Arabs and the West

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Bill Moyers talks with scholar and economist Charles Issawi about the sources of Arab resentment toward the West and the possibility of better relations in the future. Issawi explains the Arab world’s reluctance to modernize and its aversion to the secular nature of Western society — especially in the area of sexual freedom. The history of Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world is traced, and its impact on international relations is discussed.



BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. The Persian Gulf War is over. But there’s a lot it hasn’t solved. The Arab World and the West are still faced with the tough task of making sense of each other. In this final broadcast of our series, some thoughts about Arabs and the West from a wise observer of both worlds.

Charles Issawi is one of the most versatile men I’ve met. He’s a scholar, historian, writer and economist. He’s been an officer of The National Bank of Egypt, and the United Nations. His first language is Arabic, he was born in Cairo. His acquired language is English. He taught Near Eastern Studies at Princeton. And in between, he uses French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Persian, none of which he will speak with me today. We’ve asked him to bring a lifetime’s experience to bear on helping sum up the Arab World. Did you, growing up in Egypt, think of yourself as a second-class citizen of the world?

CHARLES ISSAWI, Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. You see, very definitely-well, the first-class citizens were people like the British and the French and the Americans, much lower on the scale, the Italians, and the rest of the world was pretty second-class, yes.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I’ve met so many Arabs who seem to feel like second-class citizens, for reasons that obviously, apparently, have nothing to do with their own character but go deep into the history of the Arab World and its relations with the rest of the world..

CHARLES ISSAWI: Yes, in my particular case, I didn’t, but because I went to English schools — and I took to English very quickly because it has such marvelous literature for boys; there’s nothing like it in any other language — and so I really felt very much at home with English culture, English history, English institutions, but I personally-it never bothered me, but it certainly has bothered many people.

BILL MOYERS: Arabs and Moslems often express the feeling that they’re the odd man out in the contemporary world.

CHARLES ISSAWI: I think they are the odd man out. It’s a sad business but it goes back-there’s a long, historical process, which we may talk about, but I think Islam today is the odd man out, and Islam, which looks so menacing to Westerners, feels besieged, Muslims besieged by Christians, by Jews, by Hindus — the Pakistanis, in particular — by Soviet atheists, the Afghans, and of course, they share each other’s feelings to a large extent. It feels besieged.
It also feels very reluctant. It’s being dragged on a path which it does not like, the path of modernization.

BILL MOYERS: Who’s dragging it on that path?

CHARLES ISSAWI: Life is dragging it, history is dragging it, the media are dragging it, finance is dragging it, oil is dragging it.

BILL MOYERS: And, by modernization, you mean?

CHARLES ISSAWI: Well, it’s a big process, but let’s put it this way, there is a difference between a modern society and a traditional, a pre-industrial society, and a large part of the Muslim World is still in the traditional phase. It’s been modernizing for 200 years; in some fields, it’s been more successful than others. But perhaps in the personal field, in the religious field, it’s the one it least wants to modernize in, and it’s the one where it feels the Western impact most painfully.

BILL MOYERS: What does it most keenly not like about the Western impact?

CHARLES ISSAWI: I think several things. First of all-well, perhaps first of all, sex relations. The sort of thing that goes on in America is, on the whole, profoundly repugnant to most Muslims, the vast majority of Muslims. They do not feel that woman should behave that way, and that’s just women.

BILL MOYERS: What about men?

CHARLES ISSAWI: Well, men, it’s another story; it’s always been another story.

BILL MOYERS: That old double standard.

CHARLES ISSAWI: Of course, there are certain standards there, too, but they are more honored in the breach than the observance. But women particularly, it’s not something that-that’s not the way women should behave. I would put this very high on the list.

The second thing is the secular, or agnostic, or atheist, whatever you want to call it, nature of Western society. The Middle East — and this, I think, applies, to a large extent, to Christians as well as to Muslims, and indeed to Oriental Jews — they feel that there should be a religious basis to society, and they feel that has died in the West, and they don’t like that.
These, I think, are perhaps the two most important items.

