Report Pegs Roots of Arab Knowledge Gap

Roughly 25 percent of first-degree graduates in 1995-96 emigrated. Between 1998 and 2000 more than 15,000 Arab doctors migrated. The Arab region is being depopulated of its most-educated citizens, with serious ramifications to long-term sociopolitical and economic development.

Call for Reform

Building a knowledge society requires vital investment in critical education and scientific research, families, and the news media.

But most of all it requires opening up and democratizing the closed political process. Arab citizens, the authors of the report write, feel oppressed, excluded, and "pushed away from effecting changes in their societies." They must be integrated into the system and given an opportunity to make a difference.

Taking sides in the current controversial debate, the report's authors stress that structural reforms must come from within through an evolutionary societal innovation process. Only Arabs, with international assistance, can succeed in transforming their societies. Change cannot be imposed from without. Military and political shocks could even produce backlash and further delay the process of liberalization and democratization.

Although the report is critical of inequities produced by globalization, it locates the causes of the crisis within internal Arab structures. It lays the blame squarely at the feet of the unholy alliance between oppressive regimes and the conservative religious establishment. This marriage led to interpretations of Islam inimical to human development, particularly freedom of thought, political accountability, and women's participation in public life.

Rough Path to Change

If liberalizing and democratizing Arab societies is crucial to creating a knowledge society, how will this complex process occur given the existence of the powerful alliance between the ruling elite and the reactionary religious establishment? The report is silent on this question.

But raising this important issue underscores the vital role of the international community, particularly the United States, in nudging and pushing Arab autocrats to gradually and structurally reform Arab politics.

There is an intense political struggle in today's Arab world between enlightened, reformist voices — like the authors of the U.N. report and others — and reactionary forces that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

The outcome of this struggle will determine if the Arab world overcomes its development crisis and makes a leap forward. The Bush administration must listen to these enlightened, liberal Arab voices and help them to democratically transform their societies from within.

Fawaz A. Gerges, an ABCNEWS consultant, is a professor in Middle East and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College and is author of the forthcoming book, The Islamists and the West (Cambridge University Press). He will be spending most of this academic year in the Middle East conducting field research.

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