Mar 31st 2014

Biases versus Realities

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

Western biases are not only transparently self-serving and flat-out wrong, they can also be so annoying. 

As an example, a few weeks back, the Washington Post featured a long lament by a British intellectual pointedly suggesting that because Europe was in decline, the world was witnessing the end of the liberalism. It was 19th century Europe, the author wrote, that gave birth the liberal ideal and democracy and its attendant freedoms. And from Europe, these ideas were spread and fostered throughout the world. Today, however, with Europe's role as world mentor and civilizing agent being eclipsed by emergent regional powers in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the Post writer lamented, liberalism and democracy are at risk.  

The other side of this "Europe as the cradle of civilization" mythic construct are the equally disturbing notions that project Arabs and Muslims as coming from an inferior civilization that is more violent, less rational, and less caring for human life. Proponents of this view are not only the scary group of professional Islamophobes who dominate the discourse on the far-right. They can also be so-called intellectuals like Bernard Lewis who once described Islam as the "third totalitarian perversion" (after Nazism and Communism) and a host of media commentators, from the right and left, who fill the airwaves with banal and bigoted observations about the Middle East and its people.  

That both notions are pure nonsense doesn't stop them from being utilized with some frequency in academic and political discourse. Just last week I was subjected to an overdose of this biased clap-trap at a conference on the Arab Spring. I found one speaker particularly galling as he described the Middle East region as a cauldron of hatreds and an "arc of instability" that has known nothing but conflict for the past one hundred years. The West has tried to help, he continued, but its support has been rejected. And so throwing his hands up in despair, the speaker concluded that the best that could be done was to contain the instability and blood-letting as the violence it played itself out.  

There are, of course, objections galore that could be offered to counter this mindset. First and foremost is the idea that the world can be seen as populated by an enlightened West, on the one side, and a dark and turbulent East, on the other.

By my count, in the last century alone, it was Europe that was the cauldron of hatreds and conflicts.  During just time period, major wars and other conflicts took the lives of almost 100,000,000 souls.  The European continent was the scene of two horrific World Wars, accompanied by genocidal campaigns against Armenians and Roma, and the barbaric effort to exterminate European Jewry. There were, in addition, several prolonged and deadly smaller conflicts in, for example, Ireland, Spain, and Yugoslavia. And to top it off, Europeans then had to contend with Soviet expansionism followed by a half century of a brutally repressive Cold War.

At the same time that "enlightened Europe" was thus cradling liberty, major European powers were laying conquest to and establishing imperial rule over large swatches of Asia and Africa. The indigenous peoples of these continents had horrors inflicted upon them by the French, British, and Italians. Tragically their struggles to free themselves from these "enlightened occupiers" were often as violent and bloody as the initial conquest had been. 

In this context it is important to note that the depiction of the Arab's last century as being a "cauldron of conflicts" is most unfair, since fully one half of this period was spent fighting against imperial domination and attempting to remove the last vestiges of colonial rule. Then following the departure of the imperial power, Arabs in several countries had to contend with the distortions to their social, political, and economic life that had been imposed upon them by the western regimes. Countries had been created out of whole cloth with borders drawn to serve the interests of the imperial power. Likewise political systems had been designed and economies had been transformed to meet the needs of the occupier.

And so in many ways the struggles of the past half century have been an ongoing effort to undo accumulated damages inflicted on many Arab societies in the preceding half century and to construct a new political order to replace the one that had been imposed on them. 

Having established the West's culpability for a major part of the Arab's current mess, it must also be acknowledged that the Arabs are not blameless. They have a clear choice to make moving forward. They can continue to point the finger at others, or they can attempt to take it upon themselves to improve their lot, open their political and economic  systems, and create an expansive sense of citizenship that enables them to build just and inclusive societies.

This, I believe, with all its fits and starts, is the process that is currently unfolding across the Arab World. In every country, with varying degrees of success, Arabs shorn of dependency are writing their own history. For some, it will be a long and hard road. But taking the long view, I am confident that, in the rest of this century, progress, not conflict, will be the region's next story.