BILL MOYERS: Well, if they could create an ideal Arabian World, what do you think it would be? Particularly, what do the fundamentalists want?

CHARLES ISSAWI: Well, I don’t think I’m misinterpreting them by saying that, first of all, it would be one which would be technologically and scientifically up to date. They are very eager to adopt the technology of the West and the science of the West.

BILL MOYERS: And at one time, several hundred years ago, they were the leaders in technology.

CHARLES ISSAWI: Yes, they were, they were the leaders, more in science than technology, but to a certain extent in technology. But I think the balance began to shift in about the 14th Century, and that’s when Europe began to forge ahead technologically, and soon, scientifically.

When Europe began making the high-tech artifacts of the period, that is to say, clocks and glasses, and exporting them to the Middle East, to me, that is one of the turning points in history. And after that, of course, Europe went on and on and on, and the Middle East stagnated, stagnated completely.

BILL MOYERS: Even though, at one time, Islam stretched from France to China, it had one of the largest empires in history.

CHARLES ISSAWI: Yes. In sheer size, in area, far larger than the Roman Empire, for instance.

BILL MOYERS: And then, you say, it stagnated.

CHARLES ISSAWI: It stagnated. I’m deeply convinced of that. And since Europe was not keeping still but advancing, by the time you get to the 18th Century, you have two very different worlds: the world of the West, the world of Newton and Leibniz and James Watt and Adam Smith and LaPoisiet, and a very stagnant world, where science had not progressed, technology had not progressed, understanding of social phenomena had not progressed.

BILL MOYERS: And so this would be one of the aspirations of the Islamic fundamentalists today, “to restore our glory in science,” even though they have essentially a religious world outlook.

CHARLES ISSAWI: I think they would say that.

BILL MOYERS: What else?

CHARLES ISSAWI: What else? They would say, “We want a just society” — a juster society that you have either in the West or the Soviet Union, a society in which the poor are taken care of as well as the rich.

BILL MOYERS: And that’s a preaching of the Koran, is it not? Isn’t that implicit in the holy scriptures?

CHARLES ISSAWI: That is implicit in the Koran. It’s implicit; it has never been carried out, of course. Islam was no more of a just society than Europe was, in the Medieval, or than early modern Europe was. But it has always been an aspiration and an idea, and an objective to set before individuals.

BILL MOYERS: Technology. Justice. What else?

CHARLES ISSAWI: Religion, of course. Now, we come to religion. Remember that Islam is a religion which goes into details. You don’t have the idea, the fundamental idea, in Christianity that render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.

Everything is God’s. Caesar and God are in some sense-or, Caesar, if you wish, is the arm of God, and therefore, Islam goes into prescribing the most amazing details: how you should wash, how you should eat, how you should dress, how you should grow your beard, and so forth.
Now, not all fundamentalists will want all the details, but a lot of them.

BILL MOYERS: Don’t you then get a society run by clerics?

CHARLES ISSAWI: Muslims would deny that but I wouldn’t go along with them. You see, they’d say, “we don’t have clerics, we don’t have a priestly caste,” and that’s true, there is no such thing as an ordained priest in Islam; anybody can become-a learned man, a man learned in law, that’s the real essence — not theology, but law.

BILL MOYERS: So lawyers would run the country, much as they do in this country.

CHARLES ISSAWI: But with less litigation. In this respect, it would be a much less litigious society, which I think is a good point for it.

BILL MOYERS: To what extent are the Islamic fundamentalists protesting Arab society today?

