"Arab Culture Was under Threat before Globalisation"

"Identity versus globalisation?" was the subject of an international conference in Berlin. The only representative of the world of Arab culture was Pierre Abi-Saab, Lebanese journalist and editor-in-chief of the cultural magazine Al-Zawaya. Interview conducted by Youssef Hijazi

"Identity versus globalisation?" was the subject of an international interdisciplinary conference organised recently by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin. The only representative of the world of Arab culture was Pierre Abi-Saab, Lebanese journalist and editor-in-chief of the cultural magazine Al-Zawaya. Interview conducted by Youssef Hijazi

photo: AP
Traditional cooking is part of cultural identity - this is one reason American fast-food chains are perceived as a major threat in the Arab world

​​The title of the conference was "Identity versus globalisation?" Does this question arise out of people's fear for their own identity in the face of globalisation?

Pierre Abi-Saab: The logic of globalisation is the logic of a huge market of consumer goods. Everyone is under threat from this. Everyone feels threatened by the invasion of values, concepts, and cultural forms over which they have no influence. The most fundamental thing about this question is to determine the extent to which culture can withstand this threat.

When faced with a challenge such as this, identity reacts like a mussel: it closes as soon as any new wave washes over it. The Arabs feel this more than others, but they are not alone; the French feel as if their restaurants are being washed away by fast food chains. This is an example of a threat to identity because French cuisine is an integral part of French culture.

Identities are undoubtedly under threat because globalisation is blurring them all and making them conform to a single model in which everyone consumes the same goods, wears the same clothes, and thinks the same thoughts.

It was evident at the conference that the extent of the threat posed by globalisation differs from situation to situation. Today you spoke about a globalisation that seeks to eradicate identity. Does that mean that you feel your identity is under threat?

Abi-Saab: A new charter - The Convention on the Protection of Cultural Diversity - which is currently being drafted by UNESCO and in which almost 130 countries are involved, is calling for culture to be excluded from trade agreements. This would mean that culture would not be deemed a consumer good.

This raises the question as to the extent to which a state may be allowed to protect its national culture by not treating culture like a commodity. The WTO is calling for unrestricted freedom of trade. All traders launch their goods on the market and the consumers buy whatever they like. That is the logic of liberalism and this is why attempts are being made to remove culture from this framework.

Do you agree that there is a difference in this regard? The Europeans and the USA have a level playing field. The Arabs, on the other hand, do not; they are starting from the position of a weaker culture whose existence is under threat.

Abi-Saab: Arab culture came under threat long before the genesis of globalisation. The illusions that the political regimes have built up since independence and that have existed for over 50 years now - I'm talking here about freedom, socialism, and the liberation of Palestine - are suddenly collapsing. Arab people and political movements are worried and feel unprotected.

There are also systematic attempts to blur Arab culture in all its many facets with the struggle against Israeli occupation. Quite apart from globalisation, this tendency alone threatens to obliterate Arab culture altogether.

In reality, the term globalisation means Americanisation. We must oppose this strain of MacDonaldisation. Today, thanks to the channels of communication on the Internet and the Global Village, the USA has the means and the productive force to propagate a specific model that is quickly adopted by the younger generation.

By saying that are you not belittling the role of the younger generation? What about local culture?

Abi-Saab: I don't want to tell the younger generation - or any citizen or consumer for that matter - what to do; I want to give them a choice. But we have to show them: this is your identity; acknowledge it; be proud of it; and deal with it in whatever way you want. Those who are self-confident can withstand the most violent storms and powerful floods. But those who are weak and fragile; those who cling on for dear life to a small part of tradition (like the fundamentalists do), will be washed away by even the smallest wave.

Fundamental resistance comes with the building up of an identity; not with fanaticism, but with robust self-confidence. Because of globalisation, we all look alike; we all consume the same things. This is contrary to the development of humanity and the satisfaction of its needs. What sort of globalisation pushes us back instead of allowing us to move forward?

The Europeans use tradition as a base on which to build and consolidate. The Arabs, on the other hand, generally look to the past to find their future; as if they wanted to copy the past. How can Arabs liberate themselves from this dilemma?

