A number of intellectuals and academics unanimously agreed that the absence of freedom in the Arab and Muslim world is a major reason behind its backwardness. However, they disagreed on how to deal with its various causes, and how to catch up with human progress in all aspects of life.
This came as an answer to a question raised by Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) on the causes of backwardness of Arabs and Muslims, which was part of a seminar organized within the framework of Ibn Roshd Salon on March 18th, and moderated by Mr. Bahey El Din Hassan, CIHRS Director.
At first, Mr. Hassan offered several reasons, and wondered whether one or all of them were behind Arab and Muslim backwardness: despotic Arab regimes at the political and cultural levels; the movement away from religious doctrine, as some movements claim; or is it the opposite, i.e., the supremacy of religious thought of rigid jurisprudents and proscription and denunciation of people as atheists that pervade religious culture?
He added that if the problem is what is said about Arabs, namely that they are lazy, and lack determination and energy as a result of life in the desert? Or is it sexual suppression and the ensuing moral laxity, corruption and absence of values? Or is it the prevalence of the paternalistic culture? Or is it a deep-rooted psychological problem particular to the Arab, who dreams of the hereafter and neglects the ephemeral world, and thus is fearful of innovation?
Dr. Yehia Al Rakhawi, Professor of Psychology, summarized what he wanted to say in his paper by stressing that the search for causes does not represent –according to him- the correct point of departure to opt out of the crisis of backwardness. He considered that the best approach is to specify what can be immediately done to reverse the prevailing crisis of backwardness of both the Arab and Islamic worlds, while stressing that the aforementioned causes are correct. However, he indicated that laziness is characteristic not only of Arab nations but of other nations as well, and rigidity of religion comes fundamentally from religious authority, in addition to the prevalence of hypocrisy and failure of creativity.
The Journalist Reda Hilal, assistant editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram daily, considered that the question regarding Arab backwardness stems from the problematic of consciousness with the West, whereas the more correct question should have been: Why did the West progress? He asserted that the Arab World could have been happy with its backwardness had the West not progressed! He pointed out three issues in search for an answer to this question: namely, religious belief; political organization; and the Arab World’s relationship to the West.
Regarding the first issue, Hilal indicated that he meant Islam specifically. Many modernists, liberals, and socialists perceive Islam as an obstacle to progress and he admitted he did not agree with them. A number of Orientalists, he maintained, raised this question before: how was Islamic society pioneering during a former period if we are blaming Islam today?
Hilal stressed that the problem is not Islam, but rather the way Muslims specify the relationship between religion and life, indicating that God is the source of legislation and legitimacy of authority. However, the Muslim State was in no way a religious state, in the same sense as the priesthood is known in the West.
He considered that the abolishment of the Caliphate institution was a decisive step toward what he described as “mundane politics.” This mundane character faced several problems, among which that it was influenced by the French secularist experience that was inimical to religion for a particular historical circumstance in France.
Hilal then moved to the second issue, namely, the role of political organization or what he described as the “method of governance.” He pointed out that the Muslim State was mainly based on trade and invasion, which made it a spending rather than productive state. Arab nations welcomed heartily despotic regimes for the mere fact that they spent and did not rely on production.
Hilal dealt with the third issue, namely, relationship with the West. At the onset, he emphasized that no one can ever deny the imperialist role of the West within the Arab region and Western focus on its own interests, particularly in oil and Israel.
He mentioned that American politics has deviated from American liberal values and stood behind national regimes such as the Nasser regime and democratic regimes such as Musaddiq in Iran. Meanwhile, it supported despotic regimes in several regions of the world. However, Hilal claimed that the imperialist face of the West should not suppress its civilization, in terms of democracy, human rights, technological and scientific progress known in the region, which is drawn from the West.
Hilal concluded by saying that our responsibility concerns the absence of democracy, freedom of reasoning, citizenship and women’s rights. This cannot be justified through a Salafi interpretation of religion, the adoration of the spending state, despotism, blaming the West and Israel, or the premise that no voice is louder than that of the battle. All of these justifications, he argued, represent the causes of Arab backwardness.
