Even people in prison can get adjusted to their new environment of captivity, hard labor, occasional torture, and designated visit hours. They start making friends and social groups with similar interests. Most will talk about the harsh treatment and unacceptable conditions over lousy steel-tray dinners, but they will always come to grips to the reality that there is nothing much they can do about it. More optimistic inmates might fight for a slightly better prison experience, maybe demanding less torture sessions or better food minus the dead bugs. In many ways, the prison inmates’ collective is a functioning society. In fact, the living conditions in some prison societies (e.g. north Europe) are better than living free in a failed state.
The point is, the great majority of people do adjust and adapt to their environment, good or bad, free or not free. Think of it as a concert. Most people just want to go there and have a good time. It’s the very few who work on setting up the concert (some for profit, others volunteering).
We Are Passengers on an Airplane
Societies are like airplane passengers. Everyone on board is a unique individual with a certain combination of preferences. Like, do we really need to push the seat back forward when taking off or landing, fasten the seat belt, keep them fastened when the plane is in taxi mode? Shouldn’t we have more leg room, or different meal and movie choices, audio channels? And so on. Yes we all have preferences, and some believe in their preferences very strongly. But in the end, they all get on the plane and accept the way things are done. It doesn’t matter whether the pilot believed in democracy, dictatorship, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Communism, Capitalism, or didn’t believe in God at all. The passengers’ concern is whether the pilot can manage to get them back on earth in one piece, with as little turbulence as possible.
This is how people act in a society. They may prefer monarchy, democracy, theocracy, Capitalism, Socialism, or anarchy. They may prefer traffic lights over roundabouts or vice-versa. They may prefer the presence of big shopping malls or not. But at the end of the day, they will adapt to what is already there; the existing conditions. Yes, they will hear stories about injustice and tyranny, like some friend or neighbor who got kidnapped by the secret police in the middle of the night. But they can adapt with those stories too. The idea here is to get along with life regardless of the system in place.
But when people do rise and start mass movements for change, as happened before and happens now and will happen again in the future, that is the abnormal situation; the unlikely event; the outlier in human nature. When people do rise, they are usually stimulated by an unusual force, or led by an unusual few, the type of persons who set up concerts, not the ones who buy the tickets to go to those concerts.
The Fallacy of Cultural Analysis
Some claim that cultural aspects of a society have a lot to do with the system and constitution they have in place. But this has been proven false decades ago. For instance, cultural theorists and scientists "such as Verba, right after WW2" wrote that democracy is not fit for Germans, as they are culturally accustomed to having a father figure; a demagogue, a dictator. But only a few years later, Germany proved to be one of the most successful democratic societies on Earth. Does that mean that the theorists got it wrong about the Germans? Does it mean that the Germans are actually more prone to accept democracy than other nations? If you look into culture for answers, you won’t find any. The matter of the fact is, Germans, like most people on earth regardless of their religious, political, ethnic background, tend to go with the flow, whatever that flow may be, and just deal with it in the best way they can, like the passengers on the airplane.
To further illustrate my point, notice how people of all ages and all cultural upbringings, seem to so easily assimilate to new cultures of foreign countries they move into, given they interact with the local people and not isolate themselves in groups of their own. We have sayings in Arabic like "Whoever lives with a people for over 40 days, becomes one of them." You may come from a country where it is considered obscene to walk naked in public shower rooms, but move to a country where it is considered absolutely normal to do so (like in China, Germany, or USA). At first you will be shocked and refuse to accept the norm. But sooner or later, you will have to come to terms with it, especially if you had no alternative to public shower rooms (that is the case in most parts of the world where access to hot water is scarce). You can think of numerous examples from your personal travel experiences or the stories of other travelers to show cultural differences. But the point is, people do adapt regardless of how rigid their ideas and traditions are, once they join a new society for a long enough period of time.
The aforementioned has to be understood when analyzing political events, such as the question of "why this society had a revolution, while that society remained silent." It must be fully understood that the success or failure of change, as minor as fashion or as major as a revolution, does not depend on any cultural aspect of that society.
Take Korea for instance. It has one ethnic group, one language, and used to have one religion before the arrival of French missionaries in 1861. But after the defeat and withdrawal of the Japanese occupation army in Korea, instead of allowing for an independent Korea to be born, the Americans and Russians decided the country wasn’t ready to be independent, and split it in half (at the 38th parallel), placing one Communist pro-Russian regime in the North, and one Capitalist pro-American regime in the South. Two years later, the American and Russian forces left the country, and then global media wondered why the Koreans started a civil war which ended up in splitting the country into two.
