Image and Identity of Arabs and Muslims

    An Iranian boy stands among worshippers during the weekly Muslim Friday prayers at Tehran University in the Iranian capital on May 10, 2013. (AFP PHOTO / BEHROUZ MEHRIBEHROUZ MEHRI / AFP / Getty Images)

    Excerpt from The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs, by David Pryce-Jones (Ivan R. Dee, 2009). Reprinted with permission from the author.

    From Chapter 13. Image and Identity

    An Arabist from the past, the French General Daumas, who at the height of his career was director of Arab affairs in Algeria, finished his book La Vie arabe—published in 1869 and as relevant as ever today—with the reflection that the Arabs had their traditional values but otherwise nothing, and it was this nothingness which so permanently separated them from Europeans. Acquisition of knowledge was in question, and the frame of mind that went with it. Daumas wrote, “We are striding ahead, they move neither forward nor backward. Will they ever begin to do so? I doubt it.” Foreboding about the lack of Muslim development spread in that generation among educated and informed Europeans. How were Muslims and Europeans to meet on equal terms? The Muslim’s self-image, his identity, was at stake. This was what the Westernized Afghani had been so quick to sense, internalizing it: “Every Muslim is sick, and his own remedy is in the Koran.” The diagnosis of sickness is a great deal more traumatizing than the remedial prescription of the Koran. Afghani failed to say to what practical purposes and program the holy text might be put, or in what sociopolitical context. To no better effect, his intellectual successors have repeated him.

    “Why are we backward?” Sati al-Husri, later a proponent of nationalism, asked in 1911. Shakib Arslan published in 1930 in Cairo a book with the give-away title, Why Have the Muslims Become Backward While Others Have Advanced? An Egyptian, Muhammad Omar, published The Present Condition of the Egyptians and the Secret of Their Backwardness. “Why Are They Powerful?” was an article in 1952 by Salama Musa. Sayyid Qutb’s brother, Muhammad, wrote a book in 1964, Are We Still Muslims? Imam Moussa Sadr, the later leader of the Shia in southern Lebanon before he was murdered in Libya, gave a lecture in 1967, “Why Did the Muslims Fall Behind in the March of Scientific and Material Progress?” and his posthumously published essays have the title, Islam: Our Choice for Changing Our Backward Condition. Mehdi Bazargan, one of the successive prime ministers in the contemporary Iranian turmoil, published a booklet The Causes of the Decadence of Muslims.

    Decadence and backwardness are conceded without ado, even with the self-flagellatory eagerness which stimulates an inferiority complex. To think in these terms is to admit that standards of superiority and progress have been set in the west and that it is against these standards that Muslims are measured and found wanting. Historically, Islam gave the Arabs their uniqueness, and it is therefore supposed to have central causal connections, whether positive or negative, to their present condition. Such an attitude offers no clue toward cultivating a frame of mind more favorable to knowledge. Simplifications follow. If Islam has made the Muslims backward, then it is flawed and should be more suitably reformulated and recast, and that indeed was the policy of Ataturk and all the headlong secularists in his wake: Nasser, the Baathists in Syria and Iraq, and Muhammad Reza Shah in Iran.

    Now and again, outright agnosticism or atheism is advocated. Just before the 1967 war, an issue of the Syrian army magazine recommended the abolition of outmoded traditions, including Islam, for the sake of military or socialist modernization. In the face of public outcry, the magazine was withdrawn, and three of the editors were put before a court-martial and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor. Publishing a book in 1969, Critique of Religious Thought, a Syrian Marxist intellectual, Sadiq al-Azm, had concluded that a modern science-based Israel would not fail to defeat the Arabs so long as they remained conditioned by Islam to be backward, continuing to display “retarded mental habits, bedouin and feudal values, backward human relations, and obscurantist, quietistic world views.” Born in 1937 into a famous Damascus family which could to same extent offer protection from the consequences of these opinions, Sadiq al-Azm had studied for a doctorate in America and published a study in English of the philosopher Bishop Berkeley. This westernized outlook only increased the scandal. Tried before a Lebanese court, he was acquitted but deemed it prudent, for a while at least, to live outside his native country.

