Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Photo: Reuters / Charles Platiau
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Photo: Reuters / Charles Platiau

Many years ago I was in Istanbul, having lunch with a professor of Ottoman history (one of my hobbies, along with Byzantine history) and the subject of the Arabs came up. I was surprised at my interlocutor’s absolute contempt for the Arabs, especially since he was a highly intelligent, sophisticated scholar. So I asked him why.

His response resonates with me to this day: “We conquered and ruled the Arabs for 400 years and not once did they rebel! Even when the empire was disintegrating, they had to call the British in to help them. It is a nation of slaves.”

A nation of slaves. I have reflected long and hard on that statement. I believe that the professor was right.

The majority of Arabs suffer from an inferiority complex as a result of in fact being treated as inferiors for 400 years. It cannot have helped that the Turkish conquerers were succeeded by the British and French, who ignored Arab sensibilities completely and carved up their territories in ways that made no sense except to them – with the pernicious results of which we are still living.

The Ottomans conquered the entire Arab world in the 15th and 16th centuries, with only two exceptions: in the far west of the Arab world, Morocco, and in the far east, Oman. I have personal experience with both Morocco and Oman, and I can testify that the psychological atmosphere in those two countries is very different from that in the rest of the Arab world.

The psychologists tell us that typically there are two reactions displayed by persons with an inferiority complex. One is to try to be inconspicuous, so as not to be subjected to behavior that would confirm their inferiority. The other is to strike out violently at those perceived to be guilty of treating them as if they are inferior, which they in fact believe themselves to be.

In other words, the world is made up of oppressors and victims. The Arabs are the victims and the rest of the world are the oppressors, of course. As victims, they believe they are fully justified in taking any and all retaliatory measures, including the most violent. It helps if the oppressors are neither Arabs nor Sunni Muslims, but even if they are, the reaction will be the same.

Do the psychologists have anything to say about how to rid oneself of an inferiority complex? As an individual, one way is through achieving a high-level education and a thorough knowledge of the society in which you live to successfully break through real and imagined barriers. Applied to a whole people, that prescription is obviously more difficult to apply, but it may well be that only education that specifically eschews reinforcing the victim mentality and aims at peaceful empowerment through knowledge and training can be successful in the long term.

What is to be done? Maintain demonstrable military superiority, encourage by whatever means may be available incremental change in Arab society and ensure that outside forces do not encourage their inferiority complex or their ability to strike out violently at their perceived enemies. The United Nations, the European countries and others do the former, Russia and Iran do the latter. Russia is not Arab, nor is it Islamic. Iran is not Arab and is the wrong kind of Islamic. Soliciting and receiving support from those two countries is demeaning to the Arab psyche.

Is there any hope for change? President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt has forced all the primary and secondary school texts to be replaced by new ones that do not accuse others of humiliating Egypt, but encourage the students to participate actively in improving Egyptian society. He has also ordered all the imams in all the mosques in Egypt to use only the text of sermons sent from Cairo, and those sermons avoid attacks on others and concentrate on guidance in living the moral life.

Does he get credit for these and other similar measures? Not much. He and others like him, such as Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and certain Gulf state leaders, must be encouraged by the West, including Israel, to the extent possible.

An inferiority complex is a negative psychological state of being, and can thus only be permanently removed through changing that state of being, including avoiding external actions that reinforce it or that encourage dangerous reactions to it.

Norman A Bailey is the author of numerous books and articles and recipient of several honorary degrees, medals and awards and two orders of knighthood. He also teaches economic statecraft at The Institute of World Politics and has experience on the staff of the National Security Council at the White House, in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and in business, consulting and finance. He is professor emeritus in the National Security Studies Center, University of Haifa, and a columnist for Globes, the Israeli business and financial newspaper.