When including these facts into the equation it becomes obvious why the divide existed and still exists today. After the war had ended, most Koreans just wanted to live in peace, and turned out that over 90% of them on both sides of the border, according to Korean recent statistics, want the reunification of the country, as had happened in Germany in 1990. The Koreans even have a ministry called "the ministry of reunification." These facts create a huge thorn in all the writings of the cultural theorists who try to explain any aspect of Korean history based on Korean culture, because the Korean culture north and south of the divide is identical! The North is now living in afflicting poverty, under a dictatorship, a communist economy, and closer ties with the Chinese. The South is now living in great prosperity, under a democracy, a capitalist economy, and close ties with the Americans. None of these opposites can be explained by any aspect of the Korean culture.
Common Cultural Beliefs
The Korean example applies to all societies and all cultures. So in terms of the Arabs and the variant Arab societies and cultures, we often hear from both Arabs and non-Arabs, that the Arabs are good at this, or bad at that, and attribute those observations on culture. I would like to dispel some of the most prominent misconceptions about Arabs, based on cultural interpretation.
I – Democracy is not fit for Arabs
Of course that’s convenient to claim since there seems to be no historical evidence of Arabs ever experiencing democracy. First of all, let’s make it perfectly clear that no modern country on this planet exercises true democracy. The word "democracy" means that the people rule. In other words, the people are the government body. That is, whenever a decision is to be made regarding any issue, the entire population has to vote on it. This of course is not practiced, and never was practiced, in the modern nation-states. What we have today, especially in the West, is known as Representative Democracy. That means, the people rule through representation (e.g. parliament).
As for representative democracy, it is almost nonexistent in the Arab world. But does that mean that there is something innate in the Arab culture that is incompatible with democracy? Take Lebanon for instance. When foreign actors forced upon the Lebanese society a skewed form of representative democracy, there was nothing in Lebanese culture that prevented it from being realized. With all its disadvantages, the racist representative democracy system that exists in Lebanon today is functioning, and adopted by practically all Lebanese (as voting statistics show every election), regardless of how many times they repeat their disgust with it. So what is fundamentally different about the Lebanese culture (as opposed to the Syrian, Palestinian, Iraqi, or Egyptian cultures) that allowed representative democracy to thrive in Lebanon over theocracy, classical monarchy, or modern totalitarianism?
Some will say that the Lebanese society is ethnically and religiously more pluralistic. On one axis, they have Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, Assyrians, and self-proclaimed Phoenicians. On the other axis, they have Sunnis, Shiites, Druz, Catholics, Orthodox Greeks, Maronites, agnostics, and these two axes intersect creating even more divisions. Three objections immediately appear to that claim: First, didn’t this ethnic and religious plurality exist in Lebanon for over a thousand years? Why couldn’t the Lebanese form the current system of governance before 1943? Second, why was this system only possible to implement by actors outside of Lebanon, against the wishes of the Lebanese people at the time of its inception? And third, doesn’t this ethnic and religious plurality exist in other Arab countries to allow for the birth of a similar system of governance? If we look at neighboring Syria, we find they have just as much diversity in religion and ethnicity, with one of the minorities (the Alawites) holding power. So why didn’t Syria achieve representative democracy as Lebanon has?
No need to dwell on this. It is well-documented how the representative democracy in Lebanon was created and sustained all these years, mostly for the benefit of outsiders, not the Lebanese themselves. There is nothing "cultural" that explains why the Syrians ended up being ruled by an Alawite Baathist dictatorship, while the Lebanese ended up with a racist representative democracy. All governance systems were imposed on the Arabs, either by a certain group of Arabs from within, or by foreigners, or both.
II – Arabs are disorganized
Some people say that Arabs can’t get anything done. The Arab League would be the perfect example for this. The Arab League convenes its meetings at a time unknown to anyone in the universe. The sporadic calls for a meeting at what seems to be random locations is evidence of this. In 1976, for instance, the Arab presidents and kings met twice. Yet between 1945 and 1964 they haven’t met once. In addition, when they do meet, following the taping of the conference itself is like watching a boring sitcom. Moreover, almost nothing they ever decided to do over these years ever got done, unless it coincided with an Imperialist demand from the West.
Or how about the great Arab armies from Jordan, Egypt, and Syria, that invaded the newly established state of Israel and got kicked in the face, twice!
Once again, these events are not particular to Arabs or the Arab culture. One can also look at Hezbollah’s rallies, demonstrations, performances, and warfare, and deduce that the Arabs are anything but disorganized. Or how about when the Imam calls for prayer on Friday, without any supervision or ushers, hundreds of Arabs get up and stand in designated lines within less than 30 seconds all over the world. Some of the greatest armies in the world can’t be that well-organized.
