On Arab Dignity, Real and Imagined

Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s minister of foreign affairs, posted an essay in today’s CiF titled “We in the Middle East have replaced humiliation with dignity” which managed a very tricky polemical feat: romanticizing to the point of absurdity the history of  Arab and Muslim rule in the region, while simultaneously attributing most if not all of their political maladies as the legacy of colonialism and Cold War alliances.

Indeed, its hard not to read Davutoglu’s plea for Arab unity – and his utterly fantastical view of the vast region as one which enjoys political, cultural and social homogeneity – as something of a throwback to the failed Nasserite pan-Arabism of the 50s and 60s.

Davutoglu casts blame for Arab failures thusly:

“there were two abnormalities in the last century: first, colonialism in the 1930s, 40s and 50s that divided the region into colonial entities…The second abnormality was the cold war, which added a further division: countries that had lived together for centuries became enemies”

Not content to simply blame the legacies of colonialism and the Cold War for Arabs’ political and social failures, he then suggests that outside forces have stunted the growth of unity and democracy:

“Now it is time to naturalise the flow of history. I see all these revolutions as a delayed process that should have happened in the late 80s and 90as in eastern Europe. It did not because some argued that Arab societies didn’t deserve democracy, and needed authoritarian regimes to preserve the status quo and prevent Islamist radicalism.”

“Some countries and leaders who were proud of their own democracy, insisted that democracy in the Middle East would threaten security in our region.”

Laying out his broad vision for the region, he says:

“But in order to undertake that restoration, we need a plan, a vision…we need to trust the masses in our region, who want respect and dignity. This is the critical concept today: dignity. For decades we have been insulted. For decades we have been humiliated. Now we want dignity.”

Oh yes,  Arab “humiliation”.  Anyone familiar with Richard Landes’s meditations on the Arab honor-shame culture wouldn’t be the least bit surprised at such a characterization.

Briefly, Landes defines the dynamic this way:

“A calculus…that must be resolved in victory over the humiliating enemy, and a mind-set of suspicion that views everything as zero-sum manoeuvres (I win, you lose), and interprets all concessions as acts of weakness not generosity.”

Many observers much more astute than myself have concluded that the first step in the Arab world’s political progress must be to acknowledge their own considerable role in perpetuating regressive political pathologies, and cease scapegoating others for this lack of progress.

Along this line, a CiF commenter, and diamond in the rough, named “HushedSilence” summed it up perfectly:


Such rhetoric, of course, represents a quite heterodox view among the Arab vox populi, regarding the root cause of the political problems in the Middle East – but are profoundly important ideas which the Turkish Foreign Minister, leaders throughout the region, and the Arab “street” desperately need to hear.

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