Many parts of the world, such as Korea, China, and India – basically medieval kingdoms fifty or sixty years ago — are now among the pacesetters of the modern world, both producing, and improving on, existing inventions. The Muslim world, however, often better off than these countries just half a century ago, has remained as it was, or has even, in many instances, deteriorated. This inertia in the Islamic world seems to stem not from any genetic limitations, or even religious ones, but purely from Islamic culture.
Although one can gain some insight into Islamic culture from books and other written material, if one is to really understand the Muslim world, there is no substitute for sitting in coffee or tea houses, spending time with Muslims, and asking them questions in their own surroundings and in their own languages. A result of these approaches would seem to indicate, with respect, some of the factors citizens of the Arab and Muslim world might wish to consider to use their extraordinary talents even more fully:
The Ability to Question – Western culture is predicated on questioning: inquiring of authorities how they came to the conclusions they reached — a concept from the ancient Greek word “historayn,” to learn by asking. Although in the Shiite world questioning occurs among religious authorities and the educated elite, in the Sunni world, for centuries, asking questions of those more learned or in positions of authority has been unacceptable. Until Muslims once again allow themselves to ask questions and engage in critical examination, they are disabling themselves from accomplishing as much as they otherwise might.
The Role of the Individual vs. the Role of the Group – In much of the Muslim world, people are often seen not as individuals but as members of particular families, clans, tribes, ethnic groups, or religions. In the Muslim and Arab world, a problem between two people can become a problem between two families, with the individual becoming a “soldier” in the ensuing feud. What an individual might think personally – who is right and who is wrong – becomes irrelevant, fostering a mindset that obstructs the impersonal and dispassionate analytic thinking that defines the modern world.
Encouraging Creativity – A good way to define Western intellectual creativity in the Muslim world is to use the Arabic word ijtihad, roughly meaning using one’s intellectual and reasoning capabilities to determine answers. Today’s Islamic culture seems not to encourage this ability: among the Sunni Muslims, who comprise about 85% of the approximately 1.4 billion Muslims, the “Gates of Ijtihad” were closed about a thousand years ago, apparently for political reasons: religious authorities declared that all questions had been addressed during the past four centuries, so there was therefore no more need for questioning. Since then, Muslims have been asked to accept institutionally what they learn from their authority figures – as in the word Islam, itself, meaning “submission.” Islamic culture therefore does encourage creativity as much as it might; it appears actively to discourage it – people are educated to memorize, not criticize.
Creativity requires, above all, questioning the accepted ways of doing things. What many Muslims do, therefore – and do very well – is produce things invented by others. The Turks, for example, who have had longer and closer contacts with the West than most other areas of the Muslim world have had, are superb at replicating what others have created. Although the F-16, for example, was created in the US, the only perfect one ever manufactured by the mid-1990’s was assembled in an F-16 plant in Turkey. Individual Turks would have been perfectly capable of inventing an F-16, but often feel constrained to think creatively in their own country. This might be a reason that gifted individuals in the Muslim world who feel the need to expand their abilities often abandon their native countries for the West, and do brilliantly there.
The Ability to Admit Failure and Learn from It – Although no one particularly likes to fail, people in the West expect those who have failed to examine why they have failed, and to learn from their mistakes. Some high-tech firms even try to hire people who have failed at startups in the hope of gaining insights so their companies will not pursue avenues that did not succeed. It is hard to imagine a similar approach in any Muslim country, where it is virtually impossible for anyone publicly to admit failure. The concept of personal honor (in Arabic, ‘Ayib), what others say about you – is prevalent everywhere: admitting failure means shaming yourself, a situation to be avoided at all costs. In Western culture, this concept of shame is largely alien; we are more of a “guilt” culture, in that what we think about ourselves counts more than how others view us, and largely motivates our advancement.
In Asian cultures, for example, which also care deeply about “face,” a more neutral way of recognizing problems has evolved. The Japanese and the Chinese, for instance, do not say they have failed; they say that the road that had been chosen did not prove to work, so the direction should be changed. This indirect way of admitting failure has helped them advance. Such a blameless approach, however, is virtually non-existent in the Muslim world, and a major reason so much of it remains in squalor.