Some may cite the way Arabs drive in Arab countries. They double-park, and they show utter disrespect to other drivers with insults, honking, and harsh driving. Some may cite airport or bus lines in Arab cities. It is truly a notorious sight! Everyone seems to want to jump the queue and most of the time do so. But is that because of culture, or because Arab authorities fail to take appropriate measures to prevent such behavior?
In Southern China, two adjacent cities lie at the shores of Guangdong Province: Shenzhen and Hong Kong. What separates Shenzhen from Hong Kong is a bridge, or a 30 minute subway train ride. All over the province of Guangdong, the common language is Cantonese, and so is the case in Hong Kong. The Chinese people of Hong Kong and those of Guangdong province are culturally identical. The only difference between Hong Kong and the rest of Guangdong province is that the former was colonized and administered by the British for 52 years (from 1945 after the defeat of Japan, until 1997).
In Hong Kong, the roads are super organized, and the great majority of Chinese people there follow traffic laws. No double parking, full respect for pedestrian crossings, and the buses are on time and people stand in peaceful and organized lines to get on the bus. This, of course, is not the case in Guangdong, or the city of Shenzhen which is adjacent to Hong Kong. When it comes to organization, Shenzhen behaves more like Arab cities. To reiterate, there is no cultural difference between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, or between Hong Kong and Guangzhou city. The only apparent difference is in administration (the pilot of the plane). The British government enforced strict laws regarding traffic and standing in lines, whereas the Chinese government didn’t. The Chinese culture had nothing to do with it. If Arab governments truly wanted the citizens to become more organized, they can choose to enforce the law, and people will eventually adapt and accept!
III – The Arabs are lazy
When it comes to unemployment rates, we find that it exceeds 50% in some countries like Jordan, while it is 0.0% in others, like the UAE. Once again, this is obviously not culturally induced, but economically so. The greatest majority of engineers and architects in countries like Kuwait, Qatar, or the UAE happen to be Arab nationals from Greater Syria in the north as well as Egypt. The people who designed and built Dubai and Abu Dhabi, are the same who designed and built Amman and Beirut. So why does Dubai look like one of the fanciest metropolitan cities on earth, while Amman and Beirut look like enhanced refugee camps? Once again, it wasn’t culture, but economic policy and resources that determined these variations. Wherever Arabs are in the world (West or East) they seem to be excelling in what they do, in every field. Moreover, the lazy Arabs built the greatest cities on earth 1000 years ago, with the greatest libraries, universities, astronomical observatories, gardens, temples, palaces, and monuments during the golden age (around 1000 AD). Take a tour of Spain to see what the lazy Arabs have built, while the rest of the world was still trying to figure out whether "zero" was an actual number or not.
The comparative success of the Arab philosophers, medical doctors, mathematicians, astronomers, writers, poets, architects, chemists, physicists, biologists, historians, had very little to do with their culture, and a lot to do with the administration (the ruling government) that allowed, financed, and encouraged those advancements. While the Europeans were living in the dark ages, it wasn’t as though their culture had prevented them from producing great minds like Galileo, but it was the administration in Europe that prevented great people like Galileo from expanding and spreading their knowledge and discoveries. All in all, the laziness of any people on earth had nothing to do with their culture, but everything to do with the pilot.
I could go on and on about all these common misconceptions about Arabs and the Arab culture, which have absolutely nothing to do with reality. I am sure many readers can think of more compelling examples. As I said before, most people are the audience of a concert, the passengers of an airliner, who have no authority nor do they seek authority. This is not to say that Arabs are monolithic. On the contrary, each citizen has a unique set of preferences for food, subjects, music, clothes, fragrances, movies, books, political ideologies, religious beliefs, etc. Yet simultaneously, most of them are willing to put up with the existing conditions, like the passengers on the plane. There is no contradiction there. The great majority of people anywhere in the world will "get along" with whatever system is put in power. When was the last time Americans had a revolution?
On the spectrum of human types, the majority lie in the middle (those who get along with the system). On the far right you have those who are completely indoctrinated and truly believe that the existing conditions; existing system, are superb. And on the far left you have those who are completely against the existing conditions that if given the opportunity they would get up and participate in change attempts. And culture doesn’t play a role in this entire spectrum, as historical evidence have shown.
I believe that the majority of Arabs are dissatisfied with their current conditions, and thus on the spectrum of human types, most of those in the middle tend to turn their faces to the left. They probably won’t get off their seats and do something about the existing conditions. But if someone else did, they won’t mind it, and perhaps even provide different levels of support, based on that person’s position on the spectrum.
As for the people on the extreme left, who would become the catalysts of change, they need the opportunity, and a lot of faith in the probability of success.