Amin Maalouf, Praised by Lebanese Patriots as Born for ‘Greatness,’ Criticized by Hashem Salih for Dubious Claims in His ‘The Wreck of Civilizations’

Elie Chalala
On the left, photograph of Hashem Salih from Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center. On the right, a web-based photograph of Amin Maalouf.
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 and his induction into the Academie Francaise in 2011, filling the seat of Claude Lévi-Strauss. His books have been translated into 50 languages. The Lebanese-French author is well-known for the historical themes in his writing. "Leo the African" (1987), for example, is a vivid re-imagining of the life of geographer and scholar Hasan Al-Wazzan. "Ports of Call" (1991) is a love story between a Muslim man and a Jewish woman. One of Maalouf's most well-known novels, "The Rock of Tanios" (1993), which won him the 1993 Prix Goncourt, recounts the conflict between the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and England during the assassination of the Maronite patriarch. Maalouf came from a literary family, about whom he wrote in his biography, "Origins" (2004), which documented Lebanon's shifting loyalties and affiliations throughout the world. His most recent work, "The Wreck 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 Huntington's thesis suggests, in the age of globalization and technological development, Maalouf claims we cannot separate peoples and civilizations from each other. The COVID-19 pandemic seems to add credence to the author's claim.
"The Wreck of Civilizations" recounts the author's experiences through events that shook the world's political scene. Born in Egypt, where he spent the first three years, Maalouf lived most of his formative years in Lebanon. Education ran deep in his family. In 1912, his grandparents founded one of the first co-ed schools in Lebanon. Maalouf's professional writing and work habits were inherited from his father, a distinguished journalist. "I could not devote my life to writing were it not for my father. When I opened my eyes, I saw him writing. He used to tell me stories, but nonfiction ones. His stories largely influenced my writing," he said in a recent television interview. Perhaps most significantly, his father taught him to note events. One of Maalouf's earliest childhood memories dates back to the 1950s when his family, fearing Arab nationalism and state appropriation of private property in Egypt, was forced to immigrate to Lebanon.
Maalouf began working in 1971 as a journalist for An Nahar newspaper, covering international events. As a journalist, he was on the ground at several important historical moments. In Saigon, Vietnam, Maalouf was at the end of America’s war in Southeast Asia. He interviewed several essential leaders, including India’s Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. In 1975, Maalouf witnessed the Ain Rummaneh incident from his window, the spark that ignited the Lebanese Civil War. He was present in Tehran in 1979 when Khomeini announced the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Maalouf remained in Lebanon until the age of 27, when he and his family left for France in 1976, following the onset of the 1975 Civil War. Even after they moved to Paris, his heart and a large part of his mind remained in Lebanon, Egypt, and the Arab Mashreq.
"The Sinking of Civilizations" is like Maalouf’s other nonfiction works, "Deadly Identities" (1998) and "Disordered World" (2009). In "Deadly Identities," Maalouf argues people retaliate and grow violent when their group identity is threatened (Al Jadid’s translation of an excerpt from "Deadly Identities" appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 4, No. 25, Fall 1998). Maalouf spoke of how these identities led to war – how dialogues degenerated into the bullets and bloody massacres of 1975. "Disordered World" examines the cultural antagonisms between East and West while surveying the Arab world’s descent into radicalism and the West’s betrayal of its justice and human rights values in the Arab world.
"The Wreck of Civilizations" focuses on the state of the world — the Arab world in particular — in its present-day configuration. Maalouf's analysis makes use of political sociology, similar to Claude Lévi-Strauss. Maalouf likens the situation of the Arab world to the characters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — where Lebanon before the war was like Dr. Jekyll and transformed into Mr. Hyde following it. In the words of Maalouf, as cited by Hassouna al-Musbahi in Al Arab Newspaper, "The darkness that has swept the world now began in his country, Lebanon, which he attributed to the "wrong way" chosen by the Arab world." Because of the weakness of the Arab Renaissance movement, which started in the mid-19th century, Arab societies failed to respond effectively to the calls for reform and modernization; instead, they kept clinging to the past, rejecting all that allowed them to contribute to the new civilization." In an interview with Qantara magazine, Maalouf elaborated, "As I was writing, I regularly stopped to ask myself whether I was generalizing my personal experience. But there are elements in the world's current development that have originated in Arab countries."
"In almost all Arab countries, there is not one true state of law or democracy. The history of a people determines how they interpret their texts. They always subject citizens to the randomness of their mentors. Both the rulers and the opposition continue to exploit religion for political purposes. It does not attribute the deplorable situation to the religious texts per se. Thanks to the age of Enlightenment, Europe could restore religion to its place without canceling it, which allowed it to build democratic societies. I am still convinced that the Arab world could have followed a similar path," Maalouf said in an interview with Francois Louran for Le Point Magazine, translated into Arabic.
According to Maalouf, the current predicament lies in the discord within the Arab world. "Had the peoples of all the nations and the followers of the monotheistic religions lived together in this region of the world, they would have succeeded in controlling their destinies. They would have offered all humanity an inspiration that would have enlightened their way and provided a model of coexistence and prosperity. Unfortunately, the opposite happens when hate dominates, and the inability to live together becomes the norm," Maalouf said in an interview with L’orient Litteraire, translated into Arabic by Umayma Salim and published in Al-Akhbar Newspaper.
