Over at Al Arabiya TV, Hisham Melhem continues his critique of Arab society and politics, seeking to explain how the Arab world came to be in the situation in which it now finds itself.
He highlights the point that there is no longer any real freedom of thought in the region. Would-be intellectuals are forced into extreme positions if they wish to stay out of jail or to stay alive.
He sharply notes that while the actions of the “outsider” may prove a useful political excuse for the current state of the Arab world, it is far from an adequate excuse. He contrasts the political fortunes of Egypt and India, both becoming independent in the same year, and finds that the Egyptians — for Egyptian reasons — has fallen far behind. He further contrasts Egypt with S. Korea. Both countries had essentially similar demographics and economies in 1960, but now, Egypt has only one-eighth of S. Korea’s GDP per capita. These disparities are not accidents of faith nor are they the result of foreign oppression or interference. The stories Arabs have been telling themselves are no longer believable and populations are no longer buying into the mythology. But solving the problems can’t even start until people can start talking about them, start exploring alternatives, without having to worry whether they’ll be alive tomorrow.
Who brought the Arabs to this nadir?
In recent weeks and months I tried in this space to critique an Arab political culture that continues to reproduce the values of patriarchy, mythmaking, conspiracy theories, sectarianism, autocracy and a political/cultural discourse that denies human agency and tolerates the persistence of the old order. The article in which I said that the ailing Arab body politic had created the ISIS cancer, and a subsequent article published in Politico Magazine generated a huge response and sparked debates on Twitter and the blogosphere.
The overwhelming response was positive, even though my analysis of Arab reality was bleak and my prognosis of the immediate future was negative. Yet, these articles were not a call for despair, far from it; they are a cris de Coeur for Arabs, particularly intellectuals, activists and opinion makers, to first recognize that they are in the main responsible for their tragic conditions, that they have to own their problems before they rely on their human agency to make the painful decisions needed to transcend their predicament. These articles should be viewed through the motto of the Italian Marxian philosopher Antonio Gramsci: “Pessimism of the spirit; optimism of the will.” Pessimism of the will, means that you see and analyze the world as it is not as you wish it to be, but for this pessimism not to be fatal, it should be underpinned by the optimism of the will, to face challenges, and overcome adversity by relying on human agency.
Syrian writer Ghassan Al Imam has an interesting opinion piece in Asharq Alawsat. He’s right, but for the wrong reasons.
Al Imam rattles on about the pipe dream of “Arab unity.” There has not been Arab unity since the first century Hijra, when the Battle of Karbala defined the first major split among Arabs and Muslims. The idea has its philosophical charms, but has been disproved in reality for over a millennium. Dreams have a value of their own, of course, but they rarely convert into useful plans of action.
What is not a dream is that by declaring itself the new Caliphate, ISIS has led to a sort of unification among the Arab states, if not precisely among Arabs. Arabs, after all, are engaged on all sides of a multifaceted conflict.
Al Imam is correct in noting that Arab audiences are ill-prepared to deal with ISIS propaganda. This is the fault of those Arab states. Each, for its own reasons, spent the bulk of the 20th C. in trying to create one “truth” for its citizens. Controlling media; controlling what could and could not be taught in schools; forcing particularized interpretations of history in the service of the state have all led to ignorance and confusion among Arabs. Intolerance of religious differences and political differences has led to people’s now finding conflict between what they’d been assured was true and what the actual world shows them to be true.
It’s not too late for the states of the region to break with the past and start promoting the value of tolerance to different views. Arab unity cannot be forced upon the citizens of 20-odd countries. But a common core of values — especially the adoption of toleration of differences — can arise, if and only if the governments permit it. These states, including Saudi Arabia, need to squelch the promotion of sectarian differences that they themselves promote.
Opinion: ISIS and Arab Unity
Ghassan Al Imam
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claims to have achieved in a few months what other projects seeking Arab unity have failed to do since Mustafa Kamal Atatürk abolished the Ottoman Islamic caliphate in 1924. In a blink of an eye, ISIS has called on 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide to move to the new “land of Islam” after they have “purged” it from Shi’ites, Christians and Yazidis, and beheaded journalists and slaughtered “crusaders.”
