The Arabs do not see the shape of their own bump

By Professor Bichara Khader
Director of the Center for Research and Studies on the Contemporary Arab World
Catholic University of Louvain



Like the camel, we, the Arabs, fail to see our own bump. We spend our time denouncing, condemning, judging, and bemoaning on our own fate. We enjoy a permanent and paralyzing form of victimisation. Complaints and complaints, this is our daily exercise. The « others » divide us, plunder our resources, and despise us. The litany of our grievances is just as long as our inaction. Some have called it the « Arab misfortune ». Others, the « Arab paradox »: 350 million Arabs and so many resources under our feet, and yet, we do not even hold a seat in the concert of nations. 22 Arab countries but who turn their backs on each other, often seeing the neighbor to represent a « security threat ».

And instead of looking at our own imperfections, we persist on pointing to the shortcomings of others, especially Europeans and Westerners in general that we dress up in unflattering adjectives: dividers, plunderers, contemptuous, arrogant.
Some westerners are obviously so. But what do we do to foster respect, to block the maneuvers that aim to divide us, to stop the plundering of our resources? Chinese products invade European markets, South Korean computers compete alongside great American brands, and Indian software engineers fuel large corporations with their expertise. Brazilians export aircraft. And we sell oil and gas, some textiles, citrus, leather, cotton, and phosphates; in short, nothing that really shows that we have entered the twenty-first century of innovation, research science, and high-technology.

No wonder Europeans and Westerners look towards Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe: that’s where the wind of dynamism blows: our winds are loaded with sand and a smell of sulfur. Instead of waving our knowledge, our extremists brandish their swords. And in doing so, they tarnish our image and further fuel Western stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims. We never cease to denounce those stereotypes and we are right in doing so.

But we also have our own stereotypes about Europe and the West. Many can be found simply by reading our newspapers. Our imagination is haunted by fear and lack. As a result, we dump our anger on others, on Westerners in particular.

Europe may have better press here than America. But it hardly escapes our scratches: it lacks courage, it practices a double weight, double-action, it stigmatizes our immigrants, it bans the Burqa, votes against minarets: well, it does not like us. While all Arabs and all Muslims Arabs do not share this sentiment, we must recognize that this feeling percolates in large segments of our societies.

This disaffection for Europe and the West is no coincidence: it is a social construction. It cannot be dated, but it is the product of a long history in which Europe and the West have exercised their hegemony without measure, provoking, in Arab land, unprecedented violence that have left open wounds and have fed painful memories.

Let us say, in defense of angered Arabs, that the history of the Arabe relationship with Europe and the West for the last two centuries was marked by tragic events that shook and still shake today Arab societies and influence the way Arabs view Europe and the West. While colonization is behind us, its scars are still there: fragmentation of Arab unity and installation of Israel in the heart of the Middle East. Nearer to home, how to describe Western readiness to confront Iraq to force it to liberate Kuwait from its claws, when Israel have colonised with impunity Syrian territories, Lebanon and the Palestinians for decades? How can we justify the Iraq war triggered by America in 2003 and which has led the country into a state of chaos? How can one explain the instrumentalisation of Muslims as shields in the former anti-Soviet war, and today, as scarecrows in the election propaganda of the right and extreme right in Europe?

With this in mind, I understand that the collective Arabic mindset is irrigated by such tragic events and such exploitation. So much so that the Arab world is, so far, unable to conceive its own history without reference to its most intimate and nearest ‘other’: Europe.

But let us not darken the picture too much: in the Arab mind, Europe is both loving and foil, the object of fascination and repulsion. It attracts, fascinates and amazes through its technological prowess, its democratic practices, its social model and the freedom enjoyed by its citizens. But at the same time, it disgusts by its colonial past, its moralizing attitude, by its complacency regarding Israeli policies and its support of undemocratic regimes, by the inconsistency of its diplomacy and its treatment the « Muslim question » at home. There is no better illustration of Europe’s dual function as subject and object of desire and rejection than the attitude of these young North Africans who seek, often at the cost of their lives, to reach the shores of the European El Dorado, but who are, at the same time, able, without flinching, to express all their grievances over Europe and the West.

The problem is that memories of a painful past do not disappear: they remain present in the collective memories. Worse still, these painful memories are preserved in the present by Western and European policies perceived as lacking in fairness, consistency and empathy for Arabs, Muslims and immigrants.

One therefore feels that the Arabs are struggling to get out of this ecology of suffering and that the past takes their future hostage. It is convenient to adopt the posture of the victim of the West, by legitimizing the hardships of the past, the desire for revenge and retribution, or the appointment of a hereditary enemy, constantly stigmatized. But this attitude leads nowhere. Arabs must avoid constantly referring to their dead, to invoke, or even to call them in a desperate quest for self-assertion against the European and Western ‘other’. Japan is the only country to have experienced a nuclear bombing, and it certainly has not forgotten either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. But it has taken its revenge by surpassing itself. We should learn from that.

It is unfortunate that calls for revenge by Al Qaeda against the West described as « atheist, crusader and coloniser » have had a broad resonance amongst disoriented Arab youth suffering from the anxiety of existence. This call by radical splinter groups for an incessant Jihad until the final triumph of Islam is an insult to humanity. It tarnishes the image of Muslims; it perverts the fundamentals of religion; comforts extremists in Europe and the West in their fear of a conquering and invasive Islam, and weakens, therefore, the situation of Muslim immigrants living in Europe and the West.

Admittedly, I have often said that, in its relationship with Arabs and Muslims, Europe must share the blame. But, are we, the Arabs, exempt of any suspicions? We are unable to heal the wounds of the past, we struggle to build our future, we spread abroad the image of amorphous countries, divided and authoritarian, as well as the image of fearful societies. An yet, the outside world judges us on what we are and the image we project of ourselves.

Take the example of China. 30 years ago, the West hardly paid it any attention. It was seen as hopelessly anchored to the past and opposed to change. Certainly, the West could not ignore the « immense human mass » of communist ideology, but treated it economically as « negligible ».

But today, Western firms line up at its door, looking for investment opportunities. Western students by the thousands are learning Mandarin. In international forums, China’s voice is heard and Chinese leaders are often wooed, sometimes feared. There may not be any empathy in West-China relations, but the Chinese are more respected.

The Arabs must make themselves respected, if they cannot make themselves loved. And, bearing in mind, the shadowy dealings of our states and tumults of our societies, much remains to be done.