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A message to the west: what can ‘they’ learn from ‘us’?

For all those who are afraid or suspicious, I invite them to go to the streets of Syria. One main defect with academic writing is that it avoids bombast. Hence, it doesn’t say that those young men and women who have been protesting in the streets of Syria for more than five months are heroes.
Odai Alzoubi
27 September 2011

In a collection of essays on the Egyptian intellectual, Taha Hussein (1889-1973), Faisal Darrag writes that earlier generations had thought that the main thing ‘we’ can learn from the west was its scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge was seen as the basis of progress: science gives the west power. The west invade ‘us’, because they have weapons. ‘Our’ independence will begin when ‘we’ possess this knowledge. All that we need to do is to learn the secret of this power and then we can start ‘our’ own march to modernity and progress, with all the questions answered.

Of course, this is partially true. However, what ‘we’ have needed more is to have ‘our’ independence. Moreover, ‘they’ invade ‘us’, not just because they have weapons. It is not science that makes ‘them’ invade ‘us’. ‘They’ have also to decide to invade ‘us’.

And it is not only science that would make ‘us’ developed. Whether you look at it from ‘our’ point of view, or from ‘their’ point of view, things were more complicated. The question should be about what ‘we’ want and what ‘they’ want. What is needed is a study of ‘our’ values, and of ‘their’ values. It is these kinds of questions which we have to address. Big questions, which all young people should ask themselves.

Hussein did appreciate scientific knowledge. However, he thought that we needed more. We needed to question the basis of ‘our’ beliefs, ‘our’ culture and ‘our’ world view. He began to criticise the views which we have received and accepted for more than a thousand years. His reputation was as a literary critic; and that he was. But, more deeply, he was a revolutionary thinker who believed in a better world. Hussein, who held liberal values, and was deeply influenced by the Enlightenment, challenged ‘us’ to start asking big questions in a new light. His understanding of the Enlightenment is that it should be a process of asking questions about ‘our’ values. It is ‘we’ who are responsible for our future. Hussein, who was accused by many of being a westernised thinker, doesn’t think that there are ready-made dispensations which ‘we’ can learn from the west. He urged the following: criticise your ‘own culture’.

Coming to the west

Nowadays, young Arabs come to the west to study. They want to learn something. Mostly, it is still scientific knowledge. Few of them study humanities. ‘What exactly it is that ‘we’ can learn from ‘them’ is still a fundamental question. There is no easy way to answer it. Hussein’s answer, for me, is part of the right answer. We can learn a lot of things about science, politics, sociology, and philosophy. Nonetheless, we also have to learn how to apply what we have learned for ourselves.

On the other hand, it seems that what ‘we’ can’t learn from the west, at least right now, is how to ask, and answer, big questions. Nowadays, asking big questions and attempting to answer them comes from the Arab Spring. Millions of Arabs believe that they can change the world. They re-locate their identity. They re-create the path to the future. They re-transmit the lesson to the west: ‘You don’t have to accept your conditions’; it is always possible to rebel. It is always possible to have big dreams. Ask yourselves - what big dreams do ‘we’ have?

First, in a sense, ‘we’ were slaves: and the Spring frees us. ‘You’ are not slaves, compared to ‘us’. True. Probably ‘you’ don’t need a revolution in the same way ‘we’ needed it. But does it follow that ‘you’ don’t have a reason to rebel? Definitely not. The reason why ‘we’ rebel is not because ‘we’ were slaves. It is because ‘we’ started asking big questions. ‘We’ believe that ‘we’ can make the world a better place. ‘We’ believe that ‘we’ can change the world, for ‘us’ and for ‘you’.

It is this belief in ‘our’ ability to change the world that makes the Arabs rebel. For all those who are afraid or suspicious, I invite them to go to the streets of Syria. One main defect with academic writing is that it avoids bombast. Hence, it doesn’t say that those young men and women, who are protesting in the streets of Syria for more than five months, are heroes. Well, they are heroes, not just because they face death every day, but because they face death in order to change the world. Moreover, ‘you’ should be proud of ‘them’. If ‘our children’, I mean all of us, find a better place to live in, it is because of ‘them’.  They don’t fear the future, or the unknown. They know they are making the future. They know that the unknown is fearful only for those who don’t use their abilities.

