The lack of understanding between Arabs and the West

by Tawfiq Abu Bakr
The relationship between Arab and Western intellectual elites is distorted, representing a major obstacle on the path to reaching a mutual understanding, where both sides would benefit. Many "revolutionist" intellectuals in our countries retreat from facing this obstacle, instead waging a daily war of words on Arab satellite TV stations, against American policy in the Middle East. This only expands the prevailing valley of misunderstanding. Bridging this gap requires even more extensive efforts and more intensive understanding and quiet strategic contemplation after the events of September 11, 2001, which were carried out by extremist groups hiding behind the cloak of Islam and holding distorted interpretations of its scriptures. Arab elites need to identify points of distorted understanding between us and the West, without the influence of what we call "Arab street extremism."

The League of Arab Nations had called for a special forum, attended by prominent Arab intellectuals, to study the misunderstanding between Arabs and the West. It was to open channels of dialogue with Western intellectuals and research centers that work to understand us through abstract research, where concepts are derived from concepts, without any interaction with humans. The Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) held a similar seminar in Frankfurt, and another in Paris, in cooperation with the Arab World Institute (L'Institut du Monde Arabe). The main problem with these conferences is the practice of "text assaults," where each party throws what texts it has at the other, thus turning the conversation into a disputation, with each party rebutting the other party's accusations, and with participants addressing their Arab or Islamic audiences. Many Western intellectuals do the same. Dialogue should take place face-to-face, away from text assaults
, and focused on life experiences and lessons. We should not debate Western intellectuals as if we were angels without sins; we should confess our sins and admit our shortcomings in their presence.

There is no truth to the allegation that there exists an animosity against the West in the Arab and Islamic world for which there is no cure, and whose roots are religious and historical in nature. This is what a limited number of extreme forces on both sides, not all of which are fundamentalist, incidentally, wish to spread around. But Amir Tahiri, the Iranian journalist living abroad, writes that after American troops entered Afghanistan, a mere seventeen small demonstrations took place among the one billion Muslims throughout the world. There exists a distorted relationship with the West, but it is not one of deep animosity. Otherwise, we would not have eagerly received their scientific and technological products in our countries, with profound awe, in most cases.

Yes, we do have a problem with "modernism," for some extremists and some fundamentalists in our countries (not all of them) oppose "modernism" in general, and therefore oppose openness to the West. This is a major crisis from which we suffer, and which is not sufficiently challenged by advocates of enlightenment. But there are also opponents to modernism in the West, including those who deny that the earth is spherical, until this day. We have a problem with "culture relativism," because those who oppose openness to "the Other" in our Arab world hide behind the Arab and Islamic particularism, exaggerating it in order to prevent application of international values that harm their limited interests. I have myself seen representatives of the most oppressive and backward Arab regimes take turns at the podium at the International Conference for Human Rights held in Vienna in 1993, when I was Executive Director of the Amnesty International chapter in Jordan. They talked with great
vigor about "culture relativism" in order to repulse attempts to universalize human rights and openness to "the Other," because that would put an end to their monopoly on control over their peoples. Arab people of enlightenment have a duty to confront this phenomenon.

We incessantly say that those who are extremists in our countries are limited in number and influence, and that the West generalizes the behavior of this strayed minority as representing Arabs and Muslims. Yes, this does happen. But in order for it not to happen again in the future, and in order for channels of communication and dialogue to open up, the Arab intellectual elite, which takes upon itself the mission of enlightenment, must assume its role and condemn, clearly and without a trace of ambiguity, the actions of those extremists and terrorists, without hesitation or bashfulness, and without connecting this to any other issue, along the policy of "yes, but." When a true dialogue with Western elites commences, the issue must be addressed openly and squarely: That the search for the roots of extremism and terror in our countries will lead to pro-Israeli Western policies, as well as socio-economic reasons, including poverty, depression, despair, and isolation.

Those in our nations who understand the West are very few. Our isolation started in the fifteenth century, with the delay of openness: a prerequisite for eliminating misunderstanding, and a condition for development, as well. The West cannot be understood from translated articles, sometimes in poor style, or through academic studies. Direct, fertile, and continued interaction is essential. Similarly, the West cannot understand us through partial readings of Sayyed Qutub's last writings, in which he deletes the role of the intellect in the making of civilization. Extremism in our countries has an educational side, and we should not be bashful to admit this openly. Some educational curricula in our nations promote isolationism, extremism, and animosity towards "the Other." Things will never get better unless we initiate, within Arab circles, a deep dialogue without "red lines." Europe did not enter the era of renaissance and enlightenment until it cancelled its "red lines," shaking the very foundations of what was taken for granted, and bringing down what was considered obvious. Things will never get any better, until we consider "the Other" inside the Arab house as an extension and not an antagonist.

It is true that considering "the Other" an "opposite" does exist in the Arab heritage. But excavating our heritage also reveals the presence of democratic calls for realizing "the Other" in a luminous manner. Nations do not prosper unless they look forward and plan for the future, taking an occasional peek backwards, in order to connect the past with the present. It is a method that includes openness, freedom, and the elimination of misunderstanding with "the Other," especially with the "West," if it is to be a process that will lead to a prosperous and promising future.

**Tawfiq Abu Bakr is a veteran political analyst, the director of Jenin Center for Strategic Studies and a member of Palestinian National Council. This article is part of a series of views on the relationship between the Islamic/Arabic world and the West, published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: This article is part of a series of views on the relationship between the Islamic/Arabic world and the West, published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Distributed by the Common Ground News Service - Partners in Humanity.

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Why we do not get on - and what to do about it.
Why is the legacy of confrontation so strong?
Clash or Dialogue: Reality and perception
The tension between East and West
Encountering the 'Other'
Is the world moving apart or coming together?
A public peace process
The West and the Arab World: the case of media
The Problem with the Dialogue of Civilizations
Coordinated Action is Needed
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Other articles in this series

Why we do not get on - and what to do about it. by Steven Everts
Why is the legacy of confrontation so strong? by Rami G. Khouri
Clash or Dialogue: Reality and perception by Jason Erb and Noha Bakr
The tension between East and West by Shafeeq N. Ghabra
Encountering the 'Other' by Meena Sharify-Funk
Is the world moving apart or coming together? by Hazem Saghiyeh
A public peace process by Shamil Idriss
The West and the Arab World: the case of media by Daoud Kuttab
The Problem with the Dialogue of Civilizations by Sarah Eltantawi
Coordinated Action is Needed by Samer Shehata