Towards a new Arab intellectual
By using analytical tools of others, Arab intellectuals have become estranged from their audience.
2015/05/15 Issue: 5 Page: 8
The Arab Weekly
Arab intellectuals have to confess that, during the past years, they have suffered a serious defeat. This defeat has been systematic in every sense of the word. The problems intellectuals have faced at the hands of authoritarian regimes pale in comparison to the heavy blows of a psychological invasion that is shaking the Middle East. It is no longer quite so easy to lay the blame at the feet of governments who in large part appear baffled by what happened.
Arab intellectuals have proved incapable of providing cogent explanations, or even accurate descriptions, of the bloody spectacle unfolding before us. Our intellectuals have found that the explanatory tools they have relied on since independence have broken down. They have discovered that these tools, which they played no part in constructing, were created to analyse intellectual and political phenomena in liberal Western societies or Marxist Eastern ones. Such tools are patently inadequate when it comes to explaining the religious and political iconoclasms that have become the new reality of the region.
Arab intellectuals, raised on leftist and rightist orthodoxies, have found themselves bewildered by events. Their reactions have been ambiguous at best. In the main, silence has prevailed. The intellectuals have kept their distance. This aloofness was not the product of aversion to the bloody spectacle, but rather because intellectuals understood early on that the spectre they were witnessing belonged to another age. Over the past 30 years, religious forces have infiltrated every facet of Arab life and remade it in their image.
Confronted with this reality, our intellectuals have taken on the aspect of octogenarians watching a film full of furious colour while they themselves are used to watching films in the calm tones of black and white. These films belong to another age. Some intellectuals are quick to respond, when asked why they do not communicate through social media, that such things are beneath them. They treat social media as if it were a toy for teenagers. Comfortable with the old way of doing things, they disregard that the world is changing and that measuring and altering the mood of people has become an immediate and simple exercise. In such an environment disengagement is not an option.
Others have attempted to ride the oncoming wave with a laughable cynicism. They said it was possible to use the extremist “simpletons” to topple authoritarian regimes and, once the “simpletons” had served their purpose, to return to dominate the scene by getting rid of them once more. Some decided to oppose regimes that might have banned their books, choosing instead to support extremist religious regimes that were then in the process of formation. The moment these extremist regimes were ready, the first thing they did was burn the books of the aforementioned intellectuals. After a very short time indeed these cynics have seen the capacity of the “simpletons” to strengthen and systematically infiltrate positions of power. They watched in startled disbelief as the orgy of beheading got under way.
Some thinkers even went so far as to change their stripes. They turned from liberals, socialists and nationalists into die-hard believers in the projects of political Islam. These newly converted Islamists explained what was happening in terms of an “awakening”. Bearing incense-filled braziers behind Sunni Sheikhs and Shia Sayyids, they spoke of a new age.
Such intellectuals fell silent once they saw their struggle against the regime transform into sectarian strife. The promised “awakening” turned into militias killing and looting all that had been achieved over the course of decades, crossing international borders to destroy nations.
The isolation of many sections of the intellectual community only increased once the cynical wave-riders and stripe-changers joined the ranks of those who claimed they had wanted peace all along. Either way, their inability to explain events continued as before.
Just as politics has imposed the reality of an “age before the state”, so it has also imposed the reality of an “age before modern Arab culture”. The political and even the social scene appears to be regressing to the year zero. Some pessimists say the spectacle has regressed past zero into prehistory. The Arab scene today is one of civil and existential war.
But the painful and bloody ordeal currently rocking the region need not lead to intellectual and cultural death. Those who want to confiscate the lives of the people along with their possessions must first confront them with ideas. It is imperative to launch a counter-attack.
Enlightened media meet a pressing need on a daily basis. These organisations respond to the disastrous phenomena afflicting our Arab region. Courageous journalists uncover facts and present them through media. They have fought back in many countries of the “Inauspicious spring”. The contingencies of the media, however, remain immediate as they deal with daily events, as is the nature of media.
There is a pressing need for a “new”, enlightened, intellectual. Such an intellectual creates and develops his own tools in an attempt to explain the disasters that have befallen the region.
The new intellectual strives to use these tools of his own creation to found a new culture and way of thinking.
By using the analytical tools of others, Arab intellectuals have become estranged from their audience. This has led to nothing but the distancing of the “old” intellectuals from reality and the distancing of the people from intellectuals. The extremist “simpletons” have been more than happy to fill the gap.
It is imperative that intellectuals strive to create a new consciousness that might rebuild what has been destroyed and point the way towards the future. That is the description of the “new” intellectual. Intellectuals must remember that confrontation is never easy. It took decades to dismember the region and create the disgraceful conditions with which we must live today.
The entire political and social structure has been infiltrated by “simpletons”. The intellectual struggle could take decades and require the accumulation of culture and ideas along with the platforms necessary to create a new consciousness. Nobody is saying that the struggle for a new consciousness will be easy.