The Arab Culture, a Culture of Denial

Tarek Heggy

2011 / 11 / 8

Until recently, I believed the first step on the road to progress was the
“acceptance of criticism” and the diffusion of a general
cultural/intellectual climate which does not adopt a defensive posture
towards criticism but welcomes it as a tool of positive feedback, a
climate in which self-criticism is practiced without any reservations,
constraints or taboos. I believed, and still believe, in Immanuel Kant’s
brilliant characterization of criticism as “the most important building
tool devised by the human mind.” But regional developments over the past
three years have caused me to revise my priorities, and I now believe that
another step should precede the acceptance and practice of criticism,
namely, the dismantling of the wall of denial behind which we have
sequestered ourselves for the last few decades. For it is clear that we
cannot embark on a process of constructive criticism of our mistakes and
shortcomings before we overcome our insistence on denying their existence
in the first place. Our denial is sometimes expressed in positive terms,
as when we openly deny the existence of this or that problem or the
commission of this or that mistake, and sometimes in negative terms, as
when we tacitly deny the existence of a specific shortcoming by simply not
talking about it.

Thus our course on the road to progress should proceed in three stages.
The first is to break out of the denial mindset in which we are locked.
The second is to embark on a process of constructive criticism, while
avoiding personalizing the process by using it as an opportunity to vilify
certain individuals. The fact is that no one in Egypt is entirely
blameless for the predicament in which we now find ourselves, and
finger-pointing will get us nowhere. The third stage is to come up with
concrete proposals on how best to solve the problems plaguing us. There
can be no short cuts here, no way we can jump directly to the third stage
before first breaking out of our denial mindset and, second, embarking on
a process of constructive criticism of all our defects and shortcomings
after we stop deluding ourselves that they do not exist.
It might be useful here to borrow a methodological approach that is
central to modern management techniques. One of the cornerstones of
management science is quality management, a results-oriented operation
that extends over three stages. First the status of a product or service
is evaluated at the planning stage from the perspective of quality, a
process known as quality audit, which corresponds to what I call
eliminating denial. Then its status is evaluated from the same perspective
at the stage of execution, a process known as quality assurance. Finally,
there is the stage of quality planning, which is the formulation of a
future vision on the basis of the conclusions drawn from the audit and
assurance stages. This corresponds to the process of laying down new
systems and policies in the light of the results obtained from the two
processes of eliminating denial and accepting criticism.

Twenty years of working closely with leading establishments in the
advanced societies of Western Europe, East Asia and North America have
taught me that the presence of too many ideology-driven individuals in any
society will invariably impede it from going through the necessary three
stages on the road to progress. Indeed, advanced societies tend to look
upon ideologists as suffering from a condition that warrants serious study
and treatment, and there is not a single advanced society on the face of
the earth today whose leading and ruling elite is driven by ideology.
Finding solutions to the complex problems of contemporary life entails
using a scientific approach based on empirical verification and adopting
practical solutions that were tested and successfully applied by others,
not doctrinal formulas dreamt up by ideologists to fit their rigid

In fact, there is a “prescription” for progress, a mix of values, systems
and policies drawn from successful experiments, not from theoretical
ideas. The ingredients making up the prescription are the end product of
the collective human experience, the cumulative legacy of all the
different civilizations that propelled humanity forward over the ages.
They belong to the whole of humanity, to the march of human civilization
in general, rather than to any specific model of civilization, whether
European or Western, Jewish or Christian. This is borne out by the Human
Development Report for 2003 issued by the United Nations Development
Programme, which shows that the leading twenty-five countries in the world
belong to different cultural and civilizational backgrounds. Some are
American, some West European, some Chinese Asian, some Japanese Asian,
some Muslim Asian, like Malaysia, and some Jewish, like Israel. In other
words, as I have always maintained, the engine of progress is driven by a
set of positive values and systems that were developed and refined
throughout history by various civilizations (while not denying that they
received a qualitative boost thanks to the European Renaissance).

An ingredient the prescription for progress does not include is ideology.
Indeed, once an ideological mindset takes hold among the opinion-makers of
any society, that society’s prospects of making any headway on the road to
progress are severely diminished. By definition, ideologists are driven by
moral certainty in a system of belief, a certainty they can only sustain
by suspending their critical faculties and building up a defense mechanism
against any challenge to their core beliefs. They tend to take refuge in a
bunker mentality which leaves little room for self-criticism and even less
for breaking the wall of denial isolating them from reality. Such
criticism as they do engage in is reserved for others; when it comes to
evaluating their own performance, there is nothing but self-praise.

