The forthcoming fall of the values of capitalism in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, a recipe of progress for the Arab and Islamic worlds, and the obstruction of enlightenment and the quest to reach it are among the ideas explored in this interview with Mahmoud El-Werwary.
Releasing his latest book Ahl Al-Aql (People with Brains) in January, El-Werwary had just finished introducing a full Ramadan season of radio production under the same title on the Sawt Al-Arab (Voice of the Arabs) Egyptian Radio Service, continuing his research for the reasons of the Arab and Islamic civilisation's rise and fall, a project he has been working on on Al Arabiya TV throughout his four-year programme.
The well-known TV news presenter, being among the pioneers of the 1990s in Egyptian TV before appearing, leading and founding some of the prestigious TV channels across the Islamic region, such as ART, Mehwar, Al Arabiya, Al-Alam, Alarabiya Alhadath, has been busy with the cause of enlightenment for long years.
El-Werwary is a prominent columnist with Asharq Al-Awsat and Al Ain Al Ekhbariya and has an outstanding impact on literature as well, publishing over 22 books from novels, plays, documents, media and enlightenment publications. Some of his novels competed for regional prestigious awards, including the Arab Poker for 'Halet Soqout' and the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for 'Kharīf Al-Balad Al-Kabir'.
The 1990 Cairo University's Economic and Political Science graduate has covered news from the majority of hot zones in critical times, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Palestine and Egypt, of course, being among the most significant news presenters of the 2011 revolution times.
He produced a large collection of analytic political programmes like 90 Minutes, Al-Hadath Al-Masri and Manarat, in addition to a few documentaries, like a five-hour documentary series about the Salafi current in Egypt.
While presenting Ahl Al-Aql on the radio, Ahram Online interviewed the veteran media person during his quarantine in Dubai in an attempt to shed light on his valuable efforts to enlighten the Arab and Muslim civilisation.
AO: You choose the radio medium to discuss such an important topic at the age of social media. What is the future of radio amid the foggy future of print newspapers and TV channels?
MW: Each medium has its own followers. There are enough fans for the radio, same as print newspapers and television. Some follow more than one medium as well and radio fans are always nostalgic for it.
Ahl El-Aql started on Al Arabiya channel in a programme called 'Manarat' (Beacons) that continued for almost four years. It was a huge project where we roamed the Arab and Islamic world to scan various ideologies. For example, we went to Mauritania to meet thinkers like Islamic philosophy professors, sociologists or known historians, thinkers of the weight of El-Jabri, Arkoun, Mohammed Sabila, and Hassan Hanafi.
The project became a book published by Al Dar Al Masriah Al Lubnaniah at the 20th Cairo International Book Fair, January 2020 under the title of 'Ahl El-Aql'. This book was written out of the inspiration of these important interviews.
I was able to scan and document the thinking movement from Mauritania to Afghanistan, asking two questions mainly. One question revolves around the idea of the religious brain, the topic of extremism, violence, Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and the phrase of 'renewing religious thought'. The other question is an enlightenment question about why we, Arabs and Muslims, fell behind while others progressed. The project was already on TV and in book forms, so I introduced it on the radio as well.
Radio has its own fans and it is an easy medium. Radio goes from ears to hearts directly. I admire the radio and I am deeply attached to it. Throughout my TV career across the Arab countries and the Gulf, I always made my work connected to the radio. I love it.
In the peak of print newspapers and TV journalism problems, radio was less vulnerable to TV virus diseases, especially in Egypt. Radio will always be there. It could face some challenges just as much as print journalism in the game of media generations. In the 90s, we argued that printed books were going to be a thing of the past amid the rise of visual and audio books, but eventually printed book dominated. The same goes for printed newspapers in the early 2000s. It is true they are weaker now and some papers closed due to the increasing internet websites but believe me; they will always remain, same as radio and TV and other media. No medium cancels another. Media could rise or fall amid competition but each medium will always remain. Thus radio will always remain.
AO: The majority of your writings, programmes and interviews revolve around enlightenment and the conditions for the progress of Arab and Islamic countries. How much do you believe media can make an influence, and from where does change begin?
