Accepting responsibility for our ills in the Arab world

The failure to take responsibility for our own behaviours and actions – let’s call it “blamism” – is one of the biggest ills of modern times.

Rapists blame the victims (“she was wearing a short mini-skirt”) for their crimes and paedophiles blame alleged abuse by their parents, among other things, for their own abuse of children.

Israeli Jews blame the holocaust for their collective kleptomania, narcissism and lack of humanity.

Arabs and people in the Third World blame a variety of others – imperialism, colonialism, dictatorship, the devil – for their innumerable problems.

But very few have the courage to stand up and accept responsibility for their own actions. Blamism shifts the blame for one’s misdeeds on to others and allows the culprit to keep on behaving as they’ve always done.

Without taking responsibility for our own actions we will never begin to solve our problems.

This problem has been addressed by a few academics and journalists who are open minded enough to see reality as it is – for example, Brian Whitaker in his excellent analysis, What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East.

More recently, Arab affairs analyst Magdi Abdelhadi has offered some practical steps that would allow every one of us to take responsibility for our society’s ills and thereby begin the long process of a cure. His analysis, “The revolution wants another revolution”, concerns Egypt but could just as well be applied to any other country in the Arab world and beyond.

Abdelhadi argues that “Egypt needs a cultural revolution – a grassroots movement that examines everything Egyptians take for granted”. Without it, he says, “the lofty goals of the 2011 revolution (social justice, freedom and human dignity) will remain elusive”.

The problem, as Abdelhadi sees it, is that

No one seems to have time or space for reflection, introspection or feeling guilty, which indeed seems to be so alien to this [Egyptian] society. Faced with overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing, no public figure has ever admitted responsibility or shown remorse, only arrogance and denial. Any hint of contrition from the Mubaraks or the supposedly God-fearing Muslim Brothers’ leaders? None whatsoever…

Abdelhadi argues that the solution lies in encouraging “a healthy culture of scepticism”. He says:

Only an honest confrontation with the self that debunks some of the most cherished views Egyptians hold about themselves and the world, about religion and tradition (recycled ad nauseum by textbooks and the media) can begin the arduous and painful task of self-examination in order to be able to break with the past and build a new society that puts respect for the individual (not the nation, not the ummah, not the faith, not the army or any other hallowed entity) at its heart…

Small acts of civic responsibility (people getting together to clean their street, doctors volunteering to help in poor areas, reading and discussion groups, setting up a small society for the promotion of logical-rational thinking) will have gone some way towards changing Egyptian society…

Small and gradual change in the way people go about their daily business: how to share the public space and how to respect the privacy of others in every sense of the word will over time lay the ground for redrawing the boundaries between private and public (the state/society and the individual) in a new non-authoritarian dynamic.

As Egyptian novelist and political scientist, Ezzedine Choukri suggested in a recent article, when these small local groups connect together because they share the same ambition (making life better for their communities in a variety of areas), such groups will hopefully be able to create what he describes as the “democratic current” that can one day stand up to the despotic and authoritarian instincts of society and the state and pave the way for a new Egypt: tolerant, productive and at peace with itself and the modern world.

Egypt, Abdelhadi concludes, “needs a grassroots movement that encourages reading, learning and working together to fix small things here and now which can begin the work of weaning Egyptians off the intellectual and ideological opium they have lived on for decades, if not centuries”.

And for Egypt read Algeria, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and all other Arab and Muslim countries.

Back in the 18th century the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke said “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”

But before anyone will feel moved to do anything, first they have to accept responsibility for their problems at the micro (individual, family) and macro (society, country) levels.

If each of us does that, then we’re well on the way to a solution.

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