The first question

Mamdouh AlMuhaini

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When a certain people finds itself mired in the swamps of a deep civilization crisis, they normally ask themselves one of two questions that will decisively determine how they think. The first question is: where did we go wrong? This question leads to critical answers that lay the blame on the people themselves and push them to correct the course. The second question is: who did this to us? This question often leads to an endless series of delusions that throw the people down an abyss of believing illusions of conspiracy and persecution and tilting at windmills.

In his book, The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself, Lawrence Harrison, a professor at Tufts University in the United States, says that Japan’s culture thrived after it asked itself the first question, while many countries -including many Arab countries- went for the second question and are still stuck in a loop of backwardness and disintegration, waking every day with the mindset of fighting imaginary enemies and invaders looking to humiliate them and destroy their glory.

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In most of his books, Harrison advocates for asking the first question and discarding the second. The importance of the first question lies in that it leads to radical criticism of the culture and does not point fingers at others. Culture, in its deep values and principles, is a mirror that reflects the genuine, authentic representation of the problem. Culture is the key factor in the progress of some peoples and the backwardness of others. Culture is the mother of all individuals, groups, and institutions. In the words of French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville, culture is the habits of the heart; it is the impressions that mark humans and the thoughts that shape their thinking habits.

Harrison says it’s easy for experts to blame geographical limitations or bad policies or weak institutions for the problem, but what they’re actually doing is skirting the discussion of the deep-rooted cultural reasons for success and failure, for wealth and poverty, because such a sensitive discussion could potentially hurt feelings. Harrison says that it was not only through reading that he understood that culture is the main problem, but rather through his personal experience. The author worked for years with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Latin America, but success proved difficult because development needs to be supported by the culture.

But what exactly are the cultural factors that cause peoples and nations to move forward or backward? Harrison’s book lists many of them.

Religious teachings, the author says, is one of the most powerful factors that could propel a culture forward if coupled with reason and objectivity and if they advocate for hard work and wealth. For this reason, economic and industrial development was achieved in Europe’s protestant states much quicker than in the Old Continent’s catholic states. Catholic culture resisted the idea of personal success and focused instead on the afterlife, underestimating the value of life and money.

Some religious teachings are also openly based on fiction and irrationality. By planting these moral codes in the minds of their followers, these teachings destroy their logic of the world and how to prosper in it. The bigger the people’s power, the bigger their love for the world and their zeal to advance. Other peoples announce their resignation from the world, as they don’t find therein the feeling of success or excellence.

To put this into perspective, we can look at Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The two countries share the same island, but one is neck-deep in poverty and the other is prosperous and thriving. The main reason for this disparity is the cultural difference between the two countries, especially in terms of religious traditions. Haitians practice the voodoo religion, where myths play an essential role in people feeling like their fates are controlled by supernatural powers.

Another cultural factor that explains why some peoples are wealthy and others are poor is their vision of the future. In advanced cultures, the main focus is on the future. These people are constantly after change and progress and proving their value and worth. One central idea shapes their way of thinking, which is that man’s golden age is in the future, not in the past.

This is in sharp contrast with the cultures haunted by the past, which they believe is better than the present and surely far better than the gloomy future. The driver behind this belief is the idea of inhibition, which prevents individuals from firmly pursuing a brilliant future because they are surrounded by inhibitions every which way. Agricultural communities, for instance, have a mindset of resources being limited in this world, the author says. All desires, from wealth, health, and love to standing and power are all extremely limited, so there is no point in going after them.

The disregard for scientific truths is also among the cultural reasons that deflect the path of many communities. It aborts the understanding of reasons for progress and competition and leads peoples into a cycle of illusions and fabrications. It is also the greatest obstacle to modernization, which relies primarily on appreciating and adopting scientific facts.

Moral values, like trust, honesty, and cooperation, are one of the main reasons why Scandinavian countries, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, are constantly ranked the most successful states on the planet (have we ever wondered why Scandinavian countries always top the list of most developed countries? Surely, culture plays a central role), in contrast with cultures dominated by ideas of lack of trust and cooperation. The success of democracy, Harrison says, is contingent upon fair competition and respect of the law.

Education is also key in furthering or hindering modernization. Countries where the education of both boys and girls is highly regarded are the most capable of achieving development. In 1905, while illiteracy rates were extremely high in many countries, 90 percent of Japanese children, boys and girls, were going to school. Sweden was the first country to work toward eliminating illiteracy, and by 1680, only 20 percent of its population was still illiterate.

The value of working to reach a good life is also a positive factor. In many cultures, there is a deep-rooted belief that a good life comes not from working, but from spiritual concepts. Working is for the lower classes of society, not the elite. The author says Confucian countries used to hold meditation in higher regard than work, but in the 19th century, these teachings changed in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Work became more valued in the culture, and this, among other things, helped these countries’ economies thrive.

Moreover, innovation fuels development and progress, and without an innovative and creative mentality, it can be hard for any people to develop itself and its thoughts. Modernization also involves risks. Risky, bold ideas mean that the person can recreate their destiny based on their knowledge. However, in cultures that believe their fate is already determined, the idea of creation and innovation remains meek given the belief that there are forces bigger than the individual.

Therefore, the value of strong competition, which is a key factor for development, becomes weak. The author says competition is a central issue in success and innovation, be it for politicians, intellectuals, or workers from every walk of life. In contrast, envy and unrealistic utopian claims often prevail in stagnant societies that fight competition and modernization, and the dominant idea is that everyone fails! In these societies, competition is criticized and cooperation commended, although history has proven that cooperation values are nonexistent in these communities. In fact, the author says, competition is “a form of cooperation in which both competitors benefit from being forced to do their best, as in sports.”

Openness is also a key factor in the success of societies. During its golden age, the Islamic civilization opened up to many cultures. Similarly, under the Meiji leadership, Japan opened up to the West in the fields of education, technology, industry, and many others. Putting the right people in the right place is one of the biggest drivers of improvement in companies or government institutions. Respect for the law is also linked to the prevailing moral values.

The author lists many more elements that determine why some peoples prosper and others do not. The contrast between individualism and collectiveness, the restriction of trust to family and friends and the suspicious view of strangers; the prevalent ideas of hegemony, hierarchy, and close-mindedness; and the absence of intellectual freedom, are but a few.

Culture is not genetic; it can be corrected and developed. But ignoring it and shelving it as a secondary, unimportant matter will make many people make the same blunders over and over again. The belief that some specific people or enemies are the reason for failure is a redundant excuse and an attempt to avoid the challenge of looking in the culture mirror. The author says change cannot be imposed; it must come from within the culture itself. In the lack of an internal willingness and desire for change, even the most powerful states cannot change the culture of a given country, small as it may be.

If Arabs want to understand what happened to them, it is high time they ask themselves the first question and look inside themselves for once.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.

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