between Arabs and Europeans that goes beyond support in truly empowering education and job-creation, it will mean adopting the mindset that the tens of millions of young Arabs must be respected. And true respect is nothing if it does not manifest itself as giving them the freedom to create what they want to create. With freedom, the creativity of thinkers and artists, and new streams of ideas, will inspire that young generation to search within itself for brightness, richness, and beauty — the “must-haves” the members of this generation need to grow out of the ills they inherited and did not contribute to. 

Policy-makers typically fail to understand the power of the respect for rights and freedom and how gradually these things lead to real growth and development. But it is through the realisation of this magical combination that many compounded ills, and their corresponding fears, will collapse.


The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (Yale University Press, 2017).

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