The Arab intellectual crisis

Awatef Abdel-Rahman
Friday 29 Nov 2019

Arab intellectuals have all too often been hampered by doctrinal blinkers that have filtered out a true understanding of the development of Arab societies

A critical reading of the history of Arab thought during the past two decades reveals a missing or perhaps even a deliberately concealed truth, which is that this body of thought has been the victim of ideological affiliations that have exerted such a force over the Arab intellect as to compel it to read what has been happening in our societies through doctrinal blinkers.

These have filtered out complexities and prevented the insights necessary to understand the laws governing the development of Arab societies. 

The result has been a cognitive gap between intellectual perceptions and a thorough understanding of our societies and the causes for their advance or decline. This gap has been aggravated by a tendency to ignore the voices of the masses, whose day-to-day struggles nevertheless shape the components of our lives. Arab intellectuals have given insufficient attention to learning directly from the masses and have too often ignored their aspirations.

Modern Arab thought has run the full spectrum from the reformist outlooks of the 19th century through the liberal and Arab nationalist and socialist orientations of the 20th. Much of this thought has failed to promote the realisation of the ideological visions that informed it, though it has left behind it a rich legacy of ideas even if this has remained confined to the ivory towers of the intelligentsia and has not influenced the outlooks of the masses.

Some Arab intellectuals have stood up to the Western challenge by saying, correctly, that the scientific, philosophical and cultural achievements of Western civilisation had their roots in Arab Islamic civilisation. Had it not been for the scholars who transmitted Arab science and philosophy to Europe, the West would never have achieved the breakthroughs that led to the European Renaissance, not just in the sciences, but also in the humanities and in the ethics of freedom, equality and the openness to others. 

Such values formed the core of the Arab Islamic civilisation. Yet, the Arab cultural elites failed to appreciate that implanting these ideas and value systems, as they had evolved in the West, into culturally and developmentally different Arab societies could only produce a truncated and deficient version of modernity, especially given prevailing tribal or sectarian-based systems of government.

Marxist thought, despite its theoretically rich and enlightening legacy, failed to establish the foundations of genuine social change on the basis of the principles of social justice and class equality in the Arab region. It collided with authoritarian regimes that were for the most part subordinated to Western influences and propped up by allies among the business classes, tribal leaders, rural oligarchies and corrupt bureaucracies. 

The fate of socialist activists in the Arab world was thus often marginalisation and repression, while wealth remained concentrated in the hands of an elite that continued to control the institutions that shaped political, cultural and social life. Simultaneously, the army and security apparatuses were transformed into instruments to support and perpetuate the power of the ruling classes, while over 75 per cent of the Arab peoples became poor and marginalised.

The Arab socialist thinkers failed to readjust and rectify their approaches, despite their noble aims and the huge sacrifices they made in the pursuit of their ideals. They were unable to look beyond the theoretical principles of Marxist or socialist thought or to draw on the experiences of other countries, among them China, which incorporated a grasp of the realities of their own societies and histories. Arab socialists, by contrast, did not attempt to study Arab economic, cultural and social history. They did not attempt to study the Arab Islamic heritage in terms of its impact on the masses. They remained confined to their own circles in urban centres and never thought to step into the streets to engage with the masses and learn from their experiences.

Despite the fact that a common Arabic language and culture and a shared national struggle against foreign domination lent the Arab nationalist movements a remarkable momentum during the national liberation struggles, enabling the banner of Arab unity to prevail, these movements were adversely affected by the ambiguity surrounding the concept of Arab nationalism. There was never a consensus over the definition of the term or for realising its aspirations on the ground. The Arab defeat in the June 1967 War with Israel delivered a debilitating blow from which this body of thought would never recover.

Liberal thought in the Arab world also remained confined to the intelligentsia and never gained ground among the broader masses, primarily because of its focus on political rights and its blindness to questions of social justice for the popular classes that make up the vast majority of the Arab populations. It failed to address the fact that these classes still live in the framework of a traditional legacy shaped by sectarian, ethnic and tribal affiliations and values, and they suffer from the poverty that has too often resulted from the policies of Arab governments.

Regarding the region’s religious heritage, in theory each generation receives the scriptures in its own historic context and interprets them within the framework of contemporary conditions. However, the Arab world has been afflicted with a stagnation of religious thought since the Middle Ages as the result of the closure of the bab al-ijtihad in the early Ottoman era. Ijtihad licenses Islamic jurists to exercise independent reasoning, in contrast to taqlid, or conformity to tradition, in areas where the Quran and the hadith, or Prophetic traditions, are not unambiguous.

In the modern era, this stagnation has led to the political exploitation of religion and religious sentiments. Islamist groups rely on the interpretations of mediaeval jurists to justify their political projects, while official religious institutions perpetuate the ambient intellectual stagnation. The result has been the reproduction of generations of imams and jurists who adhere to the injunction to “obey the ruler” without question and the obstruction of attempts to renovate religious thought. 

Against this backdrop of a crisis in Arab thought, the problems of democratisation, civil society and human rights gained prominence in Arab political discourse in the 1980s. As Arab intellectuals grew engrossed in such questions, they tended to overshadow other issues, such as economic, social and cultural rights and the underlying question of citizenship. It is precisely here that we find the crux of the crisis in the gap between the intelligentsia and the people that exploded with the Arab Spring Revolutions in 2011. These brought unprecedented hopes and promises, even if the upheavals and frustrations that followed them ushered in new rounds of already timeworn questions. 

Arab intellectuals were also left with the possibly even greater problem of how to address their ongoing subordination to Western modes of thought.

The writer is a veteran professor of journalism.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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