ISIS has called for divine governance and has taken it upon itself to ensure it is applied. It has imposed the burdens of allegiance, obedience and absolute loyalty on people in territory under its control. Without dialogue, institutions, or political parties, silence has descended on the “Islamic State.” The “caliphate” denies the need for politics, culture, or freedom.
It has modified school curricula and banned the teaching of the humanities, physical education and music. It has shut down girls’ schools and banned women from working or traveling, lest it distracts them from their domestic chores. It urges believers to receive the afterlife with satisfaction and joy, following the gloom of their temporary abode in this world.
ISIS has abolished the colonial borders between Arab countries, and declared “jihad.” It has killed more Muslim civilians than Westerners and slaughtered captured soldiers. It has arrested people from all religions and creeds. Its actions have provoked the world against it, with religious and sectarian wars breaking out on our lands.
This view of ISIS which I have just given is not mine. It is a summary of the propaganda the group itself broadcasts extensively via electronic media to reach broad segments of Arab society, given that the Arab media is reeling under ever-stricter censorship.
The Washington Post carries a piece by Steffen Hertog, of the London School of Economics, discussing the problems of employment across the GCC.
The major problems are that government jobs, while useful in the early days of these states, simply cannot be created in sufficient numbers to employ the majority of the population that likes the perks of government jobs; that the gap between wages and benefits paid to expats and to nationals is too wide; that private sector jobs just aren’t attractive when compared to government jobs.
The writer suggests that governments institute simple cash payments to all nationals. Salaries earned in the private sector would thus serve as a “top-up” to their income, rather than be the primary source of income. Interesting idea…
The GCC’s national employment challenge
Citizens of the Gulf monarchies are more dependent on state employment than anywhere else in the world (except perhaps North Korea). As working age populations grow, the implicit government job guarantee is increasingly becoming unsustainable, especially in relatively poorer countries such as Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ruling elites recognize this, and have been pushing for increased private employment of Gulf nationals. These “Gulfization” policies are set to be the GCC’s prime social and economic challenge in coming decades. No one is close to resolving it: Private sectors continue to be dominated by migrant labor, with nationals holding a small or miniscule share of private jobs.
“Gulfization” policies have acquired additional urgency in the wake of the Arab uprisings. The costly wave of public job creation decreed by GCC rulers soon after regional turmoil spread in 2011 has further increased the long-term cost of the government payroll. GCC regimes have become even more sensitive to the economic demands of their young populations – who are for the most part not openly politicized, yet are concerned about their economic status and often expect their governments to cater to their needs. Public sectors in the poorer GCC countries already cannot absorb all new job seekers.
Arab News reports that the oldest text written in Arabic (actually, in a Nabatean-Arabic script) has been discovered in the far southwest of the country. The Arabic script appears to have been developed from several sources, including that of the Nabatean civilization that ruled to the north of current Saudi Arabia, but was known to have reached into northern Saudi Arabia at least as far as the area in which the ruins of Medain Saleh are found. The newly discovered inscription demonstrated the antiquity of trade routes to Yemen and is an important indicator of both the development of Arabic script and the history of the region.
A Saudi-French archaeological team has unearthed in Najran what might be considered the oldest inscription in the Arabic alphabet, said a spokesman from the French Foreign Ministry.
“The epigrapher Frédéric Imbert, a professor at the University of Aix-Marseille, found the Nabatean Arabic inscription about 100 km north of Najran near the Yemeni border,” said the spokesman. “The first thing that makes this find significant is that it is a mixed text, known as Nabatean Arabic, the first stage of Arabic writing,” he said.
This script had previously only ever been seen north of Hejaz, in the Sinai and in the Levant. The second is the fact that these inscriptions are dated. The period indicated corresponds to the years 469-470 AD. This is the oldest form of Arabic writing known to date, the “missing link” between Nabatean and Arabic writing, he added.
Writing in Asharq Alawsat, Yousef Al-Dayni analyzes the dreams of developing a new Caliphate that will rescue the Islamic world from the troubles it faces. Whether it is a terrorist group like ISIS or something more vague as hoped for by ‘moderates’, the dream is an expression of the lack of self-confidence, he says. It is also self-defeating as there is simply no place for a caliphate in the modern world, where people of different religions do and must interact constantly and peacefully, practicing real tolerance for differences.
