After the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) published its report on the Arab world, with one of its shocking conclusions being that half of the world’s refugees are Arabs, The Economist published in its latest edition July 24-30 a 14-page report about the Arab world with an editorial holding Arabs responsible for all the consequences of the colonial policies which divided their land and set up regimes in a way that makes it almost impossible to achieve Arab integration, if not unity, and solidarity, which – we all know – is the only way to Arab power.
One indicator of Arab weakness and complete intellectual alienation is that The Economist itself had compiled reports in the past on what brings the Arabs together, the problems they face, and youth unemployment in the Arab world which needs 50 million jobs to be created by 2020. The study, important as it is, should be read with a great degree of sorrow and bewilderment. It is not enough that the Arab world has become fertile ground for invasion, occupation, colonization, oppression and fragmentation, the interpretation of these events and the assessment of their consequences has become the monopoly of the thinking classes in the West who obviously do their best to achieve the interests of their governments and nations.
There is nothing wrong with that, for it’s the right of intellectuals, even their duty, to work for the best interest of their countries and peoples. The question, however, is: how does the Arab world view such reports which address the life and resources of its people; and where is this world heading in light of the tough competition among developed countries to achievie food and water security and obtaini resources, technology and energy.
Neither the UN report nor The Economist reports blame Western powers for the occupation of Iraq or Palestine, or the bloody intervention in Somalia. The reports do not describe or analyze the expropriation of land and water sources in Palestine. They also avoid any mention of the tragedies of women and children, the extremely bad condition of education in Palestine and Iraq as a result of brutal occupation.
This is hardly surprising, but where is the Arab characterization of the Arab condition? Where is the open, candid and on-going discussion of the Arab condition? Where are the Arab strategies which could lead Arabs towards salvation, particularly that education in the Arab world is in a dire state in terms of quality and keeping abreast with global revolutions in the fields of technology and knowledge.
There is no doubt that Arabs have undergone waves of ferocious attacks for the past century which aimed at dividing them, occupying their land and controlling their resources. But it is undeniable that the Arabs failed to do one essential thing — which is to build active institutions which are able to mobilize, regulate and organize the social, economic and political forces in their societies. As The Economist editorial mentions, but for reasons different from those I have in mind, “democracy is not only about elections. It is about education, coexistence, and building independent institutions like an independent judiciary and free media”. Real citizenship is not only caring about oneself and one’s family and relatives, iIt is about building a nation and caring about its future. Individual salvation is a dominant phenomenon in the Arab world, and seeking to secure the future of one’s children and grandchildren at the expense of the future of the nation, whereas building the future of the nation should be the only insurance policy for everyone.
Throughout the Arab world, people remember with nostalgia the quality of schools and universities in the second half of the 20th century and the giants who produced endurable thought and philosophy.
But we failed to understand the main factors which enabled Western countries to achieve quantum leaps in all areas. We limited ourselves to condemning the democratic countries which occupied Iraq and Afghanistan and which support Israel in committing the ugliest crimes against Arabs. We have not thought carefully about why and how this is happening. Is it an imbalance in the Western value system, or a failure on our part to communicate with these countries and get through to them via the institutional channels which they use and respect instead of the repeated calls for them to understand and respect our way of communicating our positions towards what is happening to our countries?
How can we do that while Arab investment in the West has so far targeted hotels, real estate and entertainment and has not cared to target educational, cultural or media institutions? We remained consumers of products and ideas, even those which characterize and evaluate us and draw visions of our future.
If some people think this needs extraordinary or modern technology to achieve, they are wrong. The main driving force for development and modernization in the West remains the human mind. Modern technology is easy to come by compared with enlightened thought which produces technology, ideas, materials and institutions and all that which drive people towards a better future. There is nothing wrong in acknowledging that we have not woken up yet, but what is dangerously wrong is to remain complacently asleep while blaming colonialism and the enemies of freedom. Human beings remain the most precious capital, and education is the key to mobilizing this tremendous asset. So, let us start with an open and candid discussion of the condition of education as an indication of our awakening; and when the Arabs wake up they are bound to produce, as they did in the past, what is best for them and for humanity.
Dr Bouthaina Shaaban is Political and Media Advisor at the Syrian Presidency, and former Minister of Expatriates. She is also a writer and professor at Damascus University since 1985. She was the spokesperson for Syria and nominated for Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.