Why the Arab Spring really turned into an Arab Winter

Fomenting conspiracy theories and blaming someone else for one's own misfortunes is a national sport in the Arab world. The Arab Spring's failure has deep roots in the political culture, and the West needs to understand that until that changes the prospect for an enlightened politics will remain remote

Winter in Cairo
Dimitar Mihaylov
On 24 April 2017 15:26

The failure of the so-called “Arab Spring,” six years after it suddenly burst forth, is now undeniable, and there is no longer any real need to assess its reverberations and resonance.

However, with so many explanations for what lies behind this dramatic failure, we are liable to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Perhaps the most obvious and serious factor was the absolute helplessness of the so-called political elites in the Middle East -- predominantly autocratic regimes and military dictatorships -- to read their own tea leaves and see that they were facing a “Stormbringer,”

The British rock group Deep Purple accurately expressed this idea with their 1974 album “Stormbringer”: “That Dark cloud gathering/Breaking the day/No point running/'Cause it's coming your way,” and that there was no point running away.

They had to confront it. The elites, however, were unable to creatively and pragmatically approach the sociopolitical turmoil looming on the horizon, and it was this inability to adapt to the tectonic changes that shook the Middle Eastern political structures to their very foundations that doomed the Arab Spring from the start.

Fomenting conspiracy theories and blaming someone else for one's own misfortunes is a national sport in this part of the world. Long forgotten are the wise words of the great poet Abū Nuwās (756–814) who sagaciously advised others not to blame him for his passion for wine because it would be in vain: “Leave off your blaming of me, for blame is itself an incitement.”

In the Middle East, however, to blame others for the current plight is a time-honored tradition. As American President Dwight D. Eisenhower used to say, “The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions.” Today, the Middle East is overrun with such expeditions.

Middle Eastern political elites have always consumed power as if it were manna fallen from the heavens -- and they used and abused it like rapacious gluttons. This means that power is usually usurped by brute force, and then, if one loses power, the scepter is likewise relinquished -- by blood and fire.

Deeply embedded in the memory of those in power in the Middle East is the historical narrative connected to the fall of the Umayyad dynasty (750 AD). All members of the Umayyad house were ruthlessly hunted down and slaughtered, save for one -- Abd al-Rahman, who fled to Córdoba.

A more modern expression of such bloodletting is the ignominious and savage end of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said, murdered in a coup in 1958 after attempting to flee in women's clothing.

The coup toppled the monarchy, and the royal family, including King Faisal II, were mowed down by machine-gun fire. Al-Said's corpse was disinterred, dismembered, and dragged through the streets of Baghdad. It was then strung up and attacked by a frenzied mob.

The body was eventually run over by city buses and mutilated beyond recognition. Years later, in 2004, the dismembered bodies of four Blackwater USA contractors killed in the Fallujah ambush were hung over a bridge spanning the Euphrates River.

For many rulers in the Middle East, it is the “in for a penny, in for a pound” attitude: a political credo that makes one face Hobesian choices -- to exercise tyrannical power or to fall under the blows of other tyrants; a cruel Neronian world of homo homini lupus [man is wolf to man].

At the outset, some in the West believed -- with a certain degree of naïveté -- that the Arab Spring could become the “next wave of democratization.”

In what bears the intellectual and conceptual hallmarks of the approach to history of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, they were exhilarated when predicting a new democratic tide to follow previous ones: after the Napoleonic wars in the 1820s -- when white male populations in Europe were enfranchised with certain political rights; the freedoms bestowed in the aftermath of the defeat of Nazism and Fascism in World War II; and the rebirth of Central and Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism.

Was this more evidence of the “cyclical nature of history” so aptly described by Samuel Huntington to portray a clash of civilizations?

Alas, the Arab Spring turned out to be a “blank cartridge,” mainly because of the complete impotence of the ruling elites and the emerging opposition to negotiating and implementing a peaceful transition toward new sociopolitical forms of organization.

They apparently failed to capitalize on the experience accumulated by some former Communists in Central and Eastern Europe. Those newly minted stalwarts of democracy seized a hefty share of the national wealth and gained considerable influence after the radical changes that began in 1989, successfully transforming themselves into die-hard capitalists.

They proved that they were a versatile and resilient species that survives change. The Middle Eastern autocrats, however, proved to be just the opposite -- a stubborn, unbending breed done in by change.

More to the point, if we consider the Arab Spring and all events surrounding it a “Big Bang” that released tremendous and long-suppressed sociopolitical energy into the typological tank of the average Middle Eastern autocracy, the pathologies that emerged in its aftermath were characterized by constant disintegration, sectarian and tribal confrontation, religious radicalism, and societal proselytism.

Due to the lack of internal political power and the absence of political creativity and genuine social imagination, there were no solutions or approaches whatsoever to counter and treat these negative epiphenomena. This is why great parts of the Middle East have been plunged into an endless free-fall into the abyss. Suffice it to mention the Syrian civil war that rages on.

Rational approaches to regenerating meaningful and pragmatic forms of modern social organization -- and let it be said that democracy is not the only icon to be venerated -- and thus initiate a gradual transformation to modernity are rarely to be found.

All things considered, the main point here boils down to a simple thesis: This is not an issue of dominant ideologies (including religions) or archaic social fabrics; tribes and clans; internal confrontations; awakened mutual hatred; or destructive outside intervention.

Rather, it is a state of mind and a modus operandi that is unable to implement pragmatic and adaptable solutions in politics. It is also an inability to meet others halfway -- a maximalist and holistic attitude that fails to grasp reality.

It bears, as well, imprints of a despotic megalomania, constantly nourished by courtiers chanting in the best tradition of pre-Islamic poetry to depict tyrants as saviors of the people (the genre of panegyrics), such as: “There was a man; from the desert he came. He was given wisdom; he was given knowledge.” These were chants of a chorus glorifying “Brother Leader” Muammar Qadhafi.

Many Middle Eastern leaders took their cue from Generalissimo Josef Stalin, who was portrayed in the eyes of the Soviet people not only as the father and savior of the Soviet nations and the “beating heart of progressive humanity,” but also as a genius and pioneering scientist in such diverse disciplines as linguistics and agriculture.

It is fair to say that most of the patterns and practices exercised in the political domain of the Arab States during the last century (initially, in the shadow of foreign domination) were conducted in traditional, conservative, self-centered, and authoritarian ways that prevented the emergence of creative and non-standard approaches to dealing with serious and profound social problems.

This reflects a century-long tradition that paved the way to the current crisis that has lasted several years, but at the same time, these patterns and practices portray an epistemological impasse of consciousness unable to seek workable solutions and move forward.

By the 1970s and '80s, a modern Moroccan philosopher, Mohammed Abed al-Jabri, explored the cognitive models of the Arab mind -- aware of the fact that this concept is relative and subject to various interpretations -- and divided them into three spheres: u‘lum al-bayyan -- the science of religious interpretation, in which the unknown [al-ghayb] supersedes the evident; u‘ulum al-burhan -- natural sciences that are based on reason but that draw primarily on deduction; and finally u‘lum al-‘irfan -- the mystical and spiritual way to contemplate the world in seclusion and escape from reality to the ivory tower.

All three are considered by al-Jabri as containing certain impediments to modernization and as stifling innovative and modern thinking. All three have also influenced, albeit indirectly, political elites who exercised power in the Middle East over the last one hundred years.

Deduction -- both in religious interpretation and natural science -- appears to be the main mental tool with which to deal with reality in such cases. This means that a belief, dogma, or concept -- for example Gamal 'Abd al-Nasir’s Arab nationalism or the Ba'athist ideology of Aflak -- is taken as is, and applied to reality from the top down.

