Friday, July 17, 2015

Thursday, July 9, 2015

What’s Next For The Arab World?

What’s Next For The Arab World?

In my last essay I explored the question: What’s Holding Arabs Back?[1] The conclusion I drew is that not enough Arabs have embraced Enlightenment values, like progress, criticism, freedom of speech, freedom of the pursuit of happiness, tolerance of dissent, respect for reason and science, and respect for the rule of law. I also pointed out that this is a soluble problem. But what exactly would it take to solve it? What would it take for a critical mass of Arabs to embrace Enlightenment values and usher in a new era of progress for them? To address this question it’s important to point out some fundamental differences between the Arab world and the West.


One major difference between us is in how we understand morality - the branch of philosophy about how people should live their lives. In the Arab world the dominant worldview says morality is about avoiding doing what you want - following a set of obligations dictated by God or society. It's about living a life of suppressing your desires for fear of punishment. Many Westerners, on the other hand, have embraced a very different worldview that says morality is about getting what you want, while first checking if what you want is good. It's about living a life of embracing your rationally-considered desires in search of reward - where reward comes in the form of mutual benefit.

This is a clash of cultures, and it boils down to a fundamental difference in how each worldview understands reality. The fear-oriented morality hinges on the false premise that conflicts of interest between people are inherent to human nature. So people with this worldview mistakenly think that in any human interaction there must be a winner and a loser - that it's impossible for everybody involved to win. So they think that there is always someone taking advantage of someone else. They think there is always the oppressor and the oppressed. 

In contrast, the merit-oriented mentality explains that there is a natural harmony between humans. That conflicts of interest are not inherent to human nature. That any human interaction can be win/win - where everybody gets what they want and nobody sacrifices anything. You go after a win/win with somebody or you avoid interacting with him at all. So, a win/lose can and should always be avoided. And if a win/lose occurs it is because somebody acted irrationally and immorally.

Effects on psychology 

This difference in understanding makes a huge impact on people. Ones philosophy greatly affects how he thinks, how he feels, and how he acts. As an example, consider that somebody who doesn’t believe that mutual benefit is possible will misinterpret the intentions of somebody who is striving for mutual benefit with him.

Take me and this essay as an example. I am writing this essay for mutual benefit. I benefit from writing it, explaining my ideas, exposing them to criticism so that I can improve my understanding. And others benefit from learning from it. 

But some Arab Muslims will misinterpret my intentions because of their unquestioned, and in many cases, subconscious assumption that there always has to be a loser. They will think that I’m trying to cheat them. That I’m trying to hurt them by encouraging them to betray their way of life. They will cling to the age old conspiracy theory that Jews have paid me off - that I don’t actually believe what I’m saying and that I’m doing it only for money. 

But they are wrong. I only want good for people. I want good for everybody, even the evil people in the world. I want them to turn good. That’s better for everybody! I don't want them to be harmed. I don't want punishment. Punishment itself is evil. It's the win/lose morality that views punishment as righteous. And it's the merit-oriented win/win morality that implies that punishment is evil. 

It’s sad that they misunderstand me. I wish they would take my words at face value, that they believe me when I say that I don't want to hurt them, that I don't want them to lose. I want all of us to be winners! That's better for me.

Now keep in mind that the West hasn't fully embraced the win/win mentality. There are still lots of Westerners who believe the false premise that conflicts of interest are inherent to human nature. Or they don't have this belief explicitly but many of their ideas contradict the win/win mentality as if they did have a belief that humans are inherently at odds - for example some westerners don't value freedom or criticism.

