Friday, May 11, 2012

Mordechai Kedar: The Frustrated Intellectual


by Mordechai Kedar

Read the article in the original עברית
Read the article in Italiano (translated by Angelo Pezzana)

A few years ago Tarek Heggy, an Egyptian intellectual, visited Israel and I attended a lecture that he gave. He made a great impression on me, mainly because he spoke frankly and openly about the many deep flaws that exist in Arab cultures. His message was different from that of most Arab spokesmen, because most Arab spokesmen strive to cover up the flaws in their societies, to conceal them and repress them, mainly because of the shame and the feeling of inferiority that these flaws arouse in them.

Tarek Heggy is a totally secular person whose specialty is the management of large businesses. He travels widely and is in great demand as a lecturer in academic institutions and political and media platforms. He is a very prolific writer, and the Internet is full of his articles and essays as well as the many interviews that he does, both in the print and broadcast media, and they are translated into many languages. During recent years he has addressed the situation in the Arab world in general and in Egypt in particular, and when the revolution against Mubarak broke out on January 25, 2011, he supported it enthusiastically. Over time, as it became clear that the big winners of the revolution are the religious factors - the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis - he became very disappointed in the revolution.

Arab Rulers

Hagi points an accusing finger at the rulers of the Arab states who are - in his opinion - responsible for the miserable state of the Arab nation. In November 2011, during the period of the Egyptian elections, and as fears increasingly grew that the Islamists would achieve a majority in parliament, he wrote: "The Arab rulers in the last 60 years (since the Officers' Revolution in Egypt in 1952) are a panoramic picture of ignorance, corruption, tyranny, mental primitivism and anachronistic tribalism. It was under the shadow of their rule and because of them that the Islamist and Salafi movements came into being - those movements which are in total opposition to science and the values of modernism and humanism, which struggled for public freedoms, pluralism, acceptance of the other, the rights of women, coexistence among those who differ with each other, universality of information and knowledge, the raising of human intelligence generally and especially critical thinking. Ignorant, corrupt, primitive and tyrannical rulers have brought us to the current political circus that we are experiencing.

In March 2012 he writes: "One of the fruits of the revolution of 25 January 2011 is the end of the phenomenon of blind praise for the ruler. No Egyptian ruler in the future will have the same kind of aura of glory and holiness with which the Egyptians were wont to wrap the ruler, despite the fact that he was a person without education, or even a hint of intelligence or culture or knowledge, like the ruler that was recently booted out (Mubarak), and the fact that he was the ruler of Egypt is a humiliation without equal".

The Muslim Brotherhood

Tarek Heggy has expressed his opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood in many ways. In March 2012, after it became clear that they, together with the Salafis, took the majority of the seats of the Egyptian parliament by storm, he wrote: "The behavior of the Islamist majority in the current Egyptian parliament is embarrassing because of four key components of their mentality: 1. To their disgrace, it is clear that they do not understand the concept of ability, because the people that they chose for the committee for drafting the Constitution, both within the parliament and outside of it, are people with only a partial education, with a one-dimensional cultural outlook. 2. They clearly operate in tribal style, because the main characteristic of their behavior is loyalty (and not free thought) . 3. They are the sworn enemies of pluralism, which is the basis of modernism, democracy, civilization and culture. 4. Anyone can see how they will operate in the future: it will be a carbon copy of the original style of the defunct "National Party" (of Mubarak), a style of "it doesn't matter what you say, we will act according to our wishes".

The situation in Egypt is fragile, among other reasons because of the lack of a new constitution to settle the new balance of powers between the parliament with both of its houses, the government, the president, the military and the legal system. All of them want to prevent the state from returning to the dictatorial, authoritarian style of Mubarak, but too many of them, chiefly the military, are unwilling to give over to parliament (which has an Islamist majority) the main authority of the state. This is why the constitution and the composition of the committee that is responsible for writing it are so important. The composition of the committee, on one hand, must represent the desires of the majority of citizens who identify culturally with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, but on the other hand will prevent a dictatorship of one side in this complicated civil equation. In the first phase, the committee that was chosen had a majority of Islamists, but the secular members quit in protest because as a minority, they feared that they would not be able to exert an influence on the drafting of the constitution. On the other hand, the Islamist parliamentary majority is not willing to yield this critical point, because a change in power in the Islamist direction is the heart's desire of most of the Egyptians who gave their votes to the Brotherhood and the Salafis.

