Today, Europe’s view of Arabs, is rooted in the worst of feelings: fear.
How did Europe and the Arab World come to that?
300 Years in 3 Paragraphs
From the advancement of Islam, in the seventh century, to take on the Byzantine Empire, up to the seventeenth century, we – or, in the European perception, a hazy combination of Arabs, Muslims, Turks, and Iranians, that, up to the early twentieth century, many in Europe, used to call “Mohammedans” – stood, in the European imagination, as a threat to be encountered (often by invasions) or a wonder to be explored (often in romanticised narratives). This meant that our culture, the religion of the majority of us, our way of living, and our outlooks, represented the opposites of those of Europe. Often, this ignited conflict; often it fuelled mutual cultural enrichment.
Things changed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Europe jumped over barriers of ignorance, within its limitations we remained. After that, we ceased to be a threat or a wonder, and became, in Europe’s eyes, at best laggards, at worst, beyond the realm of civilisation. Crucially, we became much weaker than Europe. And so, it dominated us.
Domination lasted until the early twentieth century, when we managed, through the brilliance and hard work of some of our best thinkers and doers, and through opening up to many European ideas, to create genuine opportunities for advancement. During that time, it was our turn to, partly, see Europe as an opponent, partly as a wonder. At moments, in the early twentieth century, there seemed a chance that our advancement might get close to where Europe, or at least to where some of the slow-moving parts of the European body, were at the time. But the worst of us trumped the best of us, and we wasted the opportunities. The gap between Europe and us became larger and larger.
This brings us to today.
Two fears dominate europe’s view of the Arabs
First, major sections of Europeans are afraid of Islam coming to their societies. Most of Europe have moved beyond classic conceptions of religion. There, Christianity has evolved into a flexible, humane value system, willing to accommodate modernity, science, and individualism to, effectively, any extent. In this evolution, Christian theology has become a mere background to the new cultural entity the religion has become in Europe.
Islam did not undergo any of these changes. From Europe’s perspective, this makes Islam inflexible and raises acute questions about its compatibility with Western culture and modernity. Add to that, that it was from within Islamic corners that arose the biggest wave of small-scale violence in the world in the last forty years. (Large scale violence was, and remains, the preserve of countries, primarily Western countries). And this small-scale violence has already attacked Europe several times in the last two decades. Plus, there are old memories, still alive in some parts of Europe of “Mohameddans’ being the ‘other’. The combined effect of all of that is wide-spread apprehension about Islam and Muslims in Europe.
Second, there’s the assimilation problem. Large groups of Europeans feel that Muslims in Europe have not really assimilated in their new societies. Assimilation here is not about economic integration or respect for the law, but about internalisation of the European value system. The issue transcends looks (hair-veil, etc). It is about an assessment, by many Europeans, that the vast majority of those coming to Europe, from Islamic backgrounds, could well be valuable economic agents, law-abiding citizens – but they would not be Europeans.
This view of assimilation is a product of the European experience. It did not exist in America, where “being American” was a flexible notion that people from various cultural backgrounds could assimilate into. This was natural for a new society made up of immigrants trying to conquer a vast continent under a vision that saw the new country as a shinning city, high up on a hill, the rest of humanity will, in time, come to admire and emulate. (The situation, in America, has changed significantly with the reemergence of acute-nativism there in the last decade and its merger with right-wing, literalist Christianity, which has been a major force in American politics since the late 1970s). In Europe, however, “being European” (varied as that is) was always confined to the myriad of ‘founding cultures’ that had formed the earliest conceptions of Europe (arguably in the eighth and ninth centuries). “Being European” underwent different evolutions during the Renaissance, after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, as a result of a long struggle between the sacred and the secular, the class revolts of the nineteenth century, and of course with the aftermaths of the World Wars. But, throughout all of that, the cultural backbone remained the same. This made Europe believe that its current value system and its way(s) of living today are extremely precious, for they are the product of a long journey, by and within its different societies, to arrive at peace, harmony, and prosperity - to sculpt a statue of beauty, which many in the Continent believe, comes close to perfection.
Any group that comes to Europe and subtly refuses, or fails, to assimilate with (and within) that European value system, will be seen as not European. (Of course, there was, also, deep-seated emotional rejection of, and often bigotry by many Europeans towards, the new comers). Irrespective of the reasons though, that this group here is Muslims (with all the historical and current baggage) makes the assimilation issue more alarming for many Europeans. And what fans the flames is that the recent waves of Arab immigrants have been much larger than anything Europe has seen in over a half century. And they are coming at a time when Europe is confronting acute political and economic problems it has not witnessed in several decades. And so, old fears are ignited in already anxious minds.
Europe is responding with containment
Containment rests on four elements.
First, that the largest number of displaced people in the Arab World (most recently, from Syria) are accommodated in the region. This is why Europe supports the countries that host the largest numbers of refugees, is keen to be involved in the designing of a reconstruction programme in Syria if and when there’s an acceptable and viable political settlement, and closely follows troubled areas in the region.
Second, Europe needs to ensure that the number of potentially desperate people, willing to risk their lives to reach the northern shores of the Mediterranean, does not swell. This implies that Europe must ensure that the biggest demographic concentrations in the eastern and southern Mediterranean do not face acute problems. Of course, an improvement in these countries’ economic conditions is a desirable European objective, because it entails the creation of jobs that absorb the growing demographics.