Here's a summary of the two opposing worldviews:

Win/lose worldview
Win/win worldview
People are naturally at odds
Natural harmony between people 
Run from shame
Eager for self-improvement
Hide ones mistakes
Find and fix ones mistakes
Unbounded progress
Hates criticism
Loves criticism

The bare minimum of agreement

With such a striking difference in how we understand the world, how can we get along? Well that's sort of the point. In order to get along with each other we must agree on a bare minimum of things. For example if we don't agree that murder, rape, and theft are wrong, then we can’t get along. If we don't agree that initiation of violence and threats of violence are wrong then we can’t live in peace. This is why governments made up of people who value Enlightenment traditions put murderers, rapists, and thieves in jail, to protect people’s freedom to live peacefully, to live in harmony with others.

Now a lot of people in the West defend the Arab world saying that the West props up dictators there. Yes, a dictatorship is bad compared to a democracy. But a democracy isn’t even a possibility yet in the Arab world. Most Arabs today don't even know the basics of self-governance and democracy. So when they have the opportunity to replace a secular dictator, they end up replacing him with a religious dictator. This is a major barrier. Democracy has no chance in a country where most people align themselves politically by their tribe and religion instead of aligning themselves by their ideas.

So, the diplomatic policy of the West has been to give financial aid to the dictators that share some level of agreement with Western interests. For example, the U.S. gave billions in financial aid annually to the dictator of Egypt Hosni Mubarak because he wanted peace with Israel and economic ties with the U.S. It was a necessary step in the right direction because previous to that Egypt was in a constant state of war with Israel.

Now I’m not saying there is no reason for hope. A few years ago, immediately after the Arab Spring, King Abdullah II of Jordan made an important move towards democracy. There are now many political parties, which means that Jordanians are starting to align themselves politically by their ideas instead of by their tribe or religion. This means that any political party could have members from any tribe or religion. 

This is a start in the right direction but there's a long way to go before there is a critical mass of people good enough to operate a democratic government. The existence of a democratic government does not guarantee that the current rulers won't destroy the democratic engine by outlawing all other political parties. That's what the Nazis did, and not enough Germans opposed them.

A crucial point here is that bad rulers should be able to be replaced peacefully. If this sort of mechanism isn't in place, then people will resort to replacing bad rulers violently. But it won't work if enough people represented by a government consider violent revolution as their main tool to oust bad rulers. Violent revolution should be the last resort because it destroys any existing infrastructure necessary for non-violent replacement of rulers.

People need to respect the non-violent way of changing rulers. If you aren't happy with your current rulers, then you should make it your responsibility to vote against them in the coming elections and to persuade others to vote the same. In the mean time, be patient. Or, you could move to a country that better aligns with your values. 

Charges of hypocrisy 

Some Westerners read what I have to say about Arabs and tell me that I shouldn't be judging and condemning them. So I want to address these charges.  

First, I don't condemn people. Condemning a person means that you don't think they can improve. Like some people will say "you're going to hell." That means they are making a prediction that the person will never change for the better. I don't do that. Arabs can improve. That's one of the main themes of my essays. 

If you read this essay and come to the conclusion that I'm condemning Arabs then the problem is that you are operating under the win/lose mentality, because it's that mentality that falsely implies that people can't change their flaws. The win/win worldview explains that any person can change any part of his mind. There is no law of nature preventing it.

Second, I do judge Arabs but these people are confused about the meaning here. They act like judging is bad. Well what does it mean to judge? It means to criticize flaws. Now you can view this as a negative thing, since a flaw is negative. But a better view is that criticism is positive because learning about a flaw gives you the opportunity to correct it. So criticism is good. Judgement is good. And for the same reason, not judging people is bad because it hides flaws and causes them to persist. And pressuring me and others to stop judging people amounts to spreading evil because you are working to silence us, to stop us from helping people fix their flaws. Viewing judgement as negative is part of the win/lose mentality, and viewing judgement as positive is part of the win/win mentality.

Now a third charge that some Westerners level against me is that I shouldn't be criticizing Arabs for lack of democracy while my own country, the U.S., doesn't have the ideal democracy. This charge doesn't make sense. It's like saying that I shouldn't criticize somebody because I'm not perfect. This is a mistake because if everybody went by this standard, then nobody would ever criticize anybody else since nobody is perfect. So the criticism engine would completely halt which would usher in a new era of stagnation. Progress is made possible because of criticism! 