The results of this contrast – the Asian and Western cultures on one hand, and the Muslim culture on the other — might be described as two kinds of cakes: just looking at the cake tells you nothing about how it tastes. The Western world is like a cake covered with an uninviting khaki-colored frosting. Although it might look awful, the cake inside tastes great: its ingredients are first class and well-baked. By contrast, the Muslim world is like a cake covered with beautiful frosting, but made out of ingredients that might disappoint the people at the table.
The Learning Process – Muslim culture emphasizes memorization. Universities in Muslim lands grant degrees based on the students memorizing vast amounts of material, but not necessarily knowing how to apply them. In engineering, for instance, the Arab world graduates more than 250,000 engineers each year, but when the Arabs want to build an airport, they invariably import foreigners to do it, In the Arab world, engineering degrees often have become symbols of “personal honor” rather than knowledge to be used.
Taking Responsibility for One’s Actions – In the same vein, there is no equivalent in the Muslim world to the Western concept of taking responsibility for one’s actions. The word mas’uliya in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian is usually translated in Western dictionaries as “responsibility,” but it really has a meaning which corresponds more to the Western concept of “being held responsible for, or being blamed for something not going well.” The meaning of this word in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish has little to do with the Western concept of responsibility — defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the ability to act independently and make decisions,” and largely devoid of personal honor.
How Information Is Passed On To Others – In Western societies, information is usually passed down along a chain, based on information moved up it by subordinates. In Muslim societies, the opposite usually occurs: the job of the subordinate is to implement what superiors pass command him to do; the subordinate almost never participates in the decision-making process. The Middle Eastern subordinate fears not doing what his superior tells him to do, even if the subordinate knows that what his superior wants him to do is wrong or will not work. At best the subordinate is discouraged, on pain of being fired, from questioning the decision — true even in the most Westernized country in the Muslim world, Turkey. Most officers in the Turkish army, for example, have a sign behind their desks: “The commander wants answers, he does not want questions.” That attitude was most likely the reason senior Turkish military officials could not learn how deeply the Islamic fundamentalists had penetrated the military establishment – their subordinates knew their officers did not want to hear that their units had been penetrated by people who disagreed with Ataturk’s philosophy of separating religion from the state.
The Western Concept of Compromise – In the West, the precept of “win-win” forms the basis of how we negotiate. To reach an agreement, each side gives in to some of the demands of the other side; doing so entails no loss of personal honor. In the Arab, Turkish, and Persian worlds, however, giving in to the other side’s demands involves enormous amounts of shame and the loss of honor – which is why the culture in these Islamic lands requires negotiations only after victory. Asking to negotiate before one has won indicates weakness – or why else would one be reaching out to end a conflict? — and another loss of personal honor to be avoided at all costs. After one side has decisively won, and has then imposed a solution on the vanquished party, then one begins to negotiate: the vanquished party licks his wounds and looks for the opportunity to redress his loss. This is known in Arabic assulh, somewhat like the Western concept of a truce, by definition temporary. In such circumstances, there cannot be a win-win situation. This is, unsurprisingly, why conflicts in the Middle East are never permanently resolved, and why life in the Muslim world, unlike the West, seethes in a constant state of tension.
The Western Concept of Peace – In Western culture, making peace boils down to putting the past behind one, letting bygones be bygones, and moving on from there. This mindset already existed in ancient Hebrew culture, in which the word shalom, from the root sh-l-m, meaning completeness, involved leaving past disagreements behind. But in the Arabic, Turkish, and Persian cultures, such a concept does not exist. The Arabic word salam – used in all three languages – derives from the same Semitic root, but instead means “the special joy that one gets by submitting to Allah’s will through Islam.” The word Islam, from the same root, means submission; not exactly the same as peace. If bygones can never be bygones, conflicts can never be resolved. In these Muslim lands, when one side is stronger, it attempts to subdue its ancient enemies. The culture does not permit Muslims to put the past behind them: the internet, for example, is filled with discussions among Muslims about how they must and will reconquer Spain, which they lost to the West 520 years ago. In the Muslim culture, individuals — both the leadership and the common man — spend so much time looking for ways to right perceived wrongs, that they might find it disconcerting to focus their energy on looking what we might think of as more productive and positive activities.
