An interview with Sadik Al-Azm.
The thought of the Sixties, at least as far as I am concerned, developed within a certain context in which the Arab liberation movement appeared to be producing hopeful changes in Arab life, politically, economically, and socially. We felt at the time that there was a wave of modernization and industrialization and serious efforts were emanating from Syria and Egypt to crystallize new ideas and values suitable for this wave and capable of dealing seriously with the question of strengthening Arab resolve. These new values and ideas were also necessary for confronting Israel and for dealing adequately with the dilemmas of limiting its appetite for expansion. In other words, despite the limitations and contradictions of this Arab liberation movement, it appeared to be activating all kinds of hitherto marginalized social forces and human capabilities for building a better Arab future. We, the young intellectuals of that time, were compelled to ask ourselves if we were capable of playing a role within this movement and contributing to its goals, regardless of our particular personal ideological inclinations and/or commitments, be they Arab nationalist, Ba'thist, Nasserite, Marxist, progressive, neutral technocratic, or positive neutralist.
It was also natural for us as intellectuals to focus on the upper structures of thought, values, and culture. What really attracted my attention then was the presence of a transformational and radicalizing tendency within this liberation movement which aimed at the implementation of necessary changes in the economic, productive, and political structures of the Arab World. But along with this tendency went a highly conservative counter-trend which wanted to preserve the old social structures and their values, as well as the superstructures of thought, values, morality, and religion. In other words, it appeared to me then as though the Arab liberation movement was striving toward the implementation of significant and revolutionary transformations in the lower structures of society with its left hand, while at the same time striving just as hard to slow down the transformation of the superstructures with its right hand. I was convinced then that this contradiction within the Arab liberation movement resulted in a great deal of obstruction, without any realization on my part at the time that this may have been class-related, or more specifically, directly related to the nature of the petty bourgeoisie. It appeared to me that the most appropriate intellectual task for a person like myself would be to engage in some constructive activity. This meant destroying those superstructures which had lost their capacity for life because of the changes occurring in the base, while at the same time participating in the building of relatively new structures more suited to the transformations gripping Arab life at that moment.
I was also attracted strongly, while focusing on this dilemma, to the kind of Islamic thought prevalent at the time. This thought appeared to be one of the most prominent elements in the reigning reactionary superstructure. The Arab liberation movement was very guarded in it approach to Islamic thought, avoiding direct contact with it and ignoring the need to renew and rebuild it with openness and clarity. I was becoming very conscious of the ability of this body of thought to continually reproduce the values of ignorance, myth-making, backwardness, dependency, and fatalism, and to impede the propagation of scientific values, secularism, enlightenment, democracy, and humanism.
Allow me here to say parenthetically that I and others like myself fell victim to the prevailing belief that the changes we were witnessing had surpassed all the issues brought forward by the Arab Nahda (Renaissance) of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. In other words, we fell victim to the erroneous idea that history had already decided all the issues raised by the Nahda in favor of progress, genuine modernization, modern science, secularism, socialism, and national liberation. We also felt that retreat from all this had become impossible and that duty dictated the need to continue the struggle at all levels in order to deepen these values in our contemporary lives. Based on this, I used to criticize some intellectuals of the period who were in the habit of marshaling the ghosts of Muhammad 'Abduh and al-Afghani in support of their views, as though nothing had transpired since the beginning of the Twentieth Century. As intellectuals and thinkers, we used to view ourselves as part of a new reality which had overtaken the Nahda phase. We used to think that we represented a movement which had, at least in principle, transcended the issues raised by Muhammad 'Abduh, al-Afghani, and the rest of the luminaries of al-Nahda. But today we find ourselves defending the accomplishments of al-Nahda against Salafi and other obscurantist attacks. Our mistake was to believe that the period in question, namely the 1960s, had historically superseded the Nahda.