Skeptics could argue that moving from a culture of denial to one in which
people are conditioned to accept criticism and to engage in self-criticism
requires a lengthy educational process extending over centuries. This
argument is easily refuted by living proof to the contrary. In the last
forty years only, eight developed Asian countries succeeded in overcoming
the culture of denial and adopting a culture that accepts criticism.
Indeed, in the case of South Korea and Malaysia, the process took only
twenty years.

I have written extensively on the merits of adopting a culture that
accepts objective and constructive criticism in numerous articles, as well
as in my book “On The Egyptian Mind” (The Egyptian General Book
Organization, 470 pages, Second Edition, November 2003). Accordingly, I
will limit myself here to citing a number of examples to illustrate how
far we have sunk into a culture of denial, whether by maintaining a
resounding silence in the face of problems screaming for attention or by
openly denying that they exist.

Countless books, studies and research papers published in the outside
world, not only in countries we once described as enemies (like Britain
and the United States) but also in many we call our friends (like Russia,
India, China, Japan and France) have praised Anwar Sadat’s foresight,
wisdom and political acumen in adopting the line he did towards the
Arab-Israeli conflict, especially in the last four years of his life. By
the same token, they find that the Arab countries, leaderships and
intellectuals who fiercely opposed his line at the time committed a grave
strategic mistake. Not content with their virulent campaign of defamation
against the Egyptian president, Arab leaders met in Baghdad in 1978 (the
historical irony will not be lost on the reader!) to announce their
boycott of Sadat and Egypt. One of the victims of their relentless war of
words against Sadat was the Egyptian minister Youssef el Sebai, who was
murdered for no other reason than that he had accompanied the Egyptian
president on his visit to Jerusalem in 1977.

The situation is very different today. Many of those who participated in
the anti-Sadat campaign at the time are now trying to follow in his
footsteps, albeit far less effectively. Most of his former detractors
today admit they were mistaken not to support him, with no less virulent a
critic of his line at the time than the Saudi monarch’s brother, the
Prince of Riyadh (who said in 1977 that he wished it was in his power to
shoot down the plane carrying Sadat to Jerusalem), issuing a statement a
few weeks ago admitting that Sadat was right and those who opposed him
were wrong. Despite all this, most of us are still unable -or unwilling-
to venture beyond the wall of denial behind which we have cloistered
ourselves for so long, or, consequently, to recognize a simple truth that
is staring us in the face: Sadat was right, his detractors were wrong.

This rigid denial of reality can only be ideologically motivated (whether
by pan-Arabism, Nasserism, socialism or by the ideology of the Moslem
Brothers). The denial mechanism is brought into play just as strongly with
respect to two defining moments in the history of the Arab-Israeli
conflict. Although everyone would be more than happy today to accept the
partition plan offered by the United Nations in 1947, the solid wall of
denial we have built to shield ourselves from painful truths prevents us
from openly admitting that we committed a strategic mistake in rejecting
the plan. Similarly, if we succeed today in restoring the Golan Heights in
their entirety to Syria, in ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank
and in restoring East Jerusalem we would only be restituting losses we
incurred in May and June of 1967. Of the territory lost in the 1967 war,
only Egypt has managed to win back Sinai. Even those who claim that Egypt
was tricked into entering a dark tunnel that began in May and ended on
June 7, 1967, must admit that one of the primary responsibilities of any
leadership is not to allow anyone to lead it into a trap. But our culture
of denial prevents us from looking these facts in the face, and all the
books and articles that have been written, all the lectures delivered and
all the television and radio programmes broadcast since then avoid
touching on these uncomfortable truths. Thus while foreign analysts are
united in their appraisal of our performance on all these occasions (1948,
1967 and 1977) as lamentable, we continue to turn a deaf ear, or, as the
Egyptian saying goes, “an ear of mud and an ear of clay”, to the truth.

Although Egypt ranks a lowly number 120 in the UNDP Human Development
Report for 2003, our media have highlighted the few points in our favour
while totally ignoring the overall picture, which was described by Dr.
Hazem el Beblawy as “nothing to be proud of”. But our media, true to form,
have been tireless in their attempts to paint a rosy picture of what is
actually an indictment of our economic performance, with all the major
newspapers carrying banner headlines highlighting the one positive point
made by the report and ignoring the many negative points. This is yet
another manifestation of the pervasive culture of denial marking every
aspect of our lives.