Waiting for a ‘savior’ to ride in to rescue Islam — like the Lone Ranger, or perhaps King Arthur redux — is simply a dream. It allows one to avoid dealing with the real world, but does absolutely nothing to address the issues that need to be resolved. Violence and extremism in the name of a caliphate are not going to resolve them, either.
I was recently speaking with a well-known “moderate” Islamist figure about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and how this terrorist group has managed to defame the true image of Sunni Islam within just a few short months—more than Al-Qaeda and other violent extremist groups ever have. While this well-known preacher agreed with me about ISIS and its false brand of Sunni Islamism, he said this does not eliminate the dream of the return of the caliphate—the aspiration of every Muslim who wants to see Islam rise up and advance, as Islam cannot do so without its state.
This rejection of ISIS and terrorism while still wanting to see the return of the caliphate represents a major problem in Islamic discourse today. This is the result of a state of low self-esteem in the Islamic world that has existed since the fall of the last caliphate, the Ottoman Empire, and represents a response to the arrival of new Islamic discourse that not only frowned at the idea of caliphate, but viewed this as being inherently flawed.
The reality of the Muslim Ummah today is one of the absence of effective and influential religious leaders, with the return of popular Islamist discourse justifying violence. We have seen the rise of many groups and organizations based on this discourse, including ISIS, Ajnad Al-Sham, the Ahfad Al-Rasul Brigade, Fatah Al-Islam, Al-Qaeda and many others. It is just that ISIS has gone the furthest by announcing an Islamic State in parts of Iraq and Syria and paying allegiance to a caliph.
However, ultimately, the emergence of such groups has only contributed to further harming Islamic self-confidence and self-esteem. Who could believe that barbaric and brutal organizations such as these, whose fighters are proud to pose with the severed heads of defeated enemies, could turn into an alternative to true Islam? Those who follow and support these groups are doing so solely out of spite towards the ruling regimes in our region—not in support of Islam, which is suffering today more out of the ignorance of its supposed followers than the hatred of its enemies.
Writing in Asharq Alawsat, Amir Taheri reviews Lawrence In Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson. The book demythologizes Lawrence of Arabia, noting what he actually did and did not do. There’s far less to the story than the myth (and David Lean’s 1962 film) lead one to believe.
The book also addresses, Taheri tells us, the facts behind two other famous myths, the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration.
The Deconstruction of a Hero
Lawrence In Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making
of the Modern Middle East
By Scott Anderson
The narrative goes something like this: The British sent one of their spies, T.E. Lawrence, to incite the Arabs to revolt against the Ottomans. Thus the British seized control of the Middle East, which they then carved into pieces in a deal with the French known as the Sykes–Picot Agreement. On the margins of the main events, the British also issued the Balfour Declaration, which gave Palestine to the Jews who created Israel.
The crucial point in that narrative is to obtain a proper understanding of its central personage: Lawrence.
If you thought you knew all you needed to know about “Lawrence of Arabia,” if only thanks to David Lean’s epic film, think again. Scott Anderson’s magisterial new book retells the story in a way that challenges some aspects of the Lawrence myth.
Al Arabiya TV reports that three Arab films are competing for the Oscar, symbol of the Academy Awards this year. Interestingly, they’re competing in three different categories.
Three Arab films to compete for Oscars
Shounaz Meky | Al Arabiya News
Arab cinephiles will have three regional films to cheer for when the 86th Academy Awards, the film industry’s highest honors, opens Sunday at a ceremony in Hollywood.
Palestinian film “Omar,” directed by Hany Abu Assad, will compete against “The Hunt,” Italy’s “The Great Beauty,” Belgium’s “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” and Cambodia’s
“The Missing Picture” for the best foreign-language Oscar on March 2 in Los Angeles.
Writing in Asharq Alawsat, Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed takes a look at the popularity of conspiracy theories across the Middle East. Conspiracy theories, he says, are a comfort because they reduce complex situations about which many things may be unknown into something that is easily understood. It doesn’t matter whether they are true or not because they serve a separate purpose.
