The definition of east and west, the validity of that polarization and its consequences on political thinking, were the topics of discussion at a panel discussion titled “Which side of the mind: Dialogue of the East and West” held on the sidelines of the 33rd Sharjah International Book Fair.
Speaking about the definition of the “west”, Lebanese author and philosopher Ali Harb, said: “It can be considered a geographical term that refers to Europe and the United States. It can also be considered a civilization that has excelled on many fronts or a liberal political arena, which is why Russia doesn’t consider itself a part of Europe but rather Eurasia. The west could also be considered a strategic alliance that aims to expand and dominate.”
On the other hand, Harb said that the east might be considered everything that’s not all that. “However, is there still credibility in discussing this polarized world? Is it contemporary and relevant? Especially in the light of technological revolution? We are no longer living in Huntington’s world of Clash of Civilization,” he said.
Harb added that the west is not an enemy and that the Arab world deals with civil, sectarian, internal conflicts and often “in these wars that aim for mutual eradication, it is the west that is called upon for help.”
“We blame the west for our problems, yet we go to their countries for refuge. Their countries are the place for our political, religious, philosophical and social opposition,” said Harb. This polarization is deceptive, he says, because “in this digital age, the world has become one. Our interests are now intertwined; we are witnessing a globalization of identities due to immigration, and a globalization of culture.”
Harb ended his speech by saying that diversity is enrichment and polarization transforms that into an intolerant environment.
Following Harb’s remarks, Husain Haqqani, Pakistani scholar and former ambassador to the United States, and advisor to three Pakistani prime ministers including Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif also called the concept of east and west redundant. “It was probably valid when people thought the world was flat but now, we know that the world is a sphere and you can reach the east from the west or the west from the east,” he quipped.
“The Chinese don’t think of themselves in terms of east and west. India is modernizing and their gap with the ‘west’ is reducing so this east-west division is limited to the center of the Muslim world, particularly the Arab world,” he said.
“Instead of thinking of these terms it would be better to think inward. The Arab world consists of 5 per cent of the world’s population and yet publishes only 1 per cent of the books published in the world,” he said, adding, “the day that we can say that we are equal to the west is the day that we are able to generate, absorb, transfer and disseminate knowledge the same way.”
“We don’t need to imitate the ‘west’ or give up our culture or historical legacy but we need to realize that there is a shift in the world – the domination of knowledge,” he said.
Haqqani said that the technological advancement in the Muslim world is not moving, the hard fact is that more knowledge is happening in the west. “But the counterargument to that is: what do we consider Arabs living in the west and enriching them? The east is enriching the west,” he said.
“Maybe we’re not that different, maybe those who say that are feeding our inferiority complex. We are proud of being the descendants of our great ancestors but maybe that excessive pride makes us think that the present is not important enough and that we can live in the past instead of live for the future,” he said, adding that we don’t only dwell in the past but that we don’t know the past well enough.
Haqqani urged the younger generation to learn and build from and understand the knowledge gap that keeps us different from the rest of the world. He urged scientists to stop imitating and to innovate and he urged social scientists to be able to adapt the concepts to their own realities.
In his final remarks to the audience he said: “We need to be able to criticize ourselves. That is the real strength. Some of us were brought up with anger and not ambition. We need to move away from victimizing ourselves.”