July 07, 2002


The just-released Arab Human Development Report, commissioned by the United Nations and drafted by a group of Middle Eastern intellectuals, utterly confirms the deep pathology gripping the Arab world that Western analysts have long noted. Yet what was truly astounding about the account was less its findings than the honest acknowledgement that Arab problems are largely self-created.

Khalaf Hunaidi, who oversaw the economic portion of the analysis, remarked, "It's not outsiders looking at Arab countries. It's Arabs deciding for themselves." And what they decided is sadly ample proof of Arab decline. Per capita income is dropping in the Arab world, even as it rises almost everywhere else. Productivity is stagnant; research and development are almost absent. Science and technology remain backward. Politics is infantile. And culture, in thrall to Islamic fundamentalism and closed to the ideas that quicken the intellectual life of the rest of the world, is "lagging behind" advanced nations, Hunaidi says.

Yet this novel panel of Arab intellectuals, remarkably, didn't attribute the dismal condition of Middle Eastern society to the usual causes that Western intellectuals and academics have made so popular: racism and colonialism, multinational exploitation, Western political dominance, and all the other -isms and -ologies that we've grown accustomed to hear about from the Arabists on university campuses.

Instead, the investigators cited the subjugation of women that robs Arab society of millions of brilliant minds. Political autocracy -- either in the service of or in opposition to Islamic fundamentalism -- ensures censorship, stifles creativity, or promotes corruption. Talented scientists and intellectuals are likely to emigrate and then stay put in the West, since there is neither a cultural nor an economic outlet for their talents back home, but sure danger if they prove either honest or candid. The Internet remains hardly used. Greece, a country 30 times smaller than the Arab world, translates five times the number of books yearly.

The report didn't give precise reasons for the growing Arab hostility toward the United States, but its findings lend credence to almost everything brave scholars such as Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes have been saying for years.

I can't help but feel that the failure of the Ladenites is emboldening rational thinkers in the Arab world. There may be hope yet.