The English philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, “Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth, more than ruin, more even than death….Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid.” This is very true and these were the exact thoughts that came to mind during my discussion with an Iraqi intellectual about the Iraqi crisis. Crisis? More like a wildfire, the disintegration of a country and upheaval of its sects and clans – all in the single body that is Iraq. If the prevalent mode of thought in Iraq was one that was accepting of criticism, unafraid of bans that could be imposed from any side, where everything could be subject to analysis, interpretation and different readings even if it were harsh upon the prevailing consciousness, political leaders would have been able to use the situation to their advantage as they do. Did the Iraqis rush into the democratic experience? Did they require more time to fully recover and make the transition from a brutal dictatorship, not only during the Baathist regime but even before that? This is the first democratic experience that Iraq has ever witnessed in its contemporary conscious history, and look at the results… turmoil between the sects, killing sprees, unidentified decapitated corpses, and last but not least, the declaration of the Sunni ‘Islamic Emirate’ in that sect’s region of Iraq. Is this what Iraq was waiting for? Let us step away from the ephemeral political complexities of the Iraqi crisis for a moment and ask: Are we, as people and societies, unequipped to practice democratic choice? Are there steps that should precede going to the election polls? These could be summarized as nurturing the would-be ‘voters’ to gain an understanding of the intellectual, moral and psychological aspects in life in order to apprehend the significance of elections and the meaning of a peaceful transition of power, as well as comprehending the philosophical basis on which this political practice is built.
But let us set the volatile Iraq aside for a second, considering that it is a ‘special case’, and look at other arenas: Yemen, Egypt and Gaza, among others. Where has the voter’s right to choice gone? How does he/she perceive the democratic process, and what has he/she gained from it? This is an issue that runs deeper and is more complex than the voters’ choices, which is a matter of ‘detail’. The overall and major issue is to examine the Arab voter’s mind, and the Arab candidate regardless of whether he/she is affiliated to parliaments, municipal councils, or any other electoral body. How is this practice perceived? Do these parties believe in a multiplicity of the faces of truth, something that cannot be monopolized, that no one can have absolute dominance or safeguarded authority and that everyone is governed by the limits of the state and the society and everything operates within these limits?
What I briefly mean to say is that some Arab societies, if not the majority, practice elections in some form or another in their parliaments or elsewhere. However the practice, despite the decades of this experience that have passed in some countries, is yet to yield a democratic consciousness away from the fascination with the undemocratic options.
Going back to my colleague, the Iraqi intellectual who was one of the biggest optimists and enthusiasts for the transformation of a new Iraq, as well as being a contributor to this transformation, he believes that the problem that faces Iraqis nowadays is part of the more general Arab political problem. He sees that the Arab masses, as well as the ordinary non-politicized people deserve a democracy and have no issues with its implementation claiming that the reason behind this regression that has led to sectarianism or tribalism, as is the case in Iraq and elsewhere, is because of the failure of the Arab “political structure” for over fifty years. He added that some Arabs have regained their independence following colonialism for over sixty years. Is this period insufficient to test and succeed in forming a modern democratic Arab state? It is not as if we have only just gained our independence today. My response was that there is a more dangerous and complex angle to the problem, which is: does the Arab culture welcome this kind of non-democratic consciousness, for various and complex reasons, to find itself more aligned to fundamentalism, tribalism and sectarianism than to the modern consciousness that is based on the philosophical foundations of political consciousness?
That is where the real problem lies, in addition to acknowledging the failure of the aforesaid Arab ‘political structure’ (which includes politicians, rulers, intellectuals and supporters of the ruling regime as well as those who oppose it – considering that they are the flipside of the former stance), which goes back to the failure of the Arab mind to ‘grasp’ the new political consciousness. In that case, the constant fear experienced by any Arab elite that monitors and analyzes events, is the disintegration of society into rival and warring clans and factions. It is as if peace and coexistence between these sects and clans was only born out of the state’s dominance and strength, but was never really a product of concluded internal consciousness.
The debate between those who ascribe the crisis of democracy among Arabs to the failure of the political demography on one hand and those who define the failure of the democratic structure as a direct result of the failure of Arab culture and Arab consciousness to overcome that of the past on the other hand, has not ended and never will. But is this our fate, and if so would that be mere satire like that of hardliner Orientalists against Arabs, accusing them of never being eligible for modernization and development? Such an approach resembles that of describing Arabs of having “biological ground” for underdevelopment!
Undoubtedly, this is not the case. The problem lies in consciousness as consciousness is not fixed, rather it needs sufficient time and a supportive environment, and above all this, needs conscious people who have a patient and diligent outlook.
Change comes from the lower elements of the structure. The awareness of people and communities in areas that are far from the political noise and the clamor of political parties, is the most important element as it shall be the constituent that overflows the narrow political outlets when the new river of awareness shall be filled with clear water.
Therefore, encouraging awareness, reading and allowing critique (and rather new) books, as well as trying hard to teach people how to read, and the admission of states, businessmen and institutions to this battlefield, as well as transforming the book publishing industry and the atmosphere of reading into a comprehensive, constant and important task, is the real and deep challenge. These elements shall also be the starting point for permanent change. For all of this, what philosopher Russell had said, is once again entirely true. The spread of criticism, as well as the multiplicity and variety of real intellectual production will ensure the disappearance of ignorance, which sees intolerance and the political trafficking of ignorance spread.
To achieve this, rearing a reader who can accept criticism is an essential trait for Arab readers, in fact it is a priority and a key. According to various statistics, Arab communities are believed to have the largest rates of illiteracy in the world. One of the suggested methods of encouraging reading is to create and give out awards for books, which would lead to a better future of the book industry, raise the profile of authors and would eventually become an essential contribution to this area. Examples of this are the King Faisal International Prize and the Sultan Al Owais Cultural Foundation awards and the new major award from the United Arab Emirates, the Zayed Book Prize. For this prize, there are nine categories; children’s literature, development and state building, young authors, translation, literature, arts, technology in culture, publishing and distribution, and finally, cultural personality of the year. Millions of Dirhams are allocated for these prizes. Such initiatives lead to the creation of the new Arab citizen and underline that there is still hope on the horizon. This is the real change. Undoubtedly, there is a long road ahead; however it will leave the noise of politics and the clamor of sects far behind.