Why Arabs Suffer: Philip Salzman Nails it

Philip Salzman, an anthropologist at McGill who specializes in Arab tribal cultures, has written an excellent piece on Arab suffering gives the background to many of the points I’ve made about Palestinian suffering. Without understanding this dimension of the problem, all efforts to “resolve the Arab-Israeli problem,” no matter how well intentioned, are doomed not only to failure, but to making the situation worse by reinforcing precisely the forces that contribute primarily to Arab suffering — their political and religious elites.

This article is drawn from his forthcoming book, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East [Humanity Books].

Philip Carl Salzman
National Post, January 11, 2008

By modern standards, contemporary Middle Eastern Arab nations are failed societies. On virtually every index of socioeconomic and political development, they compare poorly with other parts of the world.

Under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, an independent group of 20 Arab scholars analyzed the state of Arab human development in a widely-circulated 2002 report. Their findings were stark. In particular, the Arab Human Development Report 2002 found that the 19 nations under study suffer from a “freedom deficit”:

“Out of seven world regions, the Arab countries had the lowest freedom score in the late 1990s. The Arab region also has the lowest [score] of all regions for voice and accountability [based on] a number of indicators measuring various aspects of the political process, civil liberties, political rights and the independence of the media.”

The Arab region not only ranked last on the freedom scale, but the gap between Arab countries and the next-to-last ranked region, Africa, was substantial. The authors also found the Arab world lagged in gender equality, education, Internet use, human welfare and technological development. “The [total] average [scientific] output of the Arab world per million inhabitants is roughly 2% that of an industrialized country,” the authors noted. “In 1981, the Republic of Korea was producing 10% of the output of the Arab world; in 1995, it almost equalled its output.”

In the number of frequently cited scientific papers generated per million inhabitants, Switzerland scored 79.90, the United States 42.99, Israel 38.63. Among Arab nations, Kuwait led the pack with 0.53, followed by Saudi Arabia with 0.07, Egypt at 0.02, and Algeria at 0.01.

The poet Nizar Qabbani, quoted by Fouad Ajami in his famous book The Dream Palace of the Arabs, concluded that Arab societal dysfunction is so pervasive that he could no longer write:

‘I don’t write because I can’t say something that equals the sorrow of this Arab nation. I can’t open any of the countless dungeons in this large prison. The poet is made of flesh and blood. You can’t make him speak when he loses his appetite for words. You can’t ask him to entertain and enthrall when there is nothing in the Arab world that entertains or enthralls. When we were secondary schoolchildren, our history teacher used to call the Ottoman Empire [Europe’s] ‘sick man.’ What is the history teacher to call these mini-empires of the Arab world being devoured by disease? What are we to call these mini-empires with broken doors and shattered windows and blown-away roofs? What can the writer say and write in this large Arab hospital?’ How can we explain the discouraging state of Middle Eastern Arab societies? Is it the fault of Western imperialism or the existence of Israel, as often claimed?—Nizar Qabbani

It is true that there were brief European imperial and colonial disruptions in the Middle East, and that Arab leaders were guided by Western socialist and fascist political models in developing their dictatorial political systems. Yet these system have been largely over-layers added to—not replacements for—traditionally tribalized Arab societies, with their legacies of violence left intact from Bedouin days.

It is to the latter that we must look to understand the circumstances and difficulties of the Arab Middle East. The lesson is that, in the Arab world and elsewhere, culture matters.

The Arab Middle East has remained largely a pre-modern society, governaned by clan relationships and violent coercion. People in both the countryside and the cities tend to trust only their relatives, and then only relative to their degree of closeness. People define their interests in terms of the interests of their own group, and in opposition to those of other groups. A pervasive cult of honour requires that people support their own groups, violently if necessary, when conflict arises.

What is missing in the Arab Middle East are the cultural tools for building an inclusive and united state. The cultural glue of the West and other successful modern societies—consisting of the rule of law and constitutionalism, which serve to regulate competition among unrelated groups—is absent in the Arab world. The frame of reference in a tribalized society is always “my group vs. the other group.” This system of “balanced opposition” is the structural alternative that stands in stubborn opposition to Western constitutionalism.

Islam, which might have provided an overarching constitution of universalistic rules binding together all members of society, has failed as a political organizing principle, as well—for it too reflects the region’s underlying sociology, having been built up by the Arabs’ Bedouin forebears on a foundation of balanced opposition. This is why it has fueled rather than suppressed the Middle East’s various bloody feuds, such as those between Sunni vs. Shiite and between Muslim vs. infidel.

As a result, Arab political reform has proven elusive, and will remain thus so long as balanced opposition dominates the region’s political culture. Whatever formal unity is imposed by coercive force over a national population—we need only think of the regimes in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, etc.—remains illegitimate in the eyes of the subjects on the receiving end, and thus constantly open to violent challenge and radical replacement.

