viernes, 3 de febrero de 2012

Understanding the Arab world from the West

On observing the Arab world from the Western perspective, more specifically the European perspective, the first thing that attracts our intention is the asymmetrical knowledge of each other. While many Arabs know Europeans very well, we have a distorted stereotyped image of Arabs. There are numerous Arabs bilingual, the populations of whole countries speak the language of their ex-colonisers perfectly. Many of those who make up the Arab elite have studied university degrees in French, English, German, Spanish or Russian, and more and more of them stay or have stayed for some time in the West, as emigrants, students, exiles or recurrent tourists. Their knowledge of languages enable them to listen to our radio broadcasts, read our press and follow our political ups and downs, our cycle tours and our football leagues.

In contrast, few of us know Arabic, very few can say that they know Arab-Islamic culture and North African football, if we know anything or anyone, it is probably Zidane. This is the case of Europe and the United States is much worse. A couple of American friends, both university students, who were spending some days in my house on my return from a trip to Tunis, did not know whether Tunis was a Spanish or an Italian city. This asymmetry means that, while they have a very clear knowledge of our virtues and defects, we have a diffuse stereotyped image of an “Arab”, inherited from previous epochs, to which we have added the image of the oil producer and the terrorist, distorting the reality of the average Arab who has no oil and is not a terrorist and suffers the increase in the price of petrol and terrorist bombs, just like everyone else.

Some characteristic features of Arab culture
The second surprise is their vast culture. We must distinguish between culture and civilisation, the fact that, throughout recent decades, the Arab world has been emerging from an agricultural economy with little technology may lead to the idea that they are uncultured, which is far from reality. Their low scientific and technological capacity contrasts with their extensive culture. The counterpoint is the average American, who belongs to a much more technical civilisation, but an inferior culture. I do not mean that all Arabs know who Velazquez, Cervantes, Shakespeare or Goethe are, but I do mean that the people have a grasp of their vast, secular Arab culture. A culture with an oral tradition, humanistic, memoirist, full of stories, poetry, anecdotes and sayings which provide them with immense memories, a deep knowledge of the human being and a lively interest in knowing and meeting others. They do not know only the Koran, a large majority of Arabs recite long fragments of Farazdaq, Mutanabbi, Abu Nuwas and many others by heart; they can tell hundreds of stories, they know the details of the heroic acts of Saladin and tenderly sing the songs of Umm Kulzum. I am not saying that there are not any excellent Arab physicists, chemists and engineers, there are, nor do I mean that there are not many Americans with an excellent humanistic culture, there are. I refer to the contrast between average citizens. The technological contrast is evident and, when one has lived in both worlds, there is a notable cultural contrast. American culture is much more superficial, egocentric and provincial; Arab culture is deeper, more open to others and more universal.

Our attention is drawn by their hospitality, their respect for the privacy of the home and the value of family links, their sense of honour, their esteem for friendship, their enjoyment of language and conversation, tasting the words as if they were sips of mint tea, as well as their hierarchical tribal feeling. This tribal feeling means that the Arab is very identified with his own and has a deep, genuine feeling of family, tribal and racial solidarity. At the same time as tribal confrontations have occurred, the idea of hierarchy leads them to have a genuine feeling of pan-Arab identity, which has come about through anti-Semitism and was forged in the struggle against the USSR in Afghanistan and the support given to the Palestinian cause by the Arab world. They have a clear concept of the nation as an integrating value, and the Arab nation is an identifying concept that transcends frontiers. A feeling that is alive among the mass of people and is frustrated by the lack of union of the governors. This feeling shows how little the majority of Arab Governments represent the people and the breach between the Arab people and many of their governments. There is a tension between the national differences officialised by State structures and the generalised aspiration towards unity, encouraged by the example of the European Union. The borders were drawn by the Western powers with artificial lines which separate members of the same tribe, which is the case of the Pashtuns, who live on both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, or the cutting off of the movements of tribal nomads which had been taking place for thousands of years as occurred in the Maghreb.

The Arab has a serious problem that takes away his initiative and undermines his responsibility: his determinist fatalism. This is a problem shared for centuries with Christian Europe, but Leibniz definitively resolved the dilemma of divine omniscience and freedom in the XVII century when the difference between truth and necessity was clarified. The fact that you, the reader, are reading these lines at the moment is not necessary, you could be doing something else, but it is true that you are reading at the moment. The fact that someone knows that the reader is reading is a truth, but this does not make it necessary; the act of the reader continues to be contingent and free. The fact that God knows from all eternity that the reader would now be reading, does not make it necessary. Divine omniscience does not entail determinism nor does it reduce freedom. Moreover, it is atheistic materialism that entails determinism, since, as Laplace points out, the material is subject to deterministic mechanicism in which all things are produced by their causes, making them foreseeable. The freedom of man is what makes it possible to rectify determinism as he acts for objectives. Thus, physics is predicted and human science is explained. History is always written a posteriori as is the economy. Many people can explain a fall in the stock market after it happens, nobody could have predicted it, and at most, some people could have had an intuition of its probability.