Despotism and Corruption
Dr. Essam Al-Erian, leading figure in the Muslim Brothers Group, began his discussion by pointing out that we are on the threshold of a new colonialist era that could last for centuries should we not start to correct our backwardness.
Al-Erian avowed that we do not need any justifications, nor can we put the blame on our leaders or even the West. We should instead conform to our Islamic faith, indicating that the Prophet and His Companions built an upswing for Arabs, unmatched before. He also stressed that the absence of freedom is the reason behind Arab and Muslim backwardness, and that their real revival could start from here.
He added that the nationalist idea also tried to progress, but on the basis of the idea of unity and the authoritarian state. The results are known to everyone, the last of which is what goes on in Iraq at present.
Al-Erian said that we want to build a new resurgence amidst a project for resistance. We are facing a new colonialist assault, symbolized by a power that wants to control the world single-handedly and to monopolize welfare for its own ends while marginalizing everyone else. He stressed that attempts to find external solutions such as globalization and Westernization cannot lead to the resurgence of the Arab and Muslim nation. It is time for all intellectuals searching for the question of resurgence to look for a Muslim project that can assimilate all, even non-Muslims and non-religious. He pointed out to the recent honorable attitude against war in Iraq, which would certainly have an impact on changing the ideas of many hard-liners.
Al-Erian argued that we cannot devise an Egyptian model, and that Islam did not prevent Malaysia and Turkey from progressing. He also indicated that it can be either passion for the West or extreme animosity, but certainly there is a “middle-of-the-road” attitude toward dealing with the West in its real image.
Al Erian refused to differentiate between what is religious and what is human, and said that no one alleged in the history of Islam that he is governing in the name of God, and that history did not experience what is known as “the religious state” or absolute divine rule, and that if anyone dared claim this, he would have been killed.
Absence of Science and Education
At the beginning of his speech, Dr. Ahmed Mohei El-Din, Professor at the Faculty of Medicine, Ain Shams University, criticized the absence of any discussion surrounding the overshadowing of science and education as being the causes of Arab and Muslim backwardness. He affirmed that scientific research is an important issue, but it is not among the priorities of progress within the Arab and Muslim world.
He gave evidence to his argument through figures mentioned in the World Bank Report for the year 2000. This report mentioned that the rates of illiteracy among Egyptian females reached 60% and 35% for males, in Malaysia the figure was 15% for females and 10% for males, in South Korea 4% for females and 1% for males, and in Israel 7% for females and 2% for males.
He added that the rate of registration in applied colleges in Egypt was 2.9% from the total student body registered in Egyptian universities, while in Singapore it was 24%, in North Korea 23%, and Israel 11%.
The number of individual scientists and engineers in the spheres of research and development reached 458 in every million persons in Egypt, 2362 in South Korea, and 938 in South Africa. The rate of expenditure on Research and Development was 0.2% of Egypt’s GDP, 2.8% in South Korea, and 2.4% in Israel.
He also indicated that high-tech exports in Egypt represent 7%, a large part of which is related to medicine, while in Israel they reach 33%. Egypt’s contribution in publication of scientific work was 0.2%, Israel 2.4%, and India 4%.
Dr. Mohei El-Din emphasized managing scientific research institutions, especially universities, which are managed in a totalitarian method, whereas the Ministry of Higher Education governs its policy and budget. Meanwhile, he is member of government, which is mainly responsible for appointing graduates of those institutions.
Finally, Dr. Mohei El-Din commented that Egyptian society has experienced a period of “lost opportunities”, i.e., a preoccupation with Israel, which was considered a contradiction with the United States, present since the 1970s. He also added that the idea of particularity, which pervaded society with the Nasserite nationalist tendency, led to shunning issues of democracy. At the same time, the Islamic fundamentalist tendency was predominated by the idea of Jihad and its practical impact rather than the idea of progress, research and interaction with other civilizations.
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