The State of the Arab World

Fareed Zakaria’s depressing summation of the findings of the United Nation’s Arab Development Report, which he considers to be “the most important book of the last decade”:

To what extent can we blame modern Islam for all of this? To what extent neo-colonialism? To what extent something else?

I am inclined to say that the most pro-Arab thing anyone could hope for is that Islam’s spell be broken.

Am I wrong?

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://thelatinone.com/blog thelatinone

    In the political science literature, this has been widely discussed, especially in the democratization and development subfields. The Arab world has levels of economic inequality and lack of upward mobility (or opportunities) that, while you cannot really predict when a revolution is going to happen, it was not surprising that they happened. Of course, now the question is whether new oligarchies will replace the old ones or a the new system will address the old issues that led to the uprisings.

  • drlake

    There are a variety of possible reasons for the current state of the Arab world, and it isn’t really possible to apportion credit/blame. They include:

    1) The legacy of colonialism until after World War II for most Arab states.
    2) Neo-colonialism since World War II.
    3) The Cold War, and the willingness of both the US and Soviets to support anyone who claimed to be on our side.
    4) The destruction of the Abbasid caliphate by the Mongols in 1258, which combined with the Crusades ended the “Golden Age” of Arab civilization and led to centuries of stagnation.
    5) Arab culture, which is tribal in nature. Tribal societies tend to have high levels of corruption and low levels of democracy.
    6) Islam.

    Note that most of these apply to other “backward” areas such as Latin America (though their colonial period ended almost 200 years ago, Iberian culture and the Catholic Church have many of the same effects as Arab culture and Islam), Africa, and much of Asia.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      What is remediable and how?

    • drlake

      Hmm, interesting question. I think all of it may be remediable, but I doubt there is anything we as outsiders can do thanks to the history we have in the region. On the plus side, the Arab Spring might (emphasis on “might”) lead to some positive change in these societies, but if so it will be due to internal efforts rather than external ones.

      Culture changes slowly, but it does change. Religions change as well, but again slowly. Historical events loose their relevance eventually, but it can take a very long time. I don’t see any options other than waiting, since I doubt pressure or advice would be very welcome.

  • Jesse

    OK< I see this and it makes me sometimes just freaking gag.

    "The poor benighted Arabs" trope has just got to stop.

    Why? The subtext is always "well, if they were as enlightened as we are none of this would be happening…"

    Apropos of drlake, I'll say this: much of the current modern Arab governments, (and "Arab" doesn't describe more than half of the Muslim world as a whole, Iran, Indonesia, freaking China? — remember, Islam is the dominant religion in areas stretching from Morocco to Xinjiang) takes its cue from us. That is, the Cold War was simply huge all over the world, and Middle East and North Africa are no exception.

    Let’s recap: The Algerians had an election in 1992. The FIS won. The secular Algerian government with support from the US, France and Britain said “Oh no you don’t! You obviously can’t be trusted with democracy!” ushering in 20 more years of civil war.

    The Iranians had an election too, in the 1950s. Who put the kibosh on that? Oh, right…

    Then the Arabs in Saudi Arabia made an attempt at self-determination. No go there, the Brits were not having it. Kings can be bought, though. Hey, Al-Saud, you doing anything right now? No? How’d you like to be king? Seventy years later his family is still around, still getting loads of guns from the USA. (Saudi Arabia has one of the largest stores of military equipment in the region, and on a per-soldier basis it is simply ridiculous).

    Ditto for Iraq. Jordan. Tunisia. Only Lebanon managed to try democracy. Of course, when the Christian Phalangists were running the country, that was A-OK with the State Department. The Egyptian government was and is the second largest recipient of military aid in the region.

    Morocco? Same thing.

    In fact, the only dictators in the region who didn’t get active support– I’m taking money and guns — from the democracies of the world were Assad and Qaddafi. (Nasser switched sides, twice I think).

    Islam had absolutely nothing to do with any of this. Except insofar as the religiously-minded in Algeria and to a lesser extent in Iran were seen as “unreliable.” I.e. they would not take orders and couldn’t be bought. That’s the way it is sometimes with these guys. “Arab culture” had nothing to do with this.

