Amin Maalouf recently received the National Order of Merit from the French government, earning the second-highest status in the title of Grand Officer. The author’s other decorations include the Prix Goncourt in 1993, as well as his induction into the Academie Francaise in 2011, filling the seat of Claude Levi Strauss. His books have been translated into 50 languages. His most recent work, “The Sinking [or Drowning] of Civilizations” (Le Naufrage des Civilisations, Grassat 2019), takes up Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, but shifts the focus from a clash between civilizations to a crisis that affects all aspects of human civilization as a whole. In the age of globalization and technological development, Maalouf claims that peoples and civilizations cannot be separated from each other in the way Huntington’s thesis suggests. The COVID-19 pandemic seems to add credence to the author’s claim.
In “The Sinking,” Maalouf attributes the continuous state of turmoil in the Arab world not to religious texts but to the people’s history, which determines how they interpret the texts. He credits the age of Enlightenment for the fact that in Europe, religion was put in its place without being canceled, allowing for the subsequent emergence of democratic societies. When it comes to the Arab world’s problems, Maalouf blames the failure of the Arab Enlightenment.
Both Maalouf’s critics and supporters chastise “The Sinking” for its portrayal of a bleak future, according to which civilizations are bound to “drown.” “The Sinking” has generated lots of discussions while receiving criticism from at least one author and columnist. Hashem Saleh, whose review appeared in the London-based Al-Sharq al-Aawsat, accuses the book of superficiality, a pointed and harsh criticism. Saleh challenges Maalouf with the observation that the Arab world did not have an Enlightenment to begin with, arguing that there was never a revolution against religion analogous to what happened in 16th Century Europe. The only European-style revolution in the Arab world, Saleh claims, are the revolutions which started in the 21st century. The Sunni-Shiite sectarian wars sweeping the Arab Mashriq today are like the Catholic-Protestant wars that had consumed parts of Europe in the 16th century. As such, he asserts that “the moment we live in now is a “progressive” moment and not “retrogressive,”’ contrary to what appearances suggest and what Maalouf imagines.
Saleh also takes issue with Maalouf’s claim that sectarianism was absent in the places and times for which he yearns: pre-Nasserite Egypt and pre-1975 Lebanon. Maalouf paints a rosy picture of these places, declaring that the people were living harmoniously and peacefully despite their ethnic, religious, and sectarian differences.
Maalouf and Saleh clash on the goods and evils of civilization. Countering Maalouf’s pessimistic outlook of a drowning civilization, Saleh provides abundant evidence showing the real face of Enlightenment. He cites Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, who claims that the Enlightenment succeeded in founding the greatest civilization on Earth. In 1870, the rate of literacy in the Arab world both in the Mashriq and Maghrib was 1%, while today, it has risen to 75%, with rates varying from one country to another. Pinker also found that life expectancy has doubled from 40 years to 80 years, and the advancement of medicine has eliminated most epidemics. Extreme poverty also fell from 90% in 1820 to 10% today.
Maalouf and Saleh clash on Islamic fundamentalism. According to Saleh, Maalouf sees fundamentalism as the basic problem in the Arab world and even the world at large. Maalouf’s explanation of fundamentalism is “journalistic.” He adds, “We should not look at society in its superficial shell, Amin Maalouf, if we are to understand a major phenomenon such as the phenomenon of fundamentalism. But we should examine the infrastructure or the base. We should conduct archaeological digging until we reach the bottom layer, to the deepest point.”
With this, Saleh suggests that Maalouf -- who comes from the upper classes, which make up 10% of the population -- is oblivious to the experiences of those who are the majority, the masses who often sympathized with Nasserist, Baathist, and Marxist communism and later turned to Islamism when these ideologies failed (epitomized by Nasser’s defeat in 1967). Fundamentalism emerges from the deepest depths of the self and lies in wait until a spark causes it to erupt like a volcano.
Saleh also notes that Islam has not yet experienced the stage of filtering and upheaval that Christianity had in Enlightenment Europe. It has retained its pure and rigid fundamentalist form. Islamic extremism will remain dominant if Islamic heritage is not subjected to the methodic historical criticism to which Christian heritage has been subjected, and which Christian clergy have resisted for 300 years.
These edited excerpts are from Elie Chalala’s “Award-Winning Amin Maalouf Sees World Civilization on the Edge of the Abyss!”, scheduled to appear in the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 24, No. 78, 2020.
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