Maalouf assigns the bulk of responsibility for the Arab world’s crises to the failure of Nasser’s regime, whose bureaucratic socialism he disliked and whose nationalism became almost xenophobic. Nasser also excluded his rivals, repressed the opposition, and caused a flight of the middle class. According to Musbahi, "In the beginning, Nasser could gain the confidence of the Arab peoples from the ocean to the Gulf, championing Arab unity. But he was not aware of the challenges of the time and was ready for the solutions required. Instead of making the reforms, he destroyed the Egyptian economy, spread chauvinistic sentiments, and persecuted the minorities that were the guarantors of the success of cultural, civilizational, and religious coexistence. He led his country and the entire Arab world to defeat in the 1967 war, whose wounds are still open to this hour."
The ideas of yearning for the past and despairing of the future run through "The Wreck of Civilizations." Maalouf told Rym Ghazal of The National, "The Arab world is going through one of the most disturbing moments in its long history...That is one of the reasons why I prefer to write about the past. There were great moments in our past, of which we may certainly be proud. I am not sure our grandchildren will be proud of our generation. All that the world is seeing today are images of violence, destruction and fear."
Both Maalouf’s critics and supporters chastise "Wreck" for its portrayal of a bleak future, according to which civilizations are bound to "drown." However, in his conclusion, Maalouf clarifies that he aims to raise awareness out of concern for the future of his children and grandchildren. He does not want to lose hope in the Arab world’s ability to rise from its current depression so that it may make its much-need contribution to saving the world from drowning in the prisons of chauvinism, sectarianism, and selfishness.
Still, for Amin Maalouf, a literary giant with a long-standing history of successful and highly acclaimed works, the reception of "The Wreck of Civilizations" has generated a lot of discussions and has received some harsh criticisms from one particular Syrian author and columnist. Hashim Saleh, whose review appeared in the London-based Al-Sharq al-Aawsat, harshly accuses the book of being superficial. 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 Sunni-Shiite sectarian wars sweeping the Arab Mashreq today are like the Catholic-Protestant wars that had consumed parts of Europe in the 16th century. Saleh claims that the only European-style revolution in the Arab world is the revolution that started in the 21st century.
Saleh also takes issue with Maalouf’s claim that sectarianism was absent in the places and times he yearns for, including pre-Nasser 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 also clash on Islamic fundamentalism. According to Saleh, Maalouf sees fundamentalism as the fundamental problem in the Arab world and even in the world at large. Maalouf’s explanation of fundamentalism is "journalistic." He adds, "We should not look at society in its external 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 and conduct archaeological digging until we reach the bottom layer, to the deepest point."
The pessimistic thesis of "The Sinking of Civilizations" shows that the Arab world is in a regressive state. However, Saleh argues against Maalouf here: the Arab world is currently thrust into anti-religious revolts and is poised to enter a progressive moment. Science, progress, and humanism are paving the road to flourishing civilizations. Countering Maalouf’s pessimistic outlook, Saleh claims abundant evidence showing the true face of Enlightenment. He cites Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, who claims that the Enlightenment found the greatest civilization on Earth. In 1870, the rate of literacy in the Arab world, both in the Mashreq and Maghreb, 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.
Amin Maalouf has received three distinguished French acknowledgments throughout his intellectual career. For this, he has emerged as a source of pride for many fellow Lebanese. However, in recognizing him, many have attributed his accomplishments to his "genes." One Reuters report, "Honoring Amin Maalouf in Paris raises morale in Lebanon," described how "Among the financial rubble of Lebanon, a cultural light shone through, and the Lebanese grasped for its frayed ends." Lebanon's Minister of Information, Manal Abdel Samad, also glorified Maalouf, tweeting, "The Lebanese, wherever they land, keep advanced positions for themselves." 
In doing this, some Lebanese are not only at fault in their "genealogical" or anthropological" approach but also downplay the most crucial factor behind Maalouf’s success: the freedom of France, the country in which he lived and published, which provided him with an atmosphere of intellectual openness and protected him from the censorship and wrath of Arab dictatorships. By overlooking this fact, they neglect the conditions in Lebanon, where corruption, nepotism, and sectarianism have denied many the chance to flourish on their soil. Lebanese columnist Mouhamad Houjeiri commented, "It is more likely that Amin Maalouf when he reads the statements of these Lebanese officials and witnesses the current conditions in Lebanon, will say: Thank God I became French decades ago before I saw this bitter reality." Thus, the accomplishments of Amin Maalouf should be a testament not to his "origins," but to the conditions under which he lived and excelled, as well as an indictment of the circumstances of the political and sectarian system in his home country, which deprived many of his countrymen of the opportunities to do as much or better than he did.
This article is a slightly revised version of "Award-Winning Amin Maalouf Sees World Civilization on the Edge of the Abyss!" which appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 24, No. 78, 2020.

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