Ramzy Baroud

Grappling with an Encroaching Identity Crisis

Thanks to the unqualified and over-generalised scorn of "hegemonic Western imperialism" and the "shrewd ways of international Zionism", Arabs remain out of touch with an array of social and cultural crises, writes Ramzy Baroud

photo: DW
A major identity crises has plagued Arab societies - especially its youths - disabling the individual and collective will for many years, says Ramzy Baroud

​​Problems and challenges in the Arab world are moulded in such a clever way, so the blame for those dilemmas persistently falls on someone else. I have been aware of the Arab nations' fear of responsibility and indulgence and their persistence in pinching someone else's ear for their own mess. But, I could never have imagined the magnitude of the social tragedy.

Contextualising social diseases within a larger political framework is often helpful, but in the Arab world this practice is grossly misused. The United States government's ramshackle Middle East foreign policy tells a great deal about the US political culture. The Middle East's receptiveness to the abuses imposed by that culture and its mute response to the subsequent challenges posed was glaring.

Arab nations must fend for themselves

But these US abuses should provide neither a platform for corruption nor an excuse for the Arab nations' utter failure to provide any sort of alternative, to fend for themselves. Nor should these abuses serve as the quintessential argument that demystifies every negative trend that befalls Arab society, from official corruption, to institutional nepotism, to political extremism, to indifference regarding human rights, to racism, to the unscrutinised embrace of globalisation.

Equally demoralising to many Arabs who are hoping to face these challenges head on, is this over-indulgence in cosmetic touches. Governments, or their officially funded organisations, actively battle the poor reputation they have garnered throughout the years by holding conferences, seminars, symposiums and many other "impressive" gatherings to discuss issues such as education, human rights and family issues.

They invite "experts" who are often selected by virtue of their glamour-generating names and titles, rather than the value of their expertise. These experts orate the urgency for reforms never to be put into practice, they collect their very generous honoraria, and the conference concludes with lots of officials or semi-officials congratulating each other for a successful meeting. A very lovely and very expensive buffet is served, and the "bon voyage" is the end in itself. Mission accomplished.

Corruption and professionalism does not harmonize

Meanwhile, the invaluable human assets in the Arab world are squandered. Millions of Arab scholars, scientists, physicians and other professionals feel compelled to emigrate to the West, despite the dire need for their leadership and guidance back at home. "Brain drain" however, is not a problem created only by the lack of financial means. In corrupt societies, individuals are valued and therefore classified based on anything but their merit.

In richer Arab countries for example, the workforce – whether cheap labourers or well-educated professionals – is classified based on an unwritten but undeniable decree: race, family affiliation and citizenship. I was stunned by how indiscreet some people are about this categorisation of human beings: for cheap labourers, "Filipinos are the best" and therefore the highest paid, the least desirable are the Nepalese.

And of course, there is a primitive logic that always accompanies such designations. The same logic is applied to high-paying jobs, where Europeans and Americans come first, followed by Arabs – even Arab expatriates are classified in accordance with the same erroneous logic – then Southeast Asians, and so on.

Elsewhere, this is rightly called racism, or at best official and administrative ineptitude. In some Arab countries this is simply the way things are.

Racism deep-rooted in Arab societies

However, a significant problem of this kind, which leaves an entire social structure in disarray and validates racist tendencies among the general public, can hardly be handled in fancy sounding conferences, where neither the knowledge obtained is transcribed into practical implementation nor is it intended for such purposes in the first place.

And in the midst of the increasingly threatened social stability and racial categorisation, add to that the lack of political wellness or willingness to counter the imperial encroachment in Iraq, Palestine and other spots (which undeniably have created further rifts between Arab governments and their peoples), another set of equally alarming quandaries is taking hold, like those created by globalisation.

Globalisation becomes more problematic in weak nations who don't posses true political sovereignty – client states – those who maintain fragile and easily penetrable economies. Many Arab countries live up to this standard. But the greater danger resides in more than the dependent, pathetic economies sustained by such an arrangement, but by the cultural and social compromises required to retain the trust of global economic giants and investors.

Arab nations yet unable to assert their own identity

While Western societies are accustomed to the nature and progression of free market economies, a filtering process is not totally unfeasible. Arab nations, deeply rooted in their own tradition, yet incapable of asserting their own identity, are left hapless before that cheap commercialisation of the global market and unfiltered social trends that follow.

McDonalds and Burger King branches in Arab countries – which have crashed the Arab alternative to fast food, despite the surpassing health value of the latter – often play uncensored hip-hop music with a plethora of profanity, degrading comments regarding women and the like.

I have seen little Arab kids, innocently celebrating the end of Ramadan in a special Burger King tent on the rhythm of hip-hop lyrics detailing an oral sex encounter. As appalling as this may sound, the unfiltered global market culture is undoubtedly forging a collective identity crisis among the young generation in the Arab world that now has naïvely, albeit joyfully reduced Western civilisation to the character of Britney Spears, a badly cooked cheeseburger and online pornography.

Collective identity crises of the Arab world

Erik Erikson, who is known as the "father of psychosocial development" is renowned for constructing the concept of the "eight stages of development" in the life of a human being. According to Erikson, failure to fulfil the growth requirements of any of the eight designated stages, ultimately leads to an identity crisis.

I see no way around denying this collective identity crisis plaguing the Arab world. Furthermore, the current strategy of hosting fancy yet unproductive conferences with beautiful buffets and generous honoraria is as empty an answer as blindly pinning the blame on an over-generalised foe.

It is uncertain which developmental stage Arab nations find themselves today. But if this current identity predicament is left untreated, then the subsequent desperation, alienation and extremism we now witness may become the reprehensible norm, rather than the exception.

Ramzy Baroud

Ramzy Baroud is an Arab-American journalist and editor-in-chief of PalestineChronicle.com and head of Research & Studies Department at Aljazeera.net English.

© Al-Ahram Weekly 2005

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