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The Arabs' Dilemma: Between Cynicism and Doubt!

Though, the terms, cynicism and doubt at times seem to be synonymous, most of the time are quite apart. Let's exclude what they're not. Cynicism isn't about what the Greeks called "dog philosophers," or "watchdog of mankind" to bark at illusions; rather it's what the dictionary and everyday usages define it, that's, a skeptic of others' motives and distrustful of everything and everybody without necessarily having some "good reasons" to do so. Nor doubt refers to the common phrase 'doubting Thomas,' but rather to the idea of holding judgment about something as well as from its contradictory, until and unless certain criteria were met or more evidence was presented. In other words, doubt is based on the existence of some grounds to justify it.

Why bother with such mundane terms when their usages are ubiquitous that almost everyone has heard of them. That maybe the case but we all know not every word heard is also understood. And the mere usage of a word doesn't warrant its proper application .When such words acquire the status of philosophical cogitations then they become also loaded and difficult to come to terms with. Notwithstanding the commonly held mantra: A good dose of both is healthy for both the debate and the society. The question is how much is too much and what's a good balance?

Any observant to the Libyan, and for that matter Arab, scene will not miss to notice the utter cynicism that, if not motivates at least, drives whatever is deemed to be a debate rather than the usual and healthy a proper dose of doubt! It's one thing to dismiss with anything and everything as nonsense and it's another to doubt that it'll do the job. The one goes on blathering about how the world is set down on the road of collapse and thus nothing stands in the face of its demise except a return to a Golden Age; while the other goes on looking for what it makes kick. Between the one and the other there're all the chasms which separate the Middle Ages from the contemporary world.

By now it's become an old cliche to ask the nagging question: What went wrong with the Arabs? How have they lagged so tragically behind other nations that have started at the same time or even later than them? Why countries like China, India, and even Korea, and Malaysia, not to talk of Israel, have succeeded where Arabs have failed so dramatically? Why 'Arab intellectuals' are still mired in the bogs of superficial political bickerings and ditherings?

If one can pick anything at all from the shrills and trills emanating from the crevices in the cyberspace, one can only say the cacophony is brimming far beyond a rational assessment. Though the chatter deals mostly with the mundane day-to-day concerns of political diatribes, many also attempt to come up with some answers to the most pressing questions. It's safe to say that up and until this moment the ills and answers to them were found mostly residing in the political set-up. Even the seemingly religious ones, were mostly camouflaged political issues in nature: How to get the flock back to the right pasture! While many of the ills that are causing havoc such as dictatorship, badly managed states, cronyism, corruption, etc. certainly constitute a problem, and a huge one indeed, they're only what're called "proximate reasons," which could be compared to the final straw that broke the camels back, more apparent effects of well-entrenched causes that are gnawing at its body from the inside. However, the ultimate reasons, the ones underlying the long stagnation have yet to be found and addressed.

To search for such causes we must begin re-reading the intellectual history or what's usually called the history of ideas, within the context of the Arab World, to see its ups and downs and follow its meandering paths. But more importantly to look critically, as Abul-Asha has done lately in some of his articles, to what has been dubbed, wrongly I may add, as the "Arab Awakening" movement back at the beginning of the 19th century and apparently we still live at its wake. For, after close to two centuries of so-called the first "Arab awakening," -some even dubbed it "Arab Risorgimento" -after Mazzini-Garibaldi movement to unite Italy- and other called it "Arab Renaissance"- Arabs are still as confused, as slumbering as when they were still vegetating under "the Sick-man of Europe", the Ottoman Empire! If it ever were an 'awakening' why it didn't jolt the dormant mass into energetic and a vigorous working hive?

To start with there was something wrong with the premises of so called "Arab Awakening" movement, if a movement ever was. They approached civilization as if they were going to a bazaar market. In their view civilization was made out of at least two separable parts: One side deals with material goods and services, and the other with philosophical-cultural values. While they accepted the first part with enthusiasm, their attitude toward the second part was to say the least, tepid and ambiguous, which can be characterized as not complete rejection but not acceptance either. This in part can be attributed to two factors: 1- Given the fact that most of the 'awakeners' came from traditional backgrounds, that's, rote religious education; thus, their understanding of modernity suffered from the superficial shock and admiration of provincials on first encounters with something beyond their capacity to comprehend in one shot - no different than a bumpkin in the city or a Beduin in Paris! 2- They got affected by the different strands of the debate on the idea of "progress" and its effects. Thus, their thought of the idea came out simplified to the degree of complete neglect of its sources and utter impoverishment of its implications. Theirs was based on the notion that human and social progress was a product no different than any other products of human creations, that's, subject to human choices and tastes. In their minds the market of ideas was no different than the goods and services they saw displayed in window-shops and stores across Europe. Therefore, one can easily pick and choose as he/she likes. Had they fell victims to Cartesian Dualism, and to boot without the Cartesian Doubt?

