Does the Arab Spring Think?
Mohammed Hashas, Luiss University, Rome 25 February 2014

The so-called Arab Spring then is in that stage of labour, of undergoing various tests from internal and external stakeholders. If there is a revolution, it is that which may take shape in the future, and I think there are signs for that. The Arab world has been deliberating its future for about two centuries, peacefully; reference here is to the Arab-Islamic Renaissance (al nahda) of the 19th century. It is only in 2011 that it found itself obliged to go to the streets in massive numbers, as if to shout “I rebel, therefore we exist” (quoting Albert Camus for a different context) – note the individual contribution for the common good, “I” for “we.”

The current malaise in the Arab world is heavily a philosophical malaise, an existential one indeed. That is why the Arab Spring can be read as a revolution, an awakening to use a term close to the Arab nomenclature. It does think. And thinking is not a short action. Thinking is a process, and takes time and energy. That is what the Arab world has been doing for two centuries, an acceptable period of time for the generation of historical “worldviews,” but not acceptable politically. The Arab world is still thinking, i.e. deliberating the worldviews it has before it, and that is its merit, which those not acquainted with the intellectual history of the region will not and cannot understand.

Read in the light of the modern history of the Arabs since they woke up to the deafening sounds of Napoleon’s tanks, the Arab Spring may be a turning point in their “intellectual deliberations” about how to enter the modern world, with confidence, and as contributors to world civilization. Qustantin Zureiq (d. 2000), a Syrian renowned scholar of Arab nationalism, used to say “pitiful is a nation that does not worry!” [waylun li ummatin la taqlaq]. That is, there is no future and no worth for a nation that does not “think” about its status quo and the path it wants to trace for itself in the future, without burying a rich past into oblivion. The Arab Spring is the young face of an old person, called the Arab. This Arab is revisiting his/her past, by opening it up to world changes and challenges, led by two major values, liberty and equality, that all civilizations and nations capitalize on for their emergence or re-birth. Religions, two, when they emerge in history mostly use these two values, or one of them at least, to gain adherents. The Arab Spring is no exception in this regard.

The predicament of the Arab Spring is the predicament of a whole civilization that first emerged on world’s stage with the advent of Islam. Because nations and civilizations rise and fall for various internal and external factors, the Arab world has experienced the same, and has not woken up again. The Persians never rose again to replicate their glorious past. The Greeks, Romans, and Ottomans have not, and will not, too. They have risen in different shapes and different locations, by reforming their traditions. The Greeks and Romans are appropriated by the modern West (Euro-America). The Persians and Ottomans are localized in Iran and Turkey, respectively, now. The Arab world may not, and most probably will not in the immediate future, rise again to meet the past image of itself. This past is what affects its present. While it prides itself in it, it remains imprisoned by it – at the time when the world seems to have moved on. The modern West has rendered this image feeble, and in so many ways disfigured. This image has been distorted and mutilated both by the contemporary Arab unfinished project of renewal and Western hegemony. Methodologically erroneous projections of modernity worldview on the Arab-Islamic tradition have contributed to prolonging the age of malaise and labour. The Arab Spring may be considered its latest manifestation. It could be, as some also see it, a chain of major events that lead to the third Arab Renaissance, the first being the one initiated by the Prophet Muhammad and Islam (in fact a naissance), the second being the 19th century nahda.

The challenges that face the Arab Renaissance are massive. Three can be noted here, two external and one internal, though they intertwine. One, renaissance in the Arab world is imposed. That is, it is an external factor that has obliged the Arabs to reconsider their tradition and search for change and renewal. While their first renaissance with the Prophet Muhammad originated from “within,” the current attempts of rebirth originate from “without.” His ideals, religiously nurtured, were revolutionary in his context, and the new adherents and converts saw that this new religion (and its social ideology in its broad sense) comes from an Arab, from “within.” The current Arabs see modernity – especially when brought to their homes through tanks – “alien” to them, thus their readiness to oppose it, especially if it belittles their tradition.

