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ByTarek 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. 

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