When a Bengali diagnosed what ails Arabia

The weakness in the Arab world is neither primarily military nor principally economic: It is squarely social

  • Is the Arab world prepare to deal with israel?
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By now, all the lines of argument and the depth of outrage is well known when it comes to the Gaza conflict, and there is little novel I can contribute on that account. Unfortunately, this is neither the first conflict nor the last between the Arab world and Israel; if anything, this cycle of belligerency interspersed with bouts of nervous calm has been the norm for decades and will be so for the foreseeable future.

The most likely victims are, sadly, innocent civilians. My training in graduate school was in the disciplines of international relations and business administration, disciplines where emotion and passion are not considered tools of analysis. Hence, my fascination with the question that has bedeviled debate on the conflict from a purely strategic point of view: Why have the more than two dozen Arab countries never been able to match Israel’s prowess on the battlefield?

The answer to this question, surprisingly, was given by one of the greatest Bengalis of all times almost 60 years ago, and reaffirmed five decades later by a group of the Arab world’s best social scientists.

In a widely condemned response to a very similar question by a Washington reporter about the 1956 Middle East war, Pakistan’s then prime minister and father-figure of Bengali nationalism Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy described the Arab world as being a “zero plus zero” conglomeration. Far from being spiteful, Suhrawardy, whose ancestry traces its roots to one of the noblest families of Arab Sufi scholars, was simply pointing out the fact that every Arab country in 1956 was weak internally and, thus, hardly a match for Israel, notwithstanding the raw numbers of men and material.

Fifty years after that controversial remark, and at the outset of the new millennium, a set of comprehensive reports, rich with empirical data and rigorous analysis, was published by a team of prominent Arab social scientists who live and work in the Arab world. Titled collectively “The Arab Human Development Reports,” this scholarly work added perspective and depth to the pithy answer that HS Suhrawardy had given in an earlier generation.

Pared down to its bare essentials, the AHDRs scholarship pointed to three themes that explained the decades-long internal weakness of almost every Arab country: Lack of individual freedom and democratic governance, lack of women’s rights, and lack of knowledge creation. Rich or poor, monarchy or socialist dictatorship, pro-West or anti-West, almost every Arab country suffers from these deficits which, in turn, negate the fact that Arabs spend more money on arms than Israel and have far larger fleets of sophisticated tanks, rockets, and warplanes.

Imperfect, volatile, and highly controversial as it can be, in contrast Israel has managed to create a society where there is a functioning parliament and judiciary, where women serve alongside men in every professional endeavour in equivalent numbers, and where universities and institutes produce phenomenal amounts of basic and applied research that are vital to modern computer software and pharmaceuticals.

The truths uttered by Suhrawardy and confirmed convincingly by contemporary Arab scholars fly in the face of the conventional narrative on the topic holding sway in the Middle East and South Asia. This narrative generally explains Arab misfortune away as a mere function of international oil politics, pro-Western monarchs, assorted Jewish conspiracies in banking and mass media, and American support to Israel.

This narrative is collectively comforting, emotionally satisfying, and needs no more empirical proof than its oft-repetition every time the conflict in the Middle East heats up. It is also a narrative that falls woefully short on facts and has failed spectacularly for 60 years in providing much guidance towards a solution for Arab impotence (for the record, for example, the much hated Fox News is partly owned by the Arabs, and almost as much American aid goes to the Arab world as to Israel).

Indeed, Israel is a powerful entity compared to its Arab adversaries. But 60 years of the wrong diagnosis have left Arabs (and their non-Arab sympathisers) remarkably unprepared about a way forward out of this imbalance. The correct diagnosis for the imbalance is less poetic and more prosaic: Israel wins on the battlefront because Arabs lose on the homefront.

The most expensive military on paper is but a paper tiger when its vitals are embedded in societies largely defined by intolerant absolutism, prideful ignorance, and the enslavement of an entire gender. That exceptions exist in scattered outposts like cosmopolitan Dubai’s Knowledge City, or gutsy Beirut’s entrepreneurialism, only underline the rule that is the norm.

Those are unpalatable truths whose acknowledgement requires far more than Facebook updates of gory pictures and indignant marches in front of United Nations offices. They require an introspection which, to date, few sympathisers of the Arab cause have been able to do dispassionately.

The weakness in the Arab world is neither primarily military nor principally economic: It is squarely social. As Shakespeare might have said, the fault lies not in distant stars of conspiracies but within themselves and their societies. 60 years ago, a Bengali statesman – the scion of the medieval Arab world’s scholarly class – told us the unvarnished truth about what ails Arabia. He was mocked, condemned, disgracefully thrown out of office, and had to breathe his last, ironically, in an Arab capital.

One has to wonder if history would have been different had the Arabs and their well-wishers listened to him.

Source: Dhaka Tribune

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