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memri
July 22, 2003 No.
540

An Arab Diplomat on the Leadership Crisis in the Arab World

From May to September 2002, the London-based Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat published a series of articles authored by an Arab diplomat writing under the name Abu Ahmad Mustafa addressing the leadership crisis in the Arab world. The articles analyze the roots of this crisis and provide historical insights and recommendations. The following are excerpts from the articles:

'The Intifida Ended Up Committing a Crime Against the Palestinian People'

In "When Will the Arabs Learn the Lesson, Just Once?" [1] published at the beginning of the third year of the current Intifada, Abu Ahmad Mustafa wrote: "The Arabs must try, just once, to grasp the lesson given to them, which once again they have [so far] failed to comprehend – namely, entering into a new-old historical phase. Firstly, we must admit that those who pushed children into the second 'Intifada' [2] did not have a definite political objective that would benefit the Palestinian people, and from which they can move on to better outcomes."

"In my view, the Intifida ended up committing a crime against the Palestinian people… I would like to ask [some] questions that have been bothering me since the demonstrations [in solidarity with the Palestinians] that marched through the streets of Arab countries – which brought to mind the demonstrations flooding the streets to defend the honor of the [Arab] nation, as they believed was personified by comrade Saddam. Is there even one Arab country in which these demonstrations were spontaneous? I have heard that [Arab] governments and political parties had jointly formed committees to organize them, and in some Arab countries, senior officials marched in the front line. I ask: Why don't these officials hasten to protest the terrible state (indeed, the absence) of basic services in their countries, which have no health, education, or [social] services. [These countries] are below the poverty line (and beyond disgrace). They are all preoccupied with Palestine, and with the slogan 'No voice is higher than the voice of battle'…"

"Here I ask again: Why don't these [senior officials] undertake to teach the people about the importance of contributing to improve education, health, and social [welfare] services in their countries? What would have happened if, from 1948 onwards, every Arab country had dedicated itself to domestic construction and not made the Palestinian problem its main preoccupation and relentless concern? Wouldn't this have been more useful than expenditures for establishing and equipping armies [only] for the purpose of enjoying a military parade from time to time? What would have happened if every Arab country had concentrated on educating its citizens and improving their standard of living in the areas of physical and mental health and culture?…"

"I am astounded by our religious leaders, who deafen us with words about the Jihad against Israel and who are preoccupied with struggling and competing with each other to issue religious legal rulings [Fatwas justifying] the suicides but do not prod the people to wage Jihad against their [own] evil inclinations. [3] Would this not better serve the nation… [which is] now facing [another] catastrophe at the hands of some of its Ulema [i.e. scholars]. I mean of course the scholars of religion, and not the scholars of physics, medicine, and engineering. They instill fear and horror, and it is enough for one of them to accuse you of apostasy for you to retreat to a distant corner, looking around fearfully lest some madman lay his hands on you. Isn't there a glimmer of hope in this Arab nation for which we can live?"

'Arab Leaders Neglected Their Societies to Fight Israel'

In "Why Have We Become Backward?" [4] Mustafa wrote: "In an article I published a month ago… I focused on the fact that the Arab nation, or more precisely, its leaders, have made the Palestinian cause their primary preoccupation. They chose to disregard that military victories against the enemy cannot be achieved by arms alone; rather, [one must first] have scientific, social, and economic infrastructure to be able to carry the burden of war…"

"I was astounded by the flood of criticism that I received claiming that this view is the very policy chosen by the United States specifically and the West in general, in order to stop 'the Arab advance to defeat Israel' and eradicate it from the map of the Middle East, and that such diabolic thoughts are designed to destroy the hopes and dreams of Arabs, 'which lie within their reach.'"

"It is very difficult to conduct a rational discussion with people of such convictions, especially since they titillate the emotions of the people who suffer from frustration about their domestic conditions and the impossibility of changing them, and therefore they direct their emotions towards the enemy without."

"It is amazing that the intellectuals – or those referred to in the Arab world as the elite – began to compete for the admiration of the masses by screaming and shouting, without undertaking to stop and reflect and study the causes of the current situation of backwardness, educational collapse, and deterioration of fundamental public services."