CHARLES ISSAWI: Well, they are, because they are protesting two or three kinds of Arab societies. First of all, they are protesting, if you wish, the Arabian society, the oil sheiks, the oil kings. To them, this is an abominable example, these people are hypocrites, they pretend to be good Muslims, but they don’t-they drink, which they should not do, they have much too much money, and they use it in a way which is very repugnant to a pious Muslim, and they don’t share enough with their people. One or two countries have done better in sharing; Kuwait was the country that shared most, but still not enough to please fundamentalists. And when you get to other countries, they would be much more critical. But they are also at least as critical of the secular despots, the Nasser’s, the Saddam Hussein’s, the Assad’s. These people are illegitimate, to them. They are not governing in a Muslim way, they are governing in a pseudo Western way, and in a tyrannical way. And remember, these are the people who have cracked down very hard on the Muslim fundamentalists, in Egypt, in Syria and in Iraq.

BILL MOYERS: Well, the paradox, to me, in talking about Saudi Arabia is that there is a nation where the rulers in particular are enjoying the generous benefits of Western technology, Western wealth, while denying it to their ordinary citizens. I wonder what the ordinary citizen of Saudi Arabia would think if she or she knew that Prince Bandar, the Saudi Arabia Ambassador to Washington, D.C., the United States, has the largest, most palatial home in Aspen, Colorado, which is sort of considered the secular mecca of American hedonism. I wonder what they would think about that.

CHARLES ISSAWI: Well, I don’t think that they are unaware that the ruling families live in great luxury, and, of course, they disapprove of it. On the other hand, they have got a quite a bit out of this oil wealth — nowhere near, I think, enough, but they have. As I said, Kuwait had a very good welfare state system, from cradle to grave. Saudi Arabia has done a lot of things. I mean, when you look at some figures; I think about 20 years ago, I believe I’m right in saying, there were exactly three doctors in Saudi Arabia, today there are thousands. The hospitals, the schools; the number of people at school ran in the low tens of thousands, today they run into the millions.

There was no women’s education to speak of; today, there is. I believe a third, or two-fifths, of the school population consists of girls. And women are admitted to higher education, though, I believe I’m right in saying, still in segregated classes. But that’s not the essence; the essence is that they get the education, even if they get it on closed television.

BILL MOYERS: Well, then, why so much resentment on the part of Muslim fundamentalists, in particular, towards Saudi Arabia, because it is, in fact, if you’re correct, and I think you are, creating with its wealth more of a just society, sharing more of the fruits of the technology you said that the fundamentalists want.

CHARLES ISSAWI: I think it is, but not, in their opinion, enough. The disproportion is still too great, and remember something else, Muslims feel that the Muslim World is one entity, and the Saudis should be sharing much more with other Arabs and other Muslims. This would be one of their reproaches.

BILL MOYERS: Well, that brings up a good question, which is, what’s the greater force at work now in the Middle East, in the Arab World: is it Arabism, that sense of the Arabs as a people, or is it Muslim, the sense of the people as believers? What’s the stronger force?

CHARLES ISSAWI: It’s a difficult question to answer but I would start by saying this way, I think that although the idea of Islam as a nation is very strong, it doesn’t have much practical application. If you look at the relations between Arabs and Persians, the Iraqis and the Persians fought a murderous war for eight years. There’s no doubt that the sympathy of the Arabs was with the Iraqi brethren and not with their Iranian neighbors. Relations between the Turks and the Arabs are not bad, but they are certainly not warm. Between Turks and Persians, again, they are not bad, but they are not warm. So I think Islam, as a cohesive force, is less strong than local nationalism.

BILL MOYERS: The desire to be Egyptians, the desire to be Syrians, the desire to be —


BILL MOYERS: Iraqis, right.

CHARLES ISSAWI: And Turks and Iranians, of course. This, I think, is probably the strongest thing. I am really amazed how strong the states have proved to be. So many of them were artificial. They were created out of nothing. And one just wondered why they had been created; sometimes, the reason was very obvious. For instance, in my opinion, Jordan should have been called “Trans-bi-Plania,” because it’s main function was to provide-but Jordan hasn’t

BILL MOYERS: Winston Churchill thought up Jordan over lunch, I think, mythologically.

