One of the key determinants that affect the way we in the Arab world deal with sweeping global changes is our approach to that change itself, our position in it, our awareness of our role in its process, and the extent of our ability to have influence on it. In this context, it is necessary to refer to a set of facts that Arabs must fully absorb while dealing with the change around them, contemplating it, and making decisions on it — facts that represent a conceptual framework to understand this change.
The first fact is that it is not possible to stop change or face it because it is like floods and torrents that wash away whatever is left from the past. Change is an inevitable element in the history of societies, as the Arab intellectual Abdul Rahman Bin Khaldun said.
However, there are those who try to stand against change because they lack courage, self-confidence, or a strong will that allows them to accept the challenge of engaging in such a process and turn it to their own advantage. Instead, they seek to derive unfounded pretexts for their attitude from religion or traditions, or by sewing intimidation from the unknown and warning against damages that would affect civilisational and cultural identity.
Yet, what is certain is that these people cannot stop change. Others previously have resorted to similar pretexts, but could not stand in the way of waves of transition and renovation. They subsequently lost, which unfortunately affected their nations and generations whose dreams and ambitions perished. Their efforts were depleted for the sake of sterile controversy over the relevance of change to customs, traditions, and Sharia, even though the world around us is moving ahead without discarding its religion, customs, traditions, or culture. The best examples in this regard are Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, and Singapore, which represent models of countries that are open to the world and have successfully managed to reach the highest levels of scientific and technological advancement while preserving their own cultures, customs, and authentic values. Therefore, there is no contradiction between engaging in both processes, except in the minds of those who are afraid of change and do not possess its tools.
The second fact is that we, the Arabs, should admit that our culture contains certain negative aspects that impede change and deprive us from effectively engaging in it. It is high time that we critically and courageously addressed these aspects without hesitation or delay. Such a step, of course, does not contradict our pride for and appreciation of our deep-rooted and rich culture, but rather serves this culture’s ability to survive, evolve, and influence. This is because the power of any culture is derived from the power of its people, and its presence in the world in the fields of knowledge, technology, thought, and creativity. Similarly, a culture diminishes or regresses when its people are backward in the realm of civilisational advancement.
Age of isolation is over
The third fact is that no one can, however hard they try, avoid change, along with its effects and implications. With the advent of globalisation, open spaces, and the great communication revolution, the age of isolation is over and no country, people, or society can isolate themselves from the rest of the world. Therefore, those who oppose change, or approach it with hesitation and confusion, will have to face its consequences and challenges as reactors rather than as actors. The wheels of history will keep moving forward and those who are left behind will find it hard, if not impossible, to catch up. The sweeping evolution of the world is merciless and waits for no one.
The fourth fact is that change, while implying tough challenges, brings about great opportunities for people who are vigilant and enlightened, who can handle the world’s transitions, and who are aware that countries and societies are currently left with only two options — embrace change and innovation to keep consistent with the spirit of the times or become irrelevant and perish.
His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, expressed this view in his historic article published in February 2015 titled, ‘Governments Must Be Engines of Innovation’. There is a battle for existence because change is sweeping, accelerating, and waits for no one. Those who do not adapt to it condemn themselves to death. There is no doubt that change generates a sense of concern and fear of the unknown among many people and this is a natural feeling toward all that is new.
However, it is a positive phenomenon because it stimulates and mobilises nations’ and people’s assets and capabilities, viewing it as a civilisational challenge within which they should assert themselves and preserve their role. The lack of change triggers immobility and stalemate, and, subsequently, the decay of societies, as the Arab intellectual Abdul Rahman Bin Khaldun said. In this context, Imam Al Shafi’i said, “Verily, I saw water become putrid in its stagnation, and become sweet when it flows.”
The fifth fact is that change has both positive and negative aspects. The drawbacks should not be evoked to reject change, oppose it, or put obstacles in its way because it is definitely occurring and cannot be avoided. Can anything stop the smartphone revolution while Apple continues its technological innovations and breakthroughs? Therefore, it is better to accept this change and play a part in it, to benefit from its positive aspects and significantly limit its negative ones. The change process involves adverse effects, which would put the world in a stationary position if they are not overcome. The current change the world is undergoing, mainly at the social and cultural levels, undoubtedly has some aspects that do not suit us as Arabs and Muslims and contradict with our beliefs and customs. As such, we are not required to go with the flow of change that renounces our beliefs and traditions or undermines our identity and cultural and civilisational specificities. I would rather talk about the positive change that better serves our societies at all levels, paves the way for the current and future generations toward progress, knowledge, and development, and make us an effective component of human civilisation. This is the kind of change we need to be part of and we are capable to take part in it and effectively interact with it.
The sixth fact is that lack of progress does not only mean remaining in the same position but regression as well. In a constantly changing world, the ones who do not consciously and resolutely engage and effectively participate in the process of change are in fact lagging behind every day, simply because others surpass them.
The seventh fact is that Islam does not oppose engagement in the radical change process that the world is witnessing. It does not prohibit progress or creativity, yet some misinterpretations hinder progress, leave us at the rear instead of taking us forward, and represent a distorted image of Islam to the world. Consequently, I hope that religion is not involved while dealing with every new change in the world because Islam does not prohibit us from development, change, and renewal; rather it is our responsibility in the first place. As God the Almighty says in the Quran, “Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (Surah Ar-Ra’d, verse: 11).
Within this general framework, change should be at the forefront of our Arab countries’ priorities, both at present and in their future plans. I therefore suggest that these Arab countries create government bodies whose key responsibility is to address change and lay the foundations to effectively engage in its processes.
This conceptual framework to understand change at the Arab region’s level may encounter certain people that insist on seeking progress in the past, and not toward the present or the future, believing in the possibility of isolation from the world. However, the process of development and change in the world is so rapid that it neither waits for those who are stagnant in their locations and thoughts nor those who are hesitant, afraid, and lacking in self-confidence. The equation that everyone should admit to and adopt, especially in the Arab and Islamic world, is: either embrace change or live in a cave far from the world.
Professor Jamal Sanad Al Suwaidi is the Director General of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR).