Many definitions of Arab intellectuals are rooted in the idealistic tradition that glorifies them as guardians of values and ethics, as figures closer to “angels” and “faqihs,” who stand above politics and power struggles and enjoy a monopoly over the authority of knowledge. These notions reflect social illusions and popular perceptions of the time when intellectuals were considered part of a sacred class. A recurrent list of names often cited and idealized as intellectuals include Mahmoud Abbas al-Akkad, Taha Hussein, and Naguib Mahfouz. These perceptions clearly distinguish the intellectual from the politician.
In the late 20th and 21st centuries, many political and technological changes call for a revised approach to examining the role of the Arab intellectual. The image of the contemporary intellectual has been shaken from its classic version in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Gone are the paper and radio media, and the image of the wise, the meditator, and the stick-holder, to be replaced by the image of the “star,” associated with lights, cameras, propaganda, Twitter followers, and Instagram photos. The power of fans and admirers dominates the monopolistic authority of knowledge and creativity, according to the Algerian novelist Amine Zaoui.
Voices that claim a decline in the role of Arab intellectuals abound. Just a century ago, intellectual presence was felt in the discourse and the ideologies of a good number of Arab political parties and movements of different orientations. But since the late 20th century, critics have widely observed the declining role of intellectuals, their minimal presence, and their lack of influence on ideas and public policy. Five Arabic articles recently addressed the role of the intellectual in Al Arab (London), Diffah Thalitha, the cultural supplement of The New Arab newspaper, and Independent Arabia.
The classical academic thesis that preserving the role of intellectuals in Arab societies is an essential prerequisite to democracy and progress still holds. When fear dominates a society — as is prevalent in parts of the Arab world — intellectuals can no longer perform their appropriate roles while accused of being heretics, unpatriotic, and enemies of the nation. In any repressive society, stifling freedom and letting censorship run amok smothers creativity and innovation, resulting in a stagnant civil society, according to Danish Iraqi poet and translator Salim al-Abdal in Al Arab.
This declining role of Arab intellectuals, which some label a “vanishing” presence, is due to a multiplicity of factors. Among them is repression by the Arab states and global technological changes in media and activities by societal groups, predominantly fundamentalist groups, which in some cases went hand in hand with the state’s repressive machines. These groups murdered intellectuals in many Arab countries; among those who paid their lives for their beliefs were the secular Egyptian intellectual Farag Foday, who was killed in 1992, and two Lebanese Communist intellectuals Hussein Mroueh, and Hassan Hamdan (known as Mehdi Amel), assassinated in 1987, and Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, stabbed in 1994, just to name a few names.
The ideas of intellectuals serve as the ammunition for determining politics and history. Prominent Lebanese critic Karam al-Helou posed several philosophical questions in his essay, “The Arab Intellectual Lives in the State of Depression Because of an Existential Predicament”: did culture and ideas cause the decline in the role of the intellectual, or do they grant them the upper hand? Or do economic forces determine history and change? He provides examples associated with Western literature about the rise of capitalism, which according to Max Weber, was advanced by the “Protestant work ethic,” and others attributed to Christianity and European religious reforms spawning from Athenian philosophy. He follows this by introducing the antithesis to this orientalist approach, the Marxist theory of development, which gives priority to material and economic forces.
A sizable proportion of the post-1967 Arab defeat prioritized changing the Arab cultural structure of ideas, focusing on reversing them before any attempt to change the state of the Arab world. The cultural literature stresses cultural factors inherent in the Arab mind. Thus, unless the Arab reality confronts the cultural revolution, it is impossible for Arab life to rise and be changed. Discussions about change in the Arab cultural structure point us towards entrusting Arab intellectuals with this task. Thus, it falls to intellectuals to call for Arab unity and further renaissance and reverse the cultural invasion.
However, one cannot ignore that the shortcomings of intellectuals themselves also factor into their decline. The current civilizational ordeal and lack of democracy partly fall to intellectuals depending on the wrong approaches to development, therefore unable to relieve us from this state of repression. The intellectual must be able to be open-minded and embrace new ideas, primarily from a cultural standpoint. Following the Six-Day War in 1967, many intellectuals searched for the cause of the Arab defeat. Along with a group of intellectuals, Abdallah Laroui, the pioneering thinker who stressed the intellectual approach, wrote in his book “The Contemporary Arab Ideology” that the cause of the defeat was rooted in culture. However, intellectuals cannot be blamed for the preconditions they are living that bar them from performing their roles, such as poverty, illiteracy, dictatorship, and oppression. Lebanese critic Karam al-Helou captures the dismal position Arab intellectuals have been cornered into in his essay in Arabic Independent Arabia: “Where Dreyfus (from the historic Dreyfus Affair) found support in public opinion and democratic laws, the Arab intellectual nowadays finds himself alone, abandoned to his destiny, the oppression of his regimes, the tyranny of his authorities, and the misery of the common people.”
