Courageous Arab Thinkers
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
known something was up when a Saudi diplomat recently asked me, "Do
you know what kind of woman is most sought after as a wife by Saudi
men today?" No, I said, what kind? "A woman with a job."
I thought of that when I read last week's announcement that within
a year Saudi Arabia would conduct its first real elections — for municipal
councils. Most people thought it would snow in Saudi Arabia before there
would be elections. So what's up?
What's up are three big shocks hammering the Arab system. First, with
oil revenues flat, there isn't enough money anymore to buy off, or provide
jobs to, the exploding Arab populations. Hence the growing need for
wives with work. The second is the Iraq war shock. Even with all the
problems in Baghdad now, virtually every autocratic Arab regime is starting
to prepare for the uncomfortable possibility that by 2005 Iraq will
hold a free election, which will shame all those who never have. As
Lawrence Summers, Harvard's president, likes to say, "One good example
is worth a thousand theories." Iraq — maybe — could be that example.
But there is another tremor shaking the Arab world. This one is being
set off by a group of courageous Arab social scientists, who decided,
with the help of the United Nations, to begin fighting the war of ideas
for the Arab future by detailing just how far the Arab world has fallen
behind and by laying out a progressive pathway forward. Their first
publication, the Arab Human Development Report 2002, explained how the
deficits of freedom, education and women's empowerment in the Arab world
have left the region so behind that the combined G.D.P. of the 22 Arab
states was less than that of a single country — Spain. Even with limited
Internet access in the Arab world, one million copies of this report
were downloaded, sparking internal debates.
Tomorrow, in Amman, Jordan, these Arab thinkers will unveil their
second Arab Human Development Report, which focuses on the need to rebuild
Arab "knowledge societies." The report is embargoed until then, but
from talking with the authors I sense it will be another bombshell.
Those who worked on this report do not believe in the Iraq-war model
of political change. They prefer evolution from within. But they believe
there must be serious change. They are convinced that Islam has a long
history of absorbing knowledge. But in the modern era an unholy alliance
between repressive Arab regimes and certain conservative Muslim scholars
has led to the domination of certain interpretations of Islam that serve
the governments but are hostile to human development — particularly
freedom of thought, women's empowerment and the accountability of governments
to their people.
The result? There are just 18 computers per 1,000 people in the Arab
region today, compared with the global average of 78.3 per 1,000, and
only 1.6 percent of the Arab population has Internet access. In 1995-96
alone, 25 percent of all graduates from Arab universities with B.A.
degrees emigrated, while 15,000 medical doctors left the Arab world
from 1998 to 2000.
The number of scientists and engineers working in R.&D. in the Arab
region is 371 per million citizens, compared with a global rate of 979
per million. Although the Arab region represents 5 percent of world
population, it produces only 1.1 percent of the books in the world.
There is an abundance of religious books published in the Arab region
— more than triple the world average — but a paucity of literary and
artistic works. Tons of foreign technology is imported, but it's never
really internalized or supplanted by Arab innovations.
The authors are convinced of something any visitor to the region can
feel: that there is abundant Arab human capital to reclaim Arab knowledge
— just note how many Arabs thrive as doctors and scientists when they
come to the West. But this rebirth requires a massive investment in
education, to move it away from uncritical repetition, and steps by
the insular Arab states to encourage greater interaction with other
nations and cultures and an easing of their social and political restrictions
on criticism, the press and importing of ideas from abroad.
What should America's response to all this be? We should stop talking
about "terrorism" and W.M.D. and make clear that we're in Iraq for one
reason: to help Iraqis implement the Arab Human Development Reports,
so the war of ideas can be fought from within. Then we should get out
of the way. Just one good model — one good Arab model that works — and
you will see more than just municipal elections in Saudi Arabia.
2003 The New York Times Company