Arab cultural narcissism By Pervez Hoodbhoy

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PETRO-GIANT countries of the Arab world may not be terribly well known for perspicacious scholarship or prowess in scientific research but their one-upmanship knows no limits.

The United Arab Emirates is presently stealing the show: the Emirates Mars Mission’s successful July 2020 launch means it will rendezvous with the Red Planet in six months; UAE cities have spectacular skylines premiering the worlds’ tallest and most stunning buildings; and the world’s top airline is called Emirates. There’s every kind of futuristic gimmickry: the world’s first minister of artificial intelligence, 27-year-old Sultan Al Olama, was just appointed under UAE’s Centennial 2071 plan.

Close on UAE’s heels are other GCC countries with Saudi Arabia having started the construction of Neom, a futuristic megacity deep in the desert bordering the Red Sea. Costing $500 billion upward, it will feature artificial rain, a fake moon, robotic maids, flying taxis, and holographic teachers. Qatar plans to spend over $220bn while hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Twelve solar-cooled super-stadiums holding around 50,000 spectators each are nearing completion.

Private scorn accompanies these humongous public spectacles. What’s Arab about all this? Expats flown in from around the globe run the show. They range from domestic servants to truck drivers and from famous architects to top-of-the-line space-travel engineers. The relationship is purely transactional: petrodollars buy brains, brawn and gadgets.

Arab and Pakistani cultures remain self-congratulatory even eight centuries after Islam’s Golden Age ended.

But, knowing the oil will eventually dry out, some GCC Arab rulers are realising that theirs is a road to nowhere. Beating the drum of past glories and education of the usual religious kind will doom them to remain consumers and supplicants. And so, at least at first glance, they seem to be doing everything right and are throwing tons of money at it.

Education from the primary class to university is free in all state institutions. New Arab universities are aplenty with several US universities having Arab campuses to which famous foreign professors are lured with incredible pay packages. Laboratories are stuffed with scientific equipment and every kind of infrastructure is there for the asking.

Is it working? Has a culture of learning and scholarship developed? Nature, a highly respected science journal, has effusive praise. A recent article in its Middle Eastern edition, ‘The Rise of Saudi Arabia as a Science Powerhouse’ describes Saudi Arabia as “West Asia’s second most scientifically productive country after Israel”. Other GCC countries have shot up in world rankings as well. The sole criterion used is the number of research papers published from universities.

But with 20 different ways of getting your name onto a paper in the internet age, and with foreign visitors flown in just for lending their prestigious names to a paper, making large claims based upon small evidence is unwise. Nature’s normal objectivity was likely influenced by political and financial considerations. The astonishing conclusion of “science powerhouse” is unsupported by other evidence.

Unesco’s Science Report, for example, was far more cautious. It observed that in most Arab countries, “the education system is still not turning out graduates who are motivated to contribute to a healthier economy”. University professors returning from teaching stints in GCC countries agree. They complain about the indifference, apathy, poor work ethic, and lack of curiosity among their students. Reading habits are undeveloped. Most students opt for ‘soft’ areas like marketing, banking and management with few going for more intellectually demanding and rigorous disciplines.

At the heart of this is Arab attitudes towards knowledge and learning. Centuries after the end of Islam’s Golden Age (9th to 13th centuries), Arab culture is self-absorbed and centred on self-congratulation. Convinced that it possesses the only true religion and that Arabic is the most perfect language, it claims eternal monopoly over truth. That’s narcissism on a civilisational scale.

Narcissus, as the reader knows, is a Greek legendary figure who fell deliriously in love with himself and disdained all around him. In anger the goddess Nemesis punished him by obsessing him with his reflection in the stream. So lovely was the bloom of his youth that he could not walk away from himself. And so Narcissus wasted away and died.

A similar tragedy befalls cultures lost in self-love. They lose vitality because there is little desire to interact and mingle with other peoples or to move with the times. Many young Arabs today take this lazy route. They disdain intellectual pursuits, thinking that modern accomplishments are only a pale reflection of the foundational works of their Muslim ancestors.

This is delusionary. Science and learning came from all humankind and existed in civilisations long preceding Islam. Ancient Babylonian and Egyptian science started 3,000 to 4,000 years ago and the Chinese, Indian and Greek civilisations were extremely fertile as well. Relatively speaking, science in Islam was a latecomer that began with the translation of Greek works about 150 years after the death of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Muslims added many new and brilliant ideas but their science is just one part of pre-modern science.

Some signs of hope are finally emerging in the Arab world. The abject failure to modernise — except very superficially — is making GCC countries realise that insularity won’t work. Several are moving up the learning curve and absorbing universal values by allowing wider media access and more personal freedoms for citizens, particularly for women. While the trend towards recognising Netanyahu’s Israel smacks of defeatism and sells out Palestinian interests, the decrease in anti-Semitic propaganda augurs well for all.

Bucking progressive trends in the Arab world, Pakistan is busy manufacturing new narcissistic illusions. Lacking the will to address urban chaos (as in Karachi) or to generate significant employment, it seeks solace through concocting a Turkic-Islamic past and heaping adoration upon the fictionalised Ertugrul drama series. Now watched daily by millions, it is a new form of escapism.

Evidence for a further closing of the Pakistani mind is starkly visible. Absent from our school curriculum is the study of world history, philosophy, epistemology, or comparative religions. In PTI’s Single National Curriculum, rote learning has massively increased, as has religious content. The brains of our schoolchildren are being programmed for a world other than the one they live in.

The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist and writer.

Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2020