MW: Enlightenment is a national project. At some point, all factors will meet to form enlightenment. There are always movers and receivers. Meaning, there are many who are pushing towards enlightenment and others who are making it happen.
When I met the great Moroccan philosophy professor Mohammed Sabila, he said the media is part of the problem and he thought that the Arab media has been unintentionally involved in making Arab brains more shallow and silly. I respect this point of view deeply.
Media people are accused of being shallow and part of the problem. Yes, I agree that we in the Arab media, since the start of the satellite era in the early 90s, were part of this crisis, failing to be enlightened. I can't say this is an absolute judgement but it's part of the truth indeed.
The first Arab satellite experience was Egyptian, in December 1990, followed by MBC within weeks and then all the Arab world followed. Unhappily, this occurred during a huge global transformation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union that meant the falling of the communist model and resulted in the rise and spread of the capitalist liberal example with all of its market economy values.
So, the Arab media was forced to deal with the greed of capitalism and the media became a tool in businessmen's hands. This appeared clearly in the Egyptian experience that delivered a disfigured product that can't be described as television, radio or journalism.
In TV today, you see someone talking for two or three hours in front of a camera in a form that you can't name as a visual opinion piece, radio programme or TV. If you close your eyes, it's radio and if you open them it's TV and if you pay attention; you'll find the anchor revealing his former post as a journalist in a known newspaper and because of his relationship with a businessman.
In fact, Arab satellite media was launched in the victorious time of greedy capitalism, to turn into a commodity and the mouthpiece of capitalism which is always against the concept of enlightenment. Enlightenment works on values, while capitalism works on commoditisation.
Hence, you cannot be so surprised when you see the idea of commoditisation of religion that produced the new preachers phenomenon. Commoditisation of arts ended with the collapse of valuable theatre and good artists. Those we used to call messengers of values in the Arab world turned into servants at the court of gluttonous capitalism, shooting advertisements of boxers and fancy cars.
Therefore, the media has unintentionally got involved -- and I am aware of the intentions of people working in the field -- in the concept of commoditisation while enlightenment became an arduous value for a society that is, frankly, chasing only profits.
The media may play its role when someone poor like me presents an enlightening programme knowing that his audience will be very few, but in the end if I can get to just one person this could lead to a big change in the brains around him.
AO: What is the recipe for progress, and how long does it need to effect change?
Answering this key question took me over 30 episodes of 'Ahl El-Aql' programme and it wasn't actually enough. The renaissance question has been inquired during the 1930s by the great Lebanese thinker, Amir Al-Bayān; Shakib Arslan when he wondered in his important book 'why Arabs have fallen behind while others progressed?'
In search of this progress; I thought let's scan the civilisations that rose up and check their paths. We're not reinventing the wheel because their path was not intentional or planned but it actually is the normal movement that is based on the function of human brain's response.
In the 30 episodes of Ahl El-Aql, I only tried to answer just the second half of Arslan's question, which is 'why non-Muslims progressed' and I took the closest civilisation to us, the West, to which we handed the torch of culture. Civilisations don't die but rather move, said Hadi Al-Alawi. Therefore, the Western civilisation is actually the Muslims' civilisation that reached its peak during the Abbasid era.
The West took the Islamic culture, including Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Al-Ghazali, Al-Kindi and Al-Farabi. No civilisation was ever born completely on the carpet of a specific nation. But when people of a civilisation are weakened, it is carried by those who are capable. But it's the same torch of culture in the end.
The torch of the civilisations of the Romans and Greeks was handed to the Muslim nation who too eventually became weak so the West carried the torch.
The Islamic culture was based on the translations of Ibn Ishaq, Plato, Aristotle and other Greek intellectuals and their ideas moved to the Islamic world.
The renaissance recipe that, I claim, I presented in such inclusivity and accuracy in 'Ahl El-Aql' is 'to develop, you must first go through a path of progress'. At first, you need to solve your problem with the religious brain to reach the square of the brain of knowledge, philosophy and enlightenment that leads to the maturity of the scientific brain, the industrial brain that leads to positive full-change political revolutions to eventually reach the renaissance. To prove this theory, let's scan the Western culture and see how they developed.