"The intellectuals began panting after the mirage of political power or authority which some of them had lost, and they [relegated] the task of analyzing and studying the conditions to other parties that do not accept scientific methods as an instrument of research and planning."

"Has the Arab League ever called an Arab summit to discuss the state of education in the Arab world? Japan complains of decline in its standard of education; the United States has made education one of its main election campaign issues; and European leaders have met innumerable times to discuss what they consider an educational disaster on their continent…"

"This [Arab] nation needs a calm, rational dialogue, far from the spotlights, in which the participants would not be preoccupied with composing letters of gratitude and support to the leader of the host country – a dialogue with only one question on its agenda: Why have we become backward?"

"This question certainly requires that true intellectuals put aside their emotions and talk with absolute frankness about obstacles to development – without which there can be no talk of war. The Arab nation experienced a stage of 'no call is above the call to battle.' The nation lived with this call for a while, until this slogan changed to another slogan – '[Pan-Arab] unity, freedom, and socialism,' which others exchanged for 'Islam is the answer' until it finally came to the slogan, 'The Mother of All Wars'…"

"What we need is to discard our fantasies, and not to look to our history except for the purpose of learning the lessons [of the past], and benefiting from its experience – and not in order to drug the minds of future generations with [tales of] heroic deeds and conquests."

'Arab Intellectuals Must Assume Responsibility For Arab Society'

In "Will the Intellectuals Be Able to Take the Arena Back From the Turbaned Ones?" [5] Mustafa wrote: "When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait , the so-called experts provided us with a conspiracy theory – namely, that Iraq had fallen into the trap set by American ambassador April Gillespie. This is because Gillespie told Saddam that the American government saw the Iraq-Kuwait conflict as an [internal] Arab affair. It's funny that these [the experts] acquit the Iraqi president of any evil intent towards Kuwait and its neighbors…"

"Today, Israel should be grateful to the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad because they gave Israel the opportunity to humiliate their people [i.e. the Palestinian people] freely, in front of the lenses of the television [cameras], in a way worse than that to which it was exposed over the past 50 years. They [Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders] committed the greatest deception regarding their people and its youth, telling them that their operations against [Israel] will bring about the liberation of their stolen homeland. How I wonder at these people, who claim that what is happening to the Palestinian people is the inevitable result of Oslo. Will what they are doing now lead the Palestinians to something better?"

"The falsehood and hypocrisy of these intellectuals and clerics, and the hollow declarations and twisted logic – these are what push this nation towards an abyss to which we see no end… How I wish that both intellectuals and clerics would focus their efforts and their words on the real flaws and defects, [turning away from] the myths about our ancestors and the legends of their heroism…"

"Leave them alone, oh you [religious leaders], with the Fatwas which are not suitable for our time and are of no use to anyone. You should disseminate realistic consciousness, not false fantasies. You should realize that the misfortunes now afflicting the nation have resulted from the fabricated history that you have sown in the minds of the various Arab peoples. Can any one of you point to periods of enlightenment in our history, or to any achievement accomplished by us on behalf of humanity in the past millennium?"

"This people, which has been oppressed from ancient times, does not know and does not understand where its interests lie. Nor [does it know] how to move and conduct its affairs, and gropes in the dark, with no light at the end of the tunnel . I have not heard a single turbaned one discuss the Arab report on human development [i.e. the UNDP report] – the report that is shocking to any intelligent person – because these [turbaned ones] make their living off propaganda for Jihad and for continuing the defeat of the enemy."

"This is a farce that must end, and true intellectuals must put an end to their hypocrisy and retake the arena from the turbaned ones who lead the peoples to a new disaster, whose main features are not hard to discern…"

'Obsessed With the Past'

In an article titled "The Arabs and History" [6] Abu Ahmad Mustafa wrote: "The Arab is infatuated with the past and with the pleasure of its stories and legends, and is wary of turning [its] attention to the present and dreads looking at the future. A case such as this should be studied and analyzed by experts in the social sciences and political science."