The third element of containment is to isolate developments in the Arab world from becoming givens in the European strategic calculus. In other words, Europe wants to make sure that further deterioration in the Arab World does not force Europe into certain defence, political, or economic policies. There is a strategic imperative here that rests on two premises. The first is that, in the European perspective, the Arab World has become a laggard, and save for oil wealth, could well become a major burden. Second, that this moment is history is one of immense transformation: the rise of China, an economically declining and potentially antagonised Russia, a US whose commitment to European defence is far from certain, divisions within the European Union regarding its shape and future, and with all of that, colossal technological changes that will reinvent socio-economics and public policy. Europe (effectively an empire, forging its way amidst these changes) does not want its resources squandered on reacting to the problems of its laggard of a neighbour (the Arab World); it wants to focus on the moves of its advancing partners and competitors (the other empires).
Strange as it may sound, within containment, rests compassion. For Europe, its ability to act compassionately to lessen the impacts of some of the crises the Arab World suffers from, is a manifestation of its own values. It is interesting to reflect on the rhetoric that German Chancellor Angela Merkel used in explaining, to the German public, the rationale behind her decision to allow a million Syrians to enter the country. At the heart of her rhetoric, the significance of the decision was about what it means to the idea of Europe’ness, as much as what it means to the lives of those who will be granted entry. Also for Europe, compassion is a feature of prosperity. For rich societies that see themselves as having arrived at a certain level of human enlightenment, the reach out to help others, for example by becoming big donors of development projects in poor places such as the Arab World, is a key tenet of that society’s view of itself.
For the Arab World, the fact of the matter is that Europe is its largest donor in almost all aspects of humanitarian and economic needs. And this brings us home: to the Arabs.
Looking Back in Anger
The Arab world used to look back in bewilderment, and often in anger. For at least two centuries, scores of Arabs and Muslims have pondered on “where we were” (builders and custodians of one the middle age’s greatest civilisations) and “where we are” (far from where power in the world and human achievements are). Repeatedly, that reflection gave rise to anger – at the ‘Colonialists who plundered us’, at the ‘local rulers who took over from them and proved corrupt’, and often ‘at the people, the masses, who are ignorant and are condemning “us” to our current situation’. And as much as reflection, at times, generated introspection which fuelled development (for example in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century), at other times, especially in the last half century, reflection generated anger, which bred antagonism, aggression, and confusion.
Looking forward with Desire
Something interesting is happening though. The new generation currently dominating the Arab World (the 160million in their teens, twenties, and early thirties) is not really angry. They are hungry, in the way “hunger” is defined in the finance or sales industries. They are hungry for entertainment, sex, decent living conditions, new technologies, and surprisingly for many, knowledge, though, how they define “knowledge” is often intriguing.
Because of the acute deterioration in Arab educational systems in the last half century, the vast majority of this new generation does not know much about its history. The dangers of that are clear. But one notable consequence is that: the majority here are not encumbered by what was, what could have been, who did what, why, or how. This generation is concerned with the now. They are huge in numbers. They live in extremely crowded, polluted, noisy cities. They see the world (through the internet) but do not experience it, because their world is limited and limiting. And, perhaps because of the pace of their age, the technologies they grew up with, and even the music and games and videos they delve into, they do not understand patience as older generations do. They want their desires materialised now.
The Solution is on the Opposite Side of Fear
Strategy is a overrated discipline. In the last half century, it produced some of the most impressively-sounding and presented mental models, analysis-tools, and decision-making-processes. But, when it comes to predicting the variables that shape the future, and prescribing what should be done about them, its record has been dismal. And so, any approach anchored on geo-strategy will, almost certainly, fail to take the Arab World away from its ills, and will fail to dissolve the corresponding state of fear in Europe.
Geo-strategists might argue that fear is merited, for those tens of millions of young Arabs embody nothing but peril, to the European ideal.
This will be just another failure in seeing the dynamics of the future – for, again, it is desire, rather than anger, that fuels the vast majority among this generation of Arabs.
The classic recipe, in which both Arabs and Europeans, can and must cooperate, is based on two elements. The first is a new form of education for children and young adults, where their minds are engaged and stirred, rather than indoctrinated. The second is about supporting the creation of jobs in small and medium-sized enterprises – the domain of employment where the vast majority of those young adults could have a chance of finding jobs in the coming two decades.
In both of these areas, governments (Arab and European) could make a difference. But social development is like navigating in the fog. It helps steering the ship in the right trajectory. But survival and success are always in the hands of the crew.
The crew is the young generation of Arabs. The mistake will be to try to control them. Both Arab and European circles of influence must grow out of top-down, condescending views of those millions of young Arabs. Those circles of influence must respect the young Arabs’ rights to have their own wants and desires. And if those circles of influence want a safe arrival at a calm harbour, they must support the materialisation of those wants. With that, true meanings in the lives of those young Arabs, will take root. And with that, the vast majority will build, grow, and truly live, in their own lands, which are rich and giving. On the other hand, if those circles of influence treat them with condescension, they will give their backs. If they try to dominate them, they will, sooner rather than later, rebel. And if their ideas about society, religion, culture, love, and markets, are ignored, they’ll go undergo underground, and slowly but surely, will give rise to disruptive ways of doing things. And specifically to Europe, you must not look at them as a plague, for that will create, within them, a sense of insult. And this will ignite a new flame of anger.
If there is to be cooperation between Arabs and Europeans, that goes beyond support in truly empowering education and job-creation, it is to be in adopting the mindset that the tens of millions of young Arabs, are to be respected. And true respect is nothing if it does not manifest itself as giving them the freedom to create what they want to create. With freedom, the creativity of thinkers and artists, and streams of ideas, will inspire that young generation to search, within itself, for brightness, richness, and beauty, the ‘must-have’s they need to grow out of the ills, they inherited and did not contribute to.
Policy makers typically fail to understand the power of respect for rights, for freedom, and how, gradually, they lead to real growth and development. But it is through the realisation of this magical combination that many compounded ills, and their corresponding fears, collapse.