Take note that this anti-criticism view is part of the win/lose mentality. In contrast, the win/win mentality embraces criticism for what it is, wonderful!

A fourth charge that some Westerners level at me is that my ideas could be used as a propaganda tool resulting in future invasions by the U.S. This one I'm really shocked to hear. My essay is clear that initiation of violence and threats of violence is wrong. We should not be invading countries unless we've been invaded or there is a credible threat of attack. An example of a credible threat of attack is Iran who is making nuclear weaponry while simultaneously calling for the complete destruction of Israel. 

Other than eminent war like this, we should not be invading countries. We should not try to topple a dictator to replace it with a democracy. Instead, our governments should use diplomacy to encourage dictators to make steps towards democracy, for their own good.

Now if the people of a dictatorship revolt, and if those revolutionaries show signs of wanting a democracy and knowing how to do it, then we could consider helping them create a democracy while also helping them have a military chance against their dictator. But be clear that it is they who must make the first move. We should only play a helping role. We should not be spearheading any violent revolutions. Spearheading a violent revolution would mean going against the people of that country. We would be acting as if they want our help when we have no reason to believe that they do want our help. That would be a win/lose situation. That's evil. 

Agent of change

One thing that’s clear is that diplomacy isn’t enough. A democracy can only work if the people have the values necessary for a democracy to work. So what’s needed is something that could help Arabs learn these values. 

What's needed is an agent of change. What’s needed is ideas. Now one major hurdle here is that most Arabs only know Arabic. They can't read articles, books, or websites written in English or any other language besides Arabic. So, my idea is to bring Enlightenment values to Arabs - in their language.

Consider the Fallible Ideas (FI) website.[2] As far as I know, it has the best explanations advocating Enlightenment values. It helped me understand what's holding the Arabs back, hence these two essays. My plan is to translate the FI essays to Arabic, and then publish them on a website for Arabs to read. And I want to host a critical discussion group for Arabs to discuss these and other ideas amongst each other, and so that they could contribute their own ideas.

This could spawn a new era of philosophical evolution for Arabs. And if it succeeds, it would mean more mutual benefit for me and other Westerners! It would mean that our worlds will merge, becoming one.

If you’re interested to help with my translation project, please donate whatever you can at Help the Arab World Embrace Enlightenment Values.[3] Or if you are an English-to-Arabic translator and you want to donate your services, please contact me using the contact page.

[1] What’s Holding Arabs Back? [GET LINK OF THE MAGAZINE ARTICLE]

[2] Fallible Ideas website:

[3] Help the Arab World Embrace Enlightenment Values [NOT CREATED YET]

Sunday, July 5, 2015

What's Holding the Arabs Back?

A question I've been interested in for years is: Why are so many countries making so much progress while most of the Arab countries are not? For years I explored potential answers and recently I think I've reached a good answer. I found it by learning a certain perspective - one that understands the key elements required to make progress.

If we look back in history, looking at all the cultures that made huge progress, we can see a certain feature shared between those cultures. Cultures that are exceptional in this regard are the Ancient Greeks and the Europeans during the Age of Enlightenment. The Ancient Greeks only made progress for a few centuries before they went mostly stagnant, but the Age of Enlightenment is still going strong centuries after it started and has spread across so many cultures outside of Europe.

