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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