Killing the Future by Dwelling on the Past

Progress, the incontestable desideratum which all modern nations are after and few get to achieve, is the driving force of the twenty first century. Even so, many nations today seem to have come across insurmountable obstacles in their quest to attain such progress. The book “The Arab cocoon” by Tarek Heggy offers an engaging and knowledgeable analysis of the idea of just such potentially insurmountable obstacles standing in the way of development in the Arab world.

Tarek Heggy, a liberal Egyptian author, political thinker and international petroleum strategist examines the idea by referring primarily to the example of Egypt as an Arab country struggling to find its way into the circle of developed nations of the third millennia.

The book is organized into ten chapters and starts off by introducing the reader to the idea of culture and human values, going back to the history of civilization and the problems it faced. He then focuses on the Arab mindset and, as the author claims, its difficulty in tackling modernity. The book ends with a few chapters dedicated to the idea of how such problems can be dealt with and what strategies he thinks might work best in resolving the issues.

Heggy investigates the reasons for the Arab world’s apparent rejection of the very notion of contemporaneity and development. He consequently identifies three major hindrances: the fact that the religious Islamic movement seems, according to Heggy, to be completely anti-innovation and anti-integration, the widespread hatred of “the other” and finally the outdated educational systems.

One of the many noteworthy chapters, entitled “Civilization: A product of human values” and subtitled “The fruits of the civilized march of mankind” points to a fact that the reader may find, is not often talked about: “what some call ‘Western civilization’ is not purely Western but the culmination of a number of civilizations that flourished at different historical moments.” That is to say, mankind’s greatest civilizational treasures have come from all corners of the world and such advances are just as possible as they are necessary for all cultures and nations. “Like tributaries feeding a river, these civilizations – Egyptian, Chinese, Sumerian, Phoenician, Greek, Roman and Arab – merged together to form the mighty river of human civilization,” Heggy goes on to say. The author therefore gives the reader not only a subject to contemplate, but also provides an interesting perspective on how cultures have been and forever will be influencing each other. For Heggy, “civilization has more to do with ethics and values than with monuments and scientific achievements.” In this respect, he goes on to identify what he calls “six great achievements of human civilization” among which he mentions: democracy, human rights and the respect for “otherness.” These are values that, the author concludes, are not always found in the Arab world, and therefore (the want of these values) may represent an important part of the problem.

Another fascinating chapter entitled: “The Hurdles Impeding ‘The Civilized March of Mankind’” and subtitled “The Western ‘Faux – Pas’” starts off with a very interesting and quite unexpected observation regarding the 21st century’s status quo: “global leadership has devolved to the United States of America,  which is culturally the weakest link in the Western chain,” that is to say “despite its awesome material power, superior scientific prowess and undeniable accomplishments in the fields of communication and information technology, it remains the poorest member of the club of Western civilization in terms of culture and knowledge.” The idea underlined here – that the United States is more than capable of ruling over the material world and attaining physical progress but that, culturally it struggles with issues that no other Western country does – offers a whole new perspective on what the future may hold for a country, or, for that matter, for a world overwhelmed with such fragilities. The author goes on to add that the U.S.’ elites are “easily distinguishable from their counterparts in other Western societies by the shallowness of their cultural formation, the paucity of their knowledge and a tendency to confuse information with knowledge.” These observations may leave the reader with more questions than answers, however, Heggy makes it clear throughout his book that the idea of the “USA supremacy era fading away” (The Cold war era Chapter) is a view he strongly believes will perish. His criticism of U.S. culture, or want thereof, therefore does not come across as futile disapproval, but rather an attempt to point out a wrong that can and should be mended in a country which has proven in so many ways that it is destined for greatness.

In the chapter “Realizing progress,”  Heggy identifies a few of the incontestable impediments in the way of progress in the modern Arab world, among which are, as he puts it: “the ‘big talk’ syndrome, the tendency to sing one’s praises, a narrow margin of tolerance, a feeling of superiority over others because of religion, no acceptance of the ‘other,’ a tendency to live in the past and show little interest in the future” and, what Heggy calls “a spread of a male chauvinist mentality.” Recognizing the issues Arab societies are facing in regards to accepting the idea of novelty and scientific development, as proven by Heggy in his book, seems to be crucial not only to the understanding of the impediments that progress is facing around the world but also to the realization that such insight is vital if any change for the better is to occur.

Identifying the reasons for want of progress throughout the Arab world and throughout human history in general, Tarek Heggy’s book proves to be a captivating, well informed and instructive work.

So, in the end, why does progress exist in some parts of the world as opposed to others? Why do some nations refuse to yield to its benefits? Can or should anything be done? And, finally, how does this affect us?

These are some of the questions that one may find solid and sometimes unexpected answers to in this volume. Tarek Heggy’s book, “The Arab Cocoon: Progress and Modernity in Arab Societies” is a must read for anyone who may want to find the answers to such potential queries, is interested in the psychological mindset of developed/developing countries or simply wants to engage in a gripping and informative read.

Georgiana Constantin is a law school graduate who has studied International, European and Romanian law at the Romanian-American University in Bucharest and received her Masters from the Nicolae Titulescu University in Bucharest. Ms. Constantin, who is based in Romania, is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.