    The U.S. (and to a lesser extent the USSR, though they never had the influence the US managed to rack up — Likely because they just weren’t buying as much oil). But the point is every government in North Africa (with the exceptions of Qaddafi and Algeria, though support in the 1990s was crucial) has been imposed in some way from the outside.

    The “democracy” in Iraq exists at the pleasure of the US. Nobody anywhere in the region believes otherwise. We also destroyed a goodly chunk of the country’s infrastructure and killed off 100,000 people. That’s gonna help a lot. And what does any sane person think would happen if the Iraqis voted the wrong way? You think the generals here and the elites are going to say “hey, we lost fair and square?”

    And then it’s this big freaking mystery why many of these countries were underdeveloped? I mean out a corrupt, but pliable, dictator in place and then wonder why he might, I dunno, buy a gold rolls-royce instead of invest in schools? Decide that this democracy thing is not for him?

    “Arab societies are tribal” — so are Europeans. Or haven’t you been to Yugoslavia? The nation-state is no newer in the region around Iraq and Jordan than it is in what is now the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania. And countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, or even Greece and Portugal were’t exactly way up there on the HDI until the rest of Europe (primarily France and Germany) poured billions in development money into them. I mean, if you went to Portugal or Spain in 1975 you were in a third-world nation by any measure.

    But it took billions in cash and not interfering with their politics to make them what they are today (you will recall that the dictatorships in the Iberian peninsula were actively supported from outside as well; the “democracies” did nothing to help the Spanish Republicans. After WW II the US did its bit to make sure that Franco and Salazar stayed in office, deciding that Spaniards couldn’t be trusted to vote the right way anymore than anyone else. And those Mediterranean naval bases were important).

    This applies to many underdeveloped nations, by the way. Every step of the way the United States (and formerly the USSR, though they were never as good at it) has actively opposed any kind of democratic reform. And then it’s this big ol’ mysterious process — hmm… maybe those weird brown folks don’t like voting? — as to why some countries are poor.

    The willingness to avoid responsibility for this stuff just makes me say “WTF?” What if the Germans said “Hey, it must have been some weird thing about Poles that kept them back.”

    We, as Americans especially, are directly responsible for many of the worst governments in the Arab world. Heck, we’re directly responsible for a whole lot of others as well. And then it’s “oh, what IS their problem? What could it possibly be…?”

    I mean, nobody is talking about the tribal deep freaking mysteries of Slavic culture and the Orthodox Church to explain the Russians. Or the Croats. Or the Greeks, for that matter. But they aren’t brown people, so I suppose what they do is rational. Or the endemic corruption in Italy.

    Before anyone says it: Yes, other powers have engaged in similar behavior. So what? The Chinese aren’t claiming to be a light unto the freaking world. We are. They aren’t making any bones about freedom. We are.

    Arrrgh. /rant.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Thanks, Jesse. That’s why I asked.

    • Sulris

      wow. Jesse that was…. beautifully said.

      dralke accounted for clonialism and the cold war in his list and tribalism does negatively affect their culture just as tribalism negatively affects the U.S. (kick a lady in the head cuase she is a democrat, why not, she’s not my tribe!) (call all conservatives racist, take that enemy tribe)

      while all of drlake observations are correct i think it is good for the perspective of the discussion that you include that corruption, the affects of the cold war, and tribalism are global problem in every country not somethin inherent in only the developing world.

      the only reason we pretend it’s just those crazy middle easterners with these problems is becuase our society has labeled them the “others”

    • drlake

      Agreed on Jesse’s post.

      While you are correct in that every human society has tribal characteristics, they aren’t equally strong everywhere so that is still relevant to understanding the Middle East (and large parts of Africa and Asia) in particular. We (in the US) consider our “tribe” to be a much larger group and it isn’t simply a group connected by common descent except in rare cases.

      Likewise, to say that Islam is part of the problem isn’t to say that Christianity is not a problem in places where it is dominant, or Judaism, or Hinduism, etc. To be accurate, each religious tradition would have to be somewhat subdivided to accurately reflect it’s impact on society, since Wahhabi Islam (or Deobandi, and other Salafist strains) is more of a political problem than more moderate versions, just like fundamental Christianity is more of a political problem than more liberal strains.

      As a political scientist, I tend to put most of the focus on the political dimensions of a problem, which in this case would be colonialism, the Cold War, and neo-colonialism, but I also recognize that culture matters because different cultures have different political values.