In this context, undeniably, the confrontation of the present Western mentality and the modern Arab mentality, which appear in a feeling of distrust of the majority of Westerners towards the Arabs and a dilemma involving admiration-scorn, attraction- resentment of a majority of Arabs towards Westerners. They see us as unbelievers, immoral, materialistic, selfish and rich. In aberrant contradiction with verse 5 of the 2nd Sura of the Koran: “They (the believers) are those who go in the direction of their Lord and are those who will be successful”, as success seems to prefer those considered impious.

The evolution of popular feelings is shown in the evolution of Arab literature after colonial liberation. From the purest existentialism, the fruit of the frustration of the expectations of independence, where deception is shown in vital anguish, to concealed criticism of the political regimes made in heroic works in historical contexts and scenarios clearly identified with contemporary problems, together with the realist novels describing a bitter reality and the essays on social themes, and, finally, narrative of the absurd in its most Kafka formulation, a sample of the rejection of an unpleasant reality, passing on to place hope in the poems to the damages of war that should be overcome and the Islamic revolutionary songs.

These songs are the freshest testimony of popular feeling, in addition to sing to love and weep death; they exclaim the proclamations of the Palestinian resistance movement, the union of the Arab people and struggle as the only hope of liberation and future. Even Shiism, traditionally resigned and prone to self flagellation and martyrdom, is changing its approach towards a more combative attitude, and an effervescent Shiite half moon can now be glimpsed, from the south of Lebanon to Pakistan crossing Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, a community of faith coordinated by Iran, where the Shiites are no longer Arabs. We can speak of deception, frustration, a desire for revenge and hope in a final victory, which they believe, will fatally come wit the help of God, and finally, “it will be the believers who are successful”.

As concerns the conceptions of reality, there is a notable difference between the contemporary Arab and the Western views. A clear radical discrepancy between our cultures arises from our different conception of truth, we have differing cosmo-visions, a difference which was established and took root throughout the XX century and which we can label as the confrontation between relativism and fundamentalism.

Western thought
Very schematically, Western thought has gone through three phases marked by the development of physics.

In the first place we had Aristotelian thought, which we shared with Islam throughout the Middle Ages. For Aristotle, the earth was the centre of the universe, a universe ordered in three concentric spheres that moved with a movement that was regular and eternal. It is a simple universe, with five elements and a natural place for each thing, which explains natural movements, such as free falling, through an intuitive mechanics, which is easily understandable by all. It was a stable, eternal, ordered and known universe, which had man at the centre and God as the prime mover. As Aristotle was a philosopher, philosophical reflection was coherent with the physical conception of the universe, therefore, metaphysics, physics, ethics and politics were coherent with each other, known and widely assumed. The soundness and coherence of Aristotelian thought made it last 2,000 years, throughout the classical era and the Middle Ages without being questioned, moreover, in an era with no precision instruments, it corresponded to what was observed in daily life. This long stage was fully shared by European and Arab thought, with numerous scientific and technical contributions to European thought during those centuries by Arabs. It was not until Galileo arrived, with his new telescope, that it was understood that the stars were not made of quintessence nor were they pure and that the earth was not standing still in the centre of the universe.

The modern age brought Newton. With his mechanics, the earth definitively ceased to be the centre of celestial movement and a number of universal laws that govern physics in the heavens and on earth were recognised. The sun is the centre of the universe and Kepler had already demonstrated that the orbits of the planets are elliptical, a fact which Newton justified through the theory of gravity. We are lucky that Kant read Newton, studied his work and understood it, developing critical thought by questioning the truth of a priori universal judgements presented through a reading of Newton. Reason is manifested as a key to the knowledge of truth. Pure reason and the categorical imperative arise. Time and space become forms of the senses. Man is not the centre, but knows where the centre is. God and his work are rational and man has reason to know these and also know what he must do. The categorical imperative is a clear, rational and universal moral criteria. Only a handful of Arab intellectuals, the heirs of Averroes, accepted the critique of reason in a n effort to integrate reason and faith, opening up with Salafism the hope of reconciliation between tradition and modernity. Only a small group of Islamic intellectuals assumed the modernity and accepted critical thought. This began with the Nahda (the Renaissance) from the middle of the XIX century up to the beginning of the XX century, with the effort to assimilate modernity and the arousing of an interest in travelling and studying in Europe. Tahtawi returned fascinated from Paris and Huda Shaharwi defiantly took off the jiyab in the Cairo railway station on her return from Rome. The Nahda is similar to the Japanese Maiji revolution, but Arab modernisation was more cultural and the Japanese more scientific. The Arabs were interested in the forms of life, teaching methods and Western literature, the Japanese were only interested in Western physics. The difference between the consequences of each approach is well known. The Arab nations should take good note of the Maiji revolution.

