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 October 27 , 2002

Our need for "A Culture of Compromise"


Tarek Heggy

A few years ago, I discovered that there is no equivalent in the Arabic ‎language, classical or colloquial, for the English word "compromise", which ‎is most commonly translated into Arabic in the form of two words, literally ‎meaning ‘halfway solution’. I went through all the old and new ‎dictionaries and lexicons I could lay my hands on in a futile search for an ‎Arabic word corresponding to this common English word, which exists, ‎with minor variations in spelling, in all European languages, whether of the ‎Latin, Germanic, Hellenic or Slavic families. The same is true of several ‎other words, such as ‘integrity’, which has come to be widely used in the ‎discourse of Europe and North America in the last few decades and for ‎which no single word exists in the Arabic language. As language is not ‎merely a tool of communication but the depositary of a society’s cultural ‎heritage, reflecting its way of thinking and the spirit in which it deals with ‎things and with others, as well as the cultural trends which have shaped it, I ‎realized that we were here before a phenomenon with cultural (and, ‎consequently, political, economic and social) implications. ‎

For nearly twenty years, I had the opportunity to work closely with ‎people drawn from over fifty different nationalities in a global economic ‎establishment which remains, after a long history stretching back to the ‎nineteenth century, one of the five largest establishments in the world. What ‎I noticed over the years is that people with a west European background use ‎the word ‘compromise’ more often than those coming from an eastern ‎cultural tradition. As the study of cultures is one of my hobbies, particularly ‎when it comes to comparing the Arab, Latin and Anglo-Saxon minds, I ‎could not help noticing that just as those with an Arab mind-set use the word ‎compromise less than those with a Latin mind-set, so too do the latter use it ‎less than those with an Anglo-Saxon mind-set. There is a simple explanation ‎for this. If one’s way of thinking is based on a set of philosophical/religious ‎principles, then it is normal that people raised in an Arab culture should be ‎less inclined to use the word compromise than those whose minds were ‎conditioned in a Latin context, where, although the philosophical ‎dimension looms large, the religious dimension figures less prominently ‎than it does in the Arab mind-set. It is also normal that Latin societies use ‎the word less than societies with an Anglo-Saxon cultural formation. The ‎Anglo-Saxon way of thinking, which has come to dominate the world in a ‎manner unprecedented in history, is based on an altogether different set of ‎rules.‎

‎ One of the principal influences on the reforming thought of the ‎nineteenth century, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), ‎believed all systems, laws, institutions and ideas should be based on the ‎principle of utility (utilitarianism). The United States, for its part, produced ‎two renowned philosophers, William James (1842-1910) and John Dewey ‎‎(1859-1952), whose works reflected Bentham’s ideas but with modifications ‎dictated by the passage of time and the unfolding of events and under the ‎different name of pragmatism. The notion of compromise spilled beyond the ‎Anglo-Saxon world into societies belonging to different cultural traditions. ‎In Asia, for example, people of Chinese, Japanese and Indian stock ‎managed, while jealously guarding their cultural specificity, to learn the ‎meaning of the English word compromise before they learned its linguistic ‎form, tending in all their dealings to find solutions based on compromise. ‎Even the Latin countries adopted the notion before the word became part of ‎their political lexicon, as anyone following political discourse in the Latin ‎countries can see. Today it is not unusual to tune in to one of the French ‎satellite channels and find a prominent economist speaking in English, ‎which would have been unheard of as recently as three decades ago, ‎presenting ideas based on the notion of compromise.‎

Moving to our region of the world, we find many people, even educated ‎people, associating the word compromise with such negative terms as ‎‎‘submission’, ‘retreat’, ‘capitulation’, ‘weakness’ and ‘defeat’. These are ‎terms that do not occur to a westerner when he uses the word compromise, ‎because whatever his educational formation, whether it is in the field of ‎science, humanities or liberal arts, he knows that all ideas are in their ‎essence nothing but compromises. Indeed, he is taught early on, during his ‎school years, that most natural phenomena are also compromises. Moreover, ‎the cultures of merchant nations (of which Britain is perhaps the most ‎notable example in human history) have instilled the idea of compromise in ‎all spheres of life, intellectual, political, economic, cultural and social, even ‎in human dealings. Thus while our popular sayings reflect a negative picture ‎of the term compromise, hundreds of popular sayings in Britain do just the ‎opposite.‎

Although Islamic scripture is totally compatible with a culture ‎characterized by compromise, Muslim history (especially its Arab chapter) ‎has proceeded in a spirit that is antithetical to the notion of compromise. ‎Our recent history is made up largely of losses which could have been ‎avoided had we had not persistently rejected the notion of compromise as ‎tantamount to submission, retreat, surrender, capitulation and even, as some ‎of our more fiery orators put it, as a form of bondage to the will of others.‎