CHARLES ISSAWI: I believe so, yes, and he had to find a place for King Abdullah, he did. But Jordan today has become, to my amazement, a real entity; people do feel Jordanian. And I think the explanation is this: people have lived under Common Rule for 50, 60, 70 years. The state dispensed services — education, health and so forth — it has given jobs, and people now identify with their local state. There’s a great yearning for something bigger. There’s a great feeling, “Wouldn’t it be nice if all the Arabs got together.”

BILL MOYERS: Pan-Arabism.


BILL MOYERS: Which is used, is it not, for very political purposes, for arousing the crowds, for appeasing the mobs?

CHARLES ISSAWI: Yes. My sad reflection is that it can be used very effectively to stop things and not to do things.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

CHARLES ISSAWI: Well, if any country is doing something which the others don’t like, they can raise a hue and a cry and stop it. But it doesn’t go to anything positive. There have been very few pan-Arab ventures. There have been one or two. There has been some money flowing from the richer to the poorer, there have been one or two institutions set up, but very, very little.

BILL MOYERS: Well, what does this say to you, that despite the strong appeal and fervor of Islam, and despite the patriotic euphoria that the rhetoric of pan-Arabism can create, the local and human divisions and competitive natures are just more powerful than the rhetoric?

CHARLES ISSAWI: Yes, very reluctantly, I’d have to say yes.

BILL MOYERS: What does that make you think about the future there, in the Arab world?

CHARLES ISSAWI: Well, one doesn’t know. One can either be a cynic and a realist and just say to go on exactly the same, or one can say there are few forces making for greater unity, which may prevail in the long run. I’m beginning to think that eventually, the Middle East — the Arab World; let’s be more specific — will look more like Latin America than anything else. There are people who share culture, who often react in the same way. For instance, when Argentina went to war with Britain, I think I’m right in saying that most Latinos felt very strongly on the Argentine’s side, but not more than that. It doesn’t take the form of economic unions in Latin America or anything else. That, I believe, may be what the Arab World is moving into in the next few years.

BILL MOYERS: Well, it shares something else with Latin America, and that is a very high birth rate. Half the population of your native country of Egypt is below 15 years of age, and if the present rate of increase continues, the population could double in the next 20 to 25 years. What’s that prospect?

CHARLES ISSAWI: That is a very grisly prospect. I don’t think there’s anybody who’s aware of it who’s not very, very worried. I mean, lots of Egyptians are worried, lots of less the Iraqis, because they have a lot of space. Lots of North Africans are worried by it. And there are attempts to stop it; I mean, there are birth control programs, there are, let’s say, I don’t know what the most recent figure is, but let’s say perhaps by now 15 percent of women use various contraceptives. But it doesn’t seem to be making a dent, or, if it has been making a dent, it’s only a very small dent on this enormous outflow of children.

BILL MOYERS: Under those circumstances, what are the prospects in the Arab World for democracy? Is democracy even desirable?

CHARLES ISSAWI: Yes, of course, it’s desirable and it is desired.

BILL MOYERS: From the Arab point of view?

CHARLES ISSAWI: Yes, I think so-again, whom are we talking about? If we’re talking about the secular intelligentsia, the people we meet, the people who come to this country to study, the people whom go to Congresses, the people who write the kind of books which get translated, yes, of course, they will all tell you the only acceptable form of government is democracy. If you talk to a Muslim fundamentalist, he’d tell you, ”We want a democratic state, but it’ll be sort of different than a democracy. We’d have an elected Parliament, by all means, but it’s one that will have to operate within our constitution, the way yours operates within your constitution, and ours happens to be the Koran. Now, we can get quite a lot of democracy but within those limits.” I think that’s what the answer would be. Now, what the actual prospects are, one can debate. There have been a few signs recently which are encouraging. Egypt, for instance, is not what we would call a democracy but is not too far. There’s a great degree of free speech
there, and the courts function, they’ll give a judgment against the government, and there are many parties by now, though there’s one dominant one. And in North Africa, it seems as though in Algeria and Tunisia, there is a movement towards democracy. It may work, or it may not.

