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The Lonely Arab Crowd

PARIS – In The Hubris of the Zero Point, the Colombian philosopher Santiago Castro-Gomez describes René Descartes’s 1637 declaration “I think, therefore I am” as the moment white Europeans installed themselves above God as the sole arbiters of knowledge and truth. With this turning point, they began to think of themselves as observers whose scientific methods, morals, and ethics overrode those of other cultures.

Cultural “zero points” are important because they serve as a dividing line – a clear demarcation of “before” and “after” that holds fundamental implications for the development of private and public life. So it is instructive to consider the implications of Castro-Gomez’s concept for the Arab world. Indeed, it could be argued that much of the region’s troubles are attributable to the absence of an indigenous “zero point” onto which a modern culture could be sturdily pinned.

In The Lonely Crowd, the American sociologist David Riesman identified three broad cultural types: tradition-directed cultures that look to inherited rituals, morals, and values for guidance; inner-directed cultures, in which people behave according to self-nourished values; and other-directed cultures that react predominantly to external norms and peer influences. Riesman’s framework has particular resonance in the Arab world today, where rising literacy rates and rapid advances in communication technology have stirred a maelstrom of competing cultural narratives, with his three types competing to define the region’s future.

Ironically, it is the combination of increased literacy and modern technology that is fanning the flames of conflict between the two types of “reformers” – religious revivalists and Western-oriented modernizers. Taking advantage of their ability to mass-produce and instantly disseminate ancient religious texts and Western-originating literature, the two camps battle for the hearts and minds of otherwise traditional societies. According to the Lebanese publisher Samar Abou-Zeid, however, religious books are among the most downloaded works of literature in the Arab world.