Now before I explain the shared feature between these cultures, it's helpful to understand what these cultures were like before they started making huge progress. In Ancient Greece, schools were conducted in such a way where students were expected to learn what their teachers had to offer without any challenge from the students. Teachers tried to teach students to exactly copy the teachers' ideas. Students weren’t expected to create any new ideas, and instead the culture tried to suppress new ideas. As a result, in a typical person’s life, he didn’t see many changes to the society he lived in. Nothing much changed in the traditions of his society during his lifetime. [1]

Tolerance of dissent

But at some point in Ancient Greece a new school of thought began. One that expected students to challenge their teachers' ideas. One that expected students to invent new ideas, ideas that rivaled and even surpassed that of their teachers. Dissent was cherished instead of shunned. And as a result of this new school of thought, in a typical person’s life, he saw so many changes to the traditions of the society he lived in. And those changes were expected and encouraged.

This new tradition respected new ideas and respected criticism. The previous tradition disrespected new ideas and disrespected criticism. This tradition — ‘the tradition of criticism’ — is the key element that results in huge progress.

More than a millennium later in Europe people began to learn from the Ancient Greeks. In the minds of Europeans the tradition of criticism was born again. This was the Age of Enlightenment. This rekindled tradition spawned huge progress in politics, in science, and in all other fields. It was widely understood that people can and should expand human knowledge beyond that of their ancestors. People again expected change and welcomed it. 

To illustrate the contrast between these two kinds of attitudes, it helps to describe them a certain way. The first kind of attitude effectively believes that “I already have the full truth, so I'll rest on my current ideas. No need to challenge my ideas because the challengers are automatically wrong." The second kind believes that “I don’t have the full truth, so I’ll seek out the truth, challenging my current ideas.”

Static and dynamic societies

The first attitude is that of the static society, and the second is of the dynamic society. All static societies eventually die off - or become dynamic - because a static society cannot adapt to the changes that the world brings. In contrast, dynamic societies make huge progress and so they are able to adapt to the changing world.

In a dynamic society it’s common for people to have an attitude that respects criticism - they see criticism as a gift. In disagreements, they see themselves as equals. So someone with this attitude strives to seek out quality criticism because he knows that without it he is doomed to stagnation. 

In contrast, without the tradition of criticism, a person sees criticism as an insult, as an attack on his character. He runs away from criticism as though it is the plague, or he responds to criticism by initiating violence or making threats of violence in order to quell it. He expends his energy trying to preserve his current state of self, instead of trying to learn and improve.

This is what’s wrong with the Arab world today. They haven't embraced the tradition of criticism. It hasn’t become integral to their culture. Most Arabs still think that respecting their parents means never contradicting them. They think that dissenting implies disrespecting their ancestors. They take this even further by trying to raise their own children in the same way that their parents raised them, because they think that doing anything else amounts to disrespecting their parents. So the next generation doesn’t improve much from the previous. So stagnation is built in to their culture.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali explained this contrast in her book Infidel. She's from Somalia, which isn't an Arab country but it has the same missing key element that the Arab world is missing. She explained that Somalians don’t criticize their own country among outsiders because that is seen as an insult, a lowering of their reputation, while Westerners do criticize their own countries because they know that criticism is necessary for progress. She said that the same thing happens within smaller circles too. The typical Somalian wouldn’t criticize his own family while someone outside the family is present to hear it. And he wouldn't publicly admit his own mistakes, and instead he would take those secrets to his grave. They think that admitting mistakes means ruining ones reputation.

Honor/shame culture

This tradition, known as honor/shame culture, which I'll call 'the tradition of honor,' is integral to Arab culture. People with this attitude think in terms of their social status instead of in terms of the truth. They care about their reputation, and the reputation of their family, tribe, country, and religion, while not really caring about the truth. So if somebody criticizes them, their family, tribe, country, or religion, they see this as an attack on their honor, instead of as an opportunity to learn something. This attitude greatly affects the way they think, feel, and act. They would rather hide the truth in order to preserve their reputation, than to let the truth be heard.