Book Publishing – The subject of most of the books sold in the Arab world, except for Lebanon and Iraq, concern either to Islam or hatred of the West – more specifically, they are either anti-America or anti-Israel. The number of books translated annually into Arabic is about the same as those translated into Finnish. There are, however, about 365 million Arabs, compared to 5.5 million Finns. How are Arabs to acquire the knowledge necessary to propel them into the modern world if they do not have access to modern scientific and intellectual thought, easily available in their own languages? Sadly, there does not seem to be a market in the Arab world for these types of books. Is this because there is little desire for that knowledge? If so, this inertia guarantees that as the outside world gallops into the future, the Arabo-Muslim world will find it harder and harder to catch up to Asia and the West. Arabs leaders can, of course, buy modern technology, but this solution, although instant, only guarantees a permanent dependence on outsiders.
The Status of Women – The great 19th century Ottoman historian, Namik Kemal, argued that the Muslim world was in danger of being left behind because of its oppression of women. He asked how a country could advance if it oppressed and failed to educate half its population — the equivalent of intentionally paralyzing half of one’s body. Further, this paralyzed part of society is the one responsible for raising the next generation of males. Much of the Muslim world continues to place great obstacles in the paths of its women. In Iran under the Shah, for example, the marital age for women was 16; under the Islamic republic, this age was lowered to nine lunar years, meaning that an 8-1/2 year old girl can legally be married off by her family. In the Arab, Turkish, and Persian worlds, women can be murdered, often without definitive proof, if the male members of their families believe that they may have done something that could have put a stain on the family honor; if a woman is regarded as contaminated, the entire clan can be held in disrepute and cast out by the community.
In some parts of the Muslim world, females are pressured to undergo various forms of “female circumcision,” a cutting of their genitals presumably intended to prevent women from having sexual pleasure — a practice that often takes place in unsanitary conditions that can cause significant health problems, if not death. This practice, however, has nothing to do with Islam; it is tribal, it pre-dates Islam, and it has everything to do with Islamic culture and a seeming male terror of being tempted by women’s sexual allure.
The Oil Curse – Since Muslims in the oil-rich states can now afford to have others do everything for them, they are not compelled to use the one renewable resource available to everyone: the human brain — if exercised to think creatively, capable of amazing feats. But given the cultural realities and financial wealth available in so much of the Muslim world, there seem to be few incentives, if any, to be productive in ways other than gaining, conserving, or enjoying wealth.
Palestinians, as well, are easily capable of accomplishing what anyone else does, if only their education, governance and cultural incentives were changed from destroying their neighbor, Israel, to building a felicitous society. Palestinian political leaders, however, seem to have decided that the rewards from the international community, at least for them, will be greater if they are seen as victims receiving perpetual handouts, rather than as leaders receiving rewards linked to accomplishments. The economic system seems to have evolved into bribes in exchange for promises that are never kept, followed later by the request for still more bribes.
Ironically, all genetic analyses of the many ancient Muslim Palestinian families indicate that they are largely from the same genetic stock as Ashkenazi Jewry. So what is the difference here? The Jewish culture encourages questioning and thinking from an early age, whereas the Palestinian Muslim culture does not. What is encouraged instead is the unexamined acceptance of whatever is set before one, whether on government-run television or in government-written textbooks. Religion has nothing to do with this situation; Islam therefore is not the problem: Islamic culture is. Only when Muslims address their culture head-on can there be any real hope for their world to overcome its self-imposed limitations and start fully contributing to the wonders of the 21st century.
Originally published by Gatestone Institute http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org
About the Author: Harold Rhode, Ph.D., served from 1982-2010 as an Adviser on Islamic Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is now a distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute. He is fluent in English, Hebrew, Arabic, Farsi and Turkish.
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