This leads us to the conclusion that in the political sphere during the last century, there were very few genuine incentives and little internal drive to seek creative, non-standard, and grassroots approaches that could forge more effective and useful models for the general society.

A ruler could seize power by force, then find or fabricate his own reason d'être to legitimize his rule -- usually, with a revolutionary ethos that portrayed him as the “liberator of the people” -- then use and abuse it to the extreme, while gradually sinking into a blind obsession with his own unique genius.

Finally, he would reach a point of no return on a stage of surrealistic existence similar to what Gabriel Garcia Marquez described as the “Autumn of the Patriarch.” Such a blind alley of the political mind speaks volumes to why the crisis in the aftermath of the Arab Spring is so enduring and profound.

The political behavior of Middle Eastern autocrats and rulers might be understood through one of the seminal works of Ali Ahmad Said Esber (whose pen name is Adonis), entitled “The Static and the Dynamic” [Al- Thabit wa al- Mutahawwil].

In that four-volume book, he deconstructs a great deal of Arab literature to come to the clear conclusion that there are only two main streams -- a conservative-static one [al-thabit] and an innovative-dynamic one [al-mutahawwil]. The first stream -- that somehow dominates the cultural space of the Arabs -- depends on the repetition of already introduced and canonized patterns [naql].

This characteristic requires special attention, as it is an important commentary on the current trends and developments in the political sphere.

The conservative trend corresponds somehow to the Islamic concept of “closing the doors of ijtihad” [interpretational effort] in the Sunni domain by the end of the ninth century. As one of the pioneers in Hadith studies, the Anglo-German scholar Joseph Schacht, explained: “From that moment on, Islamist scientists and jurisprudents were expected to interpret and apply already established patterns and models, not invent new ones.

This feature left a deep imprint on Islamic culture: one of repetition and emulation, not innovation or out-of-the-box thinking. Thus, Middle Eastern thought appears to be deeply affected by the conservative application of already established patterns, and these models have had a profound influence on the realm of political behavior throughout the last century.

When some Palestinian intellectuals explain that, unfortunately for their people, by the middle of the twentieth century they had no leader comparable to David Ben-Gurion, they express precisely this idea: They did not have a shrewd and innovative leader able to solve problems creatively, using non-standard approaches.

The other trend in literature described by Adonis depends not on repetition and blind application of the existing models, but on ‘aql [original, independent thought]. This is with a view to avoiding turning literature into a servant of religion, just as in the West, during the times of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, theological reflections were considered superior to philosophical ones.

This trend introduced a more humanistic approach in a dynamic context; unlike the first tradition, which is both theocentric [the transcendent God is in the center of all] and passéiste [looking backward toward a “glorious past”], the dynamic approach tries to provide answers to the complex issues of the day.

The first politician in the Middle East who embraced the dichotomy of the static and the dynamic is perhaps Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who forged from the ashes of “the Sick Man of Europe” (the crumbling and defeated Ottoman Empire) a modern and secular nation state (now subject to erosion caused by other modern-day reckless factors). Atatürk indeed exemplified al-mutahawwil: an ability to create and invent something new, never before introduced into practice.

A static element in Middle Eastern politics is the inability of Arab leaders to overcome their personal animosities and rivalries, which have characterized their mutual relations. There is a complete discrepancy between what is usually declared (brotherhood and eternal friendship) and what actually happens on the ground (suspicion and intolerance, and often much worse).

Classic examples are the toxic relations between Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad, the two Ba'athist leaders ruling Iraq and Syria, respectively, or the relationship between Yasir Arafat and the Gulf monarchs after August 1990. At the 2008 Arab League summit, like a prophet of doom, Muammar Qadhafi asked the stunned Arab leaders:

“How can we accept a situation in which a foreign power comes to topple an Arab leader—your turn is next!” Unaware that just like a character from a Greek tragedy he ominously portended his own destiny, he spoke his mind, adding salt to the wound: “Our blood and our language may be one, but there is nothing that can unite us.”

