East and West: Closing the gap is within reach
The reality is that the Arab world has wasted a lot of time by failing to communicate better with the West
A few minutes before the train arrives at the station, a recorded message alerts passengers to “Please Mind the Gap.” I have gotten used to hearing this message at London Underground stations over the past thirty years. I do not know if similar messages are heard in countries other than Great Britain. Did I just say “Great?” Well, yes. However, this begs a question: how can Great Britain - which established an empire stretching from India to the Falkland Islands and was the first to set up rail networks and manufacture trains - be unable to bridge the gap between the train and the platform, particularly given that we are in the second decade of the 21st century? There must be something wrong with that. Perhaps officials have taken the decision to ignore the small gap between the train and the platform due to austerity measures or the like. This is particularly perplexing, given the grandeur of the world’s first underground railway network, whose trains transport millions of people across the capital every day, from east to west, north to south. In fact, it is difficult for the human brain to accept any of these explanations. It is impossible for a country such as Britain to allow this danger to continue. It is most likely that this tiny gap between the train and the platform exists due to some technical error or fault.
If it is impossible for a country such as Britain to bridge the gap between the train and the platform, imagine how difficult bridging the communications gap between the East and the West would be. Incidentally, this is the subject that the main panel of experts at the Al Arabiya News Global Discussion forum will debate in Dubai today. Before I begin to answer the question, allow me to admiringly point to the short time frame of the forum, which will end in just one day. Despite this, it will hold three important panel discussions. The title of each indicates that the debates will be extremely important.
It is true that the Arab world is either being constantly overwhelmed by internal wars, even civil wars, or has depleted much of its intellectual power and time in useless discussionsBakir Oweida
In fact, reducing the timeframe of the debate is a remarkable measure that shows a strong awareness on the part of the organizers regarding the nature of our time. Since everyone, whether on the level of individuals or societies, is racing against time, have the East and West in the past benefited from time to develop communication—or, shall we say, bridge the gap?
I am sorry to say that the answer is no. There can be no doubt that both parties are to blame for this. For their part, Arabs reiterate a well-known saying: “Time is like a sword. If you do not cut, it cuts you.” I have chosen an Arabic saying on the assumption that the Arab world—spanning from North Africa to Asia, with its many ethnic stripes and multiple cultures—represents the center of the East. This is, of course, not to ignore the importance of Turkey, Iran, India and China in forming what is known as the East. As Rudyard Kipling once said, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”
The reality is that the Arab world has wasted a lot of time, particularly since the end of World War II, when Arab states gained their independence, by failing to communicate better with the West.
I ask your permission to continue my discussion of the Arab world on the basis of the forum which will be hosted by the Al Arabiya TV channel, which occupies a prominent position in world media. One of its sessions is entitled, “Lost in Translation: Does the West really understand the Middle East?” However, the fact that Arabs wasted so much time does not absolve the West from the blame for failing to develop means of communication with others nations, particularly given that the majority of these countries had been colonized by superpowers in the 19th and 20th centuries.
It is true that the Arab world is either being constantly overwhelmed by internal wars, even civil wars, or has depleted much of its intellectual power and time in useless discussions. These discussions have either failed to improve the situation, or even made things worse. Despite the damage that Arabs have inflicted on themselves, the West has also done nothing to bridge the gap. Despite the correctness of views that downplay, or even completely reject, conspiracy theories, it remains difficult to completely turn a blind eye to several actions of the West. Some of these actions can be considered aggressive, such as the West’s involvement in inter-Arab conflicts. Others emanate from a position of superiority, such as by interfering in some of the cultural and social issues of Arab society. Practices such as this undermined—or sometimes completely destroyed—the bridges of communication.
But what sort of communication is meant by the Al Arabiya News Global Discussion? I do not have the answer to this question; however, it is obvious that the communication revolution has bridged the vast gap that used to separate peoples and cultures. More than one billion people of different backgrounds and religions and identities regularly use Facebook and Twitter to communicate with each other, without recourse to passports or visas.
So what is the problem? I think it lies with policymakers across the world, who need to narrow the gap between each other in order to establish a common ground that serves common interests and respects different cultures.
I would also like to say that, in my humble opinion, the West is not just North America and Europe, but rather the entire developed and industrialized world, including Japan, Russia and China. In my view, it is impossible to completely bridge this gap; that can only be partially achieved. It is enough that development of communication takes place based on mutual respect. If one party feels that the other is unaware of the risk of falling into this cultural gap, they should courteously say: “Please mind the gap.”
In any cases, I duly salute the Al Arabiya News Global Discussion, which will no doubt contribute to narrowing the gap.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Nov. 29, 2013.
Bakir Oweida is a journalist who has worked as Managing Editor, and written for several Arab publications based in London. His last executive post was Assistant to Editor-in-Chief of Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, responsible for the Opinions section, until December 2003. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com