Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Yes, wash the Arab world's dirty laundry in Washington

YES, WASH THE ARAB WORLD'S DIRTY LAUNDRY IN WASHINGTON

By Ghassan RubeizDaily Star, Opinion (Lebanon)November 26, 2003

Recently, at a well-attended Arab community reception in Washington, Ihad a conversation with two friends about the relative silence ofArab-Americans when it comes to Arab injustice. Why did Arab-Americanshesitate to speak about social justice issues in their countries oforigin? I argued that only when they would do so would they be able tobuild up their credibility in the US and gain better access to themedia.
My two partners argued otherwise: "We have Israel smearing our imageinternationally; we don't have to make things worse by washing ourdirty laundry outside our own community," they insisted. I disagree. Wemust squarely acknowledge the social ills in the Arab world and debatethem so as to arrive at our own solutions. Not to do so is to invitenon-Arabs to offer their own biased solutions to Arab problems.Washington is home to a large number of Arab-Americans and Arabprofessionals. Yet Arab and Arab-American associations in the city havenot considered addressing political reform in the Middle East apriority. For example, graduates of the American University of Beirut(AUB), given their background, have great potential to deal with issuesrelating to women, social change and interfaith and interculturalrelations that are relevant to the region. Yet AUB graduates have notreally sought to organize around such issues in their alumniassociation.
Americans have been reading about Arab politics with intense curiosity.However, expertise on Arab affairs is still mostly the domain offoreigners. In a place like Washington where consultancy on democracybuilding, education, religion and politics is a big business, it isnon-Arabs such as Bernard Lewis or Thomas Friedman who are consideredthe leading American authorities on Arab history or theIsraeli-Palestinian conflict, respectively. And while Westerners thinkup solutions about the Arab world, Arabs intellectuals have typicallydefended the status quo.
But things are changing. Lately, under increasing pressure to examinethe sources of trouble in the Arab world after the Sept. 11 attacks,some Arab and Arab-American intellectuals have spoken out, questioningArab autocracy. In Washington, Ziad Asali, the president of theArab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, academic Shibley Telhamiand journalist Hisham Melhem have all engaged in such self-criticism.And last year, suddenly and boldly, the United Nations DevelopmentProgram (UNDP) issued a critical report on social conditions in theArab world. The 2002 UNDP report stated that Arabs had to face threemajor deficits, in "knowledge, freedom and gender equality." The reportexplained that Arab education was inadequate and that Arab childrenwere taught to memorize their lessons rather than engage in problemsolving. It also underlined that the behavior of Arab states did notmeasure up to modern standards on the rule of law; and it documentedthat Arab women did not have equal access to political and social poweras in many other countries.
This year, the UNDP report has focused on the deficit in knowledge, andmany Arabs are reading it on internet. The document has not revealed ahidden truth; rather, it has given more credibility to those voicesbacking change. Because the report was written in Beirut by 30qualified, politically credible and representative Arab scholars, itcannot be dismissed as emanating from the West. It is a triumph offact-finding, documentation and interpretation, and it makes the rightrecommendations for investing in human capital, applying the rule oflaw and enhancing the status of women.
Having said that, one might add that the report could have singled outeconomic inequality as a major fourth deficit in the Arab world. In apart of the world overflowing with natural and cultural riches, Arabpoverty is obscene. In this respect, the UNDP report is a sanitizedversion of reality. It is easy to speak about offering more knowledge,freedom and gender balance, but reducing poverty, to put it bluntly,involves transfer of money from the rich to the poor, and the Arab richare not ready to transfer wealth to their poor. Also, the reportglosses over the over-investment in defense spending and its connectionwith massive poverty.
Inside the Arab world, "intellectual silence" has created a politicalvacuum that is filled by extremist groups that offer questionablepolitical alternatives. Political reform will not take place withoutpolitical debate and self-criticism. Given the repressive nature ofcurrent Arab regimes, one can understand the reluctance of the educatedto speak out frankly. However, the Arab communities in the US, Europeand Latin America are under no such threat and need to take moreresponsibility for reform in the Arab world.
Partly, this is because there is no consensus on what path to take.Arab thinkers do not agree on how to tackle the problems outlined inthe UNDP report. No strong ideology of liberation unites Arabs today.Everyone accepts that autocracy must go, but opinions about democracybuilding vary widely. Everyone understands that education needs toimprove, but the quality of education is not being debated. Everyoneagrees that women must have better opportunities, but there is as yetno deep recognition that women should have full access to political andeconomic power.
The UNDP report has given the Arab-American community in Washington auseful reference point for debate. Only by washing our dirty laundry inpublic can we hope for lasting change in the Arab world.

Ghassan Rubeiz is a Lebanese-American social scientist living inWashington.

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