After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the idea that Arab culture and religion are responsible for stifling progress, and tolerance toward "the other," in the Arab/Muslim world has gained currency in the United States. According to this idea, Arabs are incapable of embracing modernity and reforming their stagnant societies.
Further, only shock tactics would wake the Arab/Muslim world from its political slumber. In a sense, the Iraq war was to serve as a laboratory, a case study of forced transformation and adaptation of the Arab region to the modern world and Western democracy.
But this view of Arab culture and religion aren't quite accurate, says this year's Arab Human Development Report, commissioned by the United Nations Development Program and written by more than 40 Arab scholars.
The report, released this week, stresses that the existential crisis facing the Arab world has less to do with religion and culture and more with three key development challenges — deficits in political freedom, empowerment of women, and access to knowledge. These challenges stem from attitudes purveyed by repressive governments and conservative religious groups, but they are not innate to Arab or Muslim thought.
The report (last year's version was criticized by Arab officials and radicals alike) said in the area of freedoms the "challenges may have become graver." Extreme security measures and policies adopted by the United States and Arab governments as part of the "war on terrorism" have led to the erosion of civil and political liberties of Arabs/Muslims.
But the focus of this year's report is on the growing knowledge gap between the Arab region and the rest of the world, and the urgent need to build a "knowledge society." Data in the report tell a sad story of continued stagnation and decline in many areas of knowledge production.
The mass media are the most important agents for the public diffusion of knowledge. Yet Arab countries have lower information media to population ratios than other nations. More damaging is that the Arab media operate in a harsh environment that restricts freedom of expression and most media institutions are state owned.
Moreover, while the Arab countries represent 5 percent of world population, they produce only 1.1 percent of the world's books. True, they produce many religious pamphlets, but relatively few books that contribute to critical knowledge.
Translation (in its heyday, Muslim culture was singularly responsible, through translation, for preserving classical ideas) is an important channel for disseminating ideas and communicating with the rest of the world. Yet there are more books translated annually in one European country, Spain, than in all 22 Arab states.
There are just 18 computers per 1,000 per people in the Arab world, compared with 78 per thousand globally. Only 1.6 percent of the population has Internet access.
Similarly alarming is the high rates of illiteracy among women in some of the less-developed Arab countries. Many children still do not have access to basic education. But the most important challenge facing Arab education is its declining quality. College graduates tend to be ill-prepared to compete in the modern world. Those who are tend to be predisposed to emigrate in search of economic opportunities and political freedom.
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.