On the Task of the Committed Intellectual at the Age of the Arab Revolution
Mohammed Hashas, Copenhagen University – Denmark 28 October 2011

Poverty, illiteracy and corruption are the most abysmal conditions one can wish to see widespread among people. The Arab ruling elite, the businessmen, the politicians, and the intellectuals that have supported them, contributed wretchedness to their societies since their gaining of independence from European empires. The task of the Arab intellectual has never been an easy one even before the Arab revolution started, let alone now that they are raging and ongoing.

In my view, the intellectual in the Arab society falls into three types: 1) the intellectual of the palace, 2) the free intellectual, and 3) the committed intellectual. The first backs up the ruling class either because he (she) is born into it or because he has made his way into this class through adulation and cronyism. The term ‘the intellectual of the palace’ originates from the historical term used mainly for past Arab poets who would praise the Sultan or Emir (or the president) in his poetry, and any literary work, known as shu’ara’ albalat.

The second distances himself from political and social affairs; he may be dissatisfied with society’s politics and avoids being involved in that, or that may simply be a matter of taste and choice. His freedom lies in conducting (a) research or in being free from conducting it, and then being free to carry out (b) personal projects. The free intellectual type (a) opts for research that interests him and becomes specialized in it, despite all the institutional and financial handicaps that he faces, while the free intellectual (b) opts for entrepreneurial affairs to improve his social status, by establishing private schools or by giving paid tutorial lessons, and alike enterprises.

Intellectuals as well as the masses, besides the ruling class, are broadly aware of these tendencies and may categorize them in a similar way, or in a way that is not so much different. The third type of intellectual is the one I am concerned with here; it is the committed intellectual who may be an academic, or a self-made intellectual (writer, journalist, artist), who cares about society and holds the prospect of its future among his interests, and tries to cope with his academic tasks and society’s issues that become part of his responsibilities.

The committed intellectual does not aspire to alienate intellectuals from society and vice versa; he does not aim at building a class, a stratum, of its own; he aims at merging the classes for the welfare of the whole. The dilemmas of the committed Arab intellectual at these trying times of revolutions are worth considering. With these dilemmas various tasks are controversially raised. They make the committed intellectual look like the ‘organic intellectual’ who resists an empire hegemony. Yet, in these moments of the Arab revolution, the task is beyond that: it includes both facing the legacy of past hegemonies, past dictatorships, and importantly thinking of suitable modes of change towards a better life.

The committed Arab intellectual, the academician in particular, has to make concessions when it comes to the dilemma of the many tasks that await him. He has to address the masses and their concerns from both inside the office and outside it. The masses expect him to know of every field and speak on whatever issue, because there is a scarcity of intellectuals, and people generally do not read to help lift this burden of enlightening others around. The intellectual becomes the teacher, the lecturer, the social activist, and the political activist, as if the whole Arab society gave its voice just to him, and burdened him with that responsibility. The Arab intellectual loses the concentration he needs to be an expert in his field of research, and becomes a speaker on many fronts on many topics, because there are not many who do that job. Most politicians are not different from the masses, how can they enlighten them! The business elite do not care much about enlightening the masses; if they cared, they could have done so decades ago! There is of course a small but influential enlightened elite of a different genre, i.e. those whose ideas do not match with that of the masses and how the masses think; such an elite preaches to a society they want to mark with their ‘alien’ ideas, while society needs intellectuals who understand its needs.

The Arab intellectual, instead of staying in office to become a specialized scholar, a producer of knowledge, a producer of genuine ideas for his society, a reader of history, and a pillar of intellectual weight locally and internationally, he becomes an engaged intellectual who spends more time in the streets and in workshops enlightening people on basic things which committed politicians and civil society are supposed to be doing, and to have done years ago. Instead of being in class discussing a book, he is found in the field showing people how to vote, how to select the right candidates, etc. This is a small picture of the intellectual and academician in the Arab world during these revolts – a general one, and does not apply to every intellectual, and the initial brief categorization of intellectuals helps here.

The task of being involved and committed during the revolution frustrates a good number of intellectuals. They go to the field and realize that life is much worse than what they had thought of when they spoke of it at the university before the revolution. In the field, they realize that there is loads of work to be done, beyond measure. They get scared not because they do not want to be involved, but because they feel nearly alone in the battle! They want to be back in the comfort of their office to write down their ideas and be producers of knowledge! They need a suitable milieu for that.