BILL MOYERS: Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world, and in this country already there are more Muslims than Episcopalians, and one of the days soon, there’ll be more Muslims in America than Jews. What do you think this is going to do to American culture, your adopted home?

CHARLES ISSAWI: Well, American Islam, of course, is very peculiar. For one thing, it’s overwhelmingly, I think — at least I think I’m right in saying — black-no, that’s not quite so true because there have been a lot of immigrants from the Middle East. I guess it’s not going to do very much, at least not for a while. I guess the Muslims are going to find their niche in America the way the Jews did, the way the Catholics did, the way the others did. I don’t think there should be any enormous problem there for anybody. Naturally, there are conflicts. I’m sure young people resent their orthodox Muslim parents, the way young people resent their orthodox Presbyterian parents, or Baptist parents. Perhaps a little more, perhaps not. But I don’t see any major confrontation in the immediate future.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think it will take for Muslims and Arabs no longer to feel as if they are the odd man out?

CHARLES ISSAWI: I don’t see that coming for a little while because the real question is this: whether Islam will go the way of all the other religions and secularize. Anthony Burgess has an appendix to one of his books, a very amusing one, 1985, in which he says that very soon, or by 1985, the Catholics will become Protestants and the Protestants will be agnostics. If the whole world is moving that way, perhaps Islam will follow, but far behind. They will still be far behind, but perhaps in the general direction.
On the other hand, the rest of the world may also go back to certain religious fundamentalism. I would not exclude that at all.

BILL MOYERS: There certainly is a great deal of seething change out there, seething fervor out there, all across the world, the renewed interest in religion. Does this surprise you?

CHARLES ISSAWI: No, it doesn’t surprise me.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think is behind it?

CHARLES ISSAWI: Well, essentially, what our Lord said, “Man does not live by bread alone.” We’ve given them bread and we haven’t given them anything else. We’ve given them circuses, we’ve given them bread and circuses. But I’m not sure men can live by bread and circuses alone. And there is a spiritual vacuum, and I think religion is coming back to fill that vacuum in different ways. I think Islam is one of the religions that will step in and fill the vacuum.

BILL MOYERS: What is the most important thing you would like for us to know about the Arab World in the 1990s?

CHARLES ISSAWI: Well, that it has enormous problems, that it has a great sense of grievance. Many people will feel perhaps it has an exaggerated sense of grievance. I have often talked to fellow Arabs and said, Look, compared to the Indians — I don’t mean the Red Indians; the Indians of the subcontinent — compared to the Chinese, compared to the Africans, the Arabs have had it very good in the last 200 years.

But people never do that, they never compare themselves with those who are less well-off; they compare themselves with those who are better off. And they have a great sense of grievance. It’s very difficult to know how to deal with that. If the oil wealth were shared a little more evenly, that would help. But I don’t see it being shared much more evenly, perhaps a little more, perhaps the recent war has driven certain lessons in, which is that we need more social justice and we need more sharing of wealth.

That’s one problem. The spread of education, and of Western education, in spite of everything, undoubtedly is changing a lot of people’s minds, but not everybody’s mind, because many of the people who are very strongly Muslim, and Muslim fundamentalist, are people who have had a Western education. So it doesn’t always work that way.

I just think relations are not going to be easy for quite some time. They don’t have to be murderous, they don’t have to be bloody, but I don’t think they’re going to be easy for quite some time.

BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s the note on which we’ll end this series on the Arab World, knowing that all of us will have to be keeping our eye on that part of the world for a long time to come, as in fact that world will be watching us. Do you think the twain will ever meet?

CHARLES ISSAWI: Well, they will meet, they will meet, because there’s a big common denominator between them, there’s a big section they share, and that’s the secular section, and that is growing. I mean, all the Arab and Muslim countries are secularizing in various ways. But this is producing a backlash, and I think we have to expect some difficult moments in spite of everything.

BILL MOYERS: Thank you very much, Dr. Charles Issawi. And thanks to you for watching our five-part series on the Arab World. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on May 14, 2015.

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