An obsession with European modernity has prevented Arabs from developing their own modern thought, writes Sami Mahroum
The Arab intellectual is an endangered species
In an opinion piece I wrote almost two years ago, I asked what is the zero point for contemporary Arab culture? My question was inspired by The Hubris of the Zero Point, a work by the Colombian philosopher Santiago Castro-Gomez, in which he considered René Descartes’s 1637 statement that “I think, therefore I am” as the zero point of contemporary western societies.
Since that moment, Europeans began to become less reliant on religious texts and more on their own thinking to seek guidance and infer rules for societal, moral and ethical issues. As a result, a massive body of literature has grown in the West that addresses the complex spheres of ethics and morality as they relate to individuals, society and the state.
So, I went on searching for the zero point for our contemporary Arab thought to find very little written on the topic, with two exceptions: Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab’s book, Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective, and Ibrahim Abu Rabi's Contemporary Arab Thought: Studies in Post-1967 Arab Intellectual History.
Both books provide a good anatomy of contemporary Arab thought from Islamists to communists. In them you can read about the thoughts of contemporary Arabs such as Sadiq Al Azm, Farag Foda, Mohammed Abed al-Jabri, Constantin Zureiq, Nawal El Saadawi, Fatema Mernissi, Georges Tarabichi Mohammad Arkoun and many others who have either passed away or are at an old age today.
What transpired from these two books is that almost all contemporary Arab thought is a reaction to European modernity. There has been very little indigenous thought that has drawn on phenomena and observations from beyond Europe or that is simply grounded in domestic Arab experience. From democracy to Marxism to the notion of separation of powers or the separation of state and church, Arab intellectuals broke along the fault lines of pro and con camps for every thought originating in the West.
The pro-westernisation camp sought to advance either Marxist ideas or liberal democracy ones, with the former gaining more sympathy and traction not least due to its spread in other third world countries.
The anti-westernisation intellectual camp consisted primarily of Islamists from liberals who sought to islamisise westernisation, to radicals who sought to reform religion along anti-western thought. There was also an anti-western nationalist movement that was inspired by European fascism to fight European military and cultural dominance. Two pioneer activitist thinkers that left a long legacy in this camp are Michael Aflaq, who founded the Baath movement and Antoine Saadeh who founded the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.
The latter rose to power in several Arab countries and formed single-party military dominated states. What they all had in common though is European modernity as a point of reference. An obsession with European modernity has prevented modern Arabs from developing their own modern thought. There is therefore no point zero for contemporary Arab thought. There are no contemporary Arab schools of thought with whom to agree or disagree in university halls or on the pages of periodicals, magazines and newspapers, or a social movement that manifests itself in visual and performing arts. If the reader is in doubt, she or he can ask themselves whether there is any intellectual thought or idea that non-Arabs flock to our region to study? The answer is certainly none.
Therefore, in search of enlightenment, a young Arab woman or man today will have access to two sources of intellectual thought: a western source or a medieval source. Which source they go to will determine which side they take and what kind of life they will lead. As a result, young Arabs are alienated from their contemporary lives and feel lonely.
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With few exceptions, such as Nawal El Saadawi and Mohammed Abed al-Jabri, there are no contemporary Arab intellectuals engaging with their experiences. And even those intellectuals who existed between post-Second World War and the Cold War and who were busy adopting, adapting or rejecting the West, many have ended their lives in prison, exile or the grave. In fact, today the Arab intellectual when she or he exists is an endangered species.
Instead, what we have is two clashing public narratives. A new extremist narrative that proclaims a new collective memory, experience and persona for Muslims all over the world. The narrative can be summarised as a story of stolen glory and victimhood. On the opposite side, we have a narrative that equates western modernity with salvation; European enlightenment becomes the reference point for all of us and the church there becomes equivalent to the mosque and church here.
What is missing is a contemporary Arab thought that has the courage to look within and defy when necessary both medieval and European thought.
This is not a call to reject or to oppose neither western nor medieval canons, but a call to scrutinise, contextualise, deconstruct and to contrast our own experience as contemporary Arabs with those of other places and different times. For that we need more Arab anthropology and sociology and less Arab orientalists (who study their own history and culture from a western reference point) and perhaps more Arab occidentalists who study the west more critically.
A contemporary Arab thought that is grounded in contemporary Arab experiences from Casablanca to Dubai holds within it a promise of human enrichment. Arabs occupy a geographic and cultural space that overlaps cultures and ethnicities and therefore their experiences resonate with people in Africa, Asia, Southern Europe and Latin America.
In fact, a contemporary Arab intellectual project that examines the lives and experiences of young people, women, communities and societies in the Arab world will enrich the debate about justice, poverty, faith and peace around the world. In her book, Kassab makes the following observation: “More than any other regional debate, the Arab one has remained relatively unknown, misrepresented, isolated and stigmatised with exceptionalism”.
Sami Mahroum is director of the innovation and policy initiative at Insead in Abu Dhabi