In January 2009, just as Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza was reaching its height, I found myself with a handful of Israeli journalists sitting in a tense hotel conference room in Madrid alongside several dozen Arab colleagues. As part of an E.U.-funded, week-long workshop, young journalists from Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and the Palestinian Territories had been gathered at what turned out to be a less-than-optimal time, in order to pursue cultural interaction through professional training. Despite the initial awkwardness of the encounter, the inevitable tensions gradually gave way to mutual respect, cordiality, and in some cases even genuine friendship. The nearly endless Spanish dinners—with some assistance from the prime stock of local Cava—helped transform the workshop into one of the most thrilling, edifying, and intellectually satisfying experiences I have ever known.
And yet, it was also one of the most depressing. Although many of the young Arab journalists with whom we had bonded were undoubtedly worldly, intelligent, curious, and open-minded, they were also operating on a completely different epistemological frequency. Whenever thorny topics came up—the Holocaust, terrorism, the Arab-Israeli peace process—we couldn’t really discuss any of these matters with any substance since we weren’t even able to agree on what we were discussing. How could one begin to challenge recurring comparisons between the Israeli occupation and the Holocaust when many of the young Arab journalists didn’t actually know what the Holocaust was? Or alternatively, how do you seriously discuss the threats of Islamic terrorism with people who deny that al-Qaida carried out the attacks of September 11? And finally, how could we debate why the peace process was failing with people who adamantly refused to acknowledge that such a process existed, maintaining instead that Israelis’ sole objective remains the conquest of Arab lands?
This last and most ubiquitous claim, I quixotically tried to refute. When I pointed to the fact that for well over a decade a majority of Israelis have consistently supported the recognition of an independent Palestinian state—and often voted that way—my words were met with a suspicion that eventually gave way to surprise. “So, why didn’t we ever hear about this?” one intrepid Jordanian journalist asked me with genuine concern. I shrugged my shoulders as if perplexed. But the answer was as obvious to me then as it is now: Despite their apparent cosmopolitan disposition, these young Arab journalists—many of whom represent the intellectual voice at the forefront of the Arab Spring today—didn’t know any of these things because there were, and still are, vested interests that purposely made sure they wouldn’t.
At a time when the Western media is busy extolling the virtues of this tech-savvy “new Arab generation” of 20- and 30-year-olds and branding them “the Arab world’s agents of change,” I can’t help but think back to that disenchanting week in Madrid, which taught me just how grossly ill-prepared, albeit well-intentioned, many of these agents of change are for the Herculean task that awaits them. Having recently broken free of the physical chains placed upon their bodies by repressive governments, millions of young Arabs have yet to liberate their minds from ideological bondage to the autocrats they have toppled. No matter how nobly dedicated this Arab revolutionary generation is to transforming the Middle East, it would be highly naïve, myopic, and even delusional to assume they have acquired the liberal values necessary to create democratic societies. For the fact remains that while corrupt and authoritarian political institutions can swiftly be destroyed, the tainted ideas they had implanted into the minds of their young subjects cannot easily be removed.
One example of the intellectual contamination of young Arabs by the political culture in which they have grown up is their inability to distinguish between fact and fiction, as indicated by the presence of conspiracy theories still prevalent throughout the Middle East. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying that “everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts.” The problem even with many of the educated and liberal-minded Arab journalists I met in Madrid was that they couldn’t always tell the difference between the two. And who could blame them? Arab elites had been able to employ what the French philosopher Louis Althusser called an “ideological state apparatus” that reinforced and reproduced their ruling ideology—while denying access and legitimacy to all of the alternatives.
The distorted public image of the Holocaust in the Arab world is a salient example of just how this apparatus functions. In preventing literary works such as the The Diary of Anne Frank from entering their classrooms and libraries (and in some cases formally banning them), and by barring films like Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List from their theaters, Arab governments succeeded in preventing widespread awareness of the gas chambers at Auschwitz or the mass graves at Babi Yar from the minds of their youths. That Arab intellectuals were accordingly “uninterested,” in the words of historians Meir Litvak and Esther Webman, who have studied the Arab reaction to the Holocaust, in the actual experiences of the victims explains why the mounds of documented evidence, testimonies, and confessions—or everything that makes this immense body of knowledge so incontrovertible—has deliberately been withheld from the impressionable minds of young Arabs. The result of this state-engineered project of mass censorship is that in the absence of any empirical evidence corroborating the experiences of the Holocaust, a false space of contention has been created into which dangerous pseudo-intellectuals like David Irving and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could freely inject their own denialist theories, and present fiction as fact. Having been denied the data with which to challenge such claims, too many young Arabs have unknowingly been suspended in a state of blissful ignorance that has led them to believe that the only Holocaust that ever took place—as one bright though hopelessly misguided young Arab journalist once told me—was the one perpetrated by Israelis upon Palestinians.
Pervasive ignorance about the Holocaust is emblematic of what has become the normative pattern of intellectual falsification and factual distortion permeating all levels of Arab society. This institutionalized culture of fabrication and fantasy that rules Arab political culture has come to encompass anything from the still widely believed myth that the Mossad orchestrated the September 11 terror attacks to equally preposterous though lesser known claims that America deliberately dropped humanitarian aid in Afghanistan on mine fields to lure innocent civilians into killing traps. Although outrageous conspiracy theories of this sort are a global phenomenon—persistent in the United States, too—what is so different and therefore ultimately disturbing about their manifestation in the Arab world is their source: Rather than originating and remaining on the fringes of society, they are the products of respectable mainstream elites and institutions—all of which naturally transformed these meticulously crafted prevarications in the eyes of the highly impressionable youths into “credible” sources of information.
When the leading newspapers of record, revered academic intellectuals, and admired cultural figures all tell the same lie, why would anyone go looking in search of the truth? No matter how progressive these sons and daughters of the Arab Spring are, the long-held prejudices of their fathers and mothers have already been learned by a state-run ideological apparatus that worked to condition their minds in a certain way. Having grown up watching a beloved Mickey Mouse-like television character extolling the virtues of violence and hatred to them as kids; having then encountered these same toxic messages reproduced and embellished in their elementary-school textbooks; having noticed that the prized dates at their local market were branded as “Osamas” for their exceptional taste; having walked on their way to and from school every day through streets named after suicide bombers; having seen the Protocols of the Elders of Zion on the best-seller shelf at their local bookstores and watched ancient Jewish blood libels reincarnated as their favorite primetime dramas, what chance did this revolutionary Arab generation ever really have for even engaging, let alone embracing, the values of tolerance and pluralism that are the sine qua non for the liberal democratic society they now wish to establish?
One need not be an expert on adolescent cognitive development to realize that by contaminating both the private and public spheres of Arab society with hollow truths and sophisticated lies that infested all facets of daily life—the household, schoolroom, mosque, media, cafés, and workplace—Arab governments had not only stolen the intellectual innocence of their youths, but have severely impeded their capability to ever get it back. To expect this young Arab generation to undergo a miraculous metamorphosis that could erase decades of institutionalized indoctrination and transform entrenched bigotry into tolerance, envy into cooperation, malice into concord, is akin to asking of them to eschew their entire life’s experience. George Orwell aptly captured the challenge facing millions of young Arab reformers today: When living in a corrupt society, one cannot remain uncorrupted.
But rather than account for the source of the disease, the pervasiveness of conspiratorial thinking in the Arab world is symptomatic of a much deeper problem. A civilization that voraciously consumes The Protocols of the Elders of Zion while refusing to even glance at the pages from The Diary of Anne Frank, apparently petrified of the insights a 15-year-old Jewish girl hiding for her life in an Amsterdam attic might have, is one profoundly consumed not only by fear, self-loathing, and parochialism, but by the threat of any genuine exercise of individual free thought. Conspiracy theories are so rampant in the Arab world precisely because the minds of so many young Arabs have been made fertile for their cultivation. Depriving their citizens not only of access to any alternative sources of knowledge that could counter such fraudulent theories, but also of the chance to develop the curiosity and willingness to think critically and independently is exactly what enabled Arab authoritarians to rule unchallenged for so many years.
Without engaging in the details of the long and tragic civilizational decline in the face of Western modernity that saw the gradual closing of the Arab mind to outside ideas, it’s worth reflecting, as many scholars have already done, upon the sad—and practically nonexistent—state of the humanities in the Arab world, where that ancient Socratic dictum that an unexamined life is a life not worth living has long been buried and forgotten. If anything, what both secularist and Islamist authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East have always had in common is their shared animosity toward independent, original, and critical thought and their subsequent institutional attempts to stifle it through politicized knowledge that instilled in their youths offsetting values of obedience, submission, and conformity.
Even the United Nations Development Program reached a similar conclusion a few years ago in a report that recognized the absence of a well-balanced Western-style education and warned against an expanding “knowledge gap” gripping Arab societies. The report warned of “ideologies, societal structures and values that inhibit critical thinking, cut Arabs off from their knowledge-rich heritage and block the free flow of ideas and learning,” while calling for “a deep-seated reform in the organizational, social and political context of knowledge” that could potentially unleash “a human renaissance across the Arab world.”
Such proposals are neither Orientalist nor patronizing, as some might argue, but rather realistic. No matter how genuinely committed this Arab revolutionary generation remains to founding a just and democratic Middle East, without a vigorous cultivation of the humanistic proclivities for critical thought and independent reasoning, attempts to transplant “readymade” democratic institutions are destined to fail. The belief that periodic visits to the ballot box or the ratification of new constitutions will furnish Arab citizens with the values that bred these democratic instruments of government in the first place is akin to the madness Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver observed behind attempts to build a house from the roof down.
While the last few months have reminded us just how easily dictators can be deposed, bridges overtaken, and town squares overrun, the last few centuries teach us that it is often easier to liberate the body than the mind. In the West, as mass democracy began taking root over a century ago, progressive intellectuals like John Dewey and Matthew Arnold soberly understood that in order for the democratic system to sustain itself, people were going to have to acquire democratic skills and, quite literally, “learn” how to be free.
But who will teach this to the young Arab generations? The proliferation of the Internet and satellite television could be a good start if it was not as perilous as it is promising: The free flow of information can be counterproductive unless people know to discern fact from fiction and critically assess what they are consuming. Another encouraging sign is that Arab elites primarily in the Gulf have spotted this intellectual deficit and have begun inviting prominent American universities like NYU and George Mason to expand their pedagogical umbrellas over their youths in the hopes of importing the seeds of enlightenment for future Arab generations. But even that is insufficient.
The key to resolving this dilemma and ultimately liberating Arab minds lies in the hands of the revolutionary generation itself, and particularly in its capacity to bow humbly before the forces of history and recognize the extent—and especially the limitations—of its monumental accomplishments. Too many revolutions degenerated into tyranny precisely because they tried to create a brand new society purified of the ills inherited from the old one. If this Arab Spring generation, which has toppled the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia (and threatens those in Tripoli, Sana’a, and Damascus), is indeed committed to building a democratic Middle East, it must therefore start by forgoing the hubris of such utopian aspirations and accept that millions of young Arabs—many of whom have actively supported the revolutions—are nevertheless still beholden to many of the regressive ideas against which they were waged.
To expect that decades of indoctrination can be expunged with a couple of tweets and a few weeks of protests is brash, arrogant, and ultimately dangerous. Acquiring the democratic mindset is a process that requires incremental change, not sweeping transformation. A failure to comprehend this won’t simply lead the Arab Spring astray, but may very well cause the young members of the extraordinary generation behind it to rebuild even more malignant versions of the regimes they set out to replace.
Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.
Yoav Fromer teaches politics and history at Tel Aviv University.