Two, the Prophet Muhammad rose up in the 7th century when the world stage was getting free of the Roman-Byzantine and Persian powers. The international rivals were on their demise, and to emerge in that context was not as difficult as is the case now, when the world is led by the “West,” and other re-emerging powers. This hegemony has not only blocked, and in the least delayed, the re-emergence of (ex-)colonized societies as the Arab world, but has also contributed to mutilating the (good) image the Arab has of his/ her past, and has consequently contributed to the growth of disoriented masses and generations that aspire to accommodate modernity and at the same time retain a link with its past. Every major problem in the current Arab world has been somehow fuelled or caused by the big modern powers; territorial sovereignties and the wars and civil wars they have caused are substantially colonial enterprises. In this sense, the Arab world breathes the ideology of the modern state daily; while it tries to build its own sovereignty, it cannot escape the obstacles the modern state has put on its path. The colonial condition still survives. The current deadlock in Syria, for example, makes one remember the last paragraph in the work of Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? (2002). In that closing paragraph he says that if the Middle East does not clean its house, to paraphrase him, it may fall again in the hands of an emerging power from the East, or Russia, or a new Europe that revives its direct colonial ways.

Three, the above two major factors and challenges cannot free the locals from their responsibility. It is true that a reform that is done at ease never had the chance to take place; the Arabs have not had the chance to clean their house as they want to. Such a condition is ideal, actually. No nation, civilization, religion, or ideology stood up in the world without facing obstacles. It is facing obstacles that make an idea, philosophical or/and religious, a strong one, and able to gain supporters. Since the second renaissance, the nahda of the 19th century, the Arabs have not decided on the Either/Or dilemma that exhausts them until now: either to embrace the modern worldview that is based on pure human reason and people’s sovereignty, or to welcome reason and people’s sovereignty without denial of the transcendental that, for them, gives meaning to life. They hold the stick from the middle, as a saying goes. This is the existential question that they do not want to let go off without worry, because they see in it their major pride – the pride that made their past and raised them once to world prominence, and also the sign that they can enter modernity creatively. Now, to keep holding the stick from the middle is not an easy task at all. Modernity has changed the order of primordial questions, by focusing on this-world, and not the transcendent. Metaphysical questions, or questions of collective morality, are not its business. Human rights are more important to human duties that religious morality centralizes.

This indecisiveness at the philosophical level – and I am not saying that there should be a decision to be taken by philosophers, because it is not their job at the end- echoes itself on the political level. Non-clarity of what path to follow has left Arab politics without a compass, without one vision to pursue; pursuing two paths (this-worldly and other-worldly is not easy). This explains the masses’ run to secularists at times, and to Islamists at others, sometimes randomly. (Consider the Egyptian revolution of 25 January 2011, and its counter-revolution of 30 June 2013. Consider also the Tunisian deadlock – details aside.) The dark side of modernity (colonialism and hegemony), and the dark side of secular and nationalist elites (the Ba‘th parties in Syria and Iraq for example) have given the Arabs little confidence in embracing modernity, especially when religion is “attacked.” The Arab psyche, as it appears to me, may do without religious laws, but cannot do without religious spirituality as the source of existential wellbeing. The Arab domain has throughout history been the center of world civilizations and religions; that is why the feel of religion will remain, if not maximally, then minimally in the least.

Since the first Arab Renaissance was based on the religious worldview of Islam, it is doubted if any future renaissance can go so far as to radically cut epistemological ties with what makes its ontological paradigm, unless contemporary reformist projects are seriously considered, a point I make below. The ongoing labour in the Arab scene for the last two centuries has been just about that: how to reform, without a radical cut with the past (read “the divine”), which brings a future that is shaped from “without,” and not contributed to from “within.” The present debates among Arab secularists, liberals, and Islamists is about these two antagonizing worldviews, the modern where pure reason and individualism reign, and the pre-modern where reason and revelation, public good and morality, are friends, and not enemies. The Islamic world experienced in the Middle Ages this harmony, that is why it does not scare it fundamentally, thought only recently raised chiefly by the Salafis in their adoption of Islam as political defensive mechanism against modernity. Islamists are not against democracy or secularism as mechanisms of governance, but are against the worldview that feeds them, a worldview they consider godless, spiritual-free, morally degrading to the dignity of human existence, and damaging to nature. That is what still worries the Arab Spring. That is why I say it does think, despite the chaos that it has so far brought about, chaos orchestrated particularly by an authoritative oligarchy that stands in the face of secular, liberal, and Islamic ideas when its own interests are at stake. This means that the labels secular, liberal, and Islamic in the Arab world intertwine and are superficially exclusive, mimicking in so doing the European debate and projecting on itself European history.

