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Why Arabs Lost Past Glories
Why are the Arabs so low in so many measurements? Even before the dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate in the beginning of the 20th century, we went down a slope that took us to where we stand today — at the bottom of the achievement ladder. Collectively, we contribute less than most nations to world progress and civilization.Apart from a few notable achievements in a few better-off countries,
Tuesday, April 10,2007 00:00
by Dr. Khaled Batarfi
Why are the Arabs so low in so many measurements? Even before the dissolution of the Ottoman Caliphate in the beginning of the 20th century, we went down a slope that took us to where we stand today — at the bottom of the achievement ladder. Collectively, we contribute less than most nations to world progress and civilization.
Apart from a few notable achievements in a few better-off countries, most Arabs live in an environment of servility. Slaves do not initiate or innovate. They can only follow orders. And if, as it happens so often, they have ignorant and arrogant masters, even the smartest of slaves won’t dare to do any better. Arab immigrants to the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia are doing far better than those they left behind.
Our governments are suppressing the rights and freedoms of their peoples. Between those who take away our right to think and innovate and the ones who deny us the right to practice our religion, most of us are living in fear, depression and desperation.
If we have any chance of getting back to our glorious days, when we ruled and enlightened the world from the walls of China to the gates of France, and from the jungles of Africa to the summits of Samarkand, we must change. You know your path is wrong when every step brings you down and takes you closer to a dead end. We have been down this road for ages. Isn’t it about time we doubted our direction?
I know there are excuses, some valid but most of them exaggerated. Still, we should at least admit to our part in the making of the misery we find ourselves in. Here is the “it’s-the foreigners’-fault” list and what is missing or wrong with it.
• We were occupied for centuries, first by the Ottoman Empire, then by the Western powers. Even after we had our independence in the second half of the 20th century, we are still, one way or another, influenced by the same powers ... plus new ones.
The question here is why we were under the thumb for so long and of so many powers. Only the weak and divided can be taken. We fought the French for decades in Algeria and lost a million martyrs to win independence. When you fight for your freedom, you eventually achieve it. Rights are taken not given away. Why didn’t we fight our dictators as furiously as we did our occupiers? Why don’t we unite to stand up to the superpowers of the day? Why can’t we agree on a common market or currency, even a regional one?
• The colonizers left us with corrupt, oppressing, ignorant dictators. They put and maintain them in power, and helped in eliminating any viable alternatives.
Colonizers old and new are guilty as charged, but why are such Arab leaders getting all the help from within as well? Without local collaborators, they wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Clearly we have enough opportunists, corrupt supporters to keep evil regimes going for decades. We do also have a mushy and shallow population to accept them.
• The Western powers planted Israel in our midst. They supported its existence like it was theirs. By sending everything from professional immigrants to nuclear power, and providing steadfast political and economic support they kept the apartheid state in a dominant position. Threatened by this dangerous existence, the Arab governments were forced into a servile relationship with the West. Our hard-earned money is diverted from schools and clinics to arms and armies. Solving the Palestinian issue would have deprived these regimes of their excuse for delaying reforms and development.
True. But why do we accept these excuses so readily and give up? Free and democratic nations are stronger. Viable economics can deal with threats better. When people-regime bond is solid, leaders stand taller and stronger. The fall of Saddam is a good lesson. If sustaining power is a leader’s first priority, then winning the hearts and minds with good governance gives more security than counting on foreign powers’ approval. A civil society with well-established, functioning institutions help governments face challenges and use opportunities more efficiently.
• Most Arabs do not have natural resources. Except for a few oil-rich countries, we are poor.
This would have been an acceptable reason a couple of decades ago. In the digital age, unleashed, well-trained brains can make a poor nation rich. Look at Malaysia. In two decades, a deprived land has become one of the high-tech, information-age economies. Tailor-made democratic constitution and civic institutions helped the rise of one of Asia’s best tigers. Malaysia is now doing better than Arab countries on education, tourism and knowledge industry.
The bottom line: If there is a will, there is always, always a way!

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