    Those who believe that there is too much Islam have been educated in a rationalist Western mold, and they are in a very small minority, capable of provoking rather than influencing. The majority who believe that there is too little Islam tend to be traditionally or perhaps hardly educated, and they include the Sunni Muslim Brothers in Egypt and Syria, Tunisia and Algeria, and their counterparts who belong to Hizbollah and al-Dawa, the Shia version of the Muslim Brothers in both Iran and Iraq, and the many millions who are sympathizers but may not be activists. Their reasoning has been summarized by the historian Albert Hourani: backwardness in science and civilization is admitted, but it derives from loss of the truth of Islam, and then from bad, that is to say impious, rulers. Islamic civilization was created out of nothing but the Koran and this can be repeated:

    It is irrelevant to say that modern civilization rests on technical advance, and that Islamic civilization cannot be revived so long as the Muslims are technically backward; technical skill is potentially universal, and its acquisition depends on certain moral habits and intellectual principles. If Muslims had these, they would easily obtain technical skill; and such habits and principles are in fact contained in Islam.

    If this is so, then the discussion of backwardness is only thrown back to another question: why have these habits and principles remained so completely subdued in Islam as to be invisible? How the Koran will provide the remedy and what the Koran’s relationship is or ought to be to scientific principles are philosophical and perhaps political issues that deserve close appraisal rather than the rhetoric they actually receive. Khomeini’s Iran is one example of the mindless Islamic affirmation that occurs in practice, and Saudi Arabia is another. The fact that present-day Iran and Saudi Arabia share belief in the all-curative powers of the Koran does nothing to heal the historic and murderous Shia-Sunni detestation in which they hold each other. Among the faithful as among the secular, Islam and what to make of it in today’s world lies at the heart of an exploding identity crisis.

    (Photo: Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images)
    (Photo: Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images)

    Outwardly, verbally, the faithful and the secular appear to be utterly opposed in their prescriptions for the future, to the point of killing or being killed for them. On the one side is the Koran as a total panacea, and on the other is “revolution,” which is to the present day what “reform” or “Westernization” were in the last century. Yet the contrasting abstractions share the same vision of a past perfection that in some unspecified way was smashed to pieces, as well as of an idealized future which has been stifled just as unaccountably. Whatever reasons are given for this apocalyptic state of mind, secularists and faithful alike perceive themselves living and enduring in darkness; and they are united in the consequent sense of shame about it. Within the same brief time span in Cairo, Nasser was lamenting that Egypt was “the toy of greed, conspiracy and lust,” and the secular journalist Mohamed Heikal was crying out, “O Nasser, the giant, O shatterer of imperialism,” and the city’s most popular Islamic preacher was saying, “If only we had honoured the Book of God nobody would ever have humiliated us, and the banner of Islam would be all over the world.” Recovery of honor is the essential goal in which these voices agree, however they may diverge on the appropriate path to it.

    Among contemporary opinions about Arab misfortune and its recovery, those expressed by Muslim Brothers and their fellow travelers like Sheikh Kishk most evidently and ennervatingly combine masochism with boastfulness. To them, the Arabs are fighting hard for their very lives against practically unsurmountable odds and have come to this dreadful plight through their own weakness and vices as much as through the depredations of foreigners. To one typical Muslim Brother writer, religious indifference and imperialism have left Egypt in psychological chaos, a prey to “deadly desperation, lethal indolence, disgraceful cowardice, despicable obsequiousness, effeminacy, miserliness, and egotism.” Here is Hasan al-Banna, the movement’s founder, on how the younger generation was lost and the educated thrown into confusion:

    I saw that the social life of the beloved Egyptian nation was oscillating between her dear and precious Islamism which she inherited, defended, lived with and became accustomed to, and made powerful during 13 centuries, and this severe Western invasion, which is armed and equipped with all the destructive and degenerative influences of money, wealth, prestige, ostentation, material enjoyment, power, and means of propaganda.