The point here is that different societies may debate the same issues, but their histories have always to be born in mind for clearer understanding of how these same issues can be solved probably differently. It could be said that the ground is being leveled, and whatever the Arab street decides in future, it will be its own will and the fruit of its own struggles: Europe and America as political entities have failed to match their defense of liberty, equality and human rights in the broad Middle East, both in the past (colonialism) and in the present (support of colonial settlements in Palestinian territories, and opportunistic support or abortion of the Arab Spring). The Arab radically secular nationalists and their corresponding Islamists have also failed to be accommodative of difference. The Islamists have hardly taken full power in their hands to see how they fare, and it is thus unfair to say they failed as Europe or the secularists have failed. It should not be forgotten that the religious discourse as an identity factor and liberation mechanism from internal and external oligarchies and powers is still strong, and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future, because neither the state nor the external big powers really support in good faith the Arabs in their attempts to reform. The strength of religiosity here replaces what the modern state has failed to offer. That is why there is no stability in the region without the involvement of the Islamists. This, at the same time, does not mean that the masses have to wait again long decades to see how they [the Islamists] fare well. Liberty, equality, dignity and social justice are urgent demands raised by the “protestants,” despite their religious, philosophical, or moral differences. Hamid Dabashi’s The Arab Spring: the End of Postcolonialism (2012) catches this new emerging mode of liberation discourse that is appropriated by the masses, irrespective of the claims, interference and dominance of the “West.” There is no way out of a social contract, based on tassaamuh and taraahum (tolerance and solidarity) that brings all parties together. Because the fight is not against religion per se, as was the case in past Europe, the social contract will stem from the people, but with a religious referent, most probably in a reformed and pluralist version. The alternative is instability, civil wars, and more (geographical) divisions, that particularly serve external opportunists.

The early reformists of the Arab Nahda of the 19th century are called pioneers, or ruwad islahiyyin; their major concern was independence and cultural (incomplete) awakening. The generation that followed them, the Arab secular nationalists, raised the banner of social democracy and the building of modern nation states, but their defeat of 1967 (Six Days War against Israel) ended their prominence and the popular support they joined; since then a whole generation of Arabs has come to be known as the generation of defeat, jil al hazima. Most of the intellectual/ philosophic production post-1967 is stamped with this defeat. The ongoing defeat is that the intellectual production produced since then is overwhelmingly rich, but has not found echoes in society and politics yet; theory is often ahead of practice, and philosophy is always ahead of its realities. The gap between the two is so big, and if the Arab Spring wants to trace a line to its tradition by opening up to the world’s changes and challenges, it has to feed itself with these progressive and deep philosophical projects developed post-1967. The Arab youth has to decide whether to build itself on a strong intellectual tradition, and consequently overcome the residue of the generation of defeat to the generation of renewal and awakening – min jil al hazima ila jil attajdid wa annada. The persistence of the Egyptian youth in their peaceful demonstrations against the military coup d’état is an example of a strongly willed generation, mostly at the political level, though this should not eclipse the fact that illiteracy rate and malfunctioning of Arab schools and universities are, and will be for some good time, a major internal handicap for a profound intellectual awakening. Either/ Or dilemma is not over yet and may take at least two decades so that we can decide over what to call this generation, to which I belong, a generation of defeat, or a generation of change and awakening.