In the West, modernity closed with Einstein, who opened our eyes to relativity and left humanity awaiting a new Kant to understand, reflect on and a clarify the gnoseological and moral implications of relativity. The problem of our time is to understand what physical relativity really means and implies. Current Western thought is confused and involved in a confrontation with radical Islamic thought. The origin of this confusion is having assumed the principle of relativity as absolute. Thinking that “everything is relative” and thinking this as if it were a principle that cannot be rebutted, and as such, absolute, leads to a number of conclusions with traumatic personal and social consequences arising from its intrinsic contradiction.

The first consequence of taking the principle of relativity as a basis is that the truth does not exist, which is already in contradiction with the principle of relativity itself, as this principle would not be true. This proves its inconsistency as a radical principle. The next implication is to deny all authority as, since there is no truth, nobody is in a position to say neither what has to be known nor what must be done. As a consequence, there is no morality and, as everything is relative and nobody can tell what has to be done, everything goes. Moreover, as nobody can say the truth, it is not necessary to listen to anyone. Nor do commitments have to be complied with since, to begin with, they are relative to the time at which they are contracted, which invalidates them as regards the future in which the circumstances will be different and we ourselves will be different. That is to say, we not only tend to reject all commitments, but we perceive ourselves as lacking identity, as we are not the same as we will be in the future or as we were before, and, as such, we are not responsible for our own acts as the author of what we did was another, who has now disappeared and the person must take responsibility for what we do today will be a person who does not exist yet. The repercussions are fatal: nothing is certain, nothing has value, not even life, it is possible to lie, it is possible to kill, there are no laws or norms, no valid authority, no word given, no responsibility. Everything is questionable and the criteria that counts is my personal opinion.

In contrast with this radical relativism, which is absurd, but generalised in the West, is fundamentalism, which is no less radical. For fundamentalism, there is a textual absolute and known truth, which has to be followed and obeyed loyally and blindly, with no flaws and no criticism. The only possibility is the submissive attitude of the Muslim. The truth is in the Koran and there is no other. Dogmatism has the advantage of providing security, identification with mother believers and unquestionable patterns of action. Besides meaning that we do not have to reflect on and question beliefs, leaving aside critical thought. One of the advantages of wearing the jiyab is the feeling of brotherhood it provides. Never before was Arab thought so different from Western thought, unlike, as we mentioned above, the centuries we shared the same cosmo-vision and dialogue was mutually intelligible, fluid and enriching. Today incomprehension dominates. Lacking a guide and alien to truth, Westerners take the route of appearances and personal opinions without reaching the standards of our own time as we have not understood Einstein, moreover, we have gone back to the pre-Parmenides thought, in which observable appearance prevailed over the truth, a hidden truth but accessible to reason. This way of thinking is flatly rejected by Islam, which is affirmed in the recognition and acceptance of revealed, unarguable, unquestionable truth. Twenty-six centuries ago Parmenides warned about following the way of opinion and advised of the convenience of seeking and following the way of truth. However, if there is no truth, there is no way.

We are now familiar with the fact that time and space are integrated into a set of relative dimensions. The universe lacks a centre, man is lost in it and God, if He exists, seems to be absent from the world. Reason is reduced to practical reason and practical truth becomes technology, so that truth is what functions insofar as it functions. We can only trust in devices. Man, who has set aside the reason of revelation and faith in what is revealed, has abandoned himself to feelings and desire, a desire that has ceased to be a desire for truth and has become a desire for things. Today man is a being who has become suspicious and threatening before the distrusting look of other men. The other has suddenly become a stranger. The alter ego is no longer man, any man, but only the man who thinks as I do after having assumed my same perspective. And when things stop functioning: the car does not start, the computer does not work or the lights go out; we feel lost in a hostile world we cannot understand. In politics, the truth does not matter, only the opinion of the majority even though it might be mistaken. In morality, if anything counts, it is only one’s own subjective opinion. Fortunately, as the fundamentalists state, truth exists. Another thing is that, as the relativists defend, none of us is in the possession of the truth and we all have a relative perspective from where we can only achieve a personal opinion from a partial point of view. However, returning to the physics of relativity, the physicists know that the equations of Lorenz make it possible to know the properties of the object observed if we know our own relative position and measure from this the apparent characteristics we can observe from our perspective of the object observed and we transform our observations by applying Lorenz. That is to say, there is a truth that we can estimate on condition that we are aware of our own relativity and the partial and relative character our opinions have.

