The Cowering Intellectuals
By: Mohammad al-Sayyad Translated from Al-Khaleej (U.A.E.).
The popular Arab uprisings against tyranny and its supporters continue, and their repercussions are ongoing. The term used by Arabs and the international community for these uprisings is the "Arab Spring." These uprisings came as a shock to everyone, including the Arab intelligentsia who are part of the wider Arab cultural milieu. Particularly shocking was the extent of the uprisings and the wide variety of social forces who took part in them. What was also unexpected was how the “Spring” imposed deep divisions on all components of the Arab community, revealing the fragile relationship that had existed between the macro-level social forces—often subject to ethnic and sectarian influence—over the last two decades.
About This Article
The surprising popular movements last year revealed the true weakness of Arab intellectuals, writes Mohammad al-Sayyad after analyzing their passive reaction to the revolutions. Most were too comfortable with the status quo to ruffle feathers, despite bloviating about human progress.Publisher: Al-Khaleej (U.A.E.)
Author: Mohammad al-Sayyad
First Published: April 20, 2012
Posted on: April 23 2012
Translated by: Hiba Hasan
If on one hand the popular youth movements won the world’s admiration with their dazzling performances and their hard work to achieve a paradigm shift in the existing political framework, on the other, the Arab intelligentsia’s performance during this difficult time has been puzzling, surprising, and controversial—not only within the Arab region, but also outside of it.
Despite the important role it has played in monitoring the thought process of the Arab Spring, the intelligentsia should not ignore its surroundings. The political culture based on fear, spitefulness and the self-serving of interests is a gift of the Arab intelligentsia’s cultural heritage, and remains part of the collective consciousness. These attributes are not the only ones reflecting the fragmented state of the intelligentsia at the time of the Arab upheavals. Even Western sources were shocked at the Arab intelligentsia’s absence from the "Arab Spring," whose effects are still being felt in the region. Last October, in The New York Times, Robert Worth wrote about the Arab intelligentsia’s absence from the Arab Spring because of what he called decades of "state repression" and "stifling Islamic orthodoxy," adding that many Arab intellectuals were forced into exile, 'where they lost touch with the reality of their societies." Worth continued to make excuses for the Arab intellectuals’ weakness and marginalization by saying that "The shift in emphasis to civil rights and democracy at home did not come out of the blue,” and that “ their secular language had little resonance in societies where political Islam was becoming a dominant force." He went on to say that in the 1980s, “Egyptian scholar Hassan Hanafi began calling for the creation of an ‘Islamic Left,’ a socialist ideology rooted in religion. He was branded a heretic and had to seek police protection after receiving death threats from jihadists,” Worth noted that “his work gained an audience in Indonesia” but was resisted in his own country.
Other assessments—at times shallow, at times balanced—are less sympathetic when it comes to the Arab intelligentsia’s ambiguous position during and after the storms of the "Arab Spring." Some of these assessments accuse most Arab intellectuals of voluntarily exiling themselves from their own countries so as not to “slip up” by getting involved. Other assessments have accused the intelligentsia of dwelling on its "glorious" past and refusing to help the people achieve growth and sustainable progress. Those who make these evaluations have compared the Arab intelligentsia to the leading roles of Eastern European intellectuals that helped shape the democratic transitions in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They contrast the role they played with that of the Arab intellectuals who seemed to be satisfied to stand by and watch the mass protest movements of the "Arab Spring," and used empirical and qualitative research to pinpoint the transformations taking place within the Arab intelligentsia.
Indeed, it is difficult to look at the Arab intelligentsia as a single homogeneous bloc. Its members belong to different social groups, come from various walks of life and have diverse positions, titles and interests, as well as varying educational backgrounds. This makes the evaluation of these intellectuals as one bloc unfeasible— methodologically speaking. Some Arab intellectuals took part in the Arab Spring to the best of their ability. They directed their goodwill and sincerity towards the fulfillment of their humanitarian duties, and took advantage of this historic opportunity to apply their principles. Others participated in the Arab Spring anonymously by joining the waves of rumbling masses. Others preferred to stay safe and remain neutral for personal reasons. These intellectuals followed the advice of the poet who wrote: "Everyday I cry for the day that came before." Next, there is the group that shocked the masses by falling back on their support base of backward fanatics in dramatic fashion due to their pompous beliefs. They drowned themselves in incomprehensible delusions, only to give the most bizarre justifications for their wild antics so that they could advocate their unexplainable biases and justify the continued state of oppression. In reality, they were only fighting to secure their ulterior interests through the preservation of the status quo.
Based on the above, the Arab spring has revealed the following:
The extent of intellectual and methodological weaknesses of many Arab intellectuals. This is not to mention the wide gap between their awareness of the importance of the positive values needed for human progress, and their belief in them.
Major economic shifts were at the cause of the transformations in Arab social structures. These transformations are reflected in the living conditions of various segments of Arab society, including the intelligentsia.
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