The Daily Star
23 January 2010, by
The epic story of the modern Arab world – largely untold in our societies and unappreciated around the world – has been the quest by ordinary men and women for reforms allowing our societies to break the chains of three dominant trends plaguing us: autocratic political regimes, a seemingly permanent state of post-colonial distortion and dependence, and an inability to tap our human and natural resources to match Western or Asian developmental bursts that have left us coughing in their dust.
An Arab breakthrough toward coherent statehood and stable, prosperous societies is inevitable, I believe, to judge from the power of the two poles of society that define our continuing epic.
On the one hand, ordinary people throughout the region – secretaries, teachers, drivers, bank clerks, farmers, shop-owners, students, etc. – are perplexed about being fated to live in societies that control them and limit their opportunities to achieve their full potential. People from Morocco to Oman routinely chafe at their sense of powerlessness, including their inability to make their voices heard, to influence national politics and foreign policy, and to check the abuse of power and corruption they see all around them. They can neither articulate the full sense of their own humanity, nor exercise all the rights of citizenship. They respond to their predicament by getting on with their lives, working hard, educating their children, being kind to their neighbors, and planning for a better day, fortified by the two forces that a police state, a foreign occupation army or a local gang cannot take away from them: faith in their God and their own humanity.
At the other end of the spectrum of Arab society has been an equally unappreciated and continuous stream of thinkers, writers, intellectuals, academics, artists and cultural activists who give public expression to this malaise.
The ideas and words of this group are moving for three reasons: first, they capture and articulate the basic grievances and aspirations of ordinary people who do accept a permanent state of Arab mediocrity. Second, they translate this sense of disappointment, even despair, into a coherent argument for the political, cultural and attitudinal changes we must experience to resume our historical path of human, scientific and national development and excellence, in areas like democratic governance, personal liberties, gender equality, and the coming to terms with the particularities and the universalities of Arab and Islamic culture; and third, this group has fearlessly thought, worked, written and spoken in public, seeking to chart a path toward national reform and rebirth while also trying to spur it on by mobilizing fellow citizens to action.
The legacy of modern Arab men and women cultural critics, political analysts and public intellectuals who analyze and seek to overcome the shortcomings of their societies has not been well documented or appreciated – until now. A new book just published by the Lebanese academic Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab, titled “Contemporary Arab Thought” (Columbia University Press), provides a rich and impressive overview of Arab cultural, national and political criticism since 1967, the works and ideas of post-colonial men and women who have come to realize with increasing clarity over the past century that “only genuine critical thinking can lead the way out of all the damage and the multiple forms of servitude.”
The book correctly anchors this in the context of the Arab Nahda (awakening or renaissance) that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Kassab writes that “for about two centuries thinkers in the Arab world have perceived or advocated with more or less urgency the centrality of political freedom for the multifaceted empowerment of their societies.”
She explores how modern Arab critics of their world made the pivotal transition of our age. Moving beyond deploring colonial and post-colonial distress or grasping onto the salvation of authentic Islam or Arabism, Arab thinkers in the second half of the 20th century articulated themes, “that addressed the need for a renewed enlightenment, a rethinking of authenticity, an opening to the world, a revisiting of the Nahda, a recentering of attention on political oppression, and resistance of despair.”
Looking at the critiques of today, Kassab concludes that “the desire to live and the radical rethinking of the political are the main themes of present Arab critical thought. It is a thought that emerges from the pains of wars, dictatorships and political prisons.”
A “leap of faith” is required, she writes, to anticipate that the struggle for life and democracy can be achieved under the present circumstances. Thankfully, she also provides a convincing wellspring for that faith in the extraordinary – and continuing – legacy of thoughtful, honest, and brave Arab men and women who imagine a better world in their minds, and in their words express the sentiments of hundreds of millions of ordinary men and women who want to make that better world their everyday real world.