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Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "That long path, though, has from the start had within it one fundamental flaw. If we are to make sense of wider global trends in insecurity, we have to recognise that in all the analysis around the 9/11 anniversary there lies the belief that the main security concern must be with an extreme version of Islam. It may seem a reasonable mistake, given the impact of the wars, but it still misses the point. The war on terror is better seen as one part of a global trend which goes well beyond a single religious tradition – a slow but steady move towards revolts from the margins."
Sep 11th 2021
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Sep 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "But Biden can’t be blamed for the rise of the Taliban, or the fragile state of a country that has seen far too many wars and invasions. The US should not have been there in the first place, but that is a lesson that great powers never seem to learn."
Sep 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "The world is only starting to grapple with how profound the artificial-intelligence revolution will be. AI technologies will create waves of progress in critical infrastructure, commerce, transportation, health, education, financial markets, food production, and environmental sustainability. Successful adoption of AI will drive economies, reshape societies, and determine which countries set the rules for the coming century." ----- "AI will reorganize the world and change the course of human history. The democratic world must lead that process."
Sep 1st 2021
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Sep 1st 2021
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Aug 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, they have focused on their agenda, which is totally misguided—not by our own account but by the account of the majority of the American population, who view the Republican party as one that has lost its moral footing to the detriment of America’s future generations, who must now inherit the ugly consequences of a party that ran asunder."
Aug 21st 2021
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Aug 17th 2021
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Aug 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "But even in the US, which is more lenient than most countries, the principle cannot be absolute. Inciting imminent violence is not permitted. Donald Trump’s speech on January 6, urging the mob to storm the US Capitol, certainly came close to overstepping this boundary. It was a clear demonstration that language can be dangerous. What the internet media has done is raise the stakes; “fighting words” are spread around much faster and more widely than ever before. This will require a great deal of vigilance, to protect our freedom to express ourselves, while observing the social and legal bounds that stop words from turning into actual fighting. "
Jul 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to the Chinese economy, I have been a congenital optimist for over 25 years. But now I have serious doubts. The Chinese government has taken dead aim at its dynamic technology sector, the engine of China’s New Economy. Its recent actions are symptomatic of a deeper problem: the state’s efforts to control the energy of animal spirits." ---- "... the Chinese economy, no less than others, still requires a foundation of trust – trust in the consistency of leadership priorities, in transparent governance, and in wise regulatory oversight – to flourish. --- Modern China lacks this foundation of trust ."
Jul 25th 2021
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Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "The EU’s ambitious unilateral climate strategy will transform Europe into a trade fortress, encourage green protectionism worldwide, and give other regions the opportunity to develop using cheaper energy. And without China, India, and the United States on board, other countries will be careful not to follow the EU in its self-appointed role as the world’s green guinea pig. If Europe is not careful, it will risk finding itself in a climate club of one. "
Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... ruminants belch and fart methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, rearing beef cattle brings about, on average, six times the contribution to global warming as non-ruminant animals (for example, pigs) producing the same quantity of protein. ..... if projected to 2050 [beef production], would use 87% of the total quantity of emissions that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s objective of staying below a 2° Celsius increase in temperature."
Jul 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " .... while China’s leaders never mention it, they are just as embittered over Russia’s theft of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century as they are over the West’s imperial predations. With Western imperialism having been largely rolled back, it is Russia’s continued occupation of historic Chinese territory that stands out the most to ordinary Chinese observers. For example, the city of Vladivostok, with its vast naval base, has been a part of Russia only since 1860, when the tsars built a military harbor there. Before that, the city was known by the Manchu name of Haishenwai." ---- "There is also a demographic argument for Putin to consider: the six million Russians spread along the Siberian border face 90 million Chinese on the other side. And many of these Chinese regularly cross the border into Russia to trade (and a good number to stay)."
Jul 7th 2021
EXTRACTS: "According to a new analysis by researchers at Brown University, America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan cost it nearly $2.3 trillion. Now, Afghanistan’s neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and the Central Asian countries – are wondering just how much it will cost them to maintain security after the United States is gone." ----- "After clandestinely supporting the Taliban as a means to undermine the US war effort, Russia now fears broader destabilization in Central Asia and beyond." ---- "Similarly, after having made nice with the Taliban, China also now fears the greater regional instability that the US withdrawal may incite. In addition to disrupting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Eurasia-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, a revitalized Taliban could re-energize the Islamist extremist threat in China’s western Xinjiang province."
Jul 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "When former Fed Chair Paul Volcker hiked rates to tackle inflation in 1980-82, the result was a severe double-dip recession in the United States and a debt crisis and lost decade for Latin America. But now that global debt ratios are almost three times higher than in the early 1970s, any anti-inflationary policy would lead to a depression, rather than a severe recession. ---- Under these conditions, central banks will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and many governments will be semi-insolvent and thus unable to bail out banks, corporations, and households. The doom loop of sovereigns and banks in the eurozone after the global financial crisis will be repeated worldwide, sucking in households, corporations, and shadow banks as well. ---- As matters stand, this slow-motion train wreck looks unavoidable."
Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "