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 

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