The Arab intellectual: The problem or the solution?
Ever since the fragility of Arab culture and the lack of awareness regarding the concept of the civil state in Arab society became apparent following the [parliamentary] election results that brought religious currents to power, one question has continued to be raised, namely: what has happened to our centuries of efforts regarding Arab culture?
Have our efforts with regards to developing education, encouraging contact with global cultures, instilling the values of art, beauty and tolerance, and consecrating the idea of citizenship and the state, completely vanished?
Were all these efforts in vain when – for the first time and without restraint – the Arab societies could express their real “desire” for the optimum model of righteous rule? Was it in fact their dream for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist al-Nour Party in Egypt, Rached Ghannouchi in Tunisia, and the likes of al-Zindani in Yemen, to rise to power?
Were we Arabs, over the past decades and ever since the withdrawal of the colonialists, the dawn of independence and the establishment of Arab states at different times, deluded into thinking that we would someday experience an Arab [civil] state and Arab modernity?
Where are the principles established by Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani, Rifa’a el-Tahtawi, Ahmed Lutfi el-Sayed, Talaat Harb, Taha Hussein and Qasim Amin in Egypt, and Khairuddin al-Tunisi, Abd al-’Aziz al-Tha’alibi, Tahar Haddad, Tahir ibn Ashur, Habib Bourguiba and Hisham Ja’it in Tunisia?
Numerous “intellectuals” in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab states were left speechless and completely bewildered when [after the recent parliamentary elections] they finally sensed the true size – or lack thereof – of their social weight and the depth of their influence in Arab societies.
They felt like a deceived husband, who after a considerable period, wakes up and finds out they have been living a lie. Some intellectuals have overtly expressed their bewilderment and grief, whereas others have attempted to soften the defeat. They tried to alleviate it either by praising democracy and describing what happened as a passing phase, or by saying that in fact the Arab societies have a great deal of awareness and are seeking to test the Islamists and refute their claim of being an eternal victim deprived of rule and authority (of course, it is a misconception repeated by many that the Islamists have never attempted to seize power in the Arab world).
However, the stark reality is that there has been a retreat from the concept of a civil and modern state that institutionalizes and guards secular social harmony between society’s different components, away from sectarian divisions, religious mobilization and patriotic fervor.
Such a concept has proven unsuccessful in the Arab world, in comparison with the discourse of historical, religious nostalgia. We have seen examples ranging from the Taliban in Afghanistan to Hamas in Gaza, al-Bashir in Sudan, and Ahmadinejad and Khamenei in Iran, all with slight differences, here and there. As for Erdogan in Turkey, his is a special case that has no parallel, and furthermore it is still an open experiment yet to reach a decisive conclusion.
In any case, the argument has now been revived once again about the role of Arab intellectuals, in the past as well as in the future, what is required of them, and how exactly do we define them?
In November 2009, I remember when Prince Khaled al-Faisal, Chairman of the Arab Thought Foundation, alongside other Arab intellectuals whom he met during the Foundation’s conference held in Beirut, came to the conclusion that that there was a dire need for an Arab cultural summit, along the lines of an economic summit. This was because “the cultural crisis is no less dangerous to Arab society [than the economic crisis], with different manifestations and various effects and implications”, according to the speech Prince Khaled delivered in front of the then Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa.
Perhaps this call may seem extremely optimistic about the Arab states’ actual desire to promote their cultural sphere, develop Arab culture, and address its problems. Besides, the call also seems to take for granted that Arab states care about cultural issues to an extent that necessitates a summit to be held for this purpose.
It is indisputable that the issue of culture is highly significant, and that the current state of Arab culture is deplorable, exposed to sufferings and abuse. This is apart from the considerable controversy and elaborate discussions regarding the terminology and frameworks for the definition of culture and the intellectual, discussions and even quarrels about the Arab intellectual’s role in public affairs, and the nature of his relationship to power.
The controversy relates to the intellectual’s role as someone who creates or spreads political arguments and concepts, and to what extent the intellectual is a reason behind the Arab nations’ current problems and deplorable conditions. This is because Arab culture’s main proponents in the past, and perhaps in the present as well, were Arab nationalists, those on the left-wing, and Islamist intellectuals. In fact these all served as intellectual and publicity support for Arab nationalist officers, or those from the left-wing or Islamist groups (i.e. in Libya, Sudan and South Yemen), in order for them to rise to power and curb genuine development. This lack of development has now prompted Arab intellectuals to meet in Beirut and demand that Arab heads of states hold a separate summit to address cultural problems!
It is those intellectuals who caused the problem in the first place, and they are now meeting to complain about it. In fact, Michel Aflaq, Zaki al-Arsuzi, Akram al-Hawrani, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, Sati’ al-Husri, Azmi Bishara and Antun Saadeh are all examples of intellectuals who engineered politics in the Arab world, alongside other Arab cultural elites who nurtured the political awareness upon which Arab ruling regimes are propped up.
These are the intellectuals of Arab politics, and the question here is: Is the Arab intellectual the solution, or is he the problem?
We have mastered the powerful rhetoric of resistance [to Israel], and the defiance of the Muslim nation, and we excel at revealing the plots and tricks of other nations that are designed to undermine us. However, only a few of our Arab intellectuals have tried to rectify the defects of Arab societies themselves, fight the battle of religious enlightenment, remedy genuine social ills, and adopt stances to expose underdevelopment, just as Taha Hussein, Qasim Amin and Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi did in the past. Some intellectuals have engaged in battles against Arab regimes, either in alliance with local popular trends or from their exile in the West, but only a few, like Riyad al-Turk in Syria, have fought a fierce battle against the regime from within the walls of its repression. These positions are worthy of praise and deserve much of our moral admiration.
However, the question becomes more pressing when we look for those who have led the battle against the mentality and characteristics of backwardness, from within Arab societies themselves. Those who fought for the issues of women, against sectarianism, the total separation between authorities, the modernization of jurisprudence to fit the requirements of our age, and even upgrading discourse itself, as our predecessors did with great courage.
Only a handful of names have dared to confront the enormous Arab ego that has formed our collective Arab awareness.
On the contrary, we find that numerous Arab intellectual stars today are somewhat elusive, especially following the results of the Arab Spring, trying to circumvent crucial turning-points and aiming to avoid the furnace that has been placed below them by the public. The public has instead been mobilized by those who played on the strings of their religious conscience.
It is for this reason that the role of the so-called intellectual in our Arab world has now become superficial; the intellectual has become a flavorsome food with no real impact when placed upon a larger dining table. An Arab intellectual who fails to engage in the battle for awareness, or who declines to delve deep into culture or the layers of the public mind, is a bland color; a loud but insignificant voice.