The second point I wish to emphasize is an admission regarding the impact of Yassin al-Hafez on my thinking during the early 1960s, although I had not yet met him personally. Al-Hafez had dealt brilliantly with all these issues, dissecting them with sharp logic, clear style, and profound analysis. This was particularly true in his book: Hawla Ba'd Qadhaya al-Thawrah al'Arabiya (Regarding Some Issues of the Arab Revolution). This is why, as an expression of my indebtedness to him, I used a quote from his book as an introductory statement to my work: Naqd al-Fikr al-Dini. He had illustrated with magnificent economy of words a part of the cultural project which I, as well as some others, felt was so vital to Arab progress. What al-Hafez brought out for me was the importance of critically confronting the superstructures of thought, culture, heritage, and religion which were impeding the economic, social, and political accomplishments of the Arab liberation movement.
Let me go back to what the right hand of the Arab liberation movement, or its conservative side, was doing. I was firmly convinced that in order to engage truly in the liberationist cultural project, especially as outlined by al-Hafez, one had to confront the religious establishment and its reactionary thought. (Yassin al-Hafez, naturally, is not responsible for what I have committed in the way of misjudging certain circumstances and issues). One of the symptoms of the poverty of religious thought, for instance, was the Ulama's utter ignorance of anything remotely related to modem science, its problematics, and its theories. This type of ignorance still prevails today. To cite one example, an ideological and political battle raged in those days over the issue of whether or not the Earth was round and whether it revolved around the Sun. The reactionary camp, which rejected this Copernican notion, was led by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, 'Abd al-'Aziz Ibn Baz and the Islamic Alliance of those days, supported by the Americans and opposed to 'Abd al-Nasser. The progressive camp, which affirmed that the Earth was round, was led by Nasser's Egypt. Incredibly, religious thought was and still is preoccupied with these issues. The problem facing us in those days was how does an intellectual who was versed in modem science and philosophy enter in a serious debate with a religious discourse of that level? We felt that it was our right to demand of the religious establishment that they produce the kind of thought that we could logically debate even if we were not disposed to agree with it. In addition, I attacked the Lebanese tendency toward mutual deception among the various religious sects (or what used to be called the Islamic-Christian dialogue) by employing previously agreed upon clever but vague language which says a great deal to each of the parties while saying nothing specific to the other side. It became clear later on that these debates were nothing more than deceptive maneuvers by all sides and a prelude to the civil war.
What I really wanted to debate and discuss with the other side was how do we deal with sacred religious texts during the second half of the Twentieth Century? How are we to understand and interpret Qur'anic texts, particularly following the uproar raised by the religious establishment in Egypt as a result of the publication of Muhammad Ahmad Khalaf al-Allah's book dealing with this question realistically and quite moderately? Are we to read these Qur'anic stories as if they were real events, or are we to appreciate them for their symbolic meaning, moral import, or humanist substance in order to render them relevant to modem life, literature and philosophy? My favorite story in the Qur'an, from this perspective, is that of Satan. But how am I to treat it? Can l accept it literally, in accord with the traditional interpretation? Do I banish it totally from my thought and my intellectual concerns? Do I attempt to revisit it according to my current interests and objectives and by so doing invest it with meaning relevant to our age and times? Since this story is a valuable part of our heritage, I have tried to turn it into a work of art, a drama, in my study which bears the title: Ma'satu Iblis (The Tragedy of Satan) by linking it to the ancient Greek theater and the idea of tragedy in human life. Thus, I have read this Qur'anic story differently, basing my interpretation both on some classical Islamic texts such as al-Hallaj's treatment of the subject, as well as on modem philosophies such as Existentialism and Marxism. I found this approach much more preferable to parroting old interpretations.
Naturally, the defeat of June 1967 interrupted all plans and revealed the fragility of the modern Arab intellectual renaissance on which the Arab liberation movement based its hopes. Most of these hopes revolved around the concept of the inspired leader and when the leader fell everything crashed with him, leaving nothing behind but emptiness, loss, and confusion. I would not be exaggerating when I say that the defeat hit us like a lightening bolt for reasons which I cannot elaborate on here. I found myself suddenly preoccupied with writing about and debating direct political questions which I never dreamed would be a concern of mine. If someone had said to me before the defeat: one day you will be writing about airplanes, tanks, military strategy, and tactics, and you will be responding to articles by Muhammad Hassanein Haikal about the Palestinian armed struggle and just peace with Israel, l would have thought him surely mad. Naturally, we had to absorb the lightening bolt of defeat and its shock one way or another, in addition to collecting all of our scattered cultural and intellectual projects and making a decision as to how and which way we should proceed.