Each of us can see a different image of a chair, and, depending on this image, we can create a opinion of the chair which may be different from the opinion of this chair held by the person who is sitting on it, however, the fact that none of us has a complete vision of the chair is not a reason to think that there is no chair. There is an ontological truth of the chair that is the chair itself, regardless of how we see it or even whether it is seen or not by somebody. If there were no truth, there would be no reality. The most curious thing is that Einstein never said that, “Everything is relative”, on the contrary, what he said was that the speed of light is an absolute constant. Relativity is a property of perception, of appearance, but it does not affect the essence of what is observed although, as Schrödinger said, on observing it, we modify it, which does not deny its existence, but rather confirms its existence. We also alter tools when we use them and they are not less real due to this, if they were not modified, we would not have to sharpen scissors or pencils.

There is a part of reality, which is especially fascinating, and this is the reality of the other. It is true that the other, in the same way as each of us, only knows reality to the extent which his own perspective permits this, however, we must acknowledge that he has a privileged perspective of that part of reality which is himself, as this is in the “in himself” of himself. Therefore, we can recuperate the radical value of truth that is the cogito of Descartes from Einstein-Lorenz. The other may ignore many things, but he knows what he thinks, even though what he thinks might be false. Therefore, we must be able to discover aspects of the truth of the other if he says what he thinks and, if we listen to him, we will be able to understand that, although what he says is only an opinion, his opinion on the things he talks about, if he speaks the truth what he says is the truth of his opinion and, as such, is a certain aspect of himself. A colour blind person might say that he sees a green chair as red, it will be false that the chair is red, possibly the chair has no colour in itself, but it will be true that he sees it as red. To discover the truth of the opinion of the other facilitates being able to discover our own relativity and the opinionable nature of our opinions.

From this raises the importance of dialogue as a means to know the truth of the other and the relativity of our own opinion so that, together, we can approach the truth of the world. A requisite for us to approach the truth is to assume the relativity of our own opinions and, from this knowledge, apply Lorenz, that is to say, correct our opinion on the basis of our own relativity, our greater or lesser nearness (in the broad sense) to the reality of what we opine and the mobility of this (in the broadest sense of change); assuming the information, which is also relative, provided by the other from his personal perspective. The dialogue is unfeasible when one of the two believes he is in the possession of the truth and considers any dissident opinion to be an attack on his own integrity. Dogmatic fundamentalism is just as incapable of reaching the truth, as is absolute relativism. The first, because, on confusing its opinion with the truth, he believes he is in possession of the truth and does not seek it, and also commits the serious error of ignoring the relativity of its opinions, and so it lacks a basic requisite to approach the truth. The second, because he thinks that truth does not exist, he has renounced seeking it.

In any case, the West must assume the relativity of the principle of relativity and recognise that the lack of knowledge we might have of the truth does not imply its non-existence. We have to rediscover the truth. In addition, to know the opinion of the other can only enrich our own. Dialogue, communication action as Habermas would say, is only possible from the humility that recognises personal relativism in the hope of an achievable truth in common through mutual enrichment, through communication, by placing the available information from the different perspectives in common. Given the relativity of our own opinion, in order to know the truth, we need the opinion of the other. The dogmatic must know that being aware that knowing the truth is only an interpretation, his interpretation of a text, however certain this text may be.

Possibly, one of the reasons for the radical disorientation of current thought arises from the separation of scientific education and education in the humanities . Knowledge is one and there is no authentic knowledge if it is only half knowledge. It is true that the breadth of knowledge and the brevity of life encourage specialisation, but this must not involve the absence of a balanced High School education with Humanities and Science. Plato demanded knowledge of geometry for the study of philosophy; today it would be necessary to study physics in order to be a good philosopher and philosophy in order to be a good physicist. Many physicists do this. Our differences with the other forms of thought arise from the confrontation of two systems of imperfect education due to excessive specialisation.

The worst thing about misunderstandings is that they arise when dogmatic fundamentalism is radicalised on theological bases manipulated by politics. One of the ancestral misunderstandings of Islam and Christianity arises from the Islamic perception that the Trinity implies polytheism. Conversing about this problem with two Yemeni Imams in Sanaa, we came to the following agreement:

• There is only one God and no other God than God.
• God manifest Himself to man and man can only know God through His manifestations.
• A natural manifestation of God is as creator, and He manifests Himself as such in nature.
• Another divine manifestation is in the intimacy of the interior of the heart of man when he meditates searching for God within himself.
• The other manifestation of God to man is in the revealed Word.
• The fact that God is manifested as Creator, Spirit and Word does not imply that there are three Gods.

The three of us agreed, but one of the Imams specified, “We agree, but the true revelation is in the word of the Koran”. In fact, we have two credos, but we should avoid misunderstandings.

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