Five years into the uprisings that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, protests continue to mark the region’s political climate. While its pioneers Tunisia and Egypt are in some sort of post-revolutionary stage, the capitals of Iraq and Lebanon are being shaken by the tireless work of activists who are marching against decades of political failures and corruption. Nonetheless, Arab writers seem unable to reflect positively on the recent changes and, instead, regularly lament the girth of the Arab intellectual. In March this year, Ramzy Baroud prodded, ‘The Arab intellectual is resting, not dead’. More abysmally, Nabil Echchaibi asked in a recently published monologue, ‘Where are you, Arab intellectuals?’
Sentiments of this kind are not new and will continue to prevail amongst parts of populations in the MENA. In fact, during the initial stages of the region’s uprisings, in early 2011, the desire for intellectuals to save Arab populations was so pronounced that it dominated mainstream discussions. But really, what significance do Arab intellectuals hold in their societies and uprisings? And what’s the origin of this obsession with the Arab intellectual?
Like so many of us hailing from the so-called Third World, growing up in Lebanon I was caught up with Europe’s history, its culture and politics. I was raised in the capital Beirut, where I studied Western philosophy at the American University of Beirut. My experience of education in Lebanon taught me that educational systems in the MENA are extremely flawed. Even my relatively decent education did not expose me to the history and politics of my region, especially not to its intellectual and artistic history. I was taught over and over about Europe and Medieval Islam.
Lebanese education, as education in the postcolony more generally, is geared towards ‘catching up’ with the West, constantly trying to make up for its perceived failures and losses. All knowledge production is centred around the fictitious story of Western progress and its highbrow traditions and cultures. When I did learn about the MENA, I was taught about ‘native’ traditions that date back to an inaccessible past of classical Medieval Islamic literary and theological traditions. These pasts are supposed to instill pride and glory in us and counter the denigration of our colonial experiences. Paradoxically, the local and regional intellectual work that has critiqued both the West and nativist histories and has had profound political impacts is absent from our school and university programmes; governments intolerant to critiques have been extremely effective at suppressing this kind of knowledge.
It was only after I received my PhD in Switzerland, spent an additional three years doing my postdoc in Germany, and came back to Beirut to teach philosophy that I started getting into things Arabic. Living and studying in Europe had made me realise how significant Europe’s intellectual developments were to its history. Coming from a region where socio-economic and political issues are inescapable, I wondered what Arab intellectuals were saying, and what kinds of discourses and debates ensued from them. But to reclaim my region’s history I needed to set out on my own to explore and research Arab thought, which later gave rise to my comparative anthology Contemporary Arab Thought. Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective (Columbia University Press, 2010).
Initially, I was interested in the conversations coming out of the wave of Arab post-colonial independence. In the second half of the twentieth century, authoritarian mushroomed with the help of their former colonising states; When Israel defeated and dwarfed its Arab neighbours in the excruciating Six-Day War, in 1967, a thick and bottomless cloud of frustration hung above the region. Through poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and kindled debates on the causes of and possible remedies to the region’s politics, Arab intellectuals began venting their grievances. Conversations gyrated around cultural and political explanations for ‘regressive’ traditions, religious fanaticism, and political abuses rampant in the region, or they spiralled around the existential quest for an empowered, post-colonial sense of the self.
But towards the end of the last century, when the West bolstered its support to repressive, authoritarian regimes in the MENA, such discussions seemed excessively abstract. The collapse of health care, education, culture, and declining employment was giving rise to more pragmatic discussions. And so, I began documenting the commentaries and analyses of individuals who were carving out the margins of autonomous thought on more pressing issues. Much had already been written about Arab intellectual thought on nationalism and, especially, on Islamism. But scholars and Arab media were paying little attention to those voices that were not strictly aligned with one ideology or another; critical writers and thinkers that were neither Eurocentric nor reactionary, dwelling in nostalgic conservatism, but addressed the region’s predicaments with intellectual honesty and ethical probity. Many of these emerging thinkers did not come straight out of elitist, academic disciplines. I am thinking of the Syrian playwright Sa’adallah Wannous, Palestinian literary critic Faisal Darraj, Saudi Arabian novelist Abdel Rahman Munif, Egyptian screenplay writer Bilal Fadl, and the Syrian writers Yassin Haj Saleh and Samar Yazbek, amongst many others. Through their unflagging, creative commitment they have stressed the need for popular political participation in the MENA. It is this very right people have demanded from their states, again and again, since the beginning of the uprisings in 2011 and continue to demand in Baghdad and Beirut.
So why is it that some continue to lament the ‘failure’ of Arab intellectuals in leading the events? Elitist inclinations are widespread and have deeply penetrated the mindset of the Arab, postcolonial psyche since colonialism. The hope for a paternalistic, if not dictatorial leadership persists among various sectors of our societies. But new generations of writers, thinkers and activists have transgressed these paternalistic expectations; and they have relinquished the idea that vanguards are needed for the liberation of Arab populations. This is what I am trying to document in my forthcoming publication, Critique, Enlightenment and Revolution: Arab Intellectuals and Uprisings.
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Elizabeth Kassab is the author of Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010). Her forthcoming publication Critique, Enlightenment and Revolution: Arab Intellectuals and Uprisings will be published by Columbia University Press in 2016.
This feature was commissioned & edited by Media Diversified’s Middle East & North Africa editor, Mend Mariwany. To pitch an article or feature please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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