The primary goal of such regimes is to remain in power and maximize their spoils, rather than to enhance the lives of society members. Their dysfunction explains why so many Arabs have suffered so long, and remain without the liberties we in the West take for granted.

The irony in all this, is that such a failed culture on its own grounds can be so effective bringing down a successful culture like Europe.

10 Responses to Why Arabs Suffer: Philip Salzman Nails it

  1. chrisse says:

    The arab failed culture isn’t bringing down Europe – Europe’s doing that itself with the failed ideology of multi-culturalism. The net result of multi-culturalism is reducing the culture to the lowest common denominator.

    What’s ironic, is these people, mostly, come to the West for a better life, jump onto the multi-culti bandwagon, and so destroy any chance they might have for a better life. It should be they who are screaming no, no to bringing their failed culture with them.

    The irony is that the Western “elites” with all their education and the arab immigrants with their past experience don’t see it.

    • marina parigiani says:

      With respect to your comment, i would like to reiteirate that multiculturalism is not a bad word. sometimes it works sometimes it doesnt. i don’t know where you are from, which is unnecessary for me to know, but certainly the way we were brought up were quite different. multiculturalism had however, been going on for many centuries. The word itself should tell you the meaning “different cultures living together”. something lately went very wrong and it does depend on us we are not the gods governing this planet.

      • Richard Landes says:

        on the contrary, multi-culturalism is a precious achievement. See Sacks, The dignity of difference. it’s when it’s applied foolishly and without reciprocity to cultures that are violently intolerant of others that it becomes problematic. Europe and the Progressive Left in the 21st century has given a bad name to multi-culturalism.

      • marina parigiani says:

        <<<does not depend on us (correction)

  2. Richard Landes says:

    all good points, altho i’d frame it differently.

    1) Europe is only self-destructing because of their response to the threat. multi-culturalism itself isn’t so bad if you’re dealing with people willing to step up to its demands (ie the demands of freedom, that you be willing to grant others what you want yourself). it’s the demopaths who exploit multiculturalism and the imbeciles who are their dupes who pose the problem.

    2) they would be screaming if a) they weren’t throttled by the extremists in their midst in much the way that they were at home (including the peer pressure of honor-shame culture — ie it’s a shame to act “white”), and b) the nearly unfailing preference of westerners for the demopaths over the real moderates (eg Hirsi Ali or Fuad Ajami). it’s almost as if we’re embarrased by people who like western values.

    3) so i think many people “see” it. but articulating it… that’s another thing. but you may have put your finger on the nexus of an emerging discourse that can save the world from being brought down into the islamic mire that salzman documents.


  3. […] Rami Almeghari wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptIt is true that there were brief European imperial and colonial disruptions in the Middle East, and that Arab leaders were guided by Western socialist and fascist political models in developing their dictatorial political systems. … […]

  4. slenderdog says:

    “Balanced opposition” is in fact the state of affairs between nations as was observed by Locke. In reality this is the state of affairs between all men within and without states. European constitutionalism has managed to obscure this fact. Arabs know that “who dares wins.”

    Constitutionalism has freed ordinary people from power struggles. In exchange for acceptance of state power they receive a measure of freedom and stability requisite to enable economic and cultural pursuits, to great social benefit.

    The difficulty in Arab countries is a cultural deficit among the elites, who, having relatively recently ascended from subject status to fabulous wealth, have not developed a sense of noblesse oblige. A properly educated elite class realizes that power is to be used to administer a just society, not merely to enrich itself. This is what is missing.

  5. fp says:


    that’s exactly what I’ve been saying for a long time. however, multiculturalism is only one part of it. there are two other components: (a) the collapse of western education and the renouncement to knowledge and reason (b) cowardice and unwillingness to stand up for civilization. they tend to reinforce each other and permit the multicultis to dominate.


    it’s not entirely clear to me how many people “see” it, probably less than what you think. westerners are horribly indifferent and uninformed and as the consequences of suicidal behavior are disseminating through society they are increasingly scapegoating israel for what is their own problems.


    well, yes, but what you describe as a cause is actually a consequence.

    it’s the culture and religion of the arabs that produced and sustained this kind of elites; the kind of western elites you refer to could not arise and would not exist for long in those societies. also keep in mind that arab nations are all artifacts of colonial powere, not genuine nations which derive the loyalty of subjects, which is attached elsewhere (tribes, clans, ummah).

    only recently there has been a post here about the palestinian elites leaving the boat they sank, in a way identical to the elites that ran away first in 1948. so for 60 years no leadership was produced. this is not just a problem of leadership, but of the society which produces it.

    the fact that not ONE arab nation has a democratic, successful leadership is an indicator that something deeper is at work here.


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