The Arab World witnessed the emergence of a strong leftist wave immediately after the 1967 defeat, which extended to the 1973 October War. All intellectual and cultural energy at the time revolved around different means of renewing Marxist thought and the call for an overall revolution, particularly a national war of liberation. Religious movements and organizations remained marginal, although the potential for their return to the political arena loomed large on the horizon. I believe that I was among the first to appreciate this tendency, for I published an article in Dirasat 'Arabiyah, two months after the defeat titled: "Al-'Ilm al-Hadith wa al-Naksah al-Khatirah," (Modern Science and the Dangerous Relapse), which stirred up considerable discussion and became the nucleus of my book: Al-Naqd al-Thati ba'd al-Hazimah (Self-Criticism after the Defeat). Along with that article, I published an addendum containing several texts which demonstrated the nature of the response of the religious establishment to the defeat. At the same time, the political regimes responsible for the military defeat began utilizing religion in general and Islam in particular in a campaign designed to protect them from the aftermath of the defeat. In response to this campaign, I wrote an article under the self-explanatory title of: "Mu'jizat Zuhur al-'Azra' wa Tasfiyat Athar al-'Udwan," (The Miracle of the Virgin's Apparition and the Liquidation of the Traces of the Aggression). This was in response to a story describing the appearance of the Virgin Mary in the Zeitoun Church in Cairo and its exploitation by officials and the Egyptian intelligence services in order to divert the public's attention from the defeat and at the same time give a boost to tourism.
We viewed ourselves within the context of the Arab liberation movement as forces of enlightenment in the classic sense of the term. If we go back to the European Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century, we find that this movement was the direct result of the scientific revolution of the Seventeenth century. The Enlightenment meant codifying the new knowledge which resulted from the scientific revolution and then disseminating it throughout society, making it available not only to all who wanted it, but also to the centers of power and authority in state and society. The idea was to make this new knowledge the basis for organizing production, administering society and the state, and rearranging intellectual, educational, and political life, instead of basing all of these on theology and customary practice. This new knowledge meant also the development of an advanced and critical consciousness based on the new sciences and new social and class developments in the more advanced European countries of the time. This is why we emphasized Hegelian leftism which gave rise to an enlightened and critical approach to the intellectual life of Germany during the Nineteenth Century instead of emphasizing the Eighteenth Century.
Despite all of this, my general assessment is that the present religious fundamentalist current in Arab life is a reactive and not an enactive phenomenon. It is a reaction to defeat (since defeat often leads people to seek refuge in religion, in the traditional, and in the familiar and leads to the emergence of redemptive aspirations). The present religious current is also a reaction to the intellectual vacuum resulting from the collapse of the grand ideas which had dominated Arab intellectual life since the end of the Second World War. Finally, this religious current is itself a reaction to the contraction of religious activity in the public sphere of life in Arab states such as Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Algeria which had undergone long processes of modernization.
Until recently, jurisprudential, theological, and religious sciences were the most distinguished of all. But this situation has been overturned in the aforementioned countries, making those involved in these disciplines conscious of their marginality to Arab political, intellectual, and educational life. Today they are attempting to recoup their losses. Any one of us can supply examples of the retreat of religious influence over the public sphere of modem Arab life, leading, ultimately, to a compensatory intensification of religious faith in private life. This general movement has ebbed and flowed, but I do not believe that it has come to an end or that it will stop. Pakistan, for example, desires to develop its own atomic bomb with all the technological advances it requires. But to accomplish this requires in its turn a scientific climate and the development of genuine scientific minds. By its very nature, scientific thought is critical: it revises, re-examines, requires proof, rejects belief on the basis of faith as in religious thought. This predisposition to critical and logical thinking will not remain confined to nuclear physics even in a country like Pakistan. Invariably, this predisposition will touch other aspects of a country's intellectual, spiritual, cultural, and informational life, influencing even religious thought itself. Since Pakistan is determined to possess a nuclear bomb, it cannot escape the impact of the powerful forces which will result from possessing this new system of knowledge.
But here I would like to issue a cautionary statement. I, like many others, am aware that political regimes which import military and industrial technology, like Pakistan and Iraq, do not undertake this task because of their commitment to science and progress. This is because the mentality which manages this technology remains Bedouin-like and fanatic, continuously regarding science as only the means of attaining power and dominance. This mentality will do its utmost to prevent the scientific and critical thought from expanding beyond the very narrow limits which it prescribes. I am convinced, despite all this, that these political regimes will not succeed in achieving their goals over the long run even if they remain in control of their own countries. That is because there is a serious contradiction between the mere possession of this kind of scientific mentality, research and technology and between these types of repressive regimes. This tension will inevitably lead either to squelching of this scientific experiment or to its slow expansion and diffusion. In the latter case, the scientific quest will inevitably leave its imprint on the entire firmament of cultural, intellectual, and social life in a manner unacceptable to the forces which were compelled to import it. By the end of this century, this issue will become a matter of life and death.
To what extent did you, as one of the knowledge-producing elite, align yourself with the political projects of those days? By this we mean, were you and others like you required to harmonize with the prevailing political current at the expense of your intellectual independence and critical faculties?
I do not believe that there is one single yardstick capable of measuring the relationship between the thought of the intellectual elite and current events at all times and all places, since the gap between them expands and contracts according to different circumstances. The single principle to which I am always committed is the affirmation of the relative independence of the intellectual project from current events and political movements. Each intellectual or participant in an intellectual project has the right to specify the point of balance which he will strike (according to his own personal assessments and interpretation of the framework within which he operates) between near-total isolation from surrounding events and between a total adhesion to these events.
I mentioned earlier that if someone had predicted before the defeat of June 1967 that one day I would be producing the type of writing which I later did produce, I would have thought him mad. In other words, before the defeat of June, I used to lean toward distancing my intellectual activities from current events and insisting on the near total independence of thought, even to the extent of favoring abstract ideas. But after the disaster of the defeat, I found myself pulled to the other end of the equation and moving closer to the realities of the street in political terms, but without necessarily joining it. Indeed, it would be naive to believe that a defeat of the magnitude of June 1967 could happen without certain sectors of the productive intelligentsia being forced to abandon their more independent and abstract positions. The 1967 defeat was an exceptional event in every sense of the word, a terrifying explosion which destroyed the foundations of the Arab liberation movement. Thus, extraordinary reactions were inevitable such as the abandonment of intellectual independence and pure scholarship by some of the intellectual elite who moved toward what appeared to be more pressing and timely concerns. In actuality, if this abandonment had not taken place, the tragedy of the defeat would have been compounded. Even in the most advanced European capitalist societies, where social stability permits the intelligentsia to enjoy a great margin of distance from current events in order to indulge in pure research, we find that during times of crisis or war or sudden social transformations the intelligentsia usually moves closer to the world of politics. This phenomenon has led to the creation of the category of the so-called "Public Intellectual," such as John Dewey, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Lewis Mumford. All of them were philosophers, thinkers, and scholars with long stretches in the ivory tower. But all of them used to abandon these positions - in varying styles and degrees in order to plunge into current political affairs. They did this not because they were seduced into doing so, but as a result of being convinced that the change was necessary. Witness Sartre and his involvement in the Algerian War of Independence, as well as in the Vietnamese War of Liberation.
This is why I generally ask regarding the issue of separating the intellectual liberationist project from the political dynamic of that phase: Would it be possible in the Arab World of today (or the Third World in general) to separate the intellectual projects from the political dynamic? I am not speaking, of course, about those intellectual endeavors which aim at justifying and applauding certain policies, but about intellectual projects which concern themselves with political, social, economic, class, and international problems, irrespective of whether or not these projects are leftist, rightist, nationalist, Islamic, or reactionary. These intellectual projects refuse to be totally marginal to the political reality of the period. The issue, then, revolves around what kind of association is possible between the intellectual project of the day and the prevailing political dynamic. For me personally, I am certain that I have abandoned some of my previous intellectual and scholarly aloofness since the 1967 war. But I still insist that I did not attach myself fully to the existing political forces and did not succumb to any political temptations at the expense of my independent and critical thinking.
I would like to go back to the question of the "Public Intellectual." The best illustration of this typology of the intellectual elite exists in France. This may be due to the continuity of the French revolutionary tradition. Thus, the longest debate over the question of artistic commitment was led by Sartre in France. Then we see this same sort of debate raging in Germany and Italy, perhaps because Germany in particular lagged behind Britain and France in the areas of scientific, economic, liberal, and social progress. Because Germany strongly felt the need to catch up with this progress, the role of the "Public Intellectual" has acquired special significance since the days of Fichte. It was Fichte who proposed abstract, pure, and generalized solutions for Germany's political, social, and national problems. The typology of the "Public Intellectual" was indeed weaker in the Twentieth Century in Anglo-American culture. Despite this fact, Britain provided us with a great philosopher, namely Bertrand Russell, who specialized in the purest forms of science and scholarship in areas such as symbolic logic, philosophy of mathematics, and the theory of knowledge. Russell, however, was imprisoned as a young man because of his opposition to the First World War. In his later years, he went to jail because of issues related to his opposition to atomic weapons. The United States, on its part, gave us John Dewey whose essential work in the areas of logic, epistemology, and abstract philosophical thought did not stand in the way of his involvement in practical issues of education, democracy, and sympathy for the Bolshevik Revolution and the anti-colonial struggle.
As to the Arab intelligentsia, I think that it is closer to the French and German model (while keeping in mind differences in the levels of creativity, precision, objectivity, and the use of the scientific method) when it comes to the issue of relating intellectual projects to the current political dynamic. I also realize that this close association often appears as opportunistic, vulgar, and harmful, and I do not see any imminent prospect of separating them. At this point, I would like to recall an excellent article by Salman Rushdie titled: "Outside the Whale," published in 1984. The whale here symbolizes history, and Rushdie uses this metaphor to critique the English novelist George Orwell who claimed that the intellectual elite is capable of remaining outside the whale, one way or another. Rushdie debates this notion critically and insists that it is impossible to apply since these very intellectual elites are involved in history whether they realize it or not. We are all inside the whale, at least inside our own history. We may be swallowed by a greater whale who will swallow others with us, but like it or not, we are inside the whale.
I was certainly supportive of the Arab liberation movement with all its blemishes, its accomplishments and deficiencies. And I see nothing wrong in this since there was nothing else which I could support. There was nothing outside this movement except the ivory tower, the narrow academy, and pure technocracy. None of these provided a better basis for critiquing the Arab liberation movement than the vantage point of the movement itself. This does not mean that the ivory tower, the narrow academy, and pure technocracy lacked any useful ideas regarding the liberation movement. I know of some intellectuals who were totally involved in politics and who are now attempting to compensate by insisting on remaining totally outside current events in order to better critique them.
In reality, the best diagnostic and analytical writings on the Arab liberation movement were produced by intellectuals who leaned perceptibly toward it. I consider myself a student of some of these intellectuals. I recall now as an example, Anouar 'Abdel-Malek's Egypt: Military Society, and Studies in Nationalist Culture, as well as Yassin al-Hafez' aforementioned book, Regarding Some Issues of the Arab Revolution, a French-language book titled Nasserite Egypt which appeared under a pseudonym, and books by Elias Murqus from that period. There was an elite which used to direct a different kind of critique from right-wing positions. But we all know that the right was attempting to move the arms of the clock backwards. All of these rightist critics, for instance, were advocates of military alliances with the Western camp and using Arab soil for the encirclement of the Soviet Union. They also exaggerated Soviet threats (where are these threats today?) and even called for the return of the Suez Canal to the British.
Even those intellectuals who interacted one way or another with the Palestinian resistance as the most lively and revolutionary movement remaining after 1967 and the demise of the Arab liberation struggle, exhibited a high level of critical thinking. I belonged to this category. Although I did not spare the Palestinian resistance from criticism I did so as an intellectual committed to its struggle. I published a severely critical work, after the events of Black September in 1970, titled A Critical Study of the Thought of the Palestinian Resistance. In it, I lambasted the failure of the Palestinian experience in Jordan. This book, it turned out, caused me several problems: I lost my job with the PLO's Research Center in Beirut on direct orders from Arafat himself. This forced me to use a pseudonym whenever I published pieces in Shu'un Filastiniyah. Fateh also withdrew a large number of copies of the book from the market, preventing the publisher from bringing out a second edition. I even had to go underground for a while because of personal threats by some Fateh leaders such as Kamal al-'Udwan. But insisting on maintaining my role as critic, I followed this with another work titled Siyaset Carter wa Munaziru al-Haqbah al-Sa'udiyah (Carter's Policy and the Ideologists of the Saudi Era). Then I wrote Ziyaret al-Sadat wa Bu's al-Salam al-'Adil (Sadat's Visit and the Misery of the Just Peace). I am proud to say, though with some bitterness, that I was the first to publicly speak out about the "poverty" of the so-called "just peace" touted by Arab regimes. I look at the Oslo Agreement today and the manner in which it is being applied and I shake my head in despair, realizing that never in my worst moments of pessimism did I anticipate the so-called "just peace" to degenerate to this level of misery. There are many liberation struggles in this world which suffered severe blows and were even exterminated, but none lost their dignity and stature as the Palestine resistance movement has. There it hangs, a spectacle before the entire world. Allow me to mention here an English-language article which I published in 1988, under the self-explanatory title: "Al-Sahyuniyah al-Filastiniyah" ("Palestinian Zionism"), and which, I must confess, I did not dare publish in Arabic. Several of my friends who previewed it raised their eyebrows in surprise, claiming that the article was sheer speculation although I provided evidence as to what was going on inside the PLO. These ideas were guardedly alluded to in the previous book on Sadat and the just peace, hoping that the Palestinian-Zionist strain would weaken. But what happened was exactly the opposite, so that when I was asked what I thought about Oslo, I answered succinctly: Palestinian Zionism won inside the PLO. When I first spoke about "Palestinian Zionism," Edward Said criticized me on several occasions in defense of the PLO. Now, I am very pleased to see Edward turning his heavy artillery against the same phenomenon.
The defeat of 1967 undoubtedly has a special meaning to your generation. But we have just experienced an equally devastating defeat following the Gulf War. What is the difference between these two defeats? Some accuse you of attributing the causes of the first defeat to the imitative and abstract nature of Arab thought. Does the same explanation pertain to the second case?
I did not attribute the 1967 defeat solely to these causes. The issue is much larger and more complex than that. As to the difference between the psychological impact of the first defeat (1967) and the second one (1991), I must point out that the first defeat affected our psychology and self-image in such a manner that could only be compared to the blow directed at the Arab and Islamic worlds following Napoleon's victory over Egypt's Mameluke armies. In both cases, the stunning impact of the war had far-reaching social, historical, political, and intellectual consequences. Napoleon's expedition inflicted severe narcissist wounds on the Islamic self-image which have yet to heal. The 1967 defeat inflicted similar wounds. Before the 1967 War, we used to naively believe in the exaggerated accomplishments of the Arab liberation movement, such as the nationalization of the Suez Canal, the arms deal with the socialist camp, the demise of Iraq's royalist regime, and the socialist achievements of Egypt and Syria. Arabs were also hypnotized by what the Arab information agencies proclaimed about "the gangster state" (i.e., Israel), "the journey of liberation," and the greatness, courage, and faith of Arab armies. I recall that just before the 1967 War, my friends used to blame me for my excessive pessimism regarding the possible outcome of that war. The model before me which led to that pessimism was that of the India-Pakistan War of the mid1960s. My feeling was that the impending Arab-Israeli war would lead to each side destroying the military hardware of the other, which would be followed by Great Power intervention and an imposed settlement. Even this balanced, realistic, and rational view appeared as unduly pessimistic at the time and unrelated to the realities of the moment.
As far as the Gulf War is concerned, the most significant thing about it is that it did not fall on virgin territory, mentally and psychologically, like the first war. This, in addition to the fact that the Gulf War was provoked by a despised dictator, who was the very opposite of Nasser. One would assume that as a result of earlier defeats we would have acquired some immunity and at least would not suffer the same psychological and ideological symptoms of the first defeat. This immunity, however, did not prevent some intellectuals from proclaiming Saddam Hussain as "The hero of the Arab nation," and/or the "Bismarck of the Arabs," and similar obvious hallucinations. I understand that these symptoms accompanying the last Gulf War were a result of the accumulation of defeats in our lives. This is because intellectuals, as everybody else, sometimes lose their compass and get carried away by a hysterical current, forgetting all the lessons of the past.
As Arabs and Muslims (and I mean Muslims by culture, heritage and history) we are unable to picture ourselves remaining on the margins of history. This perception sometimes deepens our confusion and may explain the irrationality of our responses to crises which remain under the control of others. That is precisely what happened during the last two defeats: rash and foolish decisions precipitating crises far bigger than ourselves and our capabilities, accompanied by a total inability to control, even if only partially, the course of these crises as well as our own actions. It is an example of ludicrous posturing to say we will take a high leap forward regardless of the consequences even if this leads to death and destruction. One must also add in the case of the Gulf War, Saddam's mad challenge to the West in general and to the U.S. in particular at the moment of their victory over the U.S.S.R. and all of their enemies around the world. In our innermost self-image, we see ourselves as the makers of history, capable of imposing the history we make on others, and not as the objects of the history made by others. Our conscious and unconscious ambitions reinforce this picture. Upon examining the literature of the pan-Arabist movement, I came to the conclusion that the real objective was not the realization of the pan-Arabist dream, but the desire to return to our role of historical leadership in the world. But it seems that the issue confronting us over and over again is that the realization of this dream, or even a portion of it, requires revolutions, changes, and sacrifices (in order to conform to the standards of leadership in the Twentieth Century) which we are incapable of suffering. Because we feel that these sacrifices will come at the expense of losing a precious part of our identity and heritage, our reaction to these complex crises is, understandably, irrational, hysterical, talismanic, and reductionist. Apparently, the anti-European complex is so deeply imbedded within us that it goes beyond the issue of modem colonialism, military occupation, etc., for all Mediterranean civilizations were always conquering and expansionist civilizations: Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Rome, Islam, the Crusades, the Ottoman Empire, the rise of modem Europe. This Arab complex is based on a strong delusion concerning Europe's usurpation of our right to make history and to lead the world, in a moment of historical lapse, as is sometimes said here. We view the right to world leadership as if it were a divine right, for which God has chosen Arabs and Muslims. Thus, Arab unification is a necessary step to retrieve that right. Arabs and Muslims would always find it difficult to accept their position on the margins of modem history since they view themselves, consciously or unconsciously, as members of a great nation and the bearers of God's true religion and that God is on their side. An illustration of this feeling came in a book by Hussain Ahmad Amin, titled Dalil al-Muslumin al-Hazin ila Muqtadha al-Suluk fi al-Qarn al-'Ishrin (The Guide of the Sad Muslims to Behavior Required in the Twentieth Century). Amin described the Muslim as sad because his perceptions of and delusions about himself, his civilization, and religion require specific and definite outcomes and results. But reality makes a mockery of these perceptions every day. Thus, whenever a savior appears on the horizon, no matter how reprehensible, the anti-European complex resurfaces and takes over everything, making this ghost "the hero of the Arab nation" or the "Bismarck of the Arabs," or the new prophet, the expected savior, and the like. But, inevitably, this delusion soon disintegrates, strengthening the anti-European complex.
Do you agree with Adonis' contention that the intellectual's authority allows him to play a special role against those Arab regimes which monopolize intellectual production?
The role of the Arab intellectual changes from time to time. Generally speaking, I feel that the intellectual must distance himself from the state, even if it were a democratic state, since to do otherwise would diminish his credibility. Most productive Arab intellectuals have experienced problems with their governments at one time or another, and some have suffered the penalty of exile. The intellectual in our countries has a certain role which must be played with caution vis-a-vis the state, for otherwise he would lose his credibility and transform himself into an opportunist, a hanger-on, or a seeker of personal fame. As far as Adonis' phrase the "intellectual's authority," I do not know its exact meaning. Perhaps the phrase approximates Michel Foucault's ideas, but my understanding of authority here may be something that resembles the Encyclopedists in France during the Eighteenth Century. These Encyclopedists were considered the final authority, although this is not similar to our understanding of this role today. The term "intelligentsia," on the other hand, was invented in Russia and spread to other countries acquiring the sense of the dignity of learning and of knowledge. This acquired meaning of the term "intelligentsia" explains the problem of Arab intellectuals who aspire to attain the authority of the priest or shaykh. The most famous of our intellectuals seek disciples, not students. Instead of sharpening their critical faculties, Arab intellectuals resort to teaching their disciples how to be critical of their (the intellectuals') personal enemies and how to celebrate their teachers' genius. Thus, any discussion of the intellectual's freedom and his authority leads only to unpleasant argumentation.
As to the state's monopoly over culture, this is indeed one of the most serious problems confronting Arab societies today. In the past, intellectuals were in the habit of escaping being caught in this trap by manipulating the built-in competition between Arab governments. For a while, Lebanon was an open station for escaping the pressure of official Arab governmental control over culture. The Palestinian resistance movement was also able to protect intellectuals fleeing their own regimes and provide them with an opportunity to work within its institutions. Actually, the state's monopoly over culture did not succeed totally. Had there been one Arab state, this situation would have been far worse. As soon as the oil boom resulted in the realization of most of the inter-Arab system's material needs, it also led to the emergence of similar policies vis-a-vis the intelligentsia and the ability to monopolize the intellectual's thought and dictate the parameters of his freedom. In addition, the expansion of oil interests in Europe resulted in the need to express themselves through acceptable institutions, and in the process created an acute state of siege for the intellectual.
What is your view regarding the relationship of Salman Rushdie's literature (all of which is in English) to Western dominance over everything including local and national literature?
Western monopoly over literature is natural and is an outgrowth of the rise of the West since the Renaissance. For one thing, the volume of Western literary output leaves no doubt regarding the ability of this literature to leave its imprint on all the literatures of the Third World. The entire world has now adopted the novel form, knowing full well that the novel was the product of European bourgeois society. Slowly but surely, the novel is beginning to replace poetry in the Third World. Some even claim that already the novel has replaced poetry among the Arabs as the major form of artistic self-expression. It is also true that some of the writers of the Third World who use a European language produced unflattering work about their own countries. Take for instance V.S. Naipaul from Trinidad who offered the Western reader a negative picture of the Muslim world. But Salman Rushdie cannot be included in this category since his literature is entirely different. Rushdie does not write to please the West. He simply has his own concerns which he discusses freely. He also has his own commitments. One of his works is a collection of short stories titled East, West in which he deliberately places a comma between the East and the West of the title. In reality, the comma stands for Rushdie himself. In one of these stories, he describes an Indian girl about to travel to Britain. In the midst of all of the trouble of obtaining a visa from the British Embassy, we discover the girl's desire to remain in India since her move to England entails an unwelcome arranged marriage. This story illustrates in a symbolic way the relationship between the East and West in that in the midst of all the human rush to obtain a visa, she was the only one working to sabotage her own visa application. Finally, when it comes to Rushdie, the choice of English is natural for him since English is the official language of India and is his mother-tongue as well.
Editor's Note: Although the general impression today is that Islamic thought dominates political and philosophic discourse in the Arab World, some powerful secularist voices continue to be heard. In Egypt, the work of legal expert and Islamic scholar Muhammad Sa'id al-'Ishmawi has put purveyors of religious fanaticism on notice. In his various works, such as Al-Khilafah al-Islamiyyah (The Islamic Caliphate), he refutes many of the arguments of the new generation of Islamic scholars both historically and philosophically. Carolyn Fleuhr-Lobban will soon publish a comprehensive analysis of his work.
The subject of this interview, Sadik al-Azm, is Professor of Modem European Philosophy at the University of Damascus. He rose to prominence in the late 1960s as a result of the publication of his Al-Naqd al-Zati ba'd al-Hazirnah, (Self-Criticism After the Defeat), and Naqd al-Fikr al-Dini (Critique of Religious Thought) which included a bold analysis of the causes of the 1967 defeat. Besides critiquing the West and the Arab and Muslim worlds, he has also been in the forefront of the secular-Islamist ideological wars. His work, as is amply demonstrated in this interview, reflects both breadth of knowledge and intellectual courage.
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|Title Annotation:||University of Damascus professor|
|Publication:||Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1997|
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