Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1412, (4 - 10 October 2018)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1412, (4 - 10 October 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Arabs and the future

Without looking ahead, the Arab world cannot progress. But future studies in present-day Arab societies runs up against significant cultural
and social obstacles, writes Awatef Abdel-Rahman


There has been a tremendous leap forward in future studies in the various social, political, economic and environmental fields, and governments across the world have increasingly come to rely on the analyses and forecasts of dozens of specialised future studies centres to design their domestic and foreign policies. Unfortunately, Arab and Muslim countries lag far behind in this domain. The reasons for this are primarily political and have to do with the lack of civil liberties, democracy, transparency and institutionalised government, and reliance on the wisdom of the “supreme leader”. Even the Arab think tanks that have ventured into future studies primarily confined themselves to translating the future analyses and projections produced by Western think tanks in spite of the differing premises on which those foreign organisations base their treatment of issues related to the Arab region. Moreover, when such translations exposed Western intent to secure control over Arab resources or to change Arab and Islamic value systems, the few future studies that were performed in the Arab world did not even try to criticise Western heritage in this domain, let alone perform alternative future studies for this region.

Unfortunately, future studies in Arab societies runs up against a major cultural dilemma. It is widely mistrusted as practice that threatens to violate centuries-old cultural and ideological taboos, or appear as a new form of the Western secularist, anti-religious ideological and cultural invasion that seeks to eradicate deeply rooted traditional cultures. Futurists have observed how rarely future studies are performed in the Arab world and that the little activity there is in this domain is restricted to narrow academic circles and, therefore, has not been incorporated into the fabric of social thought or practice in Arab societies from the grassroots up to the governmental level.

A major obstacle Arab futurists confront is the past-oriented culture that prevails among both urban and rural societies in the Arab world and among diverse political and cultural trends. Inherently hostile to futurism, it is a culture that has set its frame of reference in the past and confines itself to citing heroic feats and glorious models from the annals of history and gives no thought to how to go about building and shaping Arab societies on the basis of future scenarios that are, at once, socially desirable, realistic and feasible. In other words, we lack a culture favourable to managing Arab life in accordance with scientifically conceived, long-range plans that seek to transform a current reality encumbered by metaphysical attitudes, retrograde thought and bureaucratic restrictions into a forward-looking Arab reality that is commensurate to the illuminating heritage bequeathed by pioneering futurists among Arab and Muslim scientists, such as Al-Kindi, Ibn Rushd and the celebrated father of sociology Ibn Khaldoun. Nor, for that matter, can we ignore Al-Farabi’s Virtuous City which inspired the utopian visions of early Renaissance European philosophers, such as St Augustine, Thomas More and Francis Bacon.

Rational, critical futurist thought is the very antithesis of Salafi thought, which strives to build the future in imitation of the past. The prevailing Arab cultural environment is so unfriendly to futurist thought that it is commonly quipped, “the Arabs predict the past and remember the future.”

Advances in human knowledge, science and technology have given human beings vast capacities for choosing their collective and individual futures. This, in turn, has generated a remarkable development in the concept of the future and how people perceive it. No longer is the future a predestined inevitability, a fate written by supernatural forces to which mankind must simply bow in resignation. It is now perceived in terms of the laws of evolution, dialectical dynamics and the self-renewing capacities of life. The future is a chronological phase whose courses and dimensions can be controlled, which makes it possible for human beings to be effective partners in shaping the world of the future.

Most of the developmental challenges that, presumably, are of primary concern to the Arab region as a whole can only be studied in a long-term context. Arab integration and its role in achieving Arab development, the Arab-Israeli conflict, preparing for the post-petroleum era, climate change and water crises are all issues that need to be considered in terms of the long-range. The same applies to challenges posed by Western futurist projects, such as the Project for a New American Century (2002) which aims to redraw the regional map, change its identity and establish a new Middle Eastern regional order, not to mention Israeli future vision projects (ie Israel 2020 and Israel 2025). Such projects, which threaten Arab existence, as defined by its historical heritage and its present day political, economic, social and cultural components, underscore how urgent it is for the Arabs to conduct their own studies of the future, probe its horizons and set the matrix of principles in accordance with which they should proceed in the process of laying the theoretical and practical foundations for the Arab future.

According to futurist scholars, the importance of a scientifically-based forecast of the Arab future cannot be overstated. Without one, decision-makers will remain unable to handle new developments and address current challenges, especially those that have arisen as part of the repercussions of the Arab Spring revolutions, the fall of corrupt dictatorships and the rise to power of interim governments that lacked the expertise and vision for managing the complex demands of transitional periods. Mounting crises in the Arab world throw into relief the dilemma presented by a collective intellect that prevents the sprouts of future thought from taking root among all levels of decision-making circles, and across all sectors of society.

The main source of this problem is the prevalence of fatalist thought, apathy and acquiescence to authoritarianism which, in turn, encourages blind obedience and works to systematically eradicate independent thinking through educational systems, cultural entities, media institutions and other state-controlled awareness-shaping organs. Such mechanisms suffer from a lack of planning, the poor quality of the educational curricular, a decline in the culture of professionalism and the spread of consumerist culture which cares little for developing the intellect, the conscience or human development in general. As for the media, in consumerist society it is the voice of advertisers and the marketplace which, in this domain, thrive on entertainment programmes, variety shows and sports. It voices the interests of media owners and has little interest in surveying public trends. In fact, it ignores its public entirely.

The second cause has to do with the relationship of the Arab person to time, which is one of the most important ingredients of a realistic and rational approach to remedying the concerns and causes of Arab societies. Arabs are stuck in a static notion of time that runs counter to the laws of evolution and change and that is, by nature, retrograde and given to glorifying the past, regardless of its contradictions and problems.

The third reason for the dilemma resides in socio-political circumstances in the Arab world, most notably authoritarian government, security restrictions, enormous class disparities, educational systems that rely on rote learning, media misinformation and health and environmental deterioration. The socially and political oppressed Arab citizen turns inward, shuts himself off to contemporary experiences, and harbours a deep fear of the future that drives him to a frenzied obsession with the past in order to escape a bleak present.

The writer is a veteran professor of journalism.

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