The Arab road to modernity

The Arab Spring is often explained in purely economic terms, focusing on the sudden increase in inflation or high income inequality. While such economic factors play a role in recent events, much more is at stake. We have to place the Arab Spring in the broader context of the human pursuit of meaning and dignity. That is, the uprising represents a turning point in the relationship of the Arabs with the forces of modernity.

Modernisation is everywhere a disorienting process, leading people to respond to it with reactions of denial, identifcation or opposition. All these responses have been dominant in the Arab world’s problematic experience with modernity until now. The Arab Spring opens the possi- bility of a different and more fruitful road by transforming local culture and traditions and by symbiotically fusing them with modernity. No longer wanting to be marginalised, the Arabs are now seeking a dignified position among the ranks of nations. With the revolts, the Arab masses are taking the means of modernity into their own hands; starting a process of experimentation from which an Arab modernity will emerge.

What’s in a name?

When talking about the ‘Arab road to modernity’, the objection might be raised that it is hard to speak of ‘the Arabs’ in general. To what extent
is there such a thing as transnational experiences and ideas in the Arab world? Looking at the Arab Spring, there are indeed important national differences between the protests that have erupted throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Students were active everywhere, but the main social groups driving the protest differed from country to country. In Tunisia, it was the middle class that took to the streets, whereas in Egypt it was the urban poor and in Libya it was the tribes who revolted. In the Gulf and the Levant religious and ethnic sectarian divisions dominate. These differences strongly impact the prospects for stability and democracy in these countries.

Moreover, it is hard to speak of general Arab ideas and experiences due to multiple conflicts between Arab countries. With tensions between the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Syria, Palestine and Jordan, what is the perspective of ‘the Arab’?

These differences and divisions between Arab countries are important to note. But although politically divided, there are important cultural bonds of solidarity that connect the Arab world. As a result, even in conflict with other Arab countries, leaders are obliged to pay lip-service to ‘the Arab nation’, a concept deeply embedded in the population. Although it is hard to say what defines an Arab, the use of the Arabic language is an important element to it. More than other languages, it is considered to establish a bond between its speakers, in large part because it is the language of the Koran. The Islamic religion constitutes a solidarity broader than the Arab world, all the way to Southeast-Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

People connect to and compare themselves with Muslims around the world, but within that group, the Arabs form a special group. Through its language, holy sites and educational institutions, the Arabian world constitutes the heartland of Islam. Furthermore, another element that culturally links the Arab world is the desert landscape that stretches from Morocco in the West to Oman in the East. The Arabic word for ‘desert’ also means ‘beginning’, indicating its relevance, and the influence of the nomadic Bedouin ethos is pervasive throughout this region.

Modernity and the Arab Spring

How has the Arab world dealt with modernity over time and what has changed with the arrival of the Arab Spring? It is first of all important to emphasise how disruptive contact with the forces of modernity is for a society. As a result of new markets and production methods, traditional work is made obsolete, demographic changes put pressure on family life and move people from villages into vast cities and modern weapons undermine aristocratic warrior codes and local patterns of authority. As Karl Polanyi has shown, the market society progresses in a double movement. As it spreads, it creates material wealth, but it also calls forth a counter-movement due to its disruptive nature. Modernity thoroughly shakes the fabric of traditional society. It is in this sense that we can compare this process to the occurrence of a traumatic event to an individual. Societies, just like individuals, have different responses to such an event. Through the analogy with an individual psychological repertoire, we can shed light on social dynamics, a method that after Peter Sloterdijk we can call ‘psycho-politics’ and which has precursors in the works of Plato and Alexis de Tocqueville.

Denial: Oil monarchies

A common initial response to a shock is denial. People continue their past ways by pretending that nothing has happened. But something has changed and behind the compulsive attachment to rituals lurks danger from the dim consciousness that the old ways are no longer vital. On a societal scale, consider for instance the Indian reservations. People seek to live the life of their forefathers, but honour codes have been disrupted as tribal clashes are not allowed. More importantly, the source of this traditional way of life is the income generated by tourist attractions or casinos, the very world people seek to deny.

Denial is often a first response to a traumatic event, followed by societies everywhere that were shaken by the forces of modernity, but it is especially powerful in the Arab world. This is because oil and gas revenues make it possible to survive in the modern world, without becoming part of it. Through petrodollars, a wall can be erected behind which people can remain attached to pre-modern institutions. No region in the world is to such an extent still characterised by aristocrats and royalty as the Middle East. Whereas elsewhere monarchs have mostly become ceremonial at best, especially in Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, they reign and rule. But just as with the Indian reservation, this way of life and the power of its rulers depend on the world they deny. As wealthy as they may be, they are oil monarchs and a chasm separates them from the pre-modern past they seek to emulate. Moreover, by cutting themselves off from modernity, these societies are increasingly marginalised. It is this experience that has led to a second response.