Most of the current conspiracy theories, he writes, actually have the cart before the horse. Situations develop for their own reasons: Saddam Hussein had his own political reasons to invade Kuwait; he did not need the US to tell him to go ahead in safety. He did not need anyone to push him into attacking Iran.
What other states do, though, is to act in response to events and try to shade the events or their consequences into directions to their benefit.
In Syria, no outside force created the opposition to the Al-Assad regime. That was spontaneous action on the part of Syrians. Outside forces — including Russia, China, the US, the EU — will try to find ways that whatever results is, if not to their benefit, at least not to their detriment.
Opinion: Conspiracy theories that will not die
Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed
According to some people, Iraq’s former president Saddam Hussein only invaded Iran during Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini’s rule because he was entangled with foreign parties and only invaded Kuwait after receiving his cue from the US envoy in Baghdad.
Some argue that Libya’s revolution against Muammar Gaddafi was a foreign act and the toppling of Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak was also a conspiracy. Some think the Muslim Brotherhood made it to power because of US planning. The Brotherhood thinks Egypt’s General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi turned against them because of Western interference.
And for three years now, the Syrian regime has been saying that the West is behind the revolution against it, while the rebels insist there’s a conspiracy to besiege their revolution for the sake of keeping Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in power.
A few days ago, my colleague Eyad Abu Shakra wrote an article saying it’s time to acknowledge there are conspiracies being planned outside our region. My colleague, Eyad, is not the only one who sees a conspirator behind every crisis. For decades now, this has been the common belief among intellectuals. This belief was strengthened by books that became popular in the 1960s and 1970s such The Game of Nations by Miles Copeland.
I don’t want to completely deny conspiracy theories because secret apparatuses from each country are involved in activities that are meant to influence situations in a direction that best benefits their country. But there is a proliferation of conspiracy theories in modern history books.
Asharq Alawsat reports on the new flourishing of Saudi stand-up comedians in the Arab world. Deeply rooted in traditional Arabic wordplay, the new generation is being fueled by social media that creates new and wider audiences. YouTube in particular is noted as the launching pad for those who would make their way with clever commentary about life at home and in the region.
Of course, care must be taken. In a world in which even a casual remark can result in being arrested and tried for blasphemy, or under new laws that make it a crime to too-severely criticize the state, there be dragons on the fringes of comedy. I suppose being a Saudi stand-up comic combines the wit of the jester with the bravery of one walking on the high wire without a net below. That’s an even more spectacular performance.
Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—“In Saudi Arabia, the more money you have, the deeper your voice is. But in Kuwait, the more money you have, the higher your voice is.”
Welcome to the emerging phenomenon of Saudi Arabian stand-up comedy. This comic style, now a regular staple of the comedy world in the US and UK, is fairly new to the Arab world, but is quickly gaining popularity, especially among the young.
With a regular roster of stand-up comedians now doing the rounds at comedy clubs all over the Arab world—most notably Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, and Lebanon—and an annual dedicated event, the Amman Stand-Up Comedy Festival, it is fair to say that the phenomenon has very much arrived.
But this should not necessarily be cause for surprise. Many Arab countries are famous for their unique sense of humor, and jokes are often used to deal with difficult political situations or events. Explaining the emergence of the trend, Dr. Hezab Al-Rayyes, a professor of media studies at the King Saud University in Riyadh, told Asharq Al-Awsat that stand-up comedy in Saudi Arabia, for example, was very much unsurprising, since it had its roots in the ancient culture of the Arabian peninsula, when professional raconteurs entertained the public with stories and jokes, catering to the—very much traditional—Arab love of puns and wordplay.
To make my point even more clearly about the hazards of being free with comments, Saudi Gazette provides support:
In his column for Saudi Gazette, Hussein Shobokshi takes to task those Arab intellectuals who dwell on the glory of Arab history while paying too little attention to the present and future. While there certainly is a glorious history, the ‘golden age’ was never quite so shiny as it’s now made to be. There were very real problems, daily problems, that needed to be addressed and solved even at the height of Arab progress. Many of those problems linger, no less in need of being solved.