    • Jesse

      @drlake–

      I think the reason laurentweppe — and I — object ot the “tribalism” narrative is because the connotation it has is always “a bunch of uncivilized savages.” I realize that historians and political scientists don’t necessarily mean this, but it’s in the same category of words like “theory” which means something very, very different to a physicist and a man-on-the-street. But even so, the terms Westerners use to describe what goes on in the Middle East (or anywhere else) are telling.

      Nobody talks about the various nations of Russia or the former Yugoslavia as “tribes” or crows about the “tribalism” of Europeans, even though there are several “tribes” in Libya that are larger than many of these same groups in Europe. The Tuareg, of which about 90-100,0000 live in Libya, number about 1.2m people, comparable to the size of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. Even the Berber populations in Libya number more people than live in Iceland.

      I don’t recall anyone talking about “clan” hatred in Yugoslavia (though they did talk about “ancient hatreds” that had little to do with the conflicts that erupted, really — I mean, the idea that maybe two of the relevant nations elected fascists was always swept under the rug).

      And as someone with a knowledge of history you ought to be aware that national-level entities existed in the Arab world for a long time. (Saying they didn’t because of the Ottoman Empire — well, you’d have to say the same thing about most of Europe, too, in the same period, since even as late as 1900 the Austro-Hungarian and German EMpires were still extant).

      Libya, in particular, was actually three sovereign states (the early US dealt with a couple of them — see: Barbary Pirates) all of which have a long history. The fact that the borders don’t match up with any of these historical entities is largely the result of France, England, and to a lesser extent the US imposing borders in the wake of WW I and WW II. This whole tribalism narrative plays right into the “what a bunch of primitives” thing.

  • laurentweppe

    What the… fuck?

    Zakaria claims that the situation in the Arab world is not only bad, but worsening… Huh, in which cracker jack did he found his data, appart from the clearly outdated UN report (which would not be so outdated if he add actually tried to compare it with earlier repports and studies in order to see the trends of the arab world instead of a mere snapshot)?
    *
    He claims that the increase of the GDP in the Arab World is due to the rise in oil prices, despite the fact that countries with no oil rent have seen their GDP growing during the past decade (Egypt’s nominal GDP is 2,5 times bigger know, Jordan’s GDP has doubled, etc…), while some countries which have a rent from oil (UAE, Koweit…) have enjoyed a slower growth. Claiming that oil played a part in the Arab World economic growth is a tautology, but oil alone is far for sufficient to explain it.
    *
    Then he talks about the tiny amount of book’s translations… And manage to miss the point by three miles: he completely fails to take into account the great number of people who speak two of three languages: for instance Algeria is the second biggest french speaking country with 24 million people fluent in French. The problem being that since most of the upper-class are fluent in french, or english, or both, they can and do buy imported books, which does not help to create an incentive to translate more books in arabic or berber while tens of millions people would can read in French or English lack the cash to buy imported books.
    *
    He then claims that the illiteracy has grown, yet the number of children enrolled in schools has grown by 10% during the last decade, and in places were the rate of illiteracy rate has grown recently (Yemen, Iraq, Palestinian terroritories), armed conflict -often done by western countries (coughIraqcoughCastLeadcough)- was to blame.
    *
    Then there is the pew poll, problem is, the same group made another poll about Bin Laden, showing that his popularity had decreased in recent years. The thing is: if people from the Arab World really believed that the 9/11 attacks were not done by arabs, Bin Laden would never have had any sort of popularity whatsoever. So the idea that “most muslims do not believe that arabs carried the 9/11 attacks”: Bull-Shit: Either the question was very badly worded and a lot of people answered that Arabs (in general) were not to be blamed for the deeds of a small group, or the question was not badly worded and a lot of people decided to lie to the pollster because, “hey, why the fuck not?”: after all, people lie to pollsters all-the-time.
    *
    If you want to have big insightful thoughts about a region, at least try to have data that is both accurate and up to date.
    *
    And beside: why pretending that the Arab world economic woes are going to get better if “Islam’s spell is broken”? Inflation happens faster that GDP’s growth, the upper-class keeps all the wealth to itself, and people get pissed: what’s religious about that? It’s like saying that the US would be better off if instead of worshipping the dollar Wall Street worshipped the dollar but in a more secularish way: it makes no sense at all.

