The Arab dysfunction of tearing down ‘homegrown stars’

Omar Al-Ubaydli
Omar Al-Ubaydli
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While successful people in all societies have their detractors, Arabs suffer from an unusual phenomenon where they prefer to celebrate non-Arabs’ successes over those of Arabs, often taking great pleasure in tearing down their homegrown stars. The roots of this dysfunction lie in several deep-seated political factors that create a destructive form of envy and self-loathing.

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A colleague recently posted an old interview with the late Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, wherein they highlighted the following quotation: “My biggest failure has been in the Arab world. I don’t think Arabs respect [me] enough, because I’m an Arab. Arabs like foreigners. If I was an American, they would love me. An American man.”

Pritzker Architecture Prize winner for 2004 Zaha Hadid poses Sunday, March 14, 2004, in West Hollywood, California. (AP)
Pritzker Architecture Prize winner for 2004 Zaha Hadid poses Sunday, March 14, 2004, in West Hollywood, California. (AP)

The gender dimension of this complaint is an added complication, but, notably, she emphasized her Arab ethnicity first before her gender, implying that even if she were an Arab man, she would have been on the receiving end of essentially the same sets of slings and arrows from her brethren.

Moreover, in addition to her remarkable talent, Hadid was diligent and cerebral. That means that her expression of disappointment likely reflects a real, widespread phenomenon rather than the idle whining of a hack. Accordingly, we should take her words seriously.

One of the most basic tenets of human behavior is ethnocentrism, which is the tendency to believe that people from your own race and culture are superior to others.

Certainly, there are “haters” in every country whose sense of envy makes them relish the failures of their country’s champions. However, in general, envy applies homogeneously across all the cultures these people interact with, meaning that the stars who are closer to them are still more likely to be praised than those from farther lands.

Yet the experience of Hadid and many other Arab talents suggests a reversal of this phenomenon in the case of Arabs. Several factors account for this anomaly.

The most important is the corruption that cripples daily life in many Arab countries. Societies usually strive to become meritocracies, meaning those who work hard and demonstrate aptitude reach the highest echelons. One of the virtues of meritocratic systems is incentivizing people to improve themselves and realize their potential. That will give them the best chance of advancing in their schools, jobs, marriages, and so on.

Corruption breaks this chain as those who rise to the top of society owe their success to nepotism and tyranny. Corruption pushes people to fall into one of two groups. The first is quasi-nihilists who won’t waste their time working hard because it’s pointless. This harks back to the old Soviet maxim: “They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.” However, this group at least retains its fundamental moral principles by refusing to become leaders of this corrupt system.

The second group is sociopaths who are happy to perpetuate the system by adeptly playing the infamous game necessary to become one of society’s elites. In many Arab countries, these unsavory characters are ministers, CEOs, religious leaders, and so on, and spare no effort at entrenching the corruption that cripples their society.

Each of these two groups has its reason for hating their successful compatriots, especially those who attain renown on the global stage in a manner that cannot be attributed to immorally gaming the corrupt societies they live in. That includes elite architects like Hadid, and top athletes, artists, scientists, and so on.

For the quasi-nihilists, these superstars are a reminder that if one does persevere, success is attainable. That hurts the self-esteem of the quasi-nihilists since they are used to attributing their bad lot in life to factors beyond their control and have convinced themselves that there is no point in working hard. In contrast, when someone from a faraway land like Michael Jordan or Bill Gates is successful, the quasi-nihilists convince themselves that success is caused by favorable circumstances that will never materialize in their corrupt societies.

Bill Gates discusses his new book 'How To Prevent The Next Pandemic' onstage at 92Y on May 03, 2022 in New York City. (AFP)
Bill Gates discusses his new book 'How To Prevent The Next Pandemic' onstage at 92Y on May 03, 2022 in New York City. (AFP)

So, for example, an Arab who enjoys soccer might prefer adulating Erling Haaland to one of their compatriots because, that way, they can still cling to the myth that if they were born and raised in England and Norway, they would have been the next global soccer icon.

The sociopaths, on the other hand, despise the honest success of compatriots because it reminds them that they took the immoral path to elite status, not because it was the only route, but because it was the easiest one. These sellouts want to ensure that everyone else is either a sellout or living a miserable life because that helps them maintain their own self-image as pragmatic strivers. They live by: “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”

For both groups, their dislike of globally successful Arabs is reinforced by the irritation that these stars cause to the leaders of their home countries. The average coup-leading Arab autocrat wants to be the sole judge of who acquires elite status in their country and rightly perceives the international recognition that someone like Hadid acquires as a threat to their own legitimacy. She should only be successful if they allow her to be so, and certainly not if she exhibits amazing talent or fortitude. The fragile ego of these autocrats cannot handle sharing the limelight with a self-made genius.

The antipathy these tyrants feel toward Arab stars sets the tone and inevitably affects the psyche of the average Arab in the street. If the elites in your own country – starting with the head of state – are scornful toward Zaha Hadid, then it is natural for that disdain to rub off on you, too.

While America has many faults, Hadid contrasted Arabs with Americans likely due to the perception that the US is the most meritocratic country in the world, with its elite ranks being full of people from modest backgrounds. That difference remains the crux of the toxic combination of self-loathing and envy that typifies much of the Arab world and is a far cry from the prestige that Arabs used to so willingly confer upon their intellectual titans during the Islamic Gold Age (750-1250 AD). The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche captured these sentiments when he quipped: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

Omar Al-Ubaydli (@omareconomics) is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain.

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