Thursday, April 26, 2007

Readers’ Take on Best Model for Arabs

My last article, “Best Model for Arab World?” has generated a passionate debate. Many disagreed with my view that Turkey and Dubai can’t be taken as the best model to follow. I appreciate their perspective and understand their concerns. Most opponents come from the New World (USA). Heritage-aware secular Europeans were more concerned with the religion aspect.

I agree that progress carries a hefty price tag. We cannot stop the time machine or turn its clock backward. Economics dictates ways and means that might not suit every soul and please every heart.

The question is: Should it be either or? Do we have to choose between modernity and civilization; prosperity and identity; progress and heritage? Does globalization mean the death of cultural diversity? Can’t a nation be progressive as well as proud of its past achievements and committed to its value system?

My stand is: Yes, we can be proud Arabs, good Muslims and great civil builders. We did it in the past and can do it again. Great civilizations, like China and India, are doing it today.

Yes, culture and heritage do matter. Lose your identity and you lose your soul, relate to your roots and you stand taller. That is my perspective; here are other points of view from dear readers.

— Why try to imitate anyone else? Arabs should simply decide for themselves what sort of society they want and build it.


— Malaysia is an Asian, not Arab country. Its progress was achieved mainly by the Indian and Chinese communities. Turkey and Dubai have the right attitude toward humanity that is more important than any religious attitude.


— Turkey is a country with identity. It didn’t join the European Union because it must adhere to certain standards. Kemal Attaturk’s revolution is effective and sooner or later they will be in the EU.

I lived in Dubai and found it a role model. Its leaders work according to a plan and know exactly what they are doing. Yes, laborers are foreign, but managers and planners are locals.


— The advocates of Turkey-Dubai model do not share your frame of reference. Put the question to those who are on the same plane like me.

While I respect your search for near-best, why look for models at all? We have the Qur’an and Sunnah. Let’s take an overdose of learning and knowledge and set about building our own new model, better than Malaysia.


— Dubai is an excellent example of how to blend the best of East and West and tolerance in action. Yes, on the surface you will find it more West than East, but dig deeper and you’ll find that the Eastern heritage, cultures and values remain intact.


— Most of Muslims in the world are not Arab. Arabic as a language has a limited vocabulary, so it is not practical for scientific pursuits without adding English, French, or German derivatives.

Modernity is not a problem for Arabs, but it is for fundamentalist Muslims. Arabs must get over the habit of indexing every human event to Israel. You should just recognize it and move on with your lives.

An attachment to heritage and identity is valuable only if it moves you forward. So the best model for the Arab world is to separate religion from government and politics. This will lead to peace and progress, without sacrificing your identity.


— Turkey is a great nation but still hopelessly poor and cannot be bracketed with UAE or Qatar. It is a hope and possibility that they will be admitted into the EU, at which time maybe Attaturk experiment will have finally paid off.


— “Hollywood” is the model that is now banging on the doors of the Arab world. It is not the best model but hard to stop because it attracts the young.


— If you want to build skyscrapers you have a choice: School the builders, or import them.


— Similar worries exist in my country. Some fear we are going to be Islamized by the growing number of Muslim immigrants. Others fear a EU attempt to replace national identity with European.

I won’t give up my identity easily for another, especially when the present culture and lifestyle have such a good track record in terms of stability and low poverty. On the other hand, I am open to changes. If not, we would still be living like the old Vikings, 1000 years ago.

What is a culture, a religion or an ideology and what is its purpose? They are all strategies for survival — to make money, to prosper. So if your own society isn’t good at making money then it is high time to adjust your culture a little.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Best Model for Arab World?

In my last column, “Why Arabs Lost Past Glories?” I cited Malaysia as an example of how we could develop a progressive model based on Islamic and indigenous heritage. Some of you reminded me of other successful examples, like Turkey and Dubai. With all due respect, I disagree. There are elements of success in both experiments, but I could point out failures as well. Let me explain:
Turkey at one time was a nation that unified the Ummah under its Islamic banner. They revived the caliphate, this time under non-Arab sultans.
For centuries, they spread civility, modernity and peace over a vast empire. Most of the Arab world was part of the map that expanded from 1326 when the empire was founded by the Muslim warrior Osman, from Istanbul to the borders of Iran, East, and Austria, West; and from Russia, North, to Africa, South. The empire was finally dissolved at the end of World War I and modern Turkey born.
Turkey, then, took an opposite turn. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923 on Western principles. Ataturk (Father of the Turks) abolished the sultanate in 1922. Before his death in 1938, he managed to change the Turkish alphabet from Arabic to Latin, imposed an anti-Islamic constitution, and put the army as the ultimate guardians of the secular state.
His successors kept Turkey forcefully and adamantly on this track. The hope was the country would eventually join the secular Europe, leaving its Islamic heritage behind. It achieved neither. The Muslim population kept Qur’an at heart, as did their brethren under oppressive Communist rule in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Chechnya.
At the same time, the Muslim world didn’t trust the first Islamic country to recognize Israel and join the NATO, while Christian Europe wouldn’t let them in. Halfway here, halfway there, Turkey now seems to have lost the sense of direction and belonging. You can’t buy tomorrow if you sell your yesterday and lose your today. Without a character to face the world with, you can’t face even yourself.
Dubai and its copycats like Qatar seem to be going down a similar road. Worse, with tiny population, they had to call for massive help. Only they chose mostly non-Arab, non-Muslim work force. Some 90 percent of residents in Dubai are foreigners. English, Hindi and Farsi are dominant.
You can live in this Arabic, Muslim emirate without the need to learn a single Arabic word. And you could live an entirely Western life in ultra-modern skyscrapers, visit malls and resorts without much of a reminder or an exposure to the original culture.
The same can be said about other Gulf countries. With the indigenous population down to 10 percent in some states, and the majority made up of one or two foreign ethnic groups, the demography of these countries is fast changing. Soon, many foreigners will be granted citizenship and have a say in its decision-making process. Naturally, they would advocate policies favorable to their countries of origin and cultures. Then what will become of the nations we call Arab and Muslim?
I discussed these concerns with an influential Gulf minister. Smart and highly educated, as he is, he was mostly dismissive. Progress has a price, he explained. We don’t have enough talent to build this miracle you witness around you. They had to be imported. And since there are great pools of labor in our immediate neighborhood, like India and Iran, they come first. We provide them with good work and business opportunities, so they are too happy and would not think of creating trouble. As long as we are fair and kind to them, they won’t be a security threat. As for the effects on our culture, it is unavoidable.
The world today is one big village. Cultures are melting and a mixed global heritage is being formed. Yes, we might lose some identity, but that is the price we must pay.
I told him that it was a very hefty price. Identity cannot be traded. Identity is who you are, what you are and why you exist. Identity is your today’s security and tomorrow’s warranty. If you lose your face and change your genes, you not only endanger your present, but forfeit your future, too.
And what for? You don’t need all the brand new towns and inflated economy made by foreigners for foreigners. You could live happily with one fraction of all that, and keep your country, too.
My Turkey-Dubai admirers disagreed with my logic. Live facts and numbers, they argued, are better measurements of achievement and a more accurate indication of the future than history lessons and romantic attachment to heritage and identity.
Well, that was my position, and that is theirs. What is yours, dear readers?