The lack of a culture of democracy in the Arab world is sometimes blamed on the absence of a culture of individualism. By individualism, I do not mean selfishness but rather an opportunity for difference, which pervades all aspects of life in developed western societies, according to the intellectual Hazem Saghieh.
Is our group culture, which obliterates individuality, an obstacle that hinders individual creativity and longing for change? Is this oppressive collective driving our bright minds to emigrate to other societies where individuality is accepted?
It appears so, in light of the large influence exercised by the group in all aspects of Arab and Islamic life, whereby agreement or dissent are led by the group, whether it is the government, the tribe, the sect or the family.
Look around you and you will realize that we remain in an age where the group seeks to oppress individual dissent, even the constructive kind which seeks to gain a perspective and move away from the collective in order to develop itself and then return at a later date.
This subjugation of the individual is not only practiced by conservative, sectarian or tribal elements. The so-called “progressive” Arab governments use the same mechanism to control individualistic tendencies, implicitly or manifestly.
It is, as a cultural critic said, an arrangement that governs everybody and that everyone refers to.
For example, the family of Abdul Halim Khaddam, former Syrian vice-president, in a recent letter addressed to President Bashar Assad, condemned Khaddam’s statements during an interview with the al Arabiya satellite channel. The signatories described the TV station as “mercenary”.
Similarly, the tribe of ex- Iraqi president Ghazi al Yawer issued a statement in June 2004 in which it proclaimed it “disavowed everyone who shook hands with the American enemy”.
In neighboring Jordan, the al Khalayah clan of the Bani Hassan tribe (one of the Kingdom’s biggest) issued a statement in which is stated it had disavowed Ahmad Fadel al Khalayah, more commonly known as Abu Musab al Zarqawi, after he claimed responsibility for the triple suicide bombings in Amman. Why did the clan wait until after the capital’s hotels were hit to distance itself from al Zarqawi? This leads to another question about the attitude towards targeting civilians. Mussa al Khalayah, the Jordanian MP for Zarqa, discussed why the clan had delayed its announcement and said, “Iraq is a war zone. Jordan is an oasis of security and stability”!
The above examples illustrate how the group, whether it is a tribe or a sect, can put pressure on the individual and denounce him.
In Saudi Arabia, similar announcements were made during the clashes between the Saudi security forces and terrorists. A number of groups also sought to distance themselves from the statements of opposition figures in London who used to include the names of alleged supporters. The aim of this public disavowal, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, is to create a distance between the group and its member.
Other contemporary examples are more ambiguous, such as when a government revokes an individual’s citizenship. The case of al Qaeda spokesperson, Suleiman Abu Gaith is an example; it is equivalent to a tribe disavowing one of its members. I do not wish to be drawn into a discussion of the legality of revoking someone’s citizen. Suffice it to say that this latest example reveals how the group remains dominant in our Arab socio-political culture. Difference is simply not allowed.
In conclusion, the individual should be free of the oppression of the group, in all its forms, in order to enrich and strengthen the groups. The modern state, the party, the union and other contemporary groups should not repeat the pattern of older groups such as the tribe, the sect and the family.
If we accept individual differences, without necessarily agreeing with them or leaving them unpunished, if need be, and without needing to issue statements to disavow or condemn, then we might be edging closer to a democratic future.