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UN: Report Says Arab World Lags Behind In Acquisition, Dissemination Of Knowledge

  • Kathleen Moore

The U.S.-led war on terrorism has given autocratic rulers in the Arab world an excuse to clamp down on freedoms -- and that, in turn, has deepened Arab disenchantment, restricted people's educational opportunities and hampered the region's progress and growth. That's all according to a new report commissioned by the United Nations and written by a group of Arab scholars.

Prague, 21 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The findings come in the second Arab Human Development Report, the latest in a series of studies written by Arab intellectuals that look at the challenges facing Arab countries.

It's a follow-up to last year's widely read report, which addressed what it called the region's three main "deficits" -- lack of freedom, women's empowerment, and the dissemination of knowledge.

This year, the focus is on knowledge, showing how the Arab region lags behind much of the rest of the world in the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge.

Mostly, it points the finger of blame back at Arab countries themselves -- it says censorship and other constraints like self-appointed "watchdogs of public morality" create a restrictive atmosphere.

But it also says the U.S.-led war on terrorism has had a dampening effect on educational opportunities for Arabs.

It says ethnic profiling of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. -- and the fingerprinting of visitors from Arab states -- has cut the number of Arab students in the U.S. What it calls increased anti-Muslim bias in the West -- plus Arab anger over the war in Iraq -- has put a further chill on cultural exchanges between Arab countries and the West.

But it says the "gravest repercussion" of the war on terrorism is that it gives ruling regimes in some Arab countries "spurious justification for curbing freedoms through an expanded definition of terrorism." It cites in particular the Arab Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism, which it says opened the door to censorship and the suppression of material judged to "encourage terrorism."

And since "a climate of freedom is an essential prerequisite of the knowledge society" -- this has hampered the region's progress and growth.

These conclusions will no doubt spark much debate -- as did last year's report, which has been downloaded from the Internet by more than 1 million people.

The U.S. State Department welcomed the report, though spokesman Adam Ereli did not comment directly on its findings. But he said the U.S. wants "greater numbers" of students from the region visiting the U.S.: "I would simply say to that we have been and continue to work very diligently to balance the need for secure borders with open doors. We recognize the importance -- both to us and the region -- of having people from this [Arab] part of the world to come to the U.S. to study, learn new skills and gain knowledge and new experience and to take that back to the region and contribute to their societies."

To some, the link between the war on terrorism and knowledge seems a bit forced. Lebanese lawyer and writer Chibil Mallat welcomes the report's focus on how Arab governments use terrorism to repress their societies. But he notes that the Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism -- cited in the report -- actually pre-dates the events of 11 September. It came into force in 1999.

"While it's correct to say that Arab governments have been using this elastic concept of terrorism to continue their modes of repression, I'm not sure it has much to do with knowledge," Mallat said.

Mallat says he also welcomes the fact the report puts some figures on what is a widely acknowledged problem.

For example, the report says that in Arab countries, only 53 newspapers are published per day per 1,000 citizens, compared to 285 newspapers per 1,000 citizens in the developed world. Book print runs are small -- 5,000 copies is typical for a best-seller. Even prize-winning novels can be banned. Five times more books are translated into Greek each year than into Arabic. Religious works count for nearly one-fifth of the already meager Arab book output, compared to a world average of just 5 percent for religious books.

What can be done? First of all, the authors call for freedoms of opinion, speech, and assembly. In other words, broad social and political reforms.

But Mattal says the report doesn't go far enough: "It's welcome to have a report like this, and it's a serious report, and a lot of work has gone into it. But the problem is a lack of courage in such a report. You can't just in the abstract attack government. You have to pinpoint what went wrong in each and every case -- and with examples. So it's been a habit in the Arab world now for the past 20 years that everyone says it, on TV and elsewhere, that our governments are failures and the situation of the Arab states is a catastrophe. That's all very nice, but [we must] go to a form of accountability, and that can't be a general one. It has to be one of details."

Two further reports on the Arab world are planned over the next two years.