If that's the case, then, at least in part, they were victims of their own times' thoughts and what they were exposed to. Since their 'awakening' was induced from the outside, by Napoleon's Campaign of 1798, it was colored by what the outsider had brought them. It was a time when the continental part of Europe and particularly France was involved in the debate over the Cartesian Method. In invading Egypt, Napoleon brought with him the French version of the debate on progress. The mathematician and philosopher, Rene Descartes (1596-1650), a century before, had already dissected human thought and action into its constituent elements and declared the separation between body and mind, matter and spirit, or aesthetics and science and technology. What came to be known, as The Cartesian System or Cartesian Dualism? The method has dominated the first -Industrial Revolution and many still blame it for the bleak consequences that had befallen the world since then. The post-modern detour is in part a reaction to the mechanical world that method supposedly had encouraged and in fact produced.

Most of the leaders of the 'awakening' were a Francophile bunch. They were either educated in France or read the translations of French literature. R. Tahtawi, M. Abduh, J. al-Afghani, to T. Hussein, etc, had all at certain point in their lives either lived or studied in France. Their dairies and testimonials portrayed how shocked and disoriented they were; their reactions seemed to resemble wild animals when they get trapped in a cage; they were flabbergasted and seduced by all what they saw and heard about their intellectual sources, as kids in Disneyworld. Certainly among their sources must have been Descartes, who, if truth must be said, made life a little bit easier for them, by what his methodic clarity allowed them to do: That's of breaking down the problems into their simple parts; and, Lo and behold, that's what apparently our forebears just had done. They broke down the backwardness into a spiritual and a material domains, that's, culture-religious values and the rest of techno-economic and scientific mix. Their reasoning seemed as follows: for the the first we may only need some brushing, perhaps some dusting and polishing here and there but in general it's good and sound; as for the second we need all the help we can get or what we can put our hands on. Here's the rub though, the caveat if you wish! The reasoning skipped the most important item in the Cartesian system: Doubt -don't accept anything unless you make sure that's true! Without this last control mechanism, there's no way to assess and evaluate anything as true to its claims or not.

In retrospect and with the benefit of hindsight one would think that what those folks should have done -and they would have done us a great service- when they'd dallied with the logic of the scientific method, was to have subjected most, if not all, of what heirloom they'd found to the mercy of Ockam's razor, so to speak, and made a clean slate of what stood in their way as a barrier to the idea of progress. If that was done, they'd have acted not only in the spirit of Descartes' method but also in his predecessors' spirit: The Enlightenment thinkers! However, now that the train has left and we missed our appointment with Destiny we should use the delay to think again: What we want? A modern, democratic, and progressive societies and states ruled by agreed upon set of norms and laws or a mere collection of disparate parts -tribes, sects and what have you!- where either a gaggle of soldiers, a clown of an absolute monarch, or a bunch of bearded-turbaned set on interpreting the world and with it our lives according to their mood swings or how they've waked up in the morning?

If a lesson can be learned from this debacle is that civilization is a total whole either to be accepted entirely and adapted in its details to the particular context and circumstances or rejected totally, with, of course, the dire consequences that decision certainly would entail. This point doesn't bring anything new we don't know already. Half measures never worked out the way their proponents had wished. Civilizations were not mere mechanical gizmos that anybody reverse engineer them. They're a whole lot complicated. Their material side was a logical product of their other sides. Each product contains in its folds the values that produced it. Take for instance a product like the television. It contains the values of communication and exchange, of openness and entertainment, of relativism and frivolity, etc. In McLuhan's words: " The medium is the message." To adopt it, as many in the backwoods of this world have done, as a one-way microphone for those in power, is basically to misunderstand its purpose and misuse its application. The same can be said for the myriad other products which have been adopted without due understanding to the needs that gave rise to them, and to the premises and values which underlined their inventions and surrounded their use.

The point is, just as there cannot be a body without a mind -or in contemporary parlance a hardware without its software- the same can be said about civilization. This latter cannot be dissected into parts to take what one's find convenient without suffering the consequences of dismemberment. This also comes out from observing how the civilizations of the past had behaved and how their 'adopters' had gone about them. Greeks had hellenized the entire Mediterranean Basin, Romans after they'd adapted Greek civilization, had gone into romanizing even a larger area, and so had done the Arabs when Islamized most of the world known to them. Persians, Turks, Indians, etc., all had accepted the new civilization in its entirety and gave it the best shot they could. Only by accepting the logic of a civilization, and let's be frank, folks, at the present time we've no other alternative to modern civilization!, would a society be able to absorb and digest its material before starting to interact with it in a two-way communication exchange. Only by interacting with a civilization can a particular society avoid being a mere consumer to its products and thus a victim to its excesses and aberrations.


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