We all complain about the absence of modern management systems and
techniques, whether in private and public economic institutions or in
government departments and service sectors and admit that we have a
serious management problem on our hands. But, like a doctor who proclaims
a patient ill without identifying the cause of his disease, we stop short
of laying the blame where it belongs, which is on the role of the state in
general and of the executive authority in particular. It is a role that
has changed little from the days when Egypt was a socialist country
following a command economy, and leaves little room for the development of
effective management systems. But on this all-important issue too, like on
so many others, we continue to be driven by the culture of denial.

It is common knowledge that our educational system produces graduates who
are totally unfit to compete in the international job market. They are
unfamiliar with the concept of teamwork, their English-language skills are
practically non-existent and they are formed by an educational philosophy
based on rote learning which actively discourages personal initiative and
creativity. Moreover, they are raised to believe that there exists only
one model of pure, absolute Truth, with the result that there is very
little room in their intellectual baggage for pluralism, dialogue,
acceptance of the Other or tolerance. Another feature shared by the vast
majority of graduates churned out by the system is an inability to express
their ideas in writing or to conduct research in a scientific manner. But
here too we follow the pattern of denial, patting ourselves on the back
for our “achievements” in the field of education while turning a blind eye
to serious structural defects in the educational system which lead most
international organizations in advanced countries to systematically turn
down job applicants who received their education in Egypt.

Then there is the question of women’s status in society, which is in dire
need of serious review. Not only do women constitute half the population,
but their societal role, in terms of the influence they wield as mothers,
is far greater than their numerical weight. Unfortunately, the status they
are accorded in no way reflects this reality. To redress the situation, we
must first stop hiding our heads in the sand and acknowledge the existence
of a real problem. Once we break out of the denial mindset, we can set out
to make a critical appraisal of the situation, using a methodological and
systematic approach, preliminary to laying down concrete policies designed
to enhance the status of Egyptian women in line with what they deserve and
with the requirements of the age. Here the wall of denial is at its
highest: we are constantly congratulating ourselves on how well women are
treated in our culture, how they are given rights not enjoyed by their
sisters in the West. The example most often cited to prove this point is
their independent patrimony. We also hold up exceptional (and symbolic)
cases in which women achieved prominence as proof of the equality enjoyed
by women as a whole, a myth we are able to perpetuate thanks to our
amazing ability to hide behind an impenetrable wall of denial.

It is a wall that serves us well when it comes to the issue of corruption.
Of course, corruption has become so rampant in our society that we cannot
actually deny its existence. Instead, we deny its significance, playing
down the urgency of the problem by convincing ourselves that corruption is
a universal phenomenon and that it exists in all societies. While this is
certainly true, it is also true that the extent, degree and spread of
corruption differs from one society to the next. A society in which
corruption has become a way of life cannot be compared to those in which
isolated cases of corruption are dealt with as aberrations. The same is
true of crime: while human nature is the same everywhere, some societies
have low rates of crime, others have moderate rates and still others have
low rates.

Our complacent attitude towards the issue of corruption is yet another
example of how adept we have become at using the denial mechanism to
shield ourselves from unpleasant truths. The list of examples is endless,
but I believe the ones I have given are sufficient to prove the point of
this article.

What is required at this point is to organize a conference or symposium
that will bring together some of our top intellectuals, government leaders
and prominent civil society personalities for the express purpose of
finding a cure for the malignant social disease of denial. Our inability
to come to grips with the many serious problems plaguing us is a direct
result of the pervasive culture of denial which is keeping us in a closed
loop and preventing us from moving forward on the road to progress. We
must break out of this culture before we can move to the stage of
objectively criticizing our role in allowing the problems, defects and
shortcomings of our reality to achieve their present gigantic proportions,
and from there to the stage of devising solutions and laying down policies
to overcome them. Finally, there is a fourth stage we need to cover, the
stage of implementing these solutions and policies. Allowances must be
made for human error, that is, for the possibility that some of the
proposed solutions and policies need to be modified before execution. It
was precisely this that led to the introduction of the stage known as
quality audit in modern management science.

(*) this article is dedicated to the person (A.M.H) who guided me (since
my early childhood) to visualize the various facets of the phenomenon of
our atavistic backwardness and to its core, i.e. our "denial mindset"
that keeps us far away from realizing the (patently clear) absence of our
"added value" to humanity TODAY.
Modern Discussion