    “I am an Arab: who am I?” was the title of an inquiry in 1981 into identity in the monthly Middle East which aims at a westernized Arab readership. More of those whose opinion was solicited had come to the conclusion that Arab ideals of unity and nationalism were mythical, or unavailing, and they were Arabs mainly because of “vague, though intense, feelings.” According to a spokesman for these feelings, “Being an Arab today on a personal or even a national level means being in crisis in perhaps a more acute form than had ever been the case in the last 50 years.” This alarmingly negative formulation is characteristic. The products and values of the Western world are now so pervasive that they are juxtaposed to the products and values of the Arab world at virtually every point, in what is evidently a most unequal competition. Must an Arab who discovers, masters, and enjoys Western values abdicate some part of his Arab personality? If so, does that mean Islam? Conversely, what kind of affirmations or resentments will the Arab feel who deliberately turns his back on Western values? Latitude obviously exists for what must be highly tormenting reactions that flicker and switch in a moment between poles of admiration and repulsion, envy and hatred, friendship and enmity, honor and shame.

    Cecil Hourani, like his brother Albert, grew up partly in Lebanon, partly in England. Before he went to Oxford University, he heard his father, a successful businessman, suggest to him that he might change his family name, in the event that it marked him as not English and so proved embarrassing:

    He had taken the precaution of giving his children two names, the first English, the second Arabic…. To the end of his long life, though attached by sentiment, memory, loyalty to the land of his birth, he remained convinced of the superiority of English life and government, business methods and personal values to those of the East, and even claimed that he owed the healthy ruddiness of his cheeks to the English climate.

    To attend a wedding with a bowler hat on what he called his “narrow Semitic head” was more than the young Hourani could manage.

    Omar Sharif, not actually an Arab but an Egyptian Copt, is someone from the Middle East who uniquely has become a household name in the West by virtue of his talent as an actor. He explained his predicament to an interviewer.

    I am a foreigner everywhere. It would be very difficult for me to go back and live in Egypt because I would miss all the things I’ve become accustomed to in the Western culture. Emotionally I’m totally Egyptian, but culturally I’ve become totally occidental and westernised. My problem as a misplaced oriental is that I cannot sufficiently melodramatise my feelings the way we do in the Middle East.

    Jean Amrouche (1906-1962) was a Kabyle from North Africa who became a successful writer in the French language, in voluntary exile in Paris and the son of a convert to Christianity. He said of himself, “I am a cultural hybrid. Cultural hybrids are very interesting monsters, but monsters with no future. I consider myself, therefore, condemned by history.” In Saudi Arabia, Seymour Gray had a medical and American-educated colleague from Syria by the name of Nayef Al-Barras, who asked to be called “Al,” declaring, “I am a United States citizen and hate Syria and Commies.”

    This is a letter written for publication in 1984 by a young Arab woman living in the south of England.

    My father uprooted us from our home in Egypt more than 18 years ago. He was searching for Utopia and never really found it…. Whenever my father spoke of our home, he would refer to it with contempt. Even after so many years away from Egypt, I cannot eradicate those fond memories I have as a child in the Middle East. I am more or less westernised; however, I still get feelings of rejection and feel I am only tolerated and never really wanted here.

    I have tried to mix with other Arabs, but I found they did not really want to know. Wherever I go, I keep hearing of Arab brotherhood, of our common language and the pride we take in being Arab. In reality, we fight each other rather than get together…. If we do not change our present attitudes to one another and become more united, then one day, in the not too distant future, we shall all end up like the American Indians, being confined to small reservations in our homeland.

    The novelist Neguib Mahfouz has depicted how the Muslim today has within himself a tangle of residual responses in conflict with modern realities.