But, isn’t being engaged in society the job of the intellectual instead of being a producer of some knowledge apart from society? What is the use of knowledge production if people around are illiterate and need to know the basic things (how to vote, how to ask for rights, how to know rights, etc.)? Hasn’t intellectual production become a business matter, and don’t the houses of publication compete for more work maybe on the same or similar issues for the sake of profit and not enlightenment? Why should we compare the task of the intellectual in the developing world, or in the Arab revolting world, with that of intellectuals in the developed world? Aren’t intellectuals supposed to answer the needs of their societies first, the basic needs like liberty and human rights, instead of living in ivory towers?

I can understand the frustration of the Arab intellectual if he finds himself being engaged in small matters while he sees foreign intellectuals doing ‘academic tourism’ in the field, to go home and be producers of knowledge about revolutions these home intellectuals take part in but find no time nor funding to sit and compose the fieldwork as written knowledge to be passed on to the coming generations. This frustration is justifiable. At the same time, and hoping that the ‘academic tourists’ do their job as faithfully as they can, there is no harm if knowledge produced about ‘us’ is made ‘there’ as long as ‘we’ at home can access this knowledge, and are able to read it and share it with the masses that need it.

The Arab intellectual, though still a consumer in this case, can still always react if the produced knowledge is not ‘true enough’ or ‘distorted.’ If the Arab intellectual is a good evaluator, he can present good criticism of such produced knowledge, and at the end it is him who is in the field, and can sensitize people towards or against it. The Arab intellectual has been for centuries the guardian of the knowledge produced centuries ago, and despite the ups and downs of times, he has remained of vital importance to society. He has been the preserver and the activator of its collective memory, notwithstanding the hardships he himself encounters, these hardships be they instigated by the domestic ruling class or by external forces.

Situations of coloniality and postcoloniality, which are still raised by a good number of Arab and non-Arab intellectuals, are not new to the Arab intellect. They are raised at these times of revolutions. Postcolonial conditions have shaped Arab intellectual thought and have made it aware of the dangers of knowledge production as well as knowledge consumption. The Arab intellectual, though not a big agent yet in modern knowledge production, is often immune from being easily influenced by it. That is what centuries of colonialism and decades of dictatorships have taught him, and this is among the best things he can teach to his students and the masses he is engaged with now in the field during the revolution. Digging into the archive, building from within, being open to knowledge produced anywhere else, and keeping the tone of questioning and skepticism high is very characteristic of the contemporary Arab intellectual. Isn’t that what a committed intellectual is supposed to do, anyway?

Intellectual life precedes specialization and knowledge production. It is a historical privilege that the intellectual can take part both from within the office and from the field during the revolutions that are sweeping the Arab world. The intellectual will find time to compose his ideas later on, if not on paper then in minds. Actually, this is already being done via the minds of the people he interacts with and who are the beacons of hope and future change.

With the Arab revolution, the era and mindset of postcoloniality is over. I do not mean that postcolonial critique and its contribution is over; it is still very relevant, but it is high time both terminology and the intellectual mindset moved on. The masses have managed to overcome their fear and overthrow strong dictatorships; the intellectuals have also to do away with little tittle-tattle and deal with the needs of their societies be they basic or elevated. Who else do the masses have to turn to if not to their committed intellectuals? The latter should know how to engage the rest of society, civil society, politicians and the idle elite, in these societal movements instead of being burdened heavily with this task alone.

The Arab revolution changes not only the political regimes, the rotten elite, and the masses; it also changes the mindset of the intellectual, as much as he tries to influence its movement and orientation. That is what a revolution does. It changes even those who first fuel it and think they master it. Yet, all this happens within a premise that is being built, and whose threads cannot be described fully at this initial phase of the revolution. The committed intellectual does not dictate the way the revolution should go, nor does he pretend to be its master. He gives signs, clarifies, criticizes, and evaluates. He enlightens. If he takes sides, he does that for the good of all, and not for the good of that particular side. These are among the issues that are fomenting in the mind of the committed Arab intellectual.