Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Culture Comes First… | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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“Why is it that southern India was able to feed 385 people in one square kilometer whilst equatorial Africa, which is rainy and has a similar climate, land and topography, can hardly secure food for four people in one square kilometer?” asks the French thinker and politician Alain Peyrefitte. “What is certain is that the search for the reasons behind this huge difference between the Tamil country and Swahili countries does not lie in the land but rather in the people.” (Alain Peyrefitte – The Economic Miracle: From the Phoenician Cities to Japan).

In the same logic, one can ask: how could Japan, which has no resources; the Netherlands, a small country that defeated the sea and made wealth out of nothing; Dubai, where there is neither agriculture nor livestock and which transformed a desert into a hub for tourists and investors from all over the world; Singapore and Malaysia, all compete in today’s world, while other countries that possess everything have no standing in the past or the present and can do nothing with this wealth, which is a gift from the Creator? Some of them even live on grants, donations and aids from countries that have fewer natural resources, though they do not lack other factors that are more important than the gift of nature.

Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum answers this question partially. “We cannot sit with our hands folded and say ‘we do not know what the future will bring for us!’ If we let events shape our future, they will give us the kind of future they want rather than the one we want. If we let others shape our future, they will give us the kind of future best suited to them rather than the one suited to us. If we do not choose the future, we choose the past… Today we are required not to free ourselves of the past because it lives in our conscience but to free ourselves from remaining in the past.” (Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum: My Vision – Challenges in the Race for Excellence, Motivate Publishing, Dubai, 2006).

In the same logic, Tony Blair says: “I’m proud of my country’s past; however I do not want to live it.” In other words, it is the attitude towards matters, rather than the matters themselves, that determines a position and status, whether we are talking about an individual, a group, a civilization or a particular country.

The problem with backwardness and progress, and superiority and inferiority, is related to mentality rather than financial, economic, social or political problems in the first place. Ultimately, all these things are only embodiment of a particular attitude, a particular concept, a particular culture and a particular mind. It is the mentality of challenge, for instance, that created the Japanese experience, just as it did the American and English experiences earlier, and before these, the Phoenician and other experiences that made their mark on the history of humanity. Even a historian such as Arnold Toynbee made the concept of challenge a foundation upon which to base his philosophy of history and explanation of how civilizations rise and fall: the bigger the challenge, the greater the achievement, and vice versa. According to Toynbee’s philosophy, to some degree, it is the rather harsh surrounding circumstances that create the spirit of challenge and drive in humans and sometimes causes them to achieve the impossible, while it is the positive circumstances that put out the spark of Prometheus in human spirit, preventing man from creating civilization. It is rather complete submission to circumstance, where routine, stagnation and a vicious circle exist, in which the beginning is like the end and the end brings one back to the beginning.

But perhaps what Toynbee dealt with only remotely (though it is most important from my own point of view) is that a challenge in itself is not as important as the mind and accordingly, the culture deals with the challenge. Circumstances may or may not be tough for those living through them. But if the culture of submission to these circumstances is the one that occupies the mind, dominating hearts and motivating behavior, nothing can be accomplished even if all natural resources are available or unavailable. This is exactly what is expressed by Mohammed bin Rashid when he pulls himself and his country into the future, in concept before reality; or when Tony Blair glorifies his country’s past, although it remains glorification rather than a project. Africa, for example, is one of richest places on earth in terms of natural resources, yet it is one of its poorest and most prone areas to regular famines, whilst China is able to feed its population and compete in a world where only competitors can survive. Some will attribute this to colonialism or imperialism or to the idea of central and border countries. However, all these justifications are simply a way to escape blaming our distressed selves. There are many who suffered from colonialism, imperialism and foreign domination, but they rose up and returned to take part in the competition. Even the United States, the present and the near future’s uncontested leader of the world, was a group of helpless colonies, and it is even evident that South Africa is different from the rest of its continent. The question is why? Simply because the culture dominating minds in Africa is one of submission to natural circumstances, whether harsh or not. If there is rain throughout the year, there is general welfare – crops and livestock will flourish. However, if it is a dry year, there is famine that devastates children and crops. Everybody awaits the rain, without action or reaction. Rather it is expectation and submission, and all of that is firstly in the mind before behavior. South Africa is not different and developed because its founders and leaders were white colonizers or because only the white man is capable of creating civilization, but rather because the dominant culture was different and the mind that created this culture also differed.

In our Arab and Muslim worlds, from the era of Napoleon until Bush, we always ask what causes them to develop and why have we fallen behind? Indeed the answer does not lie in colonial intervention, nor does it lie in aborting our major renaissance projects from Muhammad Ali Pasha to Abdel Nasser, or in the concepts of waiting and plotting. It rather lies in the cultural attitude towards the world around us. The concepts of challenge, progress and future are missing in our culture in general, and if any, they are ideology-based rather than focusing on civilization, according to the vision of one party or another, rather than as a general cultural attitude towards nature and history. This is where the problem lies.

We place all the blame for our problems and faults on one party or another rather than blame ourselves. Our problem is firstly a cultural one. Unless culture is criticized and our complexes are brought to the surface of our minds, we will remain alternating from place to place. The choice is ours after all; either we compete and survive or remain idle and perish.