This all-or-nothing mentality is self-defeating. Any dispute or conflict is, ‎by definition, a struggle between people or nations with different views and ‎at different levels of power. It follows that any resolution of their ‎differences that is not based on a compromise is impossible, because it ‎would entail the total subjugation of the will, interests and power of one of ‎the parties to those of the other. Such a conflict-resolution approach is ‎doomed to fail because it runs counter to the laws of science, nature and life ‎itself. Some prominent Egyptian intellectuals, like Dr. Milad Hanna, who ‎has tirelessly expounded his theory on the need to accept the Other, and Dr. ‎Murad Wahba, who has written extensively on the theme that nobody can ‎claim to hold a monopoly on absolute truth, are making a valuable and ‎noble contribution to the process of instilling the rules and culture of ‎compromise in our society. ‎

I do not claim to be the first Egyptian writer who has addressed this ‎issue. In the mid-fifties, the late Tewfik el-Hakim touched on it in his book, ‎Al-Ta’aduleya (Equivalence). But on the one hand he was living in a time ‎very different from the one we are living in today, which was reflected in ‎the final product he presented, and, on the other -and I hate to say this ‎because I have the highest esteem for el-Hakim’s genius- he did not ‎address the issue in sufficient depth. Perhaps the culture prevailing in Egypt ‎at the time was an objective constraint preventing him from delving as ‎deeply into the subject as he would otherwise have done, not to mention the ‎fact that the word ‘equivalence’ is very different in meaning and ‎connotations from the word ‘compromise’.‎

I believe the spread of a religious culture based on strict orthodoxy, or ‎the textual reading of scripture, was one of the reasons for the failure of the ‎concept of compromise to catch on in our culture. If we were to talk to Ibn ‎Rushd or Al-Gaheth (a renowned Mu’tazalite literary figure), we would find ‎it easy to explain to them and they would find it easy to grasp the notion that ‎all thinking, all dealings, must be characterized by a spirit of compromise, ‎with all its implications. That would not be the case if we spoke with ‎proponents of the orthodox school, strict textualists like Ahmed bin Hambal, ‎Ibn Taymeya, Ibn Qiyam al-Juzeya, Mohamed bin Abdel Wahab or with the ‎dozens of their contemporary counterparts who preach a dogmatic ‎adherence to the letter rather than the spirit of religion, slamming the doors ‎shut in the face of rationality. Attempting to explain the notion of ‎compromise to members of this school would be as much of a lost cause as ‎Ibn Rushd’s vigorous defense of the primacy of reason eight centuries ago. ‎Actually, it would be even more of a lost cause because, although Ibn Rushd ‎was vanquished by the textualists in the Arab/Islamic civilization, his ideas ‎took root in the Christian culture. There is no doubt that the ideas of this ‎great Islamic philosopher prevailed over those of Thomas Aquinas in the ‎thirteenth century, thanks to his many disciples in the University of Paris at ‎the time and the so-called Latin Averroists. Perhaps history will one day ‎admit that an Arab Muslim was behind the victory of reason over dogma at ‎a time the prevailing culture in Europe was inimical to intellectual initiative ‎and freedom of thought. Had the outcome of the battle for the hearts and ‎minds of the Europeans favoured the other camp, Europe today would have ‎been at the same stage of development and enlightenment as Africa.‎

A similar battle is now underway in our country, a battle whose outcome ‎is uncertain. If we want reason to prevail over obscurantist thinking, we ‎must take immediate action. For a start, a team of intellectuals with a ‎cultural formation made up of a synthesis of Arab, Islamic and other ‎humanistic cultures should come together and lay down a charter to instill ‎the rationale of compromise in the minds of the young people of Egypt ‎through educational curricula and by promoting the idea that compromise ‎is the strongest product of nature, life and the march of civilizations and ‎cultures, while a rigid refusal to consider the merits of anyone else’s opinion ‎and to insist on obtaining all one’s demands runs counter to the logic of ‎science, nature, humanity, culture and civilization.‎

In view of the fact that I was unable to find one Arabic word that ‎corresponds to the English word compromise, I have been forced to do two ‎things in this article that I would have preferred to avoid. One was to write ‎the word compromise in Latin letters throughout the article, the other was to ‎use the common translation of the word, the unwieldy ‘halfway solution’, in ‎the title. But because I am a great believer in compromise, and because I ‎also believe in the popular saying that “who cannot obtain all does not give ‎up all”, I decided to write the article anyway. ‎

French Version: Le Besoin d'une « Culture de Compromis »

The Arabic version of this article was published at Al-Ahram on 29th September, 2002.

Dr. Tarek Heggy combines academic, cultural and economic dimensions.  He is the author of 17 books, a visiting professor at Princeton, Columbia and the University of California Berkeley. One of the world's top petroleum strategists, he was the Chairman of a major international oil company for ten years until July, 1996. Tarek Heggy's books advocate the values of progress as a human product, modernity, acceptance of the other, cultural tolerance, universality of science/knowledge, democracy and civil society. Beside his major areas of interest: the intellectual domain and modern management, he is the member of the board of some 30 prominent organizations, faculties and universities.. Selected works are online at http://www.heggy.org.


Copyright 2002, by the author.

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