This concept clearly reflects an ancient static element in the Arab and Muslim conscience. When the Prophet Muhammad began preaching his message, there were several powerful Bedouin tribes in the environs of Mecca and Medina, such as the Banu Ghatafan, Juhayna, and Muzayna, which opposed him. Even after formally declaring allegiance to Muhammad and somehow accepting his message, they remained “weak in belief.” The Holy Quran classifies them pejoratively as Bedouins [a'rab] and confirms: “The Bedouins are more stubborn in unbelief and hypocrisy” (9:97).

Such a state of disobedience and tribal independence crisscrosses the history of Islam and the modern Middle East. All attempts to achieve unity—save in the framework of the Caliphate, which lasted only a short time, and cosmopolitan Islamic empires, for longer periods—failed categorically. When François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl stood together a quarter century ago holding hands as a symbol of the historic Franco–German reconciliation after centuries of hatred and wars, it was a symbol of modern statesmen having overcome the legacy of the past.

Middle Eastern leaders, however, are still under the sway of old centrifugal tendencies and ancient demons. They cannot overcome this enduring hurdle because they lack common values and principles connecting them to modernity.

An enduring element in Middle Eastern politics is the very means of acquiring power. The timid attempts after World War II until the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the '60s to introduce some brand of democratic practices were ruthlessly interrupted by a trend toward ever-deepening authoritarianism.

Power was inherited inside the absolute monarchies or seized in the so-called “republics,” mainly through a succession of coups by army officers or party functionaries, and then maintained by a cold blooded, merciless security apparatus or system of security services. In this sense, power is perceived by Arab leaders as a lifetime privilege, not a duty to the electorate.

When a transition of power occurs, it reveals another constant aspect of Middle Eastern political culture. A rather strange phenomenon appeared throughout the 1990s. While abandoning the logic of revolutionary change in society in a “progressive and empowering the whole nation” way, several republican regimes began to introduce dynastic practices designed to convey power from father to son. Would-be “crown princes” began to enjoy immense popularity and the people's “love.”

From the cradle, Seif al-Islam in Libya, Gamal Mubarak in Egypt, and Ahmad Ali Salih in Yemen were bred to inherit their fathers’ respective “thrones.” It was an ugly reflection of the dictator’s usurping drive, a desperate impudence, that the respective subjects in each state were supposed to tacitly swallow—at least until the moment of explosion came later in an eruption of what John Steinbeck called “the grapes of wrath.”

However, all these proto-monarchic attempts failed miserably, with one only exception: the thirty-four-year-old son of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar, who was elected “unanimously” by the Syrian parliament as the new president of the republic upon the death of his father. In what appeared to be complete political farce, the Syrian constitution was duly and conveniently amended. Every Syrian citizen could now assume supreme power at age thirty-four; it had formerly been forty.

Another pronounced element in Middle Eastern political culture is the complete discrepancy between words and deeds. Many modern Arab leaders are notorious among their populations for propagating hollow and false political messages. They “talk the talk” but never “walk the walk.” When Winston Churchill promised “blood, toil, tears and sweat” he meant it—“we shall never surrender”—and so did the Brits. When Arab leaders promise an impending victory and bright horizons, nobody believes them. Syrian nationalist and intellectual Constantin Zureiq bitterly said:

The representatives of the Arabs deliver fiery speeches in the highest international forums, warning what the Arab state and peoples will do if this or that decision is enacted. Declarations fall like bombs from the mouths of officials at the meetings of the Arab League, but when action becomes necessary, the fire is still and quiet, and steel and iron are rusted and twisted, quick to bend and disintegrate. The bombs are hollow and empty. They cause no damage and kill no one.

With a sharp and sardonic tongue, the renowned Iraqi poet Muzaffar Al-Nawab heaps his cynical sarcasm on the Arab leaders for their hypocrisy and false attitudes, stressing: “The pigsty is much cleaner than all of you.” Embittered by the defeats on the battlefield that afflict the Arabs, one after another, the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani calls the dictators by the collective name “Master Sultan” and bitterly cries out: “You have lost the war twice, because half our people has no tongue.”