The West progressed by a group of individuals. Martin Luther, the most important reformer, not to confuse him with the American Martin Luther King, in 1540s started the reform of the church so he solved the religious brain problem in his 95 thesis we call today 'renewal of religious speech'. The man renewed the Christian speech at his time inspiring the founding of the Lutheran and the Orthodox Church by translating the Bible and completely blowing the church's concepts of indulgences and mediation between people and God.
This renewal or correction of the religious brain consequently created brains like Immanuel Kant and René Descartes who would not exist without the earlier existence of Martin Luther. He launched freedom of thinking and killed fear as if he were saying; go ahead, think freely without worrying that we would consider you faithless or hit you with a death penalty for heresy. So Descartes and Kant who shaped the same philosophy also produced Hegel, Rousseau and all these genius intellectuals.
This opened the door to scientific brains like Copernicus in the 1600s, only a century later. Copernicus clashed with the church, with all of its insensitive powers at this era. The Church believed the earth is the centre of the universe then Copernicus dared to differ, saying the sun is. But he died before accomplishing his victory. Then Galileo continued the clash and eventually won. That was the first time Western brains accepted the idea that the church could be wrong.
After Galileo comes James Watt, 60 or 70 years later, to shift the Western society from riding horses to using the steam engines he invented. Then after another 60 or 70 years came Adam Smith to establish the economy before the West moved to the enlightenment era. Accordingly, the final change occurred, the three important revolutions took place; the British in the 1600s, the French and the American in the 1700s to change the Western culture. Later came the great pioneers of enlightenment, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Montesquieu to turn the world into what it is today.
Have all these steps occurred intentionally? Of course not, but the human brain must go through these stages and the same applied as a salvation recipe for the Arab world where you must start from solving problems with religion. As Mohamed Abdu said "When revelation stopped, there became no authority over thinking" and Imam Al-Shafi‘i said earlier that all is debatable except the Prophet Mohamed.
The prophet's death rendered all people equal and none was infallible, including Abu Bakr and Omar who are humans that may be right or wrong. With this mentality you re-read everything, including jurisprudence of the companions of the prophet to conclude that it belongs to its age and can't work at the current time so you need to filter it and come up with new jurisprudence that fits. Imam Al-Shafi‘i when moved from Iraq to Egypt changed his mind about more than 30 issues.
Do we have bold jurisprudents capable of clashing like Abdu in the 19th century? We need brave and powerful religious reformers to face the society that created its own fear. When you free the religious mind and give power to poor thinkers and philosophers that can't afford to make ends meet when the lowest-standard belly-dancer in the Arab world is more famous than Mohamed Abed Al-Jabri, Arkoun, Hassan Hanafi. Shakoosh is more famous than all of these. This is an upside-down society, where a footballer's price is more expensive than the most important brains in the Arab world. This is absolutely wrong. This is the recipe you asked about.
AO: What is the role of countries and people who travelled faster down the path of progress and enlightenment towards countries still suffering dark accumulations, especially with occupation?
MW: We'd better ask, 'what have you lost from your drop?' This is a very important question as you'd better read the reasons of your defeat for yourself not for others.
This questions lead to another which is 'Is the West also to blame for our drop?' In fact, they are responsible too. Algerian thinker Malek Bennabi spoke about the readiness of being colonised. This is a very significant theory.
The West conquered the Arabs only because we were ready to be defeated. We are that kind of people who have the willingness of being conquered because weakness creates passion and curiosity for powerful others to 'ride' us. Iranian thinker Ali Shariati wrote a book that discussed the concept of ride-ability that developed Malek Bennabi's ideas. He says that the donkey is the only animal that doesn't resist its rider, unlike the horse that needs taming. People turn to ride-able nations that could be dominated by the worst people on earth.