What they misunderstand is that truth-seekers do not respect status-seekers, so status-seekers already have a bad reputation in the eyes of truth-seekers. We do not respect people that would rather hide the truth for fear of ruining their reputation. We respect people precisely because they are willing to publicly admit when they are wrong. Admitting when one is wrong, and also admitting the fact that one might be wrong, is what creates a good reputation among truth-seekers. [2]

This tradition literally competes with the tradition of criticism. A person cannot fully embrace the tradition of criticism without fully rejecting the tradition of honor. So this tradition stands in the way of Arabs embracing the tradition of criticism.

Part of the problem is that these traditions are part of Islam, which is the dominant religion across the Arab world. Now I’m not saying that Islam invented these traditions. They existed long before Islam. But because the traditions were incorporated into Islam, this caused these anti-criticism traditions to spread more and last longer. And it acts as a barrier for the spread of the tradition of criticism.

New inventions against criticism

Another part of the problem is that with Islam also came new inventions that were even more antithetical to the tradition of criticism than compared to pre-Islamic Arab culture. Consider that Islam instructs Muslims to kill those who leave Islam. Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, said: “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him." [3] This invention is one of the worst barriers for the spread of the tradition of criticism.

Islam effectively says “My way of making my ideas survive is to literally kill anybody who has competing ideas. I will not let ideas compete by merit because in that arena my ideas would die off.” This is one of the most effective ways to stop new ideas from forming and spreading, by literally killing the minds that create and contain them. 

This is not just something in ancient history. Even in the 21st century one of the most influential Islamic scholars, Qaradawi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said: “If they had gotten rid of the apostasy punishment Islam wouldn’t exist today." So he is admitting that Islam cannot win by merit. It can only "win" by force. The effect of this tradition is to make people fear voicing their dissenting opinions, so most people decide to censor themselves for fear of being killed. 

To make matters worse is Islam’s idea of punishment in hell for the "crime" of questioning or even doubting Islam. This is clarified in so many verses in the Quran that it's not worth quoting here. This belief results in most Muslims fearing even *thinking* of having dissenting opinions, of questioning their ancestors belief system. So most Muslims end up censoring not only their voices, but also their critical and dissenting thoughts, simply because of their false belief that they will burn in hell for thinking differently than what the Quran instructs them to think.

There is another invention playing a role preventing the adoption of the tradition of criticism - and Islam did not create it. Islam did bring it back stronger though. It's a phenomenon where people value the afterlife more than life on earth. So they don't value progress in this life. This means that criticism has no value too since you only need criticism so that you can make progress. Some Islamic traditions even teach that suffering on Earth buys credit in the afterlife. So it's treating human suffering as a good thing, and progress as something that isn’t awesome. These things are inextricably connected - you have to value progress in this life in order to have any reason at all to value criticism.

How to move forward

Now this doesn’t mean that Islam must die in order for Arabs to adopt the tradition of criticism. It's quite possible for the Arab world to embrace the tradition of criticism while they remain Muslims. Some changes will need to take place, but Islam does not need to end in order for progress to be made.

There was a time when people from the Islamic world embraced criticism. They made advancements in math, science, medicine, architecture, etc. It was a time when Europe was in a deep sleep after Ancient Greece went stagnant and before Europeans rekindled the tradition of criticism by learning from the Ancient Greek texts. And actually it was those people from the Islamic world that preserved the Ancient Greek texts and reintroduced them to Europe. This helped Europeans rekindle the tradition of criticism. And we should return the favor. 

In the future, I think Islam will evolve like Christianity did. Criticism in the form of words or cartoons will no longer result in people reacting with violence. Muslims will embrace the tradition of criticism and reject the tradition of honor, and this will usher in a new era of progress for the Arab world.

[1] For more on this and related topics in epistemology, morality, science, politics, and more, see _The Beginning of Infinity_, by David Deutsch. This book is currently being translated into Arabic.

[2] For more on the tradition of honor and it’s effects on a person’s thoughts, emotions, and actions, see my essay Honor Violence: And why nobody should demand respect. It’s currently being translated into Arabic to be published in the Arab Atheist Broadcasting magazine.

[3] Bukhari 9.84.57