Arabs Criticize Illogic and Tyranny
by Daniel Pipes
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In the initial years after political independence, Arab opinion leaders shied away from public criticism of their governments, fearing that anyone unsympathetic would seize upon their words and use them to discredit Arabic-speaking peoples. To a certain extent, this apprehension yet reigns. Kanan Makiya still found it necessary in 1993 to denounce the instinct never to "wash your dirty laundry in public, and especially not when a westerner can see you." He described this as an "ever so destructive dictum of Arab cultural nationalism."
But as Makiya's own writings show, a new spirit now obtains. A biting and fierce auto-critique has for some years now come out of the Arabic-speaking countries and even more from Arabs living in the West. Apologetics continue to be produced, but now they face mordant criticisms. This change speaks to a growing maturity and self-confidence. It could presage an improvement in the tenor of Middle Eastern politics.
Self-criticism dwells on several perceived traits, including immaturity, greed, and hypocrisy. It points to the weakness of Arab states, the falseness of their media, and the unsatisfactory nature of their intellectual life. Most interesting of all, however, are the attacks on illogic and on tyranny. Here is a sampling:
Illogic. Arabic speakers find a tendency in themselves to leave the laws of logic behind. As an Egyptian ex-minister puts it: "people here think with their emotion more than they think with their minds." Muhammad al-Ghazali, a leading Islamic scholar, observed that whereas Westerners "adhere to logic," Muslims have no logic; instead, they hope to achieve results "through desires, wishes, and nonsense."
Hussein Sumaida, the Iraqi author of a compelling autobiography, writes on this:
King Hussein of Jordan speaks directly about a need to reduce the emotional component in political life, and to moderate:
The king rightly, if forlornly, calls on Arabs "to expel from our nation's life this ugly mode of behavior and to ostracize those who practice it."
Tyranny. Ahmad al-Qasir, an Egyptian commentator, says that "the Arab nation has been afflicted with dictatorial regimes. These regimes seized power through treachery, deception, and false slogans and imposed themselves on their peoples by force." Saad El-Shazly, a former Egyptian chief of staff, writes that "power in the Arab world tends to be permanent: it is ended only by death—usually assassination or coup." Hisham Djaït, Tunisia's best-known intellectual, speaks of a "frigid, depressing, virtually rotten" Arab order.
The harshest criticism is reserved for the police states that dominate so much of the Arabic-speaking world. "The graves of the dead are still open in the Arab world," Makiya wrote in 1994. The distinguished author Jabra Ibrahim Jabra amplifies:
To this, Isma'il Raji al Faruqi offers what he calls an "Islamic critique" of Muslim society: "There is no disputing the fact that today the overwhelming majority of Muslims live in police states that deny them their basic human rights." After listing some of the transgressions, Faruqi points to these examples as "symptoms of serious sickness in the political systems of most Muslims countries."
Some self-criticism goes further and discerns the seeds of tyranny in everyday life. An Iraqi Kurd explains that "All of us are Saddam," while his wife elaborates: "We're all dictators. We think we're right and everybody else is wrong, and when we come to power we impose our will on everybody else. We grow up with this attitude from the time we're little children." A Syrian notes the tendency toward despotism: "If any one of us takes power, he will become dictator over others. ... Do not listen to the talk in the cafes, including ours, because we are not more than inept dreamers and failed dictators."
Even the opposition movements come in for their share of criticism. A commentary in a London-based newspaper holds that "Arab oppositions are either corrupt and, like their regimes, linked to foreign powers, or bloodthirsty and miserable."
In these frank words lies the Arabs' best hope.
 Kanan Makiya, Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising, and the Arab World (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993), p. 321.
July 10, 2003 update: Columnist Abdallah Rashid agrees with the point about every man being a petty dictator, writing in the UAE daily Al-Ittihad on June 29, 2003 (as translated by MEMRI) that "Arab psychology has become addicted to the dictatorial model of life." He finds that
May 15, 2009 update: For more on one aspect of the above problem, see my "Caught on Tape: The Middle East's Culture of Cruelty."
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