New problems have arisen over the course of the past 1,200 years, too. For all the wonder of Arab medicine, science, literature and the rest that made the Abbasid period the golden age of Arab science, it does nothing to solve problems like electricity generation or genetic disease. Indeed, honor the past, but don’t try to make it the sole support of your ethos and pride.
The retro Arab!
While it’s perfectly “hip” and “cool” to be nostalgic and look back in fashion, music as well as other types of arts, this state of mind has become known simply as retro. I don’t see the wisdom of being stuck in an endless political and cultural retro state of mind which basically describes the status of the common Arab today. The sheer volume and the massive amount of rhetoric devoted and dedicated to the Arab past in dialogue among common Arabs is simply mind boggling.
This is very alarming, particularly when one compares it to the same amount of “talk” devoted to the now and to the future. The Arabs are simply obsessed with their past and the glory that came with it. This has become a huge psychological entrapment, not allowing them to see the hopes and opportunities of today and tomorrow, which might be an important and serious factor to explain a lot of the problems and disappointments which they face and live in.
While it is perfectly normal and very much acceptable to be proud and nostalgic with a nation’s past every now and then, surely there is a fine line between pride and obsession and once that line is crossed it becomes very dangerous.
An interesting opinion piece from Al Arabiya TV. The writer, a Fellow in Muslim Politics and Societies at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, ponders the role of modern technology and its intersection with the politics of the Middle East. Questioning whether the Internet and social media were the means or the end of Arab Spring, he goes on to note that governments can — if they chose to do so — exert far more control of the media than they currently do. Just in surveilling the media, they can learn more about its users than the users realize. He concludes with the observation that perhaps the thought of living in an alternate reality — the one provided by the closed chambers of social media — is enough, at least for some.
The Middle East has met the enemy, and he’s online
It all happened so fast. Tunisia was in America’s peripheral vision; we’d read, from time to time, of mounting protests, huge crowds straining the grand avenues of Tunis, the Arab street finally out on the street.
But then the dictator fell, and so did many a pundit’s career. There rose in their place new voices, closer to the ground, more sympathetic to the reality, more optimistic about the possibilities. Everybody had told us this could not happen. Except it did.
On Jan. 25, when Tahrir square became the center of massive protest, you can bet we were all glued to screens of various sizes.
Drunk on the Kool-Aid
The first revolutionaries knew how to sell themselves, and we were primed to buy. We believed in social media. We got drunk on the Kool-Aid. We worshipped at the altar of technology. What had started in Tunisia wouldn’t stay in Tunisia.
After some three weeks, Mubarak was forced to resign, and the crowds went home, for reasons unfathomable today.
There was an almost messianic fervor to the dispatches I’d get. It was young Arabs, not the stodgy Islamists, who’d change things. Political parties were so 20th century.
Social media would free everyone. Google, Facebook, Twitter. Who needed ideologies?
While Saudi Arabia runs at the top of the usage tables for water and electricity, its GCC partners aren’t far behind. Arab News reports that power and water officials from the organization are seeking to links their systems, that is, to create Gulf-wide networks, but need to get the patterns of use under control. Electricity, produced by burning oil, and desalinated water, produced by burning oil and gas, take a heavy toll on the economies of the countries. They need to find a way to get consumers to understand the true costs of providing these products and services in order to get them to limit their use to what they truly need.
This is going to be a difficult challenge. With utilities being heavily subsidized by government, consumers — whether private or corporate — tend to see the costs as, essentially, nothing. And free things simply aren’t valued. I think it’s going to take more than simple publicity campaigns, though, before something with ‘no value’ come to be seen as important as they truly are.
GCC to adopt unified policy on power, water consumption
RIYADH: ARAB NEWS
Water and electricity officials from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states will meet in Kuwait on Tuesday to discuss linkage project, said an official source. The meeting is being organized by GCC’s electricity cooperation committee.
He said the committee will explore the possibility of implementing the joint legal and legislative rules to strengthen rationalyzing the consumption of water and electricity, in addition to discussing subscribers’ services in the Gulf.
The average daily consumption of water per individual in the Gulf states varies between 300 and 750 liters daily, which is the highest in the world.
This is due to the absence of demand management, government focus on increasing water supply through building desalination plants, and increasing dependence on ground water. Gulf States suffer from low public awareness about the value of water resources.