The Rise of Fundamentalism Led Me to Turn from Literary Criticism to Criticism of the Arab-Islamic Heritage

October 2, 2008

In a January 2008 interview with the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Georges Tarabishi, a prominent liberal Syrian intellectual living in France, spoke about democracy in the Arab world, the fundamentalist challenge, and secularism. He argued that just as secularism emerged in Europe as a remedy to Protestant-Catholic sectarianism, so it is needed in the Arab world to overcome sectarian divisions and pave the way for a democratic future.

The following are excerpts from the interview: (1)

The Rise of Fundamentalism Led Me to Turn from Literary Criticism to Criticism of the Arab-Islamic Heritage

Q: "Your intellectual trajectory has traversed a number of stations. You went from the Ba'th to existentialism, from Marxism to liberalism, and recently you have engaged in a critique of the Arab mind. At the end of this packed trajectory, where do you find yourself? Are you at a stage of self-criticism, reviewing this full trajectory, or at a stage of criticizing the Arab reality?"

A: "I am part of my generation, and my generation has lived through more in 50 years than other generations in other countries lived through in 100 or 200 years. My generation's situation is like an Arab novel, like [those of] Naguib Mahfouz; in 50 years he went from historical novels to realist novels, and from there to symbolism and novels [dealing with the Islamic] heritage, and finally to the metaphysical novel. In other words, Naguib Mahfouz's personal novelistic trajectory covered, in 50 years, the trajectory of the European novel in its 300-year development.

"Our generation was subjected to the pressure of rapid change. It saw the rise and fall of Nazism and Marxism, the student rebellions, and changes in European thought, starting with existentialism, then the Frankfurt School, and finally structuralism and postmodernism. At the same time, momentous world events took place: the end of World War II, the outbreak of the Cold War, the national liberation movements and third-worldism, the fall of the socialist camp, and from there to globalization.

"Our generation had to react to all of these events and to make room for them in its consciousness. It had to know how to adopt them and at the same time take a critical stance towards them. Thus, if it wanted to stay in touch with the age, which was all about change, it couldn't adopt [just] one fixed vision.

"I think that my personal trajectory reflects the path of the generation itself, in that it moved from one school of thought to another in accordance with the changing phases, and in applying the principle of criticism and self-criticism, which is the primary guarantee of the continued survival of one's identity through change and adaptation to a changing reality.

"This trajectory of successive changes does not mean the disavowal of everything one has left behind. On the contrary; through [this] history, change, and reckoning there is a process of accretion and reconstruction. If I have left behind the phases I passed through of pan-Arabism, existentialism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis, this does not mean that I do not preserve elements from these [various] stations that still play a role in the final outcome of my intellectual trajectory. Thus, today I benefit from all of my past experiences in order to develop a composite and profound vision of the reality in which I live.

"[This reality] is a new turn in the trajectory of the Arab world, with the outbreak of the fundamentalist phenomenon which today is expanding. This was one of the principle reasons for my intellectual shift from literary criticism to criticism of the Arab-Islamic heritage, as expressed in [my] project the Critique of the Critique of the Arab Mind, which has reached, and continues to reach, encyclopedic proportions that I myself did not foresee when I began to work on it more than 20 years ago..."

Today's Fundamentalism Is an Innovation – In Muslim Heritage, No One Called Himself An "Islamist"

Q: "Could we say then that your project comes in the context of employing [Islamic-Arab] heritage in the battle for modernity?"

A: "Both heritage and other things. The confrontation with the enemies of modernity and the traditionalists is a long and hard battle. I think that it will take at least the next 50 or 100 years. These traditionalists can only be confronted through all of the scientific and intellectual accomplishments and achievements of modernity, and likewise through a return to the same sources in the heritage that [the traditionalists] claim strengthen [their position].

"When I say here that this is what they claim, I mean exactly what I say. This fundamentalism that we are confronting today is, in my view, a completely invented innovation. There is proof for this: if we return to the heritage, we don't find anyone living at that time who said of himself that he was an 'Islamist.' There were Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, but no Islamists."

"The Prevailing Culture Today in the Arab World... Stir[s] up Emotions instead of Stimulating the Mind"

Q: "What is your explanation for the decline of the Arab mind, following the period of openness and flowering in the past? Are we in need of an Arab renaissance project? [And if so,] what would be its outlines?"

A: "It is difficult to answer in [only a few] lines this kind of question, which I have written entire books answering. Here I will just express a reservation about the use of the word 'mind.' I believe that many Arab intellectuals, and the audience they address, do not think with their minds, but with a mentality. There is a big difference between the two.

"It may well be that the renewal of the project of the Arab Enlightenment (nahda), which is currently suffering from severe setbacks, is dependent on the ability of the Arab intellectual to once again go from basing himself on the mind instead of on the mentality. And a mind is only a mind if it is critical.

"What characterizes a mentality is its tendency towards defensiveness and justification. That is what most dominates the prevailing culture today in the Arab world, especially on the Arab satellite stations, which put defensiveness before criticism and stir up emotions instead of stimulating the mind..."