Thus, eloquent speech and rhetoric, which have always been significant in Arab Muslim culture, were stripped of content and rendered useless.

Another constant element in the behavior of Middle Eastern rulers is the traditional factor of legitimization, and the pledge of allegiance that dictators required of their people. These pledges somehow echoed the example of the traditional b'ayya given to the Prophet Muhammad by his followers and companions, four times during his life, as reflected in the Holy Quran (48:12): “Certainly was Allah pleased with the believers when they pledged allegiance to you, [O, Muhammad], under the tree … .”

Such public demonstrations were sought by Middle Eastern rulers as a traditional means of cementing power. A slogan “with spirit, with blood, we sacrifice our souls” [to you, the greatest of all leaders] was introduced into general usage during rallies and public gatherings. In Syria, during elections, people sometimes were asked how they would express their will on the ballots—with a pen to write “yes” for the only choice available, or with a pin to prick their finger for a few drops of blood with which to scrawl that same “yes.” (A joke making the rounds in Israel has it that a Syrian spy was caught by the Israeli internal security apparatus.

Although the agent had in all other respects a perfect cover, he nevertheless committed a cardinal mistake: On the rear window of his vehicle he affixed a picture of Prime Minister Netanyahu.) Yet this was only a traditional and superficial manifestation of loyalty, and it only reflected the enduring nature of this or that brand of despotism. When difficult times occurred, this false loyalty evaporated as quickly as steam.

The role of religion in legitimizing ruling authorities must also be mentioned here. By and large, Islam has always had a special relationship with power structures. Despite the widespread concept that spiritual and secular are coupled in complete unity in Islam, throughout history, developments on the ground seem more complicated and complex. Save for the initial formative period of Islam—the time of Muhammad and the four Righteous Caliphs when din wa dawla [religion and state] were unified—religion has always tried to carve out its own space.

Of course that space was often trespassed upon by the political authorities. From time to time, religion gained some degree of moral autonomy outside the scope of the state, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt before the current ruler Abdul Fattah a-Sisi banned it. Many of the ruling regimes flirted with religion, seeking to acquire greater legitimacy in the eyes of the common people, who in moral and ethical terms were strongly influenced by creed. It was, of course, a cheap trick, a gimmick really, but it somehow worked.

Anwar Sadat naïvely believed that in his time, the Muslim Brotherhood was just a herd of meek sheep in need of an ostensibly pious shepherd. Therefore, he called himself the “President Believer.”

Little did he know that packs of ravenous wolves were hiding under the purebred sheep skins. The paranoid and eccentric Muammar Qadhafi used to retire to the desert like a wandering hermit, praying and fasting to demonstrate how deeply connected he was to the traditions of piety inherited from the Senussi order. Hafez al-Assad, advised by his sage and prophet Grand Mufti Ahmad Kaftaro, began to observe the prayer rituals of the Sunnis, though he himself was an Alawaite.

The regimes coquettishly winked at religion, represented by nongovernmental authorities with some degree of moral influence, just because they felt a deep deficit of legitimacy inside their power structures. This, however, was also an instrument in the never obsolete toolbox of politics and used for propaganda purposes; when the time came for “heavy lifting,” it proved idle and broken, and of no avail at all.

Middle Eastern political culture also finds expression in—and is even exemplified by—the so-called cult of personality, which was developed by several regimes in the Middle East. It was modeled on that of Stalin and carried to even greater extremes by tyrants of more recent vintage, such as Nicolae Ceaușescu and Kim Il Sung. Hussein, al-Assad, and Qadhafi are all examples of this trend. Nasir, on the other hand, was truly revered by broad popular strata in the Arab world, and his personality cult was a genuine reflection of his real glamour and charisma.