    ***
    ***

    The destruction of the Abbasid caliphate by the Mongols in 1258, which combined with the Crusades ended the “Golden Age” of Arab civilization and led to centuries of stagnation.

    Funny the fact that people always forget about this empire which englobed most of the Arab World, and remained the most technologically advanced and socially progressive civilisation in the western hemisphere for 250 years: here’s a hint: it starts with Otto, and finish by Man.
    *

    5) Arab culture, which is tribal in nature. Tribal societies tend to have high levels of corruption and low levels of democracy.
6) Islam.

    Aaaaaaand, that’s when anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge starts laughing: you ever heard about that dude? Mahbub? Mehmet? Muhammad? something like that? Got kicked out of his hometown after saying “You know what? Tribalism sucks, so I’m gonna make a huge world spanning homogeneous civilisation because you know what? God totally told me that tribalism sucks”.
    *
    Anyway, these stories about tribalism remind me of how people talked about Lybia and how the country was shaped by its tribes, like the Magarha who were a tribe allied to Gaddafi: you know, a tribe with one million tribesmen and women: little more than an extended family, really: everyone knows everyone.

    ***
    ***

    After WW II the US did its bit to make sure that Franco and Salazar stayed in office, deciding that Spaniards couldn’t be trusted to vote the right way anymore than anyone else

    Of course spaniards can’t be trusted: they always end up voting for socialists :D

  • drlake

    @laurentweppe

    You do realize that the Ottoman empire was run by Turks, not Arabs, right? Beyond that, to discount the reality of tribalism in the Arab world on the grounds that Islam purports to be a universalizing force would be akin to saying there is no nationalism found in Catholic states on the grounds that Catholicism (the “universal” church) is the dominant religion. Beyond that, the fact that a tribe in Libya didn’t act as some predicted doesn’t mean tribalism is irrelevant. To try to assert it does is just shoddy reasoning.

    You also consistently misrepresent what Fareed said. He said that on most indicators discussed in the report there was little change, and that some of them were negative. He did not actually say the rise in GDP in the Arab world was due to oil prices, though I can see why you misunderstood that given his phrasing. He did not say that the illiteracy rate had grown, he said that the number of people who were illiterate had increased. Not the same thing, due to population growth.

    On the issue of multilingualism and literacy, you miss the point. Most countries, even those with high levels of multilingualism, have vibrant publishing industries in their native languages and routinely translate books into those languages. Arab states are an exception. Perhaps it is due to the inequality you note, but that still is evidence of the problems he was describing.

    On the issue of Arab beliefs about 9/11, the poll was by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, so it is unlikely they screwed up the poll wording. Their result is consistent with numerous polls over the last 10 years, so you’re going to have to do better than to simply characterize it as “bull-shit”.

    Finally, note that neither Fareed nor those of us discussing the issue put much stock in the notion that Islam is the source of the region’s woes. Part of the problem, just like religion everywhere, but certainly not THE cause.

    • laurentweppe

      You do realize that the Ottoman empire was run by Turks, not Arabs

      Oh yeah: what a big fucking deal: China was ruled by Mongols during the 13th-14th century then by a mandchuo-mongol alliance from the mid-17th century to the founding of the Chinese Republic, India was ruled by Persians of turko-mongol descent for three hundred years, Egypt was ruled Greeks, then Romans from the fourth century onward, England was ruled by a french nobility for 400 years. So go and tell a Chinese that the arts and science develloped during the Yuan and Qing dynasty are not really chinese, or tell Indians that their culture is more iranian than indian, or tell Brits that they are after all little more than a french colony that got lucky.
      *

      to discount the reality of tribalism in the Arab world on the grounds that Islam purports to be a universalizing force would be akin to saying there is no nationalism found in Catholic states on the grounds that Catholicism (the “universal” church) is the dominant religion

      I’m not discountin anything, I just find it funny when people start to blame two traditions which go in opposite directions in the same argument. Oxymorons should be used as figures of style if one wants to appear witty and never become the core of an argument, otherwise we end up with silly stories about how a radically socialist muslim fundamentalist is going to destroy america with his secularist sharia or about the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat being a much better option than the totalitarian bourgeois democracy.
      *

      the fact that a tribe in Libya didn’t act as some predicted doesn’t mean tribalism is irrelevant