"It is not unusual, in situations of despair, failure, and ideological vacuum, that an individual takes refuge in what inspires him with a sense of glory and pride in his affiliation and a belief that it is the best on earth – even if this affiliation and this belief are faulty and imaginary. The inflexible culture of the past has ruled and led the Arab mind for more than ten centuries. This culture of the past cannot possibly be capable of overcoming the cumulative backwardness that has corrupted the Arabs' mind and behavior."

"Anyone who follows the present [state] of the Arab [world] cannot fail to witness the frightening backwardness prevailing in all aspects of life in it – social, political, and ideological… Anyone witnessing the Arab present is shocked by the enormous quantity of books and satellite-channel discussions that prod society to reflect more and to pay even more attention to the lives of the virtuous ancestors – not in order to learn lessons from them, but to imitate them, in total detachment from the circumstances of our time and place."

"It is sad that many attempt to place the blame for the gap that separates us scientifically, socially, and politically from the West, or even from East Asia , on colonialism, old and new. [They attempt] to persuade the common people that the reason the [Arab] nation has reached such a low point is that it failed to cling to the principles of religion. Even the natural disasters that have struck us are, to their mind, punishment for not following the [religious] teachings to the letter. Nobody dares argue with these claims, or discuss them. If they do, they are charged with apostasy and heresy, or at the very least with secularism – even though [the accusers] are totally ignorant of what [secularism] means."

"The inquiry into why the West has advanced and why we continue to endure backwardness would lead us to study the difference between the two mentalities – the Arab and the Western. It should be noted that the [Arab] concentrates on the past, lives in it, and longs to return to it, and clings to everything related to it: rituals, customs, and fantasies. On the other hand, the Western mentality is no longer occupied with these matters and does not consider them important in achieving what societies aspire to and what the common people long for. Rather, it has relegated these matters to a small number of people specializing in the past and benefiting from it. They, however, do not claim sanctity; nor do they deny it to others. We hear about court cases in which religious institutions in the West bring to trial many who are in charge of these institutions, and this is not held against them [i.e. the institutions]…"

"The Westerner believes that the spirit of a religion is more important than its writings, and that religion is a personal obligation that cannot be imposed by a small group of people who claim to possess its truth even though none gave them the right to harass others because of their interpretation of its immutable scriptures."

"Western societies have not achieved their scientific progress and institutional development through talking about the past, but through an effort to give priority to the circumstances of the present and to learn lessons from the crises of the past… [an attitude that] pushes society into a state of constant motion, thus avoiding an inflexible clinging to the letter of the [religious] writings."

"When we look at Arab society as a single unit with regard to language, history, and backwardness, we see that it has not experienced a gradual accumulation of knowledge or institutional development, but rather recurrent episodes of struggle and negative competition and rejection of the other, while claiming to possess divine authority."

"It is inconceivable that the source of backwardness is the result of a short [historical] phase, and it is inconceivable that it is the consequence of colonial rule which ended more than half a century ago. We must admit that it [the current backwardness] is the result of barrenness of thought and a failure to correctly consider the events of the past and their consequences."

"The fear of opening up the files of the past to discuss them, and of coming to know the causes of the shock waves that produced fissures difficult to conceal – that fear inevitably contributes to the sowing of more complexes and tumors and wounds. A society that lives in a state of internal fear avoids investigating its causes [and avoids] acquainting itself with and opening up to the cultures of others. [Such a society] can never make peace with itself and will never be able to hand down positive achievements to the [coming] generations."

"A society that lives in a state of secretiveness and seclusion and hastens to blame others for its catastrophes cannot escape from being encased in its shell and from the web it has woven for itself through its passivity and its false claims and fantasies. Societies that have overtaken us in every sphere are neither embarrassed nor ashamed to expose their nakedness to others – and it does not harm them. On the contrary – by doing so, they try even harder to shed the complexes and residues of the past…"


[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 8, 2002.

[2] The quotation marks appear in the original.

[3] Jihad al-nafs, meaning an internal struggle to overcome one's evil inclinations. This is a concept that developed in Sufi thought.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 9, 2002.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat ( London ), September 26, 2002 . By "the turbaned ones" the author is referring to Ulema, or Islamic clerics.

[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 27, 2002.