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An Arab future: India, not Europe

Arabs' fixation on Europe contrasts with their neglect of India, whose experience is far more relevant to their own, says Hazem Saghieh.

Hazem Saghieh
23 May 2014

For more than 125 years, Arab political thought has been fixated on Europe and the attempt to emulate it, or to come up with the answer to its model. This continued in the post-independence era, although another model was emerging without receiving the Arab interest and attention it deserved.

In effect, India had all the ingredients needed to produce military dictatorships or descend into open-ended civil wars, and yet, relative stability emerged, precipitating a democratic polity that has not been interrupted since independence in 1947.

India has a high population density and is a very poor country, and it does little to change this fact that India now has a growing middle class made up of nearly a quarter of a billion people. India’s diversity, meanwhile, is almost boundless, be it religious, ethnic, or linguistic. 

India has sustained its political integrity through very difficult times. Its birth as an independent country was linked to a fierce civil war, which also led to the creation of Pakistan, previously a part of India. India also fought foreign wars with Pakistan, China, and in Sri Lanka. In addition, many top Indian leaders were assassinated for religious or plitical reasons, or both: from Mahatma Gandhi himself, to Indira Gandhi, and later her son Rajiv. Still, this did not prevent unity and democracy with it from surviving.

This miracle of the “world’s largest democracy,” as India is commonly called, has inspired a large body of research into the Indian experience, all attempting to explain how India managed to retain its unity and democratic character for over sixty-seven years.

Despite all this, Arab political thought did not care to study India's experience. Instead, Arab political thought focused almost exclusively on studying specific European models, particularly those relating to Germany and Italy in the late 19th century, and on the attempt to emulate them - without any success.

Recall, however, that the similarities between the Arab world and India are much more numerous than between the Arab world's similarities with Europe. This much may be inferred from the extent of religious, sectarian, and ethnic fragmentation in Arab countires, as well as the rates of poverty and destitution, demographic trends, and the relevance of traditional and pre-modern values. There are also many political and historical parallels, such as the colonisation of Arabs and India at the hand of European powers; the resemblance between Egypt's Al-Wafd party and India's Congress party; the affinities between the experience of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and of Jawaharlal Nehru in India; and Anwar Sadat’s turn away from the Soviet Union and from Nasser’s socialism, with a similar dynamic emerging in India after Indira Gandhi.

Some add to this other similarities related to territorial disputes, such as the Palestinian and Kurdish questions in the Arab world, and the Kashmir question in India. Some notice yet another parallel, with the prominence of political dynasties in most of the Arab world and the experience of the Nehru-Gandhi family which, though somewhat cropped by democracy, is still of a dynastical nature.

An Arab disconnect

In spite of all this, it is still very difficult to stumble upon a single good and serious book in Arabic on the Indian experience or one that draws comparisons with India, or indeed a conference on the subject. This is regrettable, for in a long-term perspective there are lessons in the whole trajectory that led from the British colonisation of India and India's engagement with its legacy, to India's contemporary influence in the globalised economy.  

India’s birth as an independent country following a Hindu-Muslim war may have alienated the Arabs and dampened their interest in the Indian experience. But this neglect also most definitely has to do with the tendency of Arab political thought to be detached and disconnected from reality.

The neglect of India coupled with the exclusive fixation on Europe is very indicative of the Arab and Muslim inferiority complex, which disguises itself as a superiority complex, so to speak, one that compels us to remind others that we once “ruled Spain.” That is, it is “not fitting for us” to compare ourselves to the Indians, especially after hundreds of thousands of poor migrant workers from the subcontinent flocked to the Arab Gulf countries, while the comparison with Europe, our erstwhile colonial master, satisfies our collective narcissism and is balsam to its ever-bleeding wounds.  

Without a doubt, this mindset is a source of great harm to the Arabs. Suffice it to say that in the elections of April-May 2014, hundreds of millions of Indians voted in fair and free elections, while car-bombs were being detonated in some of our cities and towns. At the same time, the elections we sometimes hold cannot in most cases be taken seriously.

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