Ask an average person in the Middle East to point out the one modern Arab achievement he or she is most proud of and the answer will likely be a blank stare followed by a statement about how Arabs have nothing to be proud of at the moment.

Depending on their ideology, some may attribute Arab weakness as punishment from God, because Arab-Muslims have steered away from Islamic principles. On the other hand, those driven by a secular, nationalistic ideology will quickly point to the Israeli threat.

Regardless of whether the religious or nationalistic ideology provides the best explanation for the big gap between the West and modern Arab society, both arguments have managed to exacerbate rather than fix the problem.

The rise of Islamist organisations in the Arab world is mainly the result of two factors. The first is the vacuum created by the failure of secular-nationalistic organisations to follow through on their promise to bring about change. Second, Islamists took advantage of society's need to reconcile historic tales of Islamic civilisations' greatness with current reality. In the past, Arabs achieved, ruled, contributed and created, but today, they stand occupied, fragile, divided and idle.

Adopting their own version of Islamic principles, highlighting some while omitting others, some Islamists justified the use of any means necessary to advance their goals, including the use of violence. Osama Bin Laden may be the modern-day example, but figures such as Sayyid Qutb were the inspiration. In the 1950s and 1960s Qutb was regarded as the intellectual of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, advocating a return to the 'Golden Age' by abstaining from the sinful temptations of modern life.

Arab rulers manipulated the Israeli threat to pacify the opposition, undermine calls for reform and justify unpopular policies. Israel's aggressive behaviour is certainly real and has shown no signs of stopping. Since its establishment in 1948, over four million Palestinian refugees have been uprooted. Continued colony construction, Israel's Wall in the West Bank and the Gaza embargo are some examples of Israel's hostile behaviour that is detrimental to Palestinians' livelihood.

Nonetheless, Arab governments found a way to cope with the Israeli threat next door. Cairo signed an unpopular peace agreement with Tel Aviv in 1979, which remains in effect today. Morocco became the second Arab country to invite an Israeli leader when in 1986 it hosted then Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres for talks. While Arab governments will fiercely deny any open dialogue with Israel and continue to make theatrical gestures pleading on behalf of the Palestinians, the truth remains that no Arab government has engaged in war with Israel since 1973.

It is clear that Arab leaders not only coped with the Israeli threat, but have successfully managed to adopt and mould the anti-Israeli discourse to further their own interests. Arab leaders brush aside domestic calls for reform by preoccupying the public with the ‘imminent' Israeli danger and provoking their emotions by showing repeated images depicting Palestinian suffering. Domestic oppositions accuse the governments of Syria and Egypt of prolonging the emergency law first imposed as a protective measurement against the Israeli threat.


Continuing to ponder the past distracts from focusing on the future. Constantly referencing the past, glorifying it and romanticising it has certainly not achieved the desired goal of pushing Arabs to duplicate the success of their ancestors but only reinforced negative feelings of self-pity and isolation.

Every civilisation that dominated the world has eventually fallen. It is a normal progression of life. The Roman civilisation, the British conquest and others have reached the climax of power, only to have their influence diminish over time. However, despite their decline, these powers coped with new changes and accepted the new world order. And since Turkey, too, transformed itself into a strong country, successfully exploiting its natural resources and developing its infrastructure while still holding on to its religious character, this leads one to believe that it is not the Islamic identity but other factors such as negative discourse that is standing in the way of Arab progression.

Education curriculums in the Middle East should be modified to focus on innovation, science and technology rather than on a glamorous past and feverish nationalistic discourse against an enemy, real or imagined, that instills feelings of anger and shame. We should not be lecturing our children about the importance of dying for one's country and sensationalising death to the extent that losing a loved one — a father, a son or a sibling — is supposed to be honourable.

Let us raise good Muslims to break negative stereotypes. Teach them that Islam does not endorse violence but encourages progress as well as learning and accepting others. Let us push our children to think, test, create, debate and dream of becoming doctors, journalists and astronauts. It is time to embrace life and not death.


Dina Khanat is an Arab-American writer based in Dubai.