Does the Arab world need a ‘cultural revolution’?

Extremist cultural revolu­tion has been completed and we are now living within this new culture.

2016/11/06 Issue: 80 Page: 6

The Arab Weekly
Haitham El-Zobaidi

The term “cultural revolution” is one that usually comes with negative connota­tions. Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution, which gave rise to the term, resulted in millions of people being killed or displaced in China. A cultural revolution in Turkey after the first world war wiped out a complex 1,000-year-old social structure with a call for overturning the old in favour of the new.

Cultural revolutions aim to do just that — replace one culture with another, replace old values with new ones. The objective is simple: Impose completely new cultural and social values. This is something that ultimately requires major acts of destruction and annihilation to succeed.

Social value systems are com­plex things. They represent the accumulation of everything that makes up a society. Destroying that social value system, in effect, destroys that society.

Religion did not seek to destroy social values but place them in a broader ethical framework. Islam is the closest example of this in our society and the history of Is­lam demonstrates clearly how this religion sought to reconcile — not destroy — prevailing social and religious values.

Cultural revolutions, on the other hand, have no truck with such reconciliation. They prefer simply completely replacing one culture with another. First by creating and promoting a new value system and then working to impose this on society. This might begin with merely preach­ing these new values but it always ends in violence. There can be no room for different values or ideas, let alone old ones, in the new culture.

The cultural revolutions that took place in the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s, and even the 1970s, were trivialities. These were calls for Arab nationalism that ended as quickly as they emerged. The cultural revolution that truly shook the region would come afterward at the hands of extremist religious ideologies. Khomeinism, Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood quickly swept across the Middle East to the point that the region that we see today has almost nothing in common with the post-colonial Middle East.

Extremist religious ideology initially targeted the prevailing social value system.

Customs and traditions, fashion and even food quickly followed. Men began to grow their beards. Religious expertise became more important than education or experience and the preacher at the local mosque began to wield more influence, although lately this has changed to the preacher on TV or social media.

Then came the role of educa­tion. The Arab state acquiesced with the change in the educa­tion curriculum. Knowledge and enlightenment were replaced by the obscurantist learning of religious ideology by rote. There was no talk about contemporary life or the future; all the focus was on the past. Students sidelined studying physics and maths and instead focus on religious studies and history.

Then came the final blow, which is something that we are still experiencing today: The deliber­ate destruction of the sense of national affiliation. Patriotism is a thing of the past in the Middle East; national affiliation falls be­low religious, sectarian and ethnic affiliations today. Khomeinism or Muslim Brotherhood ideology makes a citizen a stranger to his own country. In today’s Middle East, sectarian affiliation ranks higher than one’s religious affili­ation. While religious affiliation ranks above loyalty to one’s na­tion.

The extremist cultural revolu­tion has been completed and we are now living within this new culture. This is clear to see in everything that is happening in the region, not least the chaos and violence that would have been un­imaginable just 30 years ago. Can there be a worse or more bloody cultural revolution than this?

Our Arab intellectuals, or at least what remains of them, must do everything in their power to find a way out of this current era, which is dominated by extremism and sectarianism, and return reli­gion to its rightful, and restrained, place.

We need a cultural wake-up call, not a cultural revolution.

Haitham El-Zobaidi is chairman of Al Arab Publishing House. He is also chairman and publisher of The Arab Weekly and Al-Jadeed magazine.

As Printed
Editors' Picks

The Arab Weekly Newspaper reaches Western & Arabic audience that are influential as well as being affluent.

From Europe to the Middle East,and North America, The Arab Weekly talks to opinion formers and influential figures, providing insight and comment on national, international and regional news through the focus of Arabic countries and community.

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Publisher and Group Executive Editor: Haitham El-Zobaidi, PhD

Editor-in-Chief: Oussama Romdhani

Managing Editor: Iman Zayat

Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor: Mamoon Alabbasi

Senior Editor: John Hendel

Chief Copy Editor: Richard Pretorius

Copy Editor: Stephen Quillen

Analysis Section Editor: Ed Blanche

East/West Section Editor: Mark Habeeb

Gulf Section Editor: Mohammed Alkhereiji

Society and Travel Sections Editor: Samar Kadi

Syria and Lebanon Sections Editor: Simon Speakman Cordall

Contributing Editor: Rashmee Roshan Lall

Senior Correspondents: Mahmud el-Shafey (London) & Lamine Ghanmi (Tunis)

Regular Columnists

Claude Salhani

Yavuz Baydar


Saad Guerraoui (Casablanca)

Dunia El-Zobaidi (London)

Roua Khlifi (Tunis)

Thomas Seibert (Washington)

Chief Designer: Marwen Hmedi


Ibrahim Ben Bechir

Hanen Jebali

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Contact editor

Subscription & Advertising:

Tel 020 3667 7249

Mohamed Al Mufti

Marketing & Advertising Manager

Tel (Main) +44 20 6702 3999

Direct: +44 20 8742 9262

Al Arab Publishing House

Kensington Centre

177-179 Hammersmith Road

London W6 8BS , UK

Tel: (+44) 20 7602 3999

Fax: (+44) 20 7602 8778

Follow Us
© The Arab Weekly, All rights reserved