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Ramzy Baroud: The Stifling Absence of Arab Voice

The Stifling Absence of Arab Voice

By Ramzy Baroud

I fail to come across a region in greater need of self-reflection and internal transformation than the Arab world. Yet it is as if the opposite is true. No Arab country exempt, Arab nations, led by their governments and intellectuals, continue to succumb to a prevailing state of unresponsiveness despite an urgent need for an awesome awakening.

This is not another intellectual canter aimed at ‘exposing’ and shaming the culture from which I came. That would be a task most suited to the likes of Fouad Ajami and his band of carefully selected intellectuals, whose foremost task is to inform the ever-willing US media and academic circles of “what is wrong with the Arabs”.

Equally disloyal in my opinion, however, is turning a blind eye to the gathering dangers and uninvited challenges that have ravished the Arab world collectively, and therefore can be only faced with resolute collectiveness.

It doesn’t take more than a casual scan of Arabic newspapers or a focused examination of some TV channels to reveal one of the roots of our intellectual anathemas in the Arab world. Indeed, there is very little to be offered, save the self-congratulatory rhetoric, topped with the occasional dues of respect to the ruling elite, followed by an aimless plethora of stories composed from Western newswires about the Arabs and their affairs.

Would it not make more sense to narrate ones own story, instead of resorting and relying on the objectivity of outside observers, who often, even if not intentionally, convey the Western perception of the Arabs, rather than the Arabs of themselves, especially when the Arab people are the intended audience?

This is a key deficiency and will not disappear with the occasional critique and with wishful thinking. It is certainly a pressing issue, due to the critical phase in which the Middle East, and the Arab world as a whole, currently finds itself. If it is not a responsible Arab media, with an overriding sense of urgency that will help the average Arab understand, become more engaged and involved in matters that are so rapidly shaping his/her future, then the alternatives are dismal.

If Arab intellectuals are not at all capable of accurately depicting their own culture, people and their correlated narratives, then whatever portrait is sketched of them shall always fall short of honest representation.

According to the Western reading, the Arab peoples have been always been lumped into one category, mostly negative, that fails to see the cultural uniqueness or divergence of many of its groups. While the faulty perception served that discourse immensely by simplifying the reality of the ‘other’, easing the process of measured cultural integration and successive wars and invasions, it was of no help to the Arabs themselves.

For example, the established assumption that Palestinians are only Muslim, has allowed Israel to manipulate the traditional dissection of Judeo-Christian cultures vs. that of Muslims, although the religious element in the Arab-Israeli conflict is negligible if compared to the political, imperial and expansionist dimensions.

Arab intellectuals and their narrative also seem absent from the imaginary civilizational clash – as some portray it - of which Arabs and their collective cultures are being defined and redefined, skewed and tainted to serve an ultimately political agenda of a few.

The Arab factor, as represented by its intellectuals, seems either completely absent or consumed with irrelevant scuffles in a time when more than political and economic boundaries of their nations are being aggressively redrawn.

The continuing war in Iraq is the obvious example. But what I find truly worrisome about the bloody conflict initiated by the US and Britain is the adjoining discourse initiated in the rest of the Arab world.

It’s tactlessly clear that the US government holds no regard, whatsoever, for the anti-American backlash it is steadily nurturing among the younger generation of Arabs. This is not simply the arrogance of an overconfident empire, but it also lacks conventional wisdom. Insofar, as it has been empirically proven, outrage and the subsequent violence is not a phenomena confined to poor Arab societies, as it was soundly proven in the past. Recent waves of terrorism affiliated with radical Arab groups seemed, almost exclusively championed by designated privileged Arabs, groups never suspected by the US government.

But aside from the obvious imprudence of the US government, one must acknowledge the incredible backlash this conflict has brought upon Arab societies themselves.

In some countries for example, political desperation has led to cultural and religious extremism, rendering every non-Muslim an enemy, even individuals who happen to be equally rooted Arabs. This was the case in recent slaughters carried out by Saudi militants.

But Iraq remains the most obvious example where hostage taking has grown into a profitable business, of which even sympathetic journalists, elderly men and selfless aid workers have fallen victim.

While the Iraq trend is dangerous, the nearly complete silence on the Arab street and the wariness of the Arab media and intellectuals in tackling this matter speaks volumes about the subtle approval at best, or the complete disinterest in the problem. This comes in a time when many Arab intellectuals tirelessly demand that Western societies play a greater role in combating their governments’ militaristic endeavors and drives for war and conquest.

If Arabs truly believe that they have been targeted collectively, why then aren’t they responding collectively? Why aren’t they responding at all?

And if Arab intellectuals continue to offer very little – aside from either selling US hegemony to the overpowered masses or talking amongst themselves of fantastic revolutions that never seem to actualize– then who shall lead the Arab world, if not toward greatness gone astray, at least in its fight for self-defense, self-assertion and self-definition, in both figurative and real senses?

If these questions are not answered – aside from the overabundance of unfeasible scenarios offered at fancy conferences, where the likes of Madeline Albright are often the most honored guests – then one should not even bother bringing the question of Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, terrorism or reforms to the table in the first place.

The inevitable risk of not facing up to these challenges, however, is that outside players, who only understand the languages of exploitation, preemption and coercion will readily rush to fill the vacuum, pushing the Arab world further on the path of aimless violence and suicide, a trend that has already begun, leaving in its trail untold hurt and misery.


— Ramzy Baroud is a veteran Arab-American journalist and editor in chief of and head of Research & Studies Department at English.

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