Apart from typological models in history, closely related to Islam, probably the first charismatic figure in modern times who impressed the masses in the Middle East was Colonel Ahmed ‘Urabi Pasha, an Egyptian nationalist and officer in the Egyptian army, who took part in an 1879 mutiny against the Anglo–French-dominated administration of Khedive Tawfik.

However, the prototypes derived throughout the second part of the twentieth century were very different. They were extreme expressions of brutal dictatorships that fit into the framework of the official policies of Middle Eastern regimes. This trend was evident in endless photographs of the Great Leader staring at his loyal citizens, just like the Orwellian “Big Brother,” on the walls of every kiosk, café, and barber shop in all these “Republics of Fear.”

The fear factor has always been one used by power elites to ensure the blind obedience of the masses. Almost twenty years ago, Kanan Makiya introduced the term “Republic of Fear” to explain what drove Saddam Hussein to invade and annex Kuwait. Yes, fear was widespread in most of the regimes maintained and fueled by the sinister internal security service Mukhabarat, the very name of which struck terror into the hearts of many Iraqis.

However, after 1996, the al-Jazeera satellite TV channel began to break the silence of fear, depicting dictators and despots in their mundane emploi as little more than ordinary, though powerful, crooks and bandits. Masks were snatched off, and the fear gradually began to evaporate. It was no wonder, then, that by 2010 the masses had begun to shout their rallying cry “the people want to bring down the regime,” a trumpet blast that blew down the regimes' Jericho-like walls.

To decode the conservative and static nature of modern Middle Eastern rulers, one has to face the issue of modernization as it appears throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Such a trend, led by many regimes, brought with it widespread secularization. This was viewed negatively in some religious circles because in practice, it limited their influence on society.

As has been mentioned, some regimes flirted with religion to improve their image in the eyes of the common people, but they were actually trying to tame and subject it. They never invented a rational and inspirational approach to weaving the religious factor into the fabric of internal politics and reflect what was suggested by the great Muslim historian and the first social scientist Ibn Khaldun (1406)—that religion (Shariah law) may morally check political power [Mulk] without imposing political control on it.

This reflected an ongoing inability to take into account and establish a working equilibrium for the specific relationship between Islam and politics (not characteristic of Western societies in which Christianity remains influential only in the spiritual domain), and come up with genuine religious factors that may check and balance the political sphere.

A clear example of such inability to embrace a genuine religious factor could be seen in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. In September 1994, two influential Islamic preachers and thinkers, Salman al-Ouda and Safar al-Hawali, were arrested and imprisoned for “antigovernment activities.” Some of these activities were connected to the Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights, a dissident group that openly challenged the ruling family in the kingdom using religious arguments to defend the legitimate Islamic rights of Muslims.

The Saudi kingdom succeeded in neutralizing its activities but never convinced all its subjects that there was no alternative that stemmed from semi-independent religious circles. In general, had Middle Eastern rulers been less obsessed with the drive for absolute power and more prone to share some of the benefits with genuine religious circles, they would have found a more harmonious path toward modernization, not strictly the one linked to secularization as a blind implantation of Western prototypes into Middle Eastern soil.

Of course, such a perspective may sound too good to be true, because the religious circles were also authoritarian and strove to acquire maximum power. Yet, had some sort of harmonious merging between politics and Islam occurred, it might have prevented, or at least mitigated, the ugly mutation of some of the Wahhabi and Salafi trends in Islam into the current molds of radical Salafi jihadism, represented by ISIS and al-Qa'ida. Among other reasons, radical Islam, figuratively speaking, backfired because its supporters have felt seriously threatened by invading secular modernization.

While examples of such static thinking abound, there are very few examples of Arab politicians using induction, imagination, and pragmatism to reach political decisions serving the common good and encouraging progress. By 1971, a ruler of a small Persian Gulf fiefdom, Sheikh Zaid ibn Sultan an-Nahayan, understood that a federation between seven small emirates could make a great difference.