    Life carries him along in its current, and he forgets his misgivings for a time until one Friday he hears the imam [preacher] or reads the religion page in one of the papers, and the old misgivings come back with a certain fear. He realizes that in this new society he has been afflicted with a split personality: half of him believes, prays, fasts and makes the pilgrimage. The other half renders his values void in banks and courts and in the streets, even in the cinemas and theatres, perhaps even at home among his family before the television set.

    The uncertainty, the fear, is in the form of a two-fold question as profound as it is beyond answering: granted that the Muslim feelings in oneself cannot help being changed by exposure to Westernization, what is lost and what is gained?

    To indulge in apologetics is perhaps the primary, and certainly the easiest response. Neither creative nor dynamic, apologetics are satisfying, in the words of the orientalist Wildrid Cantwell Smith who in 1957 examined the phenomenon in his book Islam in Modern History, because they serve “to soothe the conscience of those many thousands who chose to live or found themselves living Westernized lives, and yet would have been unhappy at ‘abandoning Islam.’ ” In Temperament and Character of the Arabs, the Lebanese Sania Hamady quotes another Arab writer who puts it more polemically: “The glories of the past often suggest themselves as a comfortable compensation for the humiliation of today, a convenient avenue of escape from the travails of the present and the arduous tasks of the future.”

    The commonest form of apologetics is to represent the past as a myth of triumph and total victory in all spheres, as when Shakib Arslan (admittedly a Druze whose fervor derived from his wish to identify with the Sunni majority) wrote that thanks to the Koran there was a time of conquest in which “a single Muslim could stand up to 10, and sometimes even 100, non-Muslims,” So glorious was the past, the historian Ibraham Abu Lughod considered, that the Arabs had inherited an image of Europeans as barbarians, or dull and backward boors. Philip Hitti, whose History of the Arabs has been a standard work in the last two generations, strikes in it the note of purely wishful hope that the present will repeat the past:

    The Arabic-speaking peoples have taken their place among the awakened, forward-marching independent nations of the modern world. With their rich heritage and unmatched natural resource of oil, they should be able to make a significant contribution to the material and spiritual progress of mankind.

    A teacher of philosophy at the Higher Teachers’ College in Damascus, Dr. Muhammad Kamel Ayyad, is only one among many to make standard claims to this order: “Arab culture has played an important part in the creation of modern civilisation.” Europeans, he continues, “derived much of their mathematical science, algebra, physics, medicine, and astronomy from Arabic works.” At a recent conference of academics in the United States, Aziz Suryal Atiya declared, “Americans would not have walked on the moon or reached Mars, if it had not been for Arab contributions to the exact sciences.” On the face of it, this amounts to an empty and irrelevant wish to claim honor for the achievements of others, but such romanticizing of the Arab past is also harmful because it invites further questions that destroy self-confidence in the present. What happened, then? Why does Dr. Ayyad, for example, have to sink so swiftly from his grandiloquent claims to conclude in lame and defeatist monosyllables, “We are weak now”? If the Arabs had high scientific achievements to their credit, why did they leave the Europeans exclusively to benefit from them? What kind of a scientific tradition could it have been that apparently stopped dead in its tracks? Do such apologetic sentiments have purposes of self-deception in the face of distressing truth? Is it really the dreadful fate of Arabs not to be the men their fathers were?

    Excerpted from The Closed Circle by David Pryce-Jones. Copyright © 1989, 2002, 2009 by David Pryce-Jones. All rights reserved.

    David Pryce-Jones was born in Vienna and studied modern history at Magdalen College, Oxford. His career has included spells teaching creative writing in Iowa and in California, as well as being a special correspondent for the Daily Telegraph covering international assignments such as the Middle East wars of 1967 and 1973. He has written nine novels and twelve books of nonfiction, among which are The Closed Circle and The Strange Death of the Soviet Union. Since 1999, he has been a senior editor of National Review.

    Michael Coren and David Pryce-Jones discuss Turkey and other failed states of the Middle East

    Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook


    1. Is there any male dominated monotheistic religion which does have dangerous ambitions to control and to more and more power??


    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here