In the 1960s, I saw Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan staged in the Modern Theatre in Cairo. A water seller, the narrator, realises from conversations with gods and wisemen that there is nothing logical, right or proper about him having to sell water while it is raining cats and dogs. Developments over a half century after that insight into the flaws in how life worked in a Chinese village brought to mind another visit to China.
This was in person, in February 2002, as a member of a delegation of journalists from Al-Ahram to Huangpu district of Shanghai, one of the icons of Chinese progress in the modern era. We were there to investigate how that country had evolved and adapted to the major world changes since the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the US as the uncontested leader of the world order.
This was also the time of the beginning of the great rise of China and several years after India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear tests which shook the world as much as the Asian financial crisis before that. We met with numerous officials from then president Jiang Zemin to the municipal head of Huangpu district.
The latter related the developmental experience that made it possible for his small district (population four million) in that coastal metropolis to attract $4 billion in foreign investment during the previous year alone. We naturally pelted him with questions. To our knowledge, China was still a “socialist” country even it if added such terms as the “social market economy” to its lexicon. We wanted to know what China did with its public sector labour and all the extra employees in its overstaffed government bureaucracy.
How did it handle the estimated 600 million poor (which have since been reduced to 150 million, or 10 per cent of the population)? How did Huangpu district manage to attract such huge investments and how did the government manage to keep Chinese migration to Shanghai restricted to people with previously signed work contracts? Our amazement and our eager questions as we drew comparisons with the situation in Cairo caused him to pause for a few seconds. Then he said: “You have to change how you think, first.”
The lesson from Shanghai was that you cannot achieve fundamental changes in society without fundamentally changing ideas. The Arab world experienced such a moment of a change in thinking during the past decade. It was triggered by the so-called Arab Spring, and the spread of terrorist movements across the Arab region and then into the US, the UK, France, Germany and elsewhere, followed by successive waves of migrants and refugees fleeing the hells of Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. The world abroad began to associate terrorism with the Arabs and Muslims and political scientists and commentators began to speak, more euphemistically, of “the Arab exception”.
Meanwhile, in the Arab world, the countries that had managed to weather the Arab Spring maelstrom and initiate profound reform processes realised that they could not fight terrorism and the fundamentalist movements that breed it without a “renovation of religious thought”. Towards this end they induced their religious establishments to engage in a process of ideological introspection, targeting in particular scriptural interpretations and exegeses that supported reactionary and intolerant attitudes towards women and minorities. It was not an easy process. But some years down the line, we can observe hopeful signs of progress in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and in the contributions of their religious establishments, such as Al-Azhar in Egypt.
But it was also essential to reform the social and economic environment. Taking advantage of newly available modern technologies, these countries were able to complete mega development projects in record time and create new cities inspired by urban concepts that would make them more receptive to fresh and innovative ideas. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in particular, the results can be seen palpably in the economic environment and in the greater participation of women and minorities in civic life.
In the process of reforms, these countries have experienced a rediscovery of their national identities through historical research or archaeological excavations that have deepened the chronological awareness of the state. An example is the exhibition of Saudi antiquities, that I was able to see several years ago in Houston, Texas, and that took spectators through Saudi Arabia’s history from its relations with pharaonic Egypt through the Nabatean eras up to the Islamic era. In Egypt, such a process of self-discovery began in the 19th century and the knowledge of a history that stretched back millennia into the pre-Christian era became an essential part of the formation of the Egyptian nation state.
Despite the efforts on the part of both the government and religious institutions, the Arab region still teems with extremist, bigoted and fanatical ideas. The battle against them continues to rage without interruption due to Sunni and Shia fundamentalist organisations, from Muslim Brotherhood chapters across the region to the Hizbullahs in Lebanon and Iraq, and to the regional hegemonic drives of Iran, which seeks to disseminate its theocratic rule by clergy, and Turkey, which is working to restore the Ottoman caliphate.
Clearly what is missing in this battle is the input of a body of enlightened thought from lay circles, because otherwise the conversation will remain a contest over who is closer to the “correct” faith and, sometimes, who is more faithful to Ibn Taymiyah. Egypt emerged from the mediaeval eras and Mameluke and Ottoman thought into the 19th and 20th centuries thanks to the establishment of a civil and universal education system that included female education and the establishment of an array of scientific and academic societies and organisations in every discipline. The key to the current struggle for intellectual revival is the same. It resides in the quantity and quality of the drive towards the scientific approach to discovering the world and the universe in which we live.
In Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE efforts are in progress to disseminate scientific culture, sometimes utilising social media resources and online communities to circulate and discuss ideas. The Emirate’s Mars Mission is a ground-breaking initiative in the applications of scientific thought that comes on top of the UAE’s previous forays into solar energy and Saudi Arabia’s inroads into minimally pollutant low carbon intensity oil production.
Such efforts help steer Arab thought and the Arab people into the realm of rational, scientific universalist thought and away from myths, superstition and quackery, while simultaneously preserving the spiritual peace that derives from faith and the direct relationship with God. Promoting a scientific culture, historical research and knowledge in general about the world around us; attention to the soft powers of music, literature and the arts in general; and exploring new ways to encourage innovation in the arts and other realms are the keys to opening the doors to rational thought, supporting the modern state, and ending extremism.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly