Europe and the Arab World in the 21st Century
Does more unite the Arab world and Europe than divides them?
- The geography of the third millennium begins looking far more like the geography of the first millennium. Herein lay the prospects for a "Western renaissance."
- The salvation of Western Eurasia will depend on adapting to the new global geography — and to that end uniting the Arab and European regions.
- Much more unites the Arab world and Europe than unites the Arab world or Europe with any other region or civilization of Eurasia.
- Failing to embrace globalization in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Arabs have been described as "the orphans of globalization."
- Two regions that have had great difficulty adhering to "Darwin's law" are Europe and the Arab world.
Charles Darwin wrote, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
I have to admit that the first time I read this was not in On the Origin of Species, but on a wall in the foyer of the main building of Koç University in the outskirts of Istanbul. Turkey seems to be heeding this aphorism, as it currently ranks among the more dynamic countries of the “rising global South.”
There can be no dissent from the view that the world is undergoing the greatest transformation it has seen for centuries, perhaps ever. Rising global powers, mind-boggling new technologies, rapidly shifting demographics and the impact of climate change are among the major transforming forces.
Two regions that have had great difficulty adhering to “Darwin’s law” are Europe and the Arab world. Europe is old, inward-looking and basks in the illusion of past power. It is more accustomed to teach than to learn, to impose than to adapt.
As for the Arabs, having been the movers and shakers of globalization for centuries, it has proven difficult to adapt to more modern times. Failing to embrace globalization in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, as the Chinese, Indonesians, Malaysians and others did, Arabs have been described as “the orphans of globalization.”
Rather than focusing on the future, there is far too much energy invested in fighting yesterday’s battles. There is resentment against “the West” that, while in some respects justified, ultimately does not push the agenda forward.
As described in Albert Hourani’s great opus, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age: 1789-1939, there was arguably more constructive discourse among intellectuals on Arabs’ place in the world a century ago than there is now.
However, recent developments in North Africa — with the unrest in Tunisia spreading to other countries, most notably Egypt — may be indicators that at last the Arab world is waking up from its torpor. This is a revolution driven by youth, enabled in turn by the digital revolution, and by aspirations for ending the stifling oppression from which most Arab countries have suffered for over 30 years.
By no means, however, is it clear in which direction these social forces will go. The complexities are huge — and the challenges even more so.
The solution to the challenges facing both Europe and the Arab world may lie in part in geographic paradigms. Geography is reality and perception — the perception makes what it wants out of the reality. One of the more fundamental errors in the geographic paradigm was to have divided the Eurasian continent between what Herodotus (4th century BCE) described as the “imaginary line that separates East from West.”
In reality, the Arab world is an integral part of “the West.” Much more unites the Arab world and Europe than unites the Arab world or Europe with any other region or civilization of Eurasia.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the world’s only monotheistic faiths, and all three emerged from the same geographic neighborhood. Greek philosophy is as much “Eastern” as it is “Western” — in the Herodotus sense of the term — and initially had more impact on the former than on the latter. Indeed, the latter eventually learned about Greek philosophy from the former.
“Western” civilization is “Eastern,” as its origins lie in Mesopotamia (Iraq). One of the highest points of Western civilization was the city of Córdoba at the time of Al-Andalus, where great scholars, including the Muslim Ibn Rushd (also known as Averroes) and the Jew Maimonides, learned (from each other!) and taught.
If it is correct, as seems to be the case, that the global center of gravity is moving rapidly to Chinese Eastern Asia, this is not a civilization with which the Arab world has any particular affinity, or a common history and philosophy as it shares with Europe. The Arab “identity problem,” sandwiched as it sees itself between Europe and Asia, may be an important element in explaining its “orphan” status.
The geography that forms the paradigm we live in at present is for the most part derived from developments in the 19th century. The Rudyard Kipling “East is East and West is West syndrome” has a relatively recent pedigree. It is also of course very much the outcome of colonialism.
In reality, throughout much of history, the Eurasian continent was more a continuum than a division into exclusive spheres. As demonstrated in Ian Morris’ quite brilliant book, Why the West Rules — For Now, due to many historical, philosophical and geographic reasons, it does make sense to recognize two entities: Eastern Eurasia, essentially the greater Chinese space, and Western Eurasia, encompassing all that would fit under the traditional sources of “Western civilization.”
In the face of the challenge emanating from Eastern Eurasia in the 21st century, the salvation of Western Eurasia will depend on adapting to the new global geography — and to that end uniting the Arab and European regions.
This new Western Eurasian space should also include Turkey, Iran and the countries of North Africa. In so doing, the geography of the third millennium begins looking far more like the geography of the first millennium. Herein lay the prospects for a “Western renaissance.”
This Western Eurasian space is unlikely to dominate the planet in the 21st century or even seriously contest the power of Eastern Eurasia. There are, to begin with, considerable differences in population. By 2040, the populations of Eastern Asia and South/Central Asia will be some 2.5 billion each. The total population of Western Eurasia including North Africa will come to 1.4 billion. Size is not everything — but it does matter.
However, Western Eurasia (including North Africa) could ensure that Europe and the Arab world, by combining their strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses, will retain an influential and constructive role in the 21st century global geography.
There are tremendous advantages to be gained. The most important will be to bring about reconciliation and peace. Imagine a world where the Middle East is no longer a cauldron. Europe’s aging problem will be strongly mitigated by the contribution of Arab youth. The two regions’ age pyramids stand in reverse positions: top heavy in Europe, bottom heavy in the Middle East.
There have been a number of initiatives seeking to develop closer ties between Europe and the Arab world, notably the Barcelona Process or Sarkozy’s Union of the Mediterranean, but these have all petered out, mainly for lack of substance, support and ambition.
The suggestion made here is much more radical. These times of profound transformations do not provide fertile soil for half measures. This is a very new world we are entering. Squabbling over the past will get us nowhere. Moving to where we need to be will require considerable efforts in both regions of Western Eurasia.
It will also require time. But to borrow from a Chinese proverb, a long journey begins with a single step. We need to start moving in that direction.