26 July 2014
As a member of The Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) a few months ago I received an invitation to attend the launch of this book. I went since three years after the “Arab spring” many commentators now talk about an “Arab winter.”
The event on 23 April 2014 was organised as an interview of the author by Michael Binyon, leader-writer, columnist and former foreign correspondent for The Times. It was hosted by the Legatum Institute, a think tank I had not come across before. The event was recorded, and can be watched lower down on this page.
When leaving the launch, I bought the book. It is quite short, less than 200 pages excluding the notes, and very easy to read.
Marwan Muasher is Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment and former Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of Jordan. His background as a member of the Jordanian elite and his previous roles mean that he knows the entire Arab world very well.
Part I: Understanding the Awakening
Part II: From Awakening to Pluralism
In the introduction the author begins by looking back at the classic 1939 book “The Arab Awakening” by George Antonius, a Cambridge educated Egyptian Christian of Lebanese origin who lived in Jerusalem. (I own a copy but have not yet read it.) He explains how Antonius documented the rise of liberalism in the Arab world from the mid-19th century along with resistance to Ottoman and Western colonial rule. Many of the countries which featured in the Arab spring were also in the vanguard of the first Arab awakening. Sadly independence was followed in many countries by military dictatorships.
The author also traces the rise of political Islam and discusses the curse of being blessed by natural resources such as oil and the impact of the Arab-Israeli conflict before going on to introduce the second Arab awakening. His key point is that the outcome is likely to unfold over decades rather than months or years. He reminds us that even in the relatively homogeneous political and cultural environment of North America, 15 years still elapsed between the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in 1775 and the ratification of the US constitution in 1789. He also looks at how recently other democratic countries such as Chile, Argentina and Spain threw off their dictatorships.
In the second chapter, the author begins by exploring the meaning of the word “moderate”. He points out that the West has assessed this entirely in terms of the position of the countries concerned on Israel, thereby classifying some countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and others, as moderate while labelling others as hardliners. However these classifications bore no relationship to the countries internal systems. He points out that Arab governments and the political elites which support them have monopolised the economy with very high levels of corruption. In turn this has given rise to a significant brain drain of educated young Arabs. Only the religious parties were able to organise as some form of opposition leaving a dire unfilled need for third forces.
In chapter 3 the author takes a much closer look at the Islamist movements with sections on each significant organisation. Despite high levels of religious belief in the Arab countries, he points out in table 1 that polling data finds very high levels of support for freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Other tables look at gender issues and attitudes to the role of Shariah in legislation.
In chapter 4, the author reminds us that
“Before the uprisings, almost all Arab regimes belonged to one category when it came to government reform. They all believed that ‘time is infinite’ and they behaved as if they had all the time in the world to address the issue of governance and power-sharing. None responded seriously to pressure to widen the decision-making circles. Since the revolts, however, Arab regimes can now be divided into two categories: the ‘time is limited’ group – those that, because they still enjoy some legitimacy, have some time left to work seriously on political reform – and the ‘time is up’ group, which comprises those that lost their legitimacy to rule.”
He then takes a country by country look at the countries that have experienced uprisings.
In chapter 5, the author focuses on the failings of Arab educational systems.
“But respect for diversity is glaringly lacking in Arab educational systems. Instead, youth in the Arab world learned that national and regional unity take precedence over differences in culture and opinion. Diversity in thinking is often viewed negatively. Most Arab educational systems actively promote simplistic analyses and eschew diversity of opinion and critical thinking. The lack of intellectual building blocks of pluralistic, democratic societies implies that educational reform is a prerequisite for building such societies.”
The author goes on to explain how religious institutions reinforce such educational systems in order to “protect their monopoly on ‘the truth’ rather than create educational systems that would give students the freedom and intellectual tools to question past practices, effectively challenge authority, and innovate or add value in the private sector.” He is damning about the role of rote learning and memorisation in education.
In chapter 6 the author reminds us of his involvement in the early days of the Arab-Israeli peace process in 1991 and tells of a review meeting held in 2011 about how little had been achieved in the intervening 20 years. He reminds us that more delay will soon render the two-state solution impossible.
In chapter 7 the author states that:
“The principal fight in the Arab world is the battle for pluralism, not simply a fight against despotic rule. Decades ago, the region succeeded only in exchanging foreign despots for domestic ones. The second Arab awakening must not only emulate the first but go beyond it. It must anchor new policies with lasting respect for political, cultural, and religious pluralism, good governance, the rule of law, and inclusive economic growth. If any factor has contributed most to the years of stagnation in Arab society, it is the near-total absence of diversity and the pluralism from political and cultural discourse. Truths are still regarded as absolute. A single person, party, or ideology is presented as the holder of all answers to all problems, while the public’s role is largely to submit to those in power.”
While the author does not make the comparison, when I re-read the above words, I was hit by the contrast between the above description and the openness and diversity of Israeli society. It is no wonder that over the last 60 years Israel has been so much more successful than the Arab states around it.
The author goes on to discuss in more detail what reform should look like and how it might be achieved.
The video below is 1 hour and 17 minutes long, but is well worth listening to. As well as the discussion with Michael Binyon, there are also questions from the floor. The polarisation between secular and religious views shown by the questions mirrors the polarisation in Arab societies generally which is emphasised by the author.
I recommend the book as being very easy to read and giving a comprehensive, light, survey of the countries and the issues. Unless you are already an expert on the Arab world, you will be better informed after having read it, and will enjoy reading it.
Kindle edition above