The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.


Below is the second installment of a two-part piece (see part one for a longer introduction) by the prominent Saudi commentator and academic Khaled al-Dakheel -- an epic rant about how badly off the Arab world is and how incapable it is of facing its own shortcomings. Upon reflection, one trigger for this jeremiad might have been the recent focus on conspiracy theories, notably in Egypt where a military official recently spoke on television of fifth-generation warfare plots to cause earthquakes and alter weather, which an increasing number of commentators are slamming.

Brought to you as always by the great professional translation team at Industry Arabic

Arab Civilization Has Lost Its Purpose

 Khaled al-Dakheel, Al-Hayat, Sunday 6 September 2015

To deny the facts of history is a form of stubbornness that may lead to a departure from history altogether. This is what seems to be happening in the Arab and Islamic world (with the exception of Malaysia and Indonesia). If the Arabs reject wholesale the civilizational superiority of the West, they are doing so on the basis of moral and political arguments, some or all of which may be correct, but which in reality have no connection to the issue of civilizational superiority. On the other hand, the Arabs are clinging to an Arab-Islamic civilization that ruled the world until the end of the 13th century. In both cases, the Arabs are guilty of an unjustified obstinacy. The facts of history say that Arab-Islamic civilization has come to an end and its aims are exhausted, while Western civilization has inherited from it and replaced it through an unprecedented superiority.

The first testimony to the decline of Arab civilization appeared at the end of the 14th century in the famous Muqaddima of Ibn Khaldun. He writes: “In this age, the end of the 8th century (Hijri), the situation in the Maghreb, as we have witnessed, has been turned upside down and completely altered…This was the situation until, in the middle of the 8th century, civilization both in the Arab East and Arab West was swept by a plague that devastated nations and carried off an entire generation. It swallowed up and obliterated many blessings of civilization. It overtook nations when they had grown decrepit and reached their utmost limit. It lessened their influence, undermined their power and led to their extinction. Civilization declined with the decline of mankind. Cities and buildings were destroyed, roads and landmarks vanished, estates and homes became vacant, nations and tribes began to falter.” 

This is what was happening to the Arab West at the time. And what about the Arab East? Ibn Khaldun says: “The Arab East seems to have suffered the same fate as the Arab West, though in in a degree and manner proportionate to its civilization. It was as if the voice of existence in the world had called out for apathy and gloom, and the world obeyed. God inherits the earth and whoever is upon it.” (Muqaddima of Ibn Khaldun, v. 1, p. 325-326).

Leaving aside the plague that swept the region at the time, it would seem that the author of the Muqaddima was describing the current situation in the Arab world, particularly Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya and Yemen, not to mention the threats the rest of the region is facing. But hold on a moment. Our own age suffers from its own plagues, such as extremism, sectarianism, dictatorship, corruption and terrorism. It is as if in our own age the Arab East and Arab West were complying with the voice of existence when it calls for “apathy and gloom,” albeit for factors and reasons that did not exist in Ibn Khaldun’s time.

What does this mean? It means that the process of decline described by this historian in his lifetime was completed long before our own time. The Arab world is now living through its aftermath and repercussions, and it is still paying the price. And why? Because Arabs and Muslims are resisting the fact that history has advanced, and that Arab civilization reached its peak before the 14th century. Since that time, history has progressed to an age of a different nature and aspect, and with different motives, requirements and variables. The features of decline are still with us and beset us on every side: the same religious thought, sectarianism, tribalism, crisis of governance and absence of scientific thinking. The Arab refusal to acknowledge the superiority of the West acts as a psychological defense mechanism against the fear of Western superiority, rather than being born of conviction. Without a doubt, the Crusades and later the Western colonization of many Arab countries, as well as the question of Palestine, helped solidify this complex. Although the attitude toward these Western incursions is justified, it is really strange that after centuries, we have yet to realize that fear is the weakest and worst defense mechanism, particularly on the level of nations and civilizations. Fear is a natural reaction at the beginning, but afterwards it should be an incentive to create a real defense mechanism that leads to innovation and does not remain a defense mechanism for its own sake. However, this is impossible without first admitting that a decline has taken place, that the aims of Arab civilization have been exhausted, and that history has passed into a new era that emerged in the garb of a different civilization: Western civilization, with its capitalist foundations. Moreover, it is necessary to recognize the technological superiority of this civilization not only on the scientific and material level, but on the cultural and moral level as well. It does not help and will not help to cling to the opposite contention -- that this new civilization suffers from cultural and moral decadence -- since this involves judging the culture of a civilization on the basis of cultural standards that belong to a different civilization whose logic and standards have already collapsed.

What are the features of the cultural and moral superiority of Western civilization? It consists of just about everything: the various branches of art, literature, political, social and philosophical thought, and the scientific method. It also consists in the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the inviolability of constitutions, a political system based on the principle of participation and that governing is not a privilege but rather a service and responsibility that is in theory open to all. The cultural and moral superiority in all this is the framework by which Western civilization as such should be judged – by the standards and logic on which it rests – rather than according to external standards and logic. It was within this framework that the foundations were laid for the achievements of this civilization in various fields: administration, education, architecture, engineering, medicine, technology, space exploration, physics, civil and military industries, etc. Admitting the superiority of this civilization by no means requires copying it, especially the details of its culture and values, in order to apply it in a different cultural and historical context. In any case, this would be impossible. Nonetheless, such an admission is the first step to a true awareness of the actual Arab situation: that the Arab world has departed from its civilizational context and entered a different one that it is no longer wise to deny. To admit this fact is to accept the challenge posed by the end of Arab civilization and its passing from history, and the challenge of the current civilizational framework with its never-ending achievements.

It is startling that the Arabs have neglected Ibn Khaldun’s observation. More than 700 years ago, this Muslim Arab thinker, historian and jurist recognized that in his time Arab civilization had fallen into stagnation and collapse. The Arabs, however, did not recognize this. They did not realize that their history continued from that time in a state of never-ending regression and breakdown. This being the case, is the situation in the Arab world after the Arab Spring any surprise? These revolutions did not achieve their desired goals, but their opponents were also unable to stop them or offer an alternative to supplant their underlying rationale. All they could resort to were conspiracy theories and talk about external plots to divide the region. Do you think that the Arab East and Arab West were victims of the same conspiracies and plots in the time of Ibn Khaldun? If that were the case, there would be no Arab civilization in the first place! In any case, the Arab world in our day has reached a state similar to that sketched by Ibn Khaldun in his own time. When you place this continued regression of the Arab world side by side with the emergence of a new civilization, it can only mean one thing – that Arab civilization as it was before the 14th century entered into a state of continuous decline and regression, and all that remains of it is what we are seeing now. Meanwhile, since the 16th century, the West has not ceased to grow and develop. That century was the start of a new civilizational era that came to be called “capitalist civilization.”,

When you realize this transformation -- that the Other is superior to you and outpacing you -- over time you become victim of the delusion that you are equal to him or close behind in accomplishment, on the pretext of moral superiority. The effect of this delusion is to prevent you from understanding the real challenge posed by the Other’s superiority, and to eliminate the internal inclination to face this challenge and respond to it as necessary. The aspiration to equality with the Other, and the attempt to vie with him in accomplishmen, is a poisonous goal. But when this goal turns into a delusion, then the real disaster begins.