      I was not talking about the bahvior of Libyan “tribes” (although the fact that they did not behave as predicted by many self-proclaimed “experts” on the region tells us a lot about the West’s chaterring classes), I was saying that calling an ethnic group one million people strong “a tribe” is moronnic: it’s like calling Basques, or Corsicans, Slovenians “tribesmen”. What’s next? Are we going to talk about the tribal politics of Hu Jintao, tribal chieftain of the Hans?
      *

      He did not say that the illiteracy rate had grown, he said that the number of people who were illiterate had increased. Not the same thing, due to population growth.

      That’s the problem: talking about raw numbers instead of ratio when the subject is demographic trends is at best misleading, and at worst dishonest (classical exemple: “I tell you: more blacks are living in poverty in the US now than during slavery”).
      *

      On the issue of Arab beliefs about 9/11, the poll was by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, so it is unlikely they screwed up the poll wording.

      According to the very same Pew research center, Bin Laden popularity plummeted between the early days of the Iraq war and today. So let’s take one country as an exemple: In the Palestinian territories, Bin Laden popularity was at 72% of favorable opinions in 2003 and only 34% today. If only 22% of the palestinians living in the occupied territories really believed that there was no arab involved in 9/11, this would mean than most of them viewed Bin Laden has a mythomaniac, in which case, he would never have had 34%, let alone over 70% of favorable views at anytime during the last decade. Al Quaeda former high popularity -when a lot of people in the arab world still viewed Bin Laden as the leader of a troop of galant anti-imperialist fighters- is evidence enough that Arabs were never duped by conspiracy theories. But hey: at some point, 40% of republican voters claimed that they did not believe Obama was born in the US: if Teabaggers can lie through their teeth and bullshit pollsters for fun and profit, so can anyone else.
      *

      Finally, note that neither Fareed nor those of us discussing the issue put much stock in the notion that Islam is the source of the region’s woes

      Oh, so the third and fourth from last paragraphs in the blog post do not exist, I guess.

    • drlake

      OK, so let’s understand where you are coming from…

      Turks are Arabs. Not true, but apparently irrelevant to you.

      You don’t like the term “tribalism”. Tough shit, it’s a “term of art” that describes a social structure that is common in the Arab world, and not really present any longer in the US. The size of the “tribe” is irrelevant. The key factor, which you seem to be unaware of, is a social system where personal connections, particularly family ones (hence “tribalism”) are central to social functioning. I can as easily call it clientilism, and it still generally acts as a drag on political and economic development.

      What you don’t seem to understand is that neither the universalizing aspects of Islam nor the fragmenting aspect of tribalism are relevant here, so it doesn’t matter that they are a) both present, and b) work at cross-purposes along this single dimension. What matters is the way fundamentalist strains of Islam and the emphasis on personal relationships between individuals who claim common descent affect political and economic development. Both of these factors helped create the environment that created Al Qaeda.

      While Fareed could have expressed the trends regarding illiteracy better, he isn’t the one that failed to pay attention to what he said and flew off the handle about it. That one is on you.

      I see you don’t understand how beliefs and attitudes of people change, either. It is quite possible for people to both think the US or Mossad carried out the 9/11 attacks and to approve of bin Laden even while OBL was claiming credit for the attacks. Likewise, I’ve talked to enough idiots in the US who believe Obama is a Kenyan Muslim that I have no problem believing the survey data on the issue. Polls are not perfect, but they are reliable enough indicators of population attitudes when conducted by professionals. This one was, so unless you have actual data to back up your assertions all you have is your opinion. I’ll stick with data.

      Finally, you again miss the point with your last remark. Daniel asked a question in the third paragraph, and suggested that breaking the hold of Islam would be the best thing for the Arab world. Our discussion, carried out by those discussing the issue (which is who I referred to) does not put much emphasis on Islam as the source of the Arab world’s problems (nor is much of the emphasis on tribalism, though that is also mentioned). If you want to bitch about Daniel suggesting that from the start, complain to him, but don’t go putting words in my mouth, or that of any of the others engaged in the discussion.

    • Jesse

      May have thrown up the reply in the wrong spot, sorry.


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