Tarek Heggy related to the behavior of the Muslim Brotherhood with great severity and in the way that they tried to impose an Islamist majority on the constitutional committee. In March 2012 he wrote: "If the Islamists write the new constitution of Egypt by themselves, the constitution of Egypt will be full of their ideas; ideas that have no connection with the current era, progress, development, science and modernity. The women and the Copts will be the first victims, and the future of Egypt will depend on the actions of the lovers of freedom, women's rights, citizens' rights, and equal rights for those who are not Muslim (Copts, for example). These freedom advocates may cause a new revolution, which might thwart the attempts of the few with strong arms (the Islamists) to drag Egypt back to the darkness of the Middle Ages".

A few of the Islamist representatives in parliament showed how they relate to the Copts after the death of the spiritual leader of the Coptic minority, Pope Shenouda III. The parliament dedicated a minute of standing in silence to the memory of Shenouda III, and the Islamists did not stand up. Tarek Heggy wrote about this event: "The refusal of a few of the members of the current Egyptian parliament to stand in memory of the deceased pope in Egypt, the great man, Shenouda III, was a cultural, ethical and humanitarian disgrace to those simple creatures, whose attitude earned the scorn and contempt of all people of culture the world over. How can a person fall to such a low level, this lack of humanity?"

In December 2011, after the results of the elections to parliament became clear, questions immediately arose in connection to a constitution that would have a religious-Islamic cast. One of the heads of the Muslim Brotherhood declared: "A woman must be hidden because she arouses the beast of the male that is hidden deep within his soul". This saying was floated to test the public reaction to the idea of legislating a dress code. Tarek Heggy says in response: "One of the strangest things in our culture, that lies crouching deep in the pit of regression, is that we don't hear voices that answer to this logic: "And why doesn't the solution to this problem come in the form of education to you and to that male beast that is hidden within you?

Tarek Heggy relates sometimes also to dictatorial Arab regimes, that get backing from "al-Quds al-Arab", the Arab daily that is published in London without advertisements, which is to say, with the support of the heads of state that it backs up. The editor of the newspaper, Abd Al-B'ir' Ataun, is a fast-thinking, sharp-tongued Palestinian refugee, whom the writer of these lines, "won" the dubious pleasure of debating several times in the Arab media. In November 2011 Tarek Heggy related to Ataun with these blunt words: "The Palestinian journalist Abd Al-B'ir' Ataun, who exalts Qadhaffi, Saddam Hussein and the "Sheikh" Usama bin Laden, does not represent only himself; he totally and exhaustively reflects the confusion that has developed during the last forty years, that first took form in the thoughts of the Islamists and the phony Arab nationalists, and ends in the regimes such as those of Sadam Hussein and Muammar Qadhaffi. To understand this confusion is difficult for anyone whose mind was shaped by human culture and belongs to the movement of civilization, culture and human progress. I don't think that there is one research center in the world that can understand this confusion."

Israel

Tarek Heggy understands well the damage that is caused to the Arab world as a result of its rulers' focus on the Israeli problem, because Israel, by its very existence, has supplied these rulers with an excuse to neglect their states and repress the rights of their citizenry. Several years ago he wrote: "The peoples of the states that border Israel - Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt - must come to the realization that ending the Arab-Israeli conflict is the only way to end the many other tragedies in their lives. And it is the only chance to begin a flowering of democracy, economic growth and social peace and to avoid falling into the hands of those who object to knowledge, civilization and culture (=Islamists). And in short: to join in the journey to modernism, progress and science ... what is necessary today is that someone should arise who will lead public opinion in the Arab world to the belief that peace with Israel is a question of life or death for this region. He must open the eyes of the community so that they can see the dangers that lie in wait for us if we go along with the school of "inflated speech", which arose in the countries of the region and cost its people dearly, and it might cost even more if they will choose to accept blindly slogans that from the external point of view are nationalistic or religious, but the effect of these slogans is to destroy our whole reality."

