Arab world a relic of history
by Salim Mansur
Only the politically correct, and they are the majority in the contemporary West, remain surprised of how quickly the so-called "Arab spring" has turned into an "Arab frenzy" and is headed into an "Arab inferno."
In the long run, everything can likely work out and Arabs hopefully may learn to distinguish between mobocracy, as a tyranny of the majority, and democracy, as a rule of law, in which minorities are protected as equal members of society.
But in the long run, as Lord John Maynard Keynes — the revered economic guru of the liberal-left — pointed out the obvious: "In the long run we are all dead." What matters is whether in the short or medium term Arab politics can break out of its closed circle of traditional consensus that frowns upon innovation as heresy.
The problem is culture. Arab culture, despite tremendous changes that have occurred elsewhere in the world, remains resilient in adhering to traditional values of patriarchy and the tribal order of father (leader) knows what is best for his tribe or nation.
The Arab League consists of 21 states and the Palestinian Authority. There is not one single democracy in this collection of Arab states, and the predominant reason for the absence of democracy among Arabs is culture.
Democracy is not merely an election, and a representative party with majority support holding power.
For democracy to work, the prerequisite is a culture in which the people recognizes the "other" — irrespective of how the "other" is defined in terms of ethnicity or religion or gender — as equal, and their interests and aspirations as legitimate.
This recognition of the "other" is missing in Arab culture. The "other" is merely tolerated in a subordinate status and since the "other" in the modern context is unwilling to be consigned indefinitely into an inferior position, the result is the repeated cycle of rebellion and repression in Arab history.
One of the most insightful explorations of the reasons for the absence of democracy in the Arab world is provided by an Arab-Moroccan woman, Fatima Mernissi.
Mernissi's book Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World (1992) is remarkable for the wealth of ideas she presents in explaining the anti-democratic culture of her people, and the fear of modernity that grips them.
The ultimate "other," and also the ultimate "minority," is the individual asserting his/her individuality against the collective order of men and things. In Arab culture, individualism — as cultivated in the West — is feared and repressed because its affirmation represents the freedom of an individual contesting with and moving out of the closed circle of the tribe.
The West ("gharb" in Arabic), as Mernissi explains, is frightening because, among many things, freedom renders it strange, and like the female form, freedom is seductive.
Arab culture, on the contrary, demands whatever is desirable and relished in private must be hidden (veiled) in public. The fear of "fitna" or anarchy haunts Arab culture.
"In our time," Mernissi writes, "freedom in the Arab world is synonymous with disorder." And so a culture suspicious of the West will continue to prefer arid summers of tribal order over any spring that heralds freedom for its people.
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