Mitt Romney, a man with the charisma of a wardrobe, is running for the US presidency. As part of his campaign he is visiting three nations which have close connections with the USA: Britain, Israel and Poland. These are countries which influence or contain large groups of US voters and potential donors.
At a donors’ breakfast in Israel, Romney offered his take on the “dramatically stark differences in economic vitality” between Israel and the Palestinian territories. In his estimation at least part of the reason for the disparity are the cultural differences between the two groups. As well as the automatic cries of “racism” this elicited glee in the media at the supposed gaffe, as Mark Mardell of the BBC told us last night, of “insulting the Palestinians.”
I don’t know if Romney is any more, or less, prejudiced than any of the rest of us, I do know that if I were trying to persuade a bunch of wealthy Jews in Jerusalem to donate to my political campaign I wouldn’t spend a lot of time praising those nice folks at Hamas and Fatah. Romney is a politician and this “gaffe” may well have brought him significant donations in Israel and votes back home.
It is easy to point out that a substantial reason for the disparity in living standards between Israel and the Palestinian territories is the blockade and other restrictions imposed on the territories by Israel. This, however, shores up Romney’s analysis, as the Palestinian terrorism and virulent anti-Semitism which gives rise to the blockade is a product of one of the main drivers of those cultural differences.
There is a larger picture to be taken into consideration. The Palestinian territories are not alone in the Middle East in having high levels of poverty, illiteracy, political corruption, misogyny, scapegoating of outsiders and repressive governance.
Over the last decade the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has issued a series of studies conducted by independent researchers and scholars from the Arab world. The studies tried to find out why barriers which impede human and economic development persist in the Arab world.
As one would expect the findings blame poor governance, lack of individual freedom and gender inequality. Precisely the social attitudes Romney summarized as “cultural” deficiencies among Palestinians. It is, however, somewhat doubtful that Mark Mardell would consider the UN to be gaffe prone.
According to the UN what impedes the good governance and economic and social progress of Arab societies are the “political and social flaws and constraints” on human freedom and the individual’s sense of personal security. There is not an Arab nation without what we in the West would consider massive constraints on the individual’s freedom and security.
The UN describes gender inequality as a “main obstacle” to full human development. Throughout the Arab world more than half of Arab women were found to be illiterate. When we consider that some of the wealthiest nations on the planet are in the Middle East it becomes clear that this is not simply a matter of economic poverty.
Palestinian women have a long way to go before approaching the level of education, freedom and empowerment accepted as normal by the mass of Israeli women. This does not arise from poverty but rather gives rise to poverty and is a product of the ideology which is the source of the other poverty inducing cultural factors.
What the UN fails to stress is the main and determining ‘cultural’ factor. The Arab world is a Moslem world and many of the constraints on human freedom and gender equality there, as elsewhere, arise from their interpretation of Islam.
What we believe shapes how we think and how we think shapes how we behave.