It is these great hopes and dreams which have vanished from the west. The dream that ‘we’ can, and ‘we’ have to, change the world. The world is full of misery. Everyone is responsible. Everyone can do something. The lesson from the Arab Spring is that everyone is able to participate in making the future. Young people in Greece, Spain and Italy are on the move. The lesson is not what ‘you’ should do. It is not the plan and the steps ‘you’ should follow. It is the belief that ‘you’ are able to do something. Those big dreams and hopes are part of ‘our’ mutual aims and goals. ‘We’ don’t have to accept that millions of people don’t have a chance to improve their lives, that millions of people don’t have clean water to drink and that millions of people are hungry and poor. It is ‘our’ responsibility to help them, to ask the big questions, and to answer them.  Taha Hussein teaches us to have a critical eye. When millions of people are suffering, we will ask why. It is ‘your’ civilisation which is partly responsible for this suffering. ‘You’ can do something here.

Being afraid of the Islamists

Those who have concerns pertaining to the Arab Spring ask this question: do the conservative religious Arabs demand freedom or an oppressive Islamist state? I would answer every time, freedom. People in the west have been made very suspicious of this. This is true also of some in the Arab world. This is very disappointing for ‘us’. To be wary of the Arab Spring, because we are not sure of this answer, is a mistake. The only alternative is dictatorship, in its different forms, whether it is secular like the Egyptian or Syrian regimes, or Islamist like the Saudi. Those who are afraid of the Islamists will never move on. Conservative, religious, young Arabs fight for their freedom in the Arab world. I’ve met some of them in Damascus. The old division between Islamists and secular Arabs has almost vanished. A new understanding of our need to live together and respect each other is present in the streets. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have our differences; that we don’t still have some questions to answer on some individual rights. We do. However, it does mean that there is no more division between Islamists and secularists on the basis of our goals. Some Islamists and secularists support the dictators. Others were, and still are, in the streets, protesting. But don’t be afraid of the Islamists. Be afraid of those who support the dictator, whether they are Islamists or secularists. 

Whatever your opinion is on the Arab Spring, I suggest that ‘you’ have to free yourself from any prejudices about the possible outcomes.  It will be a long journey. Thousands of people have already been killed. Thousands were tortured, and thousands were detained, yet, in spite of this, millions are optimistic about their future. They own their future. No one can put them in the cage again, the cage of small dreams and daily life. Daily life is not acceptable without big dreams. So for now, think hard. Is it possible that the sparks of the new world were lit in Tunisia, and spread from the Arab world to the west? I ask ‘you’ to answer this for yourselves.

You are waiting for us

After the fall of the Soviet Union, ‘you’ were waiting for something. For many reasons, which now is not the time to discuss, after 1990, radical Islamists were flourishing, hand-in-hand with an American version of globalisation. There are deep connections between the Arab dictators, the rise of the radical Islamists, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the spread of the American version of globalisation. The Arabic dilemma was invented: there is no hope in the Arab world. ‘They’ have to live under dictatorship; otherwise they will create a radical Islamist state. One overall consequence was that Arabs lived in misery. Also, the west lost hope. Today, ‘they’ watch the world going down, fading. In the west, and in the Arab world, many people believed that there was nothing to be done.

But today, ‘our’ revolution is targeted toward the dictators, the radical Islamists, and the global corrupted system. Now, ‘we’ decide that we will not accept the dilemma: either the radical Islamists or the dictatorship. ‘We’ have started to rebel: ‘we’ believe that ‘we’ can face the radical Islamists, the Americans and whatever it is that they told ‘us’ that ‘we’ can’t challenge. I suggest that what ‘you’ were waiting for comes from the Arab world. It is the belief in a better future. Instead of accepting that the world where millions of human beings live in misery is irremediable, ‘we’ rebel. What will ‘you’ do?

What can ‘you’ learn from ‘us’? Well, ‘you’ can learn that it is always possible to dream, that everyone is responsible, and that heroism still exists. Everyone is a potential hero. The hero is not the one who kills the enemy. At least, this is not the kind of heroes we are looking for. The hero is the one who stands for his principles, in the face of his ‘own’ people, in the face of hopelessness, and in the face of death.  The Arab Spring shows us these kinds of heroes. All this should give ‘you’ hope. This is the lesson; can you apply it for yourself?

If this appears a rather harsh exhortation to the western young generation, and exaggerated in favour of the young Arabs, then you have to forgive me. It is an historic moment for ‘us’. Many have expressed these views in the Arab world. You can listen to them in the streets. This is one aspect of the Arab Spring. For me and for others, it is the most important aspect. I wish ‘you’ could share it. I am inviting ‘you’ to do that. For most people, the Arab world is a closed book. They can’t read it. At least, I believe ‘you’ should not miss this point. It is always possible to rebel. It is always possible to dream. In a sense, ‘you-we’ are responsible because ‘we-you’ were hopeless. It is time to move on. The world is changing. ‘You’ can help ‘us’. ‘We’ can help ‘you’. Big dreams should not die. Look to the Arab Spring. 

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