Does the Arab world need a ‘cultural revolution’?
The term “cultural revolution” is one that usually comes with negative connotations. Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution, which gave rise to the term, resulted in millions of people being killed or displaced in China. A cultural revolution in Turkey after the first world war wiped out a complex 1,000-year-old social structure with a call for overturning the old in favour of the new.
Cultural revolutions aim to do just that — replace one culture with another, replace old values with new ones. The objective is simple: Impose completely new cultural and social values. This is something that ultimately requires major acts of destruction and annihilation to succeed.
Social value systems are complex things. They represent the accumulation of everything that makes up a society. Destroying that social value system, in effect, destroys that society.
Religion did not seek to destroy social values but place them in a broader ethical framework. Islam is the closest example of this in our society and the history of Islam demonstrates clearly how this religion sought to reconcile — not destroy — prevailing social and religious values.
Cultural revolutions, on the other hand, have no truck with such reconciliation. They prefer simply completely replacing one culture with another. First by creating and promoting a new value system and then working to impose this on society. This might begin with merely preaching these new values but it always ends in violence. There can be no room for different values or ideas, let alone old ones, in the new culture.
The cultural revolutions that took place in the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s, and even the 1970s, were trivialities. These were calls for Arab nationalism that ended as quickly as they emerged. The cultural revolution that truly shook the region would come afterward at the hands of extremist religious ideologies. Khomeinism, Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood quickly swept across the Middle East to the point that the region that we see today has almost nothing in common with the post-colonial Middle East.
Extremist religious ideology initially targeted the prevailing social value system.
Customs and traditions, fashion and even food quickly followed. Men began to grow their beards. Religious expertise became more important than education or experience and the preacher at the local mosque began to wield more influence, although lately this has changed to the preacher on TV or social media.
Then came the role of education. The Arab state acquiesced with the change in the education curriculum. Knowledge and enlightenment were replaced by the obscurantist learning of religious ideology by rote. There was no talk about contemporary life or the future; all the focus was on the past. Students sidelined studying physics and maths and instead focus on religious studies and history.
Then came the final blow, which is something that we are still experiencing today: The deliberate destruction of the sense of national affiliation. Patriotism is a thing of the past in the Middle East; national affiliation falls below religious, sectarian and ethnic affiliations today. Khomeinism or Muslim Brotherhood ideology makes a citizen a stranger to his own country. In today’s Middle East, sectarian affiliation ranks higher than one’s religious affiliation. While religious affiliation ranks above loyalty to one’s nation.
The extremist cultural revolution has been completed and we are now living within this new culture. This is clear to see in everything that is happening in the region, not least the chaos and violence that would have been unimaginable just 30 years ago. Can there be a worse or more bloody cultural revolution than this?
Our Arab intellectuals, or at least what remains of them, must do everything in their power to find a way out of this current era, which is dominated by extremism and sectarianism, and return religion to its rightful, and restrained, place.
We need a cultural wake-up call, not a cultural revolution.