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Opinion: Arabs and the Culture of Dialogue | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Refugees fleeing from Mosul head to the self-ruled northern Kurdish region in Erbil, Iraq, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad, on Thursday, June 12, 2014. (AP Photo)

Arab countries have been going through a downward spiral on a number of levels over the past few years. In fact, the situation in the Arab world is going from bad to worse. Take the recent UN report on the numbers and conditions of refugees around the world released on June 20, World Refugee Day. According to the report, the number of refugees stands at its highest level since the end of the Second World War. There are a total of 51.2 million registered refugees; the majority of them come from Middle Eastern countries thanks to the raging conflicts and wars there.

At the end of the Second World War, Arabs faced a single major refugee problem: that of the Palestinians who either fled from the brutality of Israeli gangs or were displaced from their villages and cities by the Israel Defense Forces. Today we can see how the refugee problem in the Arab world has worsened as a result of the actions of the Arabs themselves. “It’s a conspiracy!” some shout. “What conspiracy? These are delusions,” others could answer.

And so the argument that has been dragging on for decades continues to provoke emotions and tensions among the public whenever and wherever it is raised, even on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking websites. The worst part of this lies in the accusations being exchanged between die-hard believers in conspiracy theories and those who staunchly criticize it. Rarely is the etiquette of dialogue being observed in Arab forums. Nor do those claiming to be intellectuals tolerate the fact that possessing different opinions is both healthy and objective, and that this does not mean that the other side is necessarily a “foreign collaborator.”

For example, last week Lebanese–American academic professor Fouad Ajami passed away. Despite the fact that I disagree with many of his opinions, especially his vision of the reasons behind the “Arab ordeal,” so to speak, and the setbacks we have suffered, I was dumbfounded at the amount of animosity expressed towards him during his lifetime by those who disagreed with him solely on an intellectual and political basis. Some of these figures, including academics, had no scruples about criticizing the professor utilizing language they should be ashamed of.

A similar hate campaign was launched against Edward Said when he fell out with the then-president of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat. The dispute between Said and Arafat was political, not personal. Said’s opposition to the Oslo Accords was intellectual, but some sought to personalize the issue, with some so-called thinkers or media figures making a big story out of Said’s position. Their personal bias went beyond that; even Said’s friendship and collaboration with a Jewish composer was used against him by some of his opponents.

Ajami and Said are worlds apart in terms of their political and intellectual stances. But the two late intellectuals serve as a prime example of how an intellectual position based on an academic and political approach can often be dealt with from a personal point of view.

I can imagine some of the so-called intellectuals and journalists shrieking in opposition to my daring to mention these two figures in the same article. It should be noted that the majority of those who use their media contributions as platforms to level accusations and personalize intellectual differences also have their own affiliations with political regimes and parties. In my opinion, they are free to do so simply because no one has the right to hold anyone to account for their allegiances or personal sympathies.

One question remains unanswered: Isn’t it high time Arab thinkers, intellectuals and journalists go about their theoretical business and professionals and academics tackle the reality from a purely realistic perspective, calling a spade a spade without emotions or personal rancor?

Can we actually start recognizing the necessity and benefits of disagreements, rather than merely paying lip service to this? Only then will actions be in line with words. Or will we see proponents and opponents of conspiracy theories continue their tirades?

The ongoing argument about conspiracy theories will not yield a different result, particularly since more Arabs are being displaced, whether internally or externally, from South Sudan to Lebanon to the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. Meanwhile, those who call themselves jihadists continue their march under Al-Qaeda’s black flag, on the pretext of establishing an Islamic caliphate even if the cost is to legitimize bloodshed and displacement.

Under what logic can one accept such crimes or justify such a tragedy? How long will the majority of Arab intellectuals and journalists move between self-glorification and seizing opportunities to personalize differences with others, regardless of who is right or who is wrong?

Unfortunately, this will likely remain to be the case for a long time to come, and there is no end in sight.