“Successful countries manage to symbiotically fuse their culture with the forces of the modern world”

Identification: Radical Modernism

Diametrically opposed to denying a traumatic event is taking it on head-on, even identifying with the external force. By identifying with the external disrupting force, people take control of their situation and feel empowered. This response emerged against those who lived in the past in denial. It was first developed in the region outside of the Arab world in Turkey. The Ottoman empire with its traditional institutions was crushed in the First World War. To emerge from this weakness, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk set Turkey on a course of radical modernisation in the 1920s. He banned many traditions, deposed the emir and the sultan, shifted the capital, changed the script from Arabic to Roman and he used modern technologies like the radio for his rule. Within the Arab world, this response emerged when Gamal Abdel Nasser rose to power in Egypt, deposing King Farooq in 1956. He too set out to modernise the country. Nasser broke the power of traditional landowners, created grand structures like the Aswan Dam and wanted to show Egypt’s strength by standing up against the colonial West leading to the Suez crisis. But also dictatorial regimes like that of Moammar Khadaffi and Saddam Hussein’s Baathism arose when military men brought down monarchs (King Idris in Libya in 1969 and King Faisal II in 1958 in Iraq) and sought to create a strong and modern society.

But the cost of identifying radically with modernization is that such a regime is pitted against its own society. Turkey’s military establishment had to intervene continuously throughout the 20th century to control society’s conservative tendencies. Moreover, because of this internal tension, the strength the regime seeks to create is often less robust than it hopes. The artificial union between Egypt and Syria in the United Arab Republic broke down in 1961 and the humiliation of the Six Days War of 1967 crushed Nasser’s modernist ambitions.

Conquest: Radical Islam

A third type of response emerged in antagonism with Nasser’s modernisation plans. This rejection of modernisation was not a form of denial, but a virulent desire to do battle with it and conquer it. It is comparable to the individual who deals with a traumatic event by obsessively channelling his energies into defeating the external force.

Imprisoned by Nasser, it was in his penitentiary camps that Sayyid Qutb developed the ideology of radical Islam. A return to righteous Islamic traditions provided the strength to become victorious over modern materialist culture. Radical Islam emerged in countries like Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon and ascended to political power with Khomeini’s Iranian Revolution in 1979.

Traditional royalty as well as modernist dictators increasingly became incapable of providing direction and embedding to the disoriented masses of the Arab world, which helped the spread of radical Islam. Decades later, the ideas of Sayyid Qutb would inspire Al Qaeda.

The danger with this type of response to a traumatic event is that it casts a shadow on life in its entirety, mobilizing everything for battle. In their attempt to forge a more powerful Islamic world, radicals break down many institutions and practices that they deem to be weak and slavish, like classical apolitical religious jurisprudence and its interpreters as well as local bonds, in favor of what Olivier Roy has called a ‘Globalized Islam’. Apart from this breakdown, radical Islam has nowhere been able to create a coherent society as an alternative to modernity, as dominant as it may have been in international affairs over the last decade. Moreover, because of its obsession with the enemy, the response of conquest runs the risk of becoming what it hates. Traditional texts are inadvertently infused with the modern rhetoric of oppression, revolution and nihilism. By claiming religious authority as a layman, Osama bin Laden brings individualism into religion as well as Che Guevara-inspired marketing. Indeed, as an agent of modernization, radical Islam might be its own worst enemy.

“Although politically divided, there are important cultural bonds of solidarity that connect the Arab world”

Transformation: Towards an Arab Modernity
With the Arab Spring however, we see the emergence of a more fruitful response to modernity by accepting the traumatic event and by transforming traditions so that they can help navigate in the new context. Successful countries manage to symbiotically fuse their culture with the forces of the modern world. The rise of China and other East Asian countries has created the highly competitive Confucian modernity. In the wider Islamic world, countries like Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia have also managed to embed the forces of modernity within their societies. Beyond the responses of denial, identification and opposition, we are now seeing the slow emergence of an Arab modernity. This is not to say that it will be a smooth and easy transition. Although everyone now admires China’s economic dynamism, we must not forget that it used to be ‘the sick man of East Asia’ and that it took well over a century of disruptive modernization before it developed a successful formula in 1979. Moreover, we should not be discouraged by the electoral victory of Islamist parties. Only by governing a democratic polity and steering a capitalist economy can the transformation be achieved through which modernity will be embedded in these societies. The lure towards radicalism will have to be resisted so that a modernist political Islam can emerge as it has over decades in Turkey. The Arab people will have to do it themselves.

The Bedouin ethos

What could an Arab modernity look like? We have already noted the pervasive influence of the desert throughout the Arab world. Although few people still live in the desert, the Bedouin ethos remains a powerful force in Arab society. Over the last few years, this ethos has been associated mostly with negative qualities like tribalism, aggression and a disdain for education. We must however not forget that before other countries developed a modus vivendi with the forces of modernity, many people believed that the Japanese, the Chinese as well as the Germans were too backward to flourish in the modern world. The state involvement in the economy that is currently praised for China’s high growth rate for instance was earlier on seen as an impediment to capitalist development. When successfully transformed onto the plain of modernity, other currently forgotten or repressed characteristics of the Bedouin ethos might again come to the fore: a fierce love of independence and freedom, a strong sense of equality (an essential tenet of Islam) and an aristocratic refinement might be constitutive elements of an emerging Arab modernity.

Modernisation is disorienting. An ancient ethos and the strong bonds of civil society that it is associated with can help people to navigate through its disruptive changes. This dynamic is what we see emerging from the Spring of Arab Modernity.

Previously published in The psycho-politics of the Arab Spring, in Idee of the Mr. Hans van Mierlostichting, 2012, p. 5-8