Abi-Saab: Seeking refuge in the past is the consequence of a failed resistance in the present and the lack of a future prospect. If we don't have visions, we will fail both in the present and with our future plans and their implementation.

The solution for us is to develop our own concept. We must find our place in the world. Here, the past is no longer a refuge, but a source of strength. Every individual, every group, party, and government is responsible for this development. We can benefit from the past and from all cultures, even that of our enemy. This requires a certain openness. At present, however, we are closing ourselves off from everything. We are defeated peoples that have lost much and have been bled dry by our own regimes, our enemies, and ongoing colonialism.

In your paper you said that the elite bear a responsibility for culture. What role do the intellectuals in the Arab world play when shaping a vision?

Abi-Saab: There are individuals who have cultural visions and work at cultural level. But they are isolated. The media offer them no space. The voices that we hear are the voices of those who hold the reins. When you shout, everybody hears you; but if you whisper, nobody does.

Today, it is the noise that dominates and drowns out the creative voices. But this is no unavoidable fate; it can be changed. The pure voice in art, literature, theatre, and cinema is being heard. This is the seed. Nature is fertile; but we have to sow the seeds.

Nowadays much is determined by the media. Cultural events, whatever they might be, do not exist unless they get a response from the media. From where do you draw your optimism? After all, you yourself work in the media.

Abi-Saab: I meant optimism in the absolute sense. If we look at the Arab situation, we have every reason to be pessimistic. But I prefer to rely on the principle of life that rises up from the ashes and starts all over again.

Nevertheless, we should not be too optimistic, because cultures do sometimes die out. The Arabic language is under threat and so is Arabic culture. Relying on the fertileness of nature and its ability to reproduce is part of the process of self-motivation that helps give us the strength to carry on.

The media are the greatest disaster in the Arab world at present. It is not a disgrace if they are commercial. We cannot say that the media have a mission, but that they shouldn't be making a profit. However, it is the task of the media to tell the truth. But the Arab media are not telling the truth. They must know that they can bring about a cultural renaissance. If they initiate debates that are of interest to the younger generation, if they discuss the burning questions of our era. This is also profitable. It generates material profit and, at the same time, invigorates society and culture.

It is possible to work on a media project while working towards such a renaissance. The constructive capitalist mentality says that if you want to invest in this piece of land, you must make sure that it is fertile so that you will profit from it for many years and can then bequeath it to your children. We are in favour of freedom and democracy. But the media is responsible for providing high-quality cultural and political programmes.

To what extent can the media be influenced in this direction?

Abi-Saab: As is always the case in times of crisis and totalitarian eras, solutions are individual. We must create networks for specific projects, put people in the right positions in media institutions that will work proactively and will try to play a specific role. This role can grow and in turn open up other channels.

The second aspect is the partnership with Europe. I am speaking here about the partnership between two equal players; not between one strong, affluent, autonomous side and one weak, poor side that is willing to accept anything. There are types of partnerships that would support the development of an alternative media landscape and alternative channels that are not as strong as the dominant consumer media, but still play an important role and can shape a generation.

When you speak of an equal partnership, what will strong Europe want from the weaker partner in return for its assistance? How does one create a level playing field?

Abi-Saab: The countries of the world are all in the same boat; if a hole emerges on one side of the boat, everyone goes down together. Europe has learned from the wave of terrorism and from the attacks on the World Trade Centre etc. The West understands that it cannot keep its distance from the Arab world. It exploits its oil reserves; uses one group to fight the Soviet Union; and when the era of the Soviets comes to an end, this group turns on the West. The West understands that creating balanced growth can only be to its own advantage in the long run. If, therefore, Europe supports the build-up of stable countries, it will benefit from doing so.

We have reached the bottom of the barrel and cannot sink any further. We must resurface. There are different ways of doing so: we can take the fundamentalist route, the national route, the progressive route and so on and so forth. Not all of these routes are right, but we must work on a new rebirth.

Interview: Youssef Hijazi

© Qantara.de 2005

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan