Tag Archives: Olivier Roy

Chatting Lightly About Dark Matters

cover IMA

Reflecting on the Future of the Arab World.

When my friend and I meet, we go straight to the point because we barely ever meet. So we asked ourselves the other day: Can any good come out of this darkness?

Those who did not yet succumb to cynicism in the West cling on to the idea that some day, out of the current Arab nightmare will rise new types of leaders, more popular, more liberal, some kind of Islamic Martin Luther that would help Muslims leap into modernity. They are In fact not so sure about the job description, and despite their flexibility, they haven’t found anyone yet.

As for us, we apprehended the matter in a different manner and looked into the potential blind spots of the reformist quest, asking ourselves what the least expected game-changers could be on the longer run. In other words, we examined potential signs and indications that something is changing deep within the social fabrics of the region.

The elements we are about to mention now have no academic value; we are mainly sharing impressions and intuitions that would require thorough research to be confirmed or invalidated.

New signs of an Arab Stream of Consciousness

Over the past couple of years, Arab media from all affiliations have been publishing a stream of editorials and essays critically reflecting on the meaning of Modernity for the Arab-Islamic world: What are the status and the role of the region in the post-Cold War world? Does modernization equal westernization? Does democratization impose secularization? What are the possible alternatives? And what is most remarkable is that, along the way, they are tearing down intellectual boundaries inherited mainly from Arabism.

Asad Azi's Napoleon, from the exhibition

Asad Azi’s Napoleon, from the exhibition “The wandering rider”, someone who looks for a Kingdom

One common feature of this intellectual anxiety is the critical questioning of modern history: many authors turn to the past to try to better fathom their present with one main question in mind: How did we get there?

Far from the hagiographic historiographies each nation crafted for itself after the Independences, these new readings really look for answers: Why did the first Nahda[1] fail? Why couldn’t the Arab revolutions prevent Colonialism? Why didn’t the independence bring freedom and prosperity? Israel, the usual suspect for more than four decades, is barely mentioned in this context.

These debates are also spreading on social media. We have witnessed Facebook discussions whereby Arab citizens discover with dismay that a national hero can be a neighbor’s villain[2]. The first reaction is of course for each one to reassert his idols. However, these clashing narratives cannot but sow doubt and suspicion about the official history Arabs were taught.

The second remarkable element of this intellectual effervescence is that, instead of resorting to isolationism, a normal reflex in times of crisis, Arab thinkers actually look around for answers beyond the West. Japan’s Meiji era (end of the 19th century) has always inspired the Arab intelligentsia as a successful synthesis between tradition and modernity.  What’s new is a wider outlook including contemporary Latin America and Asian Muslim countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia as potential models.

Arabs also display a new ownership of western references and controversies that are rephrased in accordance with local realities.For instance, mass media editorials discuss and criticize Fukuyama’s End of History and Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations after the fall of the Soviet Union. There are also some signs of a new critical understanding of Capitalism and the impacts of Globalization after the 2008 crisis – something which is different than the old Arab communist criticism of the market economy.

In one of the most striking display of this new intellectual autonomy, the great Syrian thinker, Yassin el Hajj Saleh, reflects in a crucial article on Adorno and the meaning of Poetry after Auschwitz applied to the Syrian case[3], undeterred by the traditional taboo surrounding the Jews and the Shoah in the Arab world.

Naturally, this new stream of Arab consciousness cannot but tackle the central issue of Islam. To read more in PDF format, click here.

[1] The Nahda (“Awakening”) refers to a moment of cultural effervescence that began in the late 19th century in Egypt and in the Levant. It is often regarded as a period of intellectual modernization and reform that was sparked by the shock caused by Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, and in general by the new awareness of the Arab elites regarding the gap between Europe and the Ottoman Empire in terms of technical and scientific development. [2] You’d be surprised how popular Saddam Hussein still is across the region. [3] Looking into the eyes of Horror, a contribution to the Syrian debate over pictures, May 30th, 2015 (Arabic only)

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