Colonialism led to isolation and boycott. What happened? We were in the front line during the Abbasid eras of Harun Al-Rashid, Al-Maamun and other regimes that followed. What happened is that we experienced a period of boycott. For around 500 years, it was the responsibility of the Ottoman colonialism and 300 years earlier it was the Mameluke's. They created a boycott experienced by hundreds of generations who lived during these dark ages inheriting their ignorance. Ignorance turned into heritage.
This boycott is also the responsibility of British and French colonialism. The French campaign in Egypt was documented by some as a contribution to the renaissance that resulted in intellectuals like Mohamed Abdu, Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani, Rashid Rida, Rifa'a Al-Tahtawi and others. But at the same time, the occupation also strengthened boycott because people got busy with the idea of liberation more than the idea of enlightenment.
This is what Al-Afghani thought in his disagreement with Abdu. This is very important. Al-Afghani said there was no enlightenment without liberation, accusing Abdu of being discouraging and depressing because the latter thought you cannot fight in two battles at the same time while you're weak. He thought you would either struggle against conquest, like what the Algerians did against the French, or you either fight in an enlightenment battle.
Another question: how come the enlightenment led by Abdu and Al-Afghani occurred during the British conquest and when the occupation ended and Egypt was ruled by an Egyptian the fall down started? You were liberated from a former conquest to experience a nationalistic tyranny.
The unity in the struggle against the British conquest turned into an approval of Arab oppressive rules that proved their failure, like the Arab Nationalism and these kinds of ideas that all broke down on the rock of the 1967 defeat. After the failure of the Arab nationalism concept, the Islamic current popped in the 70s claiming to be a solution or an alternative. Sheikh Ali Abdel-Raziq, one of Mohamed Abdu students, revenged after losing his scientific degree and job when he opposed the concept of the caliphate in his book 'Islam and the Foundations of Rule'. In 1928, Hassan El-Banna's ideas were brought to the fore as a result. These are consecutive accumulations. El-Banna came out after you turned off the light of Sheikh Abdel-Raziq: bats come out when the light goes out.
AO: What's next after Ahl El-Aql?
MW: I feel my hands are tied although I try to use any opportunity to say something that could benefit the people. When you tell anyone that you want to produce an enlightening programme, he will laugh at you but if you pitch him a series of episodes about Hassan Shakoosh, Hamo Bika, Oka and Ortiga, he will agree.
Although the capitalism model is actually falling down in this time of coronavirus, still enlightenment is in eeriness. The world walks upside down. Compare the price of a footballer and a big thinker you will find out the show is up and the brain is down. As Mustafa Mahmoud once said 'As if the world is thinking with its feet' not brain. We are driving, my friend, with the speed of a rocket but backwards not forward.
I will tell you what our crisis is. We have lots of brains and thinkers and lots of genius projects. Mohamed Abed Al-Jabri worked on the criticism of the Arab brain discussing its problems and how to solve them in a big series. Georges Tarabichi replied back deconstructing Al-Jabri's criticism. Arkoun criticised the religious brain in a huge referential project. Then came the Egyptian genius Hassan Hanafi deconstructing the heritage. So we already have solutions for our three major crises in the Arab world but who would accomplish the change? That is the question. Where is the will? Who crippled the turning of thinking into action?
I call this 'the equation of obstruction'. Look, some thinking is like crude oil and its refining produces different fuel oils, vaseline, kerosene, shampoo and all these derivatives. Who turns this crude oil into derivatives that could be daily used by the people? To turn crude thinking into usable ideas by the people, you need three elements: a businessman, a political decision and a religious opinion that says it's lawful to use this shampoo.
These three pillars are what I meant by the 'equation of obstruction' that hinders pure thinking from reaching people's daily lives. The first obstructer is a tyrannical politician whose benefits would be influenced by people's thinking as they rule by enforcing hunger and ignorance. The second is a retroactive jurist that forbids everything.
You know that coffee was prohibited for decades, same as photography, and even trousers were debated. A very stupid story. The third obstructer is a greedy capitalist that could produce a series about Hassan Shakoosh but cannot produce a series about Ibn Rushd.
These are the three main factors of the Arab and Islamic world's crisis. Throughout history, these three used to be enemies but today they are friends and they agreed to be against the Arab and Islamic world's nations.