It is a fresh and exceptional approach to say that peace with Israel is in the Arab interest. The meaning of this statement is that Israel does not have to "pay" for peace with its neighbors with territories, because they should desire peace no less than Israel. If the leaders of Israel adopt this form of thinking they will be able to say to their neighbors: "What will you give to Israel in exchange for the peace that Israel will give to you?" An approach such as this must cause a total change in the way that Israel views the situation in the Middle East, and Israel will have to work hard in the United States and in Europe in order to sell Tarek Heggy's idea in the Western capitals.

Below is an article that Tarek Heggy wrote in 2005. If an Israeli or some other foreigner had written an article like this he would be condemned as a racist and slanderer out of hand by one and all. An Arab intellectual can write these things, even if it might arouse some anger among his readers.

Tarek Heggy/The Arab Mentality

In the process of the ten last years I have written many books and articles on the flaws of the Arab mentality, all of which are cultural flaws, which is to say, flaws that are acquired, from three main sources, which are: a general atmosphere of tyranny, a backward educational system and media that were created in the general atmosphere of tyranny to serve the goals of the tyrant. Some of the obvious flaws of the modern Arab mentality are:

  • Limited tolerance of differing ideologies
  • Low acceptance of ideological pluralism
  • Limited acceptance of the "other"
  • Inability to accept criticism, and it is rare that anyone engages in self-criticism
  • Opinions that stem from a tribal or religious basis instead of from various ideologies
  • A deep-seated feeling of inequality compared to others in achievements or in productivity, which is expressed in a feeling of strong and exaggerated honor. But this (exaggerated honor) is just respect based on words, rather than respect based on achievements.
  • We are given to exaggerate in bragging about ourselves; we give to the heritage of the past greater weight than it actually had.
  • We often exaggerate in speech in an effort to cover up for the outrageous lack of practical achievements. Sometimes this culture causes a situation where a person's words are more important than his deeds.
  • We are inflicted with a limited ability to relate objectively and a tendency to personalize.
  • An unhealthy nostalgia stirs within us for the past and a desire to return to it.
  • The culture of compromise is unknown among us, there is no respect for it because we feel that compromise is a kind of defeat and loss.
  • We believe in not relating to women with respect
  • We are prisoners of mental patterns and stereotypes
  • It is extremely common among us to believe that behind everything there is a plot and that the Arabs are always the victims of these plots of others.
  • We do not understand the nature and essence of national identity - are we Arabs or Muslims, Asians, Africans or members of a Mediterranean culture?
  • There is often a connection between the citizen and the ruler, based on exaggeration and imbuing the leader with a quality of holiness outwardly, with a general tendency to glorify people.
  • There are many people who know very little of the world, its trends and the true balance of power.
  • We have a limited ability to value the individual, and so the connections between us are, for the most part, connections of tribe, family, customs or nationality. Humanity is not held to be the most obvious and strongest common denominator.
  • We often have a mentality of fanaticism that stems from a number of factors, chief among them are the Arab tribal mentality at various levels of severity.
  • Because the Arab mentality is characterized by insufficient freedom and cooperation, there is reticence towards freedom and its mechanisms.
Any expert in Middle Eastern affairs can add additional flaws to this list. But all of these flaws are acquired flaws, and therefore they are given to change. They exist at different levels in other societies as well, and there too, they stem from a general atmosphere of tyranny, backwards education and media that are not suitable to our era and whose purpose is to serve the goals of the dictator.

These flaws will remain and their effects will worsen if basic changes do not begin to take place in the political systems, in a way that will allow the individual more freedom, and will allow the public to become used to taking part in the shaping of the present and the future. Great changes must take place in the philosophy of education, curricula and teaching methods. Finally, the media must be liberated from the burden of the governments so that it will be politically and economically free. That is how ideological, cultural and public freedom will be ensured.

About one such as Tarek Heggy it may be said: May he be multiplied in Ishmael...

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Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Mordechai.Kedar@biu.ac.il) is an Israeli scholar of Arabic and Islam, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. He specializes in Islamic ideology and movements, the political discourse of Arab countries, the Arabic mass media, and the Syrian domestic arena.

Translated from Hebrew by Sally Zahav.

Links to Dr. Kedar's recent articles on this blog:

Source: The article is published in the framework of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. Also published in Makor Rishon, a Hebrew weekly newspaper.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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