Sunday, April 23, 2006

Inellectual isolation and the curse of bad ideas

From Jonathan Rauch's In Arabic, 'Internet' Means 'Freedom' found at Middle East Transparent.

Odd though it may sound, somewhere in Baghdad a man is working in secrecy to edit new Arabic versions of Liberalism, by the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, and In Defense of Global Capitalism, by the Swedish economist Johan Norberg. He is doing this at some risk of kidnap, beating, and death, because he hopes that a new Arabic-language Web site, called LampofLiberty.org -- MisbahAlHurriyya.org in Arabic -- can change the world by publishing liberal classics
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Intellectual isolation is a widespread Arab phenomenon, not just an Iraqi one. Some of the statistics are startling. According to the United Nations' 2003 "Arab Human Development Report," five times more books are translated annually into Greek, a language spoken by just 11 million people, than into Arabic. "No more than 10,000 books were translated into Arabic over the entire past millennium," says the U.N., "equivalent to the number translated into Spanish each year." Authors and publishers must cope with the whims of 22 Arab censors. "As a result," writes a contributor to the report, "books do not move easily through their natural markets." Newspapers are a fifth as common as in the non-Arab developed world; computers, a fourth as common. "Most media institutions in Arab countries remain state-owned," the report says.

No wonder the Arab world and Western-style modernity have collided with a shock. They are virtually strangers, 300 years after the Enlightenment and 200 years after the Industrial Revolution. Much as other regions may be cursed with disease or scarcity, in recent decades the Arab world has been singularly cursed with bad ideas. First came Marxism and its offshoots; then the fascistic nationalism of Nasserism and Baathism; now, radical Islamism. Diverse as those ideologies are, they have in common authoritarianism and the suppression of any true private sphere. Instead of withering as they have done in open competition with liberalism, they flourished in the Arab world's relative isolation.
Here is the result and in English.

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