Arab Modernism Failed Because of the Absence of Arab Philosophers

Q: "In your most recent book, Heretical Thoughts on Democracy, Secularism, Modernity, and the Arab Refusal, you deny that there is any modern Arab philosophy. You consider the experience of thinkers like 'Abd Al-Rahman Badawi, Samir Amin, and Hasan Hanafi to be no more than translation, or midwifery of Western thought by way of translation. Don't you think that is a bit unjust?"

A: "Once again I will say: Philosophy is a product of the mind. [But] what prevails today in Arab culture is the mentality. Thus, I could almost say that it is impossible today for Arab philosophy to exist. Perhaps there is some degree of generalization in this sentence – but nonetheless, give me one single example of an Arab philosopher worthy of the name. And I do not exempt myself from this judgment.

"This is saddening, since we know that what created Western modernity was first and foremost philosophy. Should we not attribute the failure of Arab modernism, at least in part, to the absence of Arab philosophers?"

"Lebanon... [is] Proof of the Crisis of Democracy When It Is Reduced to Just the Ballot Box"

Q: "In the paper you read at the conference on 'Secularism in the Arab East' held recently in Damascus, you concluded that it was necessary to combine democracy with secularism. You said of the latter that it was developed in the laboratories of the West as a cure for the disease of sectarianism..."

A: "There can be no democracy without secularism, since only under secularism can one free oneself from religious or sectarian mentalities, and as a consequence think and choose with one's mind. For this reason I have emphasized in more than one study that democracy depends not just on the ballot box, but also, and primarily, on the box [called] the cranium.

"How can we imagine an enduring democracy when we know that Sunnis will never vote for anyone other than a Sunni candidate, and likewise Shi'ites for a Shi'ite, Catholics for a Catholic, and Orthodox for an Orthodox?

"Let us take a specific case, like that of Egypt. Although the Copts comprise 8%-12% of the Egyptian population, the prevailing sectarian situation in Egypt today leads to [a situation in which] not a single Coptic MP is elected, and the state is forced to intervene and appoint some Coptic MPs. Look too at the example of present-day Iran. The Sunnis comprise some 20% of the Iranian population, but nevertheless have only 10 MPs, out of a total of 600, if I am not mistaken. This is because the supposed democracy in Iran and Egypt, and in the rest of the Arab states, is cut off from secularism.

"Lebanon, the Arab country with the deepest-rooted democracy, offers us further proof of the crisis of democracy when it is reduced to just the ballot box, and when voting is entirely on a sectarian basis. And the ballot box, in the true democratic meaning of the word, does not exist at all in most Arab countries."

Arab Secularism Needs to Go Beyond the Public Sector and Extend to Society – Otherwise We Will Face a Crisis Like Turkey's

Q: "In your paper you wrote that sectarianism is not something extraneous to Islam, but is rather one of the fixed elements of Islam [throughout] history. Some raise the objection that you attribute the problem of sectarianism to religious conflict, ignoring the primary factor – that is, political and social conflict, given that the meaning and heart of the sectarian problem is the struggle for power... How do you respond to that?"

A: "Who ever said that the sectarian struggle is a purely religious one? I dwelt at length on the sectarian struggle in Islam simply to draw attention to its existence, which had escaped notice, and not to deny its connection to the struggle for power and social influence.

"I emphasized the existence of the sectarian struggle in Islam in the course of my refutation of those who claim that secularism was invented in the laboratories of the West as a way of dealing with the sectarian struggle in Christianity.

"While I don't deny that secularism was indeed invented in the West, I do not consider this proof that it is not applicable to the Arab world. Were we to adopt this logic, we would have to reject the implementation of democracy in the Arab world, since democracy was also invented in the laboratories of the West.

"In any event, if secularism is the cure for sectarian struggle, then the Islamic world's need of it is no less than the West's need of it, since it is afflicted with the disease of sectarianism even more acutely, and more bitterly, than what would be found in Europe between the Catholics and the Protestants at the start of the modern era."

Q: "Yet some thinkers believe that the Arab secularists have not been able to develop a model of secularism applicable to the Arab world. How do you respond to that? What, in your opinion, is the solution?"

A: "In my writings on secularism, I have proposed more than once that secularism in the Arab world is not a ready-made formula that comes with an operating manual. It needs to be rediscovered, reinvented, and developed so that it will be appropriate to the Arab reality and its requirements.

"A secularism translated word for word [from the Western model] would have a fate no better than that of the Arab philosophy, whose existence I just said was impossible, since it remained just translated philosophy.

"Secularism in the West, as I will explain in my forthcoming book Heretical Thoughts 2, arose on the basis of separating the state from religion. It was limited to the public sector, and did not extend to society. I think that settling for separation of religion and state is not sufficient in the Arab world.

"Secularism [in the Arab world] must necessarily take its axe to the depths of society itself. Otherwise, we will face a crisis like that which is tearing apart Turkey today, because it is divided between a secularized state and an Islamist society, or one that has been re-Islamized."

(1) Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 23, 2008.

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