His thinking was that it was better to be united—no matter how difficult it would be to achieve that unity—than to be left like tiny boats in the stormy seas of world politics. In this part of the world, it was not easy to forge and sustain such a federalist vision, more characteristic of Swiss political culture; however, the project of the United Arab Emirates, with the help of oil reserves of course, bore fruit. This development was clearly based on both wisdom and patience.

As of 2013, the leader of the Islamist an-Nahda party in Tunisia, Rashid Ghannouchi, advised the ruling Islamist government to relinquish power in a constitutional way in order to reach a compromise with secularists and to maintain a functional democratic system. Unlike many Islamists, Ghannouchi proved that the widespread accusations against Islamists—that they use democracy merely as a vehicle with which to gain power and then impose Islamist authoritarianism—is not always correct.

In other words, the idea of “one man, one vote—but only once” did not apply in this case. It was untypical for an Islamist to give up power in this way and not attempt to implement God's hakimiyya [sovereignty over all earth and humans]. Some would say that the only country to emerge from the Arab revolutions with a functioning democracy is Tunisia, which still has relatively intact traditions, such as secularism, organized labor, and equality for women, from its time as a Western colonial possession.

Be that as it may, had it not been for Ghannouchi's farsighted and wise approach, placing patriotism on a higher plain than Islam, the revolution would have ended quite differently. Ghannouchi was simply thinking out of the box.

A decade ago, the eminent orientalist Bernard Lewis was searching for answers as to why so many attempts, both conservative and reformist, to change the Middle Eastern political sphere were doomed to failure. He thought that a specific modus operandi of archetypical models stemming from the “glorious past” could be identified in present-day reality.

Is it indeed a complex set of rules and principles codified in the past that regulate every sphere of life in the Muslim world and in the Middle East alike (with the notion that there are still Christian and other communities there)? Is this a magical amulet that can explain the complexity of all political activities there? Such an attitude would be rather essentialist and would come up with an easy explanation of “what went wrong.”

Yet, the dilemma of “Why have we reached this low point, and what went wrong?” engaged the brightest Muslim minds over the last hundred and fifty years. While opposing the idea of the famous orientalist Ernest Renan, who posited that Arabs were inherently incapable of developing sciences, the nineteenth-century reformist thinker Jamal al-Din Al-Afghani admitted that “Arab civilization, after having thrown such a live light on the world, suddenly became extinguished; why has this torch not been relit since and why has the Arab world remained buried in profound darkness?”

Apart from this fundamental philosophical debate, what is suggested here is related to present-day reality: A primary reason for the current problems is the centrality of consciousness and the state of functioning of the political mind.

The events in the Middle East cannot have unambiguous explanations, since they happen in a complex framework that provides no easy explanations. Seeing the forest for the trees in such a complex social milieu means giving priority to the political culture and not viewing it as a byproduct of objective circumstances.

Thus far, most scholars and researchers have been seeking objective cultural, social, economic, and political factors to explain the plight of the modern Middle East. Some depicted the current stalemate as a vacillation between two objective alternatives: “You had only the Scylla of the national security state and the Charybdis of political Islam.”

This somehow reflects the old Marxist axiom that it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but rather their social existence. However, it was Václav Havel who emphatically refuted such a schematic approach, and assigned priority to the complexity of life and the importance of the mind: “Consciousness proceeds being and not [as Marxism teaches] the other way around.”

Havel meant that “the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness, and in human responsibility.” This is precisely what is lacking in the modern Middle East—and the consequences have been disastrous.

Such logic may shed light on the roots of the current crises in the Middle East, which is connected to the state of mind of both the ruling elites and their opposition.

None of them is able to approach reality creatively and pragmatically and adapt to the tectonic changes in this part of the world. As it is said in the New Testament, they “all have turned away, they have together become worthless” (Romans, 3:12).

Dimitar Mihaylov is the Bulgarian Ambassador to Israel. This article was first published in the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs a publication of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations


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