Courtesy Reuters

The Arab World's Heavy Legacy

No observer of present trends in the Arab world can fail to be impressed by the strength of its revulsion against Western political and economic values and ideologies. To take one example among many, a recent book by a prominent Egyptian publicist starts with two propositions which he not only believes to be self-evident but obviously assumes are accepted as such by his readers: present-day capitalism does not work; and Western democracy is a sham, since all power is concentrated in the hands of the owners of the means of production. Judging from pronouncements at the recent Cairo conference of non-aligned nations, such views are widespread in Africa and Asia.

The revulsion of the Arabs is not difficult to understand in view of their grievances-many real, more fancied-against the various Western peoples. But the matter is more complex. It is not just a question of a whole society turning against an alien civilization. It is also a process in which some parts of a society turn against other parts, and in so doing against certain alien values which the latter represent. In other words, the ideological changes taking place in the Arab countries today reflect deep structural changes in their society. The principles and institutions that held together the traditional Arab society have broken down; a desperate search is under way for new bases of integration; and it is felt that the traditional Western ideologies and institutions do not provide these bases.

Arab society in the eighteenth century had very few virtues. Its economy was not only stagnant but actually retrogressing. Its politics were characterized by venality, rapacity, insecurity and oppression. Its intellectual and artistic life was barren. Worst of all, it lived in a smug, self-satisfied lethargy, completely isolated from the outside world- "we do not hear of a single Egyptian who had visited Europe in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries."[i] But it had one redeeming feature, the obverse of some of its defects: it was a stable,

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