The wave of protests that swept across the Middle East in 2011 was the first great international disappointment of this century. It began as the Arab Spring, a time of revolutionary hopes, but ended in a nightmare of chaos and violence. It overturned Egyptian and Libyan governments but the new rulers were no better than the old, sometimes worse. In Syria it ignited a long civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and hasn’t ended yet. It helped create the barbarities of the Islamic State, ISIL, instead of the civilized life that the armies of protest were seeking.
Why did it fail so calamitously? Why do so many efforts by Arabs to better their society fail? Elie Mikhael Nasrallah thinks he knows why: the culture of the Arabs has developed over hundreds of years in a way that makes a viable modern society impossible. By “culture” he means the shared system of beliefs and customs that a people pass down from generation to generation. Driven by their culture, the Arab states have developed two contradictory qualities. They are turbulent and they are stagnant.
He expands his answer in a remarkable book, Hostage to History: The Cultural Collapse of the 21st Century Arab World (Friesen Press). Nasrallah is a Lebanon-born Christian Arab who has lived in Canada since he came here with his parents in 1980. He works in Ottawa as an immigration consultant and often writes articles about the Arab world.
He delivers his ideas with a refreshing bluntness, confident that his generalizations and his observations make sense. He knows the Arabs once were world leaders in science and literature; one millennium ago it appeared they had a far greater future than the Europeans. But today they are hobbled by ancient attitudes.
Nasrallah believes that the only way the Arabs can change their culture is through a public discussion led by enlightened religious groups and then enlightened political elites. “Culture is destiny; but culture can change,” he says. With enough effort by the right people, a culture can be moved.
He knows it won’t happen quickly. When I asked him how people react when he describes his position in private, he reported that some of them say, “Good luck with that.”
But he tries bravely to point a way out of the hopelessness of contemporary Arabs. He imagines a democratic Arabia that believes in free speech, religious and racial tolerance, the separation of state and religion, equal rights for women in public and private, widespread literacy, the rule of law, sophisticated universities and an educated business class.
In the oil-rich countries, Nasrallah says, even the elites are at the mercy of the ruling class. The state demands obedience and silence, which creates a sheep-like populace. Petro-dependent economies treat education and innovation as afterthoughts. He asks whether anyone can remember hearing about a scientific or technical innovation that came from any of the 22 countries (with 350 million people) in the Arab League.
He reports the words of a Lebanese education minister: “There is a huge difference between learning and being educated. We are teaching our young but they are not getting educated.” They are not encouraged to find their way to the truth. As Nasrallah says, “The truth is considered the exclusive domain of authority — religious, political or social authority.”
The calcified thinking that dominates political discussion follows Arabs into their private lives, producing distorted human relations. In a section headed Sexual Starvation, Nasrallah says that in Arab societies it’s a vice even to speak of one’s intimate feelings, to air one’s inner thoughts and passions. He quotes Nadia Lamlili, a feminist journalist in Morocco: “The problem with our societies is that the women are in love with their sons instead of their husbands and the men are in love with their mothers instead of their wives.” Adult men and women, Lamlili says, don’t know much about each other because they don’t talk to each other.
“I am writing about the Arab world as a son,” Nasrallah declares. “I write out of concern regarding the Arab world, which has descended into a dark age. I am the insider turned outsider to tell a story about a culture that was once great but is now crashing, collapsing.”
If things ever go in the way Nasrallah wishes, the Arabs will live much as the nations of the West live. Clearly, he doesn’t subscribe to the theory that the Arabs must avoid the corruption of Western freedoms. In fact, he nowhere blames the Middle East’s terrible problems on the U.S., Israel or 19th-century imperialism.
Instead, looking at the glum reality the Arabs now face, he wants to tell them that there’s a better way. Given the situation today, it’s bracing to know that someone can even suggest radical changes in the Middle East that might possibly work.