Monday, December 19, 2011

Foreign Policy’s 100 Top Global Thinkers of 2011


This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. 


The respected and influential US monthly Foreign Policy (FP) published a long list of “top global thinkers of 2011” in its December issue. The list actually contains some 130 names, as many of the ranks included several people. For each person, FP gave a one-sentence justification/explanation, a short (or for the most important ones, somewhat long) description of their importance and influence, plus a small sidebar where the thinkers were asked to: name their muse; choose between America and China; give their current reading list; and name their choice of the best and worst idea of the moment.
In addition to the list, this special issue contains several interesting long articles on current trends and background analyses, including: “The big think about the Arab spring”; “Does Facebook have a foreign policy?”; and “16 global cities to watch” (Cairo is the only one from the Muslim world).
I thought it would be worthwhile to extract the names of the Muslim individuals who have made the list and to analyze that (sub-) list. (One must keep in mind, however, that this list comes from Foreign Policy.) But before that, there are some interesting statistics about the entire list that the magazine points out; for instance:
·    33 of the selected individuals are women (25 %);
·      21 % are economists;
·      31 published a book this year;
·      9 are heads of state;
·      8 are Nobel prize winners;
·      5 were arrested this year;
·      6 were released from prison;
·      5 are billionaires;
·      the average age of these global thinkers is 56, the youngest being 27, and the oldest 94.

Now, while the 3 “most influential global leaders” were: Obama, Merkel, and Erdogan (FP reminds us that last year, it was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Lula da Silva, and Hu Jintao), this year’s top spot for “global thinkers” was given to “the Arab Revolutionaries”, which includes 12 Arabs, plus one Serbian activist and one US academic, whose previous writings have (according to FP) been influential in the strategies used by the Arab revolutionaries on the ground.

The list starts with a big surprise: Alaa Al Aswany. Many readers of Irtiqa (and most educated people in the west) will probably not have heard of him. He is an acclaimed novelist (and a dentist!), whose books (with big and bold stories) over the past decade have been very successful both in the Arab world and the west, one of them at least has been turned into a movie, The Yacoubian Building. Now, why would a novelist be listed as a top “global thinker” (in relation to the Arab spring revolutions)? “For channeling Arab malaise – and Arab renewal”, FP tells us.

The rest of the “Arab revolutionaries” are:
·      Mohamed ElBaradei (FP reminds us that a year ago, just before the Arab spring started, ElBaradei said of the Mubarak regime that “it will fall sooner rather than later”, and at the time this sounded like wishful thinking, and that he moved back to Egypt to challenge the regime), and Wael Ghoneim, the young Google regional executive who played an important part in making social networking a crucial instrument in the Egyptian revolution. 
·      Ali Ferzat, the Syrian cartoonist who was badly beaten up to try to prevent him from making his eloquent drawings, and Razan Zaitouneh, the young Syrian activist/attorney who produced an important website to document the Syrian uprising and who has been in hiding for months – FP says “for speaking truth to a bloody power”. 
·      Rached Ghannouchi and Khairat El Shater (the Tunisian moderate Islamist leaders), “for working to reconcile Islamism and democracy (we hope)”. 
·      Tawakkul Karman (the Yemeni activist, one of this year’s Nobel Peace prize laureates), “for keeping the spirit of the Arab spring alive against impossible odds”. 
·      Wadah Khanfar (the former head of Al-Jazeerah), “for turning the Al-Jazeera revolution into an actual one”. 
·      Eman Al Najfan and Manal Al-Sharif, “for putting Saudi women in the driver’s seat”; Al Najfan (a Saudi blogger, graduate student, and mother of three) gets to pen a long article titled “What do Saudi women want?”. 
·      Fathi Terbil, a Libyan human rights lawyer, “for believing that no massacre should go unpunished”. 
·      Srdja Popovic and Gene Sharp, the Serbian activist and the US academic, “for writing the how-to manuals for this year’s revolutions”.  
In the rest of the top-100 list, we find another 10 Muslim individuals (I use “Muslim” here in the cultural background/origin sense, not in the religious affiliation one): 
·      At the 16th rank, Ahmet Davutoglu and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “for imagining a new role for Turkey in the world – and making it happen”. 
·      At the 24th rank, Sami Ben Gharbia, a Tunisian activist, “for shaping the new world of government transparency”. 
·      At #28, Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, “for forging a path between violence and surrender”. 
·      At #54, Mohamed El-Erian, the CEO of Pimco (the largest bond fund, based in California), “for delivering economic tough love to a world in denial”. 
·      At #70, Zaha Hadid, the famed Iraqi-born British architect, “for creating new forms for a new age”. 
·      At #75, Maria Bashir, the Afghani prosecutor, “for aspiring to an Afghanistan ruled by law, not men.” 
·      At #84, Mustafa Barghouti, the Palestinian politician in the West Bank (not Marwan Barghouti, the jailed Farah leader), “for believing in a different politics for Palestine”. 
·      At #85, Pervez Hoodbhoy, the Pakistani physicist (who needs no introduction to readers of Irtiqa), “for his bold secular defiance”. FP further explains that Hoodbhoy “has become a powerful voice in denouncing his country’s growing religious fundamentalism”, and highlights his statement that “Muslims need freedom from dogmatic beliefs and a culture that questions rather than obeys”.
Looking at the list (at least the one relating to the Arab-Muslim world), I think it is clear that there is a certain agenda or at least mindset here. We may very well find the agenda (of promoting political programs that are rather western-friendly and highlighting and publicizing secularism and anti-traditionalism) commendable, or at least agreeable to us and our standpoints, but it is an agenda nonetheless.
For example, Mahmoud Abbas, Salam Fayyad, and Mustafa Barghouti (the moderate Palestinian politicians) are considered “global thinkers/leaders”, but not the Emir of Qatar and his wife (the famous Sheikha Moza), who are incomparably more influential?!
And the only Muslim writers/thinkers that FP could come up with are Al Aswany, Hoodbhoy, and Al Najfan (the Saudi blogger)?!
Now, last week I presented a ranking of the “top 500 most influential Muslims” produced by a Jordanian institution that we found to be so strongly biased and boldly agenda-laden that it became ridiculous in the choices that were often made, especially when unqualified individuals were placed in categories (Science & Technology, in particular) where the criteria should have been much more rigorous.
The list produced by Foreign Policy is certainly better informed, and intelligently presented and argued. It also clearly has a certain mindset/prism, if not a specific agenda.
But such exercises are often, if not always, interesting and useful.

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