By Abdullah Bozkurt
June 23, 2014
Egypt will only return to reclaim its well-deserved title of leading the Arab world when it seriously starts addressing challenges that have placed its fundamental cultural values, rooted in arts, heritage, religion, media, education and youth, under a strenuous stress test. The profound aspect of cultural values, which touches on the profound feelings of citizens, is often underestimated and undervalued.
Almost all the problems Egypt is facing -- ranging from economic difficulties, financial hardships, social disturbances and political problems to security and military threats, be they imminent or distant -- definitely require a closer study of the lingering woes that are at the heart of the matter, which is culture. That was the humble contribution I tried to make during last week's workshop on Egypt organized by the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Policy Centre (EPC), a prestigious think tank whose busy worker bees, led by Dr. Ebtesam Al-Ketbi, have been holding a series of high-calibre meetings to discuss urgent matters in the Middle East and the Gulf.
Undoubtedly, this argument is also valid for other Muslims nations whose cultures are also under attack by extremism, terrorism, radical movements and the excesses of political Islamists. The education aspect of culture is especially critical given that citizens learn their cultural values mostly through education, and that is how the nation preserves its cultural values. It is paramount that education be improved in quality, in order for states to deal effectively with the growing terrorism threats in our region, as well as treating social frustration felt by people and bridging the divide among disparate groups. Education is also sine qua non to successfully adopt and implement reforms in areas such as the labour market in order to fuel growth and increase the rate of women's participation in the labour force.
Most social problems, from the marginalization of vulnerable groups to religious, cultural or regional division, can only be overcome with equal access to educational opportunities. Nurturing children through modern education will mould them into responsible citizens and active participants in their societies. It is the only way to bridge the divide along these lines, as it will give a boost to the mobility among various social groups. It is a shame that most governments think only for the short run and limit themselves with immediate measures, losing sight of the forest for a tree. In some countries, this problem is compounded by the fact that state institutions that are supposed to play a role in developing cultural and educational policies were weakened by bureaucratic impediments, corruption, lack of strong accountability and transparency in governance.
The erosion of cultural values and shortage of quality education have prepared a fertile ground for terrorism to spread in many countries. When the war on culture is lost at the core front, governments are compelled to only deal with symptoms such as extremism and terrorism. They often resort to harsh measures through the military, intelligence or criminal justice system to deter threats. That is a trap by itself, as it leads to curbing rights, freedoms and the rule of law in many cases. Then, countries going down this path will start suffering from a bleak outlook on press freedom, an independent judiciary and the vibrancy of civil society. In the end, there will be more reason to foster an extremist mentality while widening social support for terrorism.
Perhaps combining cultural policies with political, economic, legal and social ones in dealing with challenges, or rather, placing culture ahead all the other measures is the right strategy to embark on our battle to tackle current problems. Developing a critical mind in the young population through cultural inoculation is the ultimate panacea to extremist ideologies. It won't be easy, however. This painstakingly long and arduous undertaking in improving mutual understanding among cultures and religions through dialogue and respect will be important in marginalizing extremist movements. In other words, creating a culture of tolerance and acceptance, though it may take years to accomplish, will be the right strategy to adopt.
I think terrorists understand this close link between culture and violence better than anybody else. The collapse of cultural barriers will help extremists in replacing their own constructed version of the world with fabricated and/or invented cultural reference points. Hence, it becomes easier for them to communicate and get their messages through to a broader audience, threatening democratic institutions, undermining the economy, disturbing social cohesion and disrupting the normal functioning of the political system. Terrorists destroying symbols of culture and national heritage and attacking people who preach understanding among cultures and faiths are all part of the campaign to rob the very identity of people so that an extremist identity can be imposed.
To give an example, let's look at the hostage crisis still unfolding in Iraq, where the terrorist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) abducted 80 Turkish citizens, including the staff of Turkey's Mosul Consulate General, special force, women and children. The objective of the attack is clear: to keep Turkish engagement away from Iraq as well as to advertise ISIL in the world as a vicious militant group that can take on the regional powerhouse that commands NATO's largest military force after the US. But there is also a political agenda behind its acts, which speaks to the culture factor. The terrorist group, which draws references from misleadingly reconstructed Sunni Islamic values, is defying Turks who have been subscribers of the centuries-long Sufi tradition of Islam, which has a powerful influence in many Muslim nations. The attack is also designed to provoke a violent response so that a tremendous reserve of goodwill for the Sufi message of love and harmony will be wasted.
In other words, ISIL and all the other Sunni and Shiite extremist groups have been trying to destroy what the Quran, Islam's holy book, refers to as "the center and middle" ground, or "Wasat" in Arabic, in defining the dominating character of the Islamic community. In the second chapter of the Quran, God says, “And We have created you as a middle ground [moderate] nation” or “a centrist Ummah [community].” The main message is very clear: Muslims need to be moderate and temperate in their discourse and actions. Since Turks have been representing that part of the culture in its religious aspect for centuries, the abduction of Turkish citizens in Iraq by Sunni terrorists recently or the abduction of Turkish pilots by Shiite militants in Lebanon last year are part of the ongoing challenge to the key message of Islam, which is moderation and reasonableness.
On a final note, I would say that the success of Iranian expansion in the Middle East, the Gulf, Central Asia and Africa stems from long-term investment Persians have made in culture and education, not from military might and force. Iranians worked tirelessly for years to make inroads in the cultural space of other nations, using art, literature, religious teachings and educational exchanges as conduits. They reaped the benefit in the long run with an army of Iranian sympathizers already positioned in key places ranging from business, media, politics and government to the military and intelligence fields in other countries.
Slowly transforming the host country's culture into one that is dominated by the teaching of Iranian revisionist history and artificially reconstructed values based on deceit, cheating and lies represents perhaps the gravest danger yet to moderate Muslim nations. Terrorism grows on that fertile ground long prepared by the Iranians. As history has shown, Iranians know the art of stirring up disturbances with nearby countries in the region, using a clandestine network of intelligence without firing a single bullet. This serious threat cannot be eliminated or mitigated simply by resorting to military, economic and political measures but rather requires effective cultural and educational policies with a long-term vision in order to counterbalance Iranian encroachments.
In conclusion, I would argue that culture is an important tool to contain, prevent and even overcome the host of problems, including the terrorism we as Muslim nations are facing today. By the way, this momentous task cannot be solely left to the governments to deal with. The contribution from the media, civil society and the business world is needed to develop a comprehensive set of measures to sustain cultural values and stem disruptive attacks on our values and way of life. Crafted with an inclusive approach, a culture situated on moderation will help deprive extremists of soil in which to grow while keeping the door wide open for governments to better deal with economic, political and social issues.