As aforementioned, state repression remains the major factor in the retreat of Arab intellectuals. Some claim the absence of intellectuals in the Third World — or “backward” societies, as some Western philosophers insinuated. Montesquieu said that despotism suited the East; Ernest Renan wrote about the hostility of Arabs and Muslims to science; Nietzsche distinguished between the culture of the strong, or “masters,” and the culture of the decadent, or “slaves.” All the way to the present — Francis Fukuyama and his “End of History” thesis and the late Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations.”
What appeared to some scholars as the absence of intellectuals in the Third World is the result of state repression, which prevents intellectuals from exercising their natural roles so they can be considered by the “experts” as intellectuals. Intellectuals require a platform and the availability of protections that extend to all intellectuals, including those of extremist views, liberal, nationalist, religious, or secular. Furthermore, repressing intellectuals and denying them impact on decision-making may also lead to a “collapse of civilization,” according to Ashraf El-Boulaki in Al Arab. In the words of Salim al-Abdal, “His [the intellectual] role will be felt if he has an arena, a microphone, or some means to reach the corners of society so that he can influence the process of change.”
The conflict between the intellectual and the state in the Arab world is not an anomaly. Since ancient times, the state and the intellectual conflict have been characterized as an adversarial relationship. But recent years have witnessed a further estrangement between the intellectual and the state, paving the way to what Farid Ezzahi in Diffah fears is the “extinction” of the Arab intellectual. Ezzahi and al-Abdal highlight the role of repression in the retreat of intellectuals from the public domain.
The ‘golden’ era of Arab intellectuals has come and gone. Some Al Nahda intellectuals in the 19th and early 20th centuries contributed to and enriched the subsequent discourse around the mid-20th century, giving rise to newly refined ideas to meet different historical times. The discourse of the Arab nationalist movement and the Palestinian one on the Arab-Israeli conflict makes up just a few examples of how intellectual ideas grew in time into something different from what they initially called for during the 1940s, 1950s, and even the 1960s.
However, the Arab Nahda, which blossomed under foreign mandates and colonial rules, failed to fulfill the aspirations of the Arabs. The departure of foreign powers and the emergence of what some call a neo-colonial state implemented repression in the newly formed independent nations. Ironically, the people, especially intellectuals, expected independence to bring more freedoms than were available under colonialism and the Mandate, but instead were met with the opposite. When the colonial powers left the Arab world, the newly independent Arab states, armed with training and coercive capabilities supplied by the colonial powers prior to their departure, used these resources to establish and enforce an authoritarian order.
Despite the restrictions under the newly formed independent Arab states, intellectuals had some freedom to take part in politics throughout the 1960s and 1970s, though some of the activities took non-democratic forms, such as calling for or supporting violence against opponents, which included fellow intellectuals and political leaders. The list of assassinated politicians and intellectuals is long and includes the Jordanian King Abdullah I (1951), Jordanian prime minister Wasfi al-Tal (1971), bloody coups in Iraq, three military coups in Syria, and assassinations of journalists and politicians in Lebanon. The assassins provided ideological justifications for their acts in all of these cases.
Attributing the intellectual ordeal, or withdrawal, to state repressive policies does not do justice to the issue. Intellectuals assume some responsibility for what befell them; politicians and intellectuals had worked together in some cases, bargained on policies (and on money) that benefited both of their interests, but not in the interests of the people most of the time. Even their functions have overlapped at times, with politicians greatly penetrating the authority of knowledge: the politician becomes an intellectual, philosopher, playwright, storyteller, novelist, or poet, according to novelist Amin Zaoui in Independent Arabia.
Intellectuals, like politicians, have a record by which they will be held accountable. It is no wonder that people place intellectuals in the “accountability seat,” wrote Abdul Rahim Al-Khassar in Independent Arabia. Nothing exposed their “record” more than the Arab Spring, when “moral authority” was withdrawn from the intellectual and transferred to the people, according to Yahya bin Al-Walid as cited in Al-Khassar’s article. Al-Walid, the author of the book “Where are the Arab Intellectuals?” goes further by criticizing Arab intellectuals when they “transformed their position at a record speed from the utmost loyalty (to the state) to the maximum opposition in hiding behind the ranks of the demonstrators in an attempt to ride on the outcomes of the Arab movement,” in reference to the Arab Spring. Some intellectuals were martyred. “Hamawi (in reference to the Syrian city Hama) singer Ibrahim Kashoush’s throat was slashed and his body was thrown into the Orontes River (more about Kashoush can be read in “Silencing the Singer,” Al Jadid, Vol. 16, No. 63, 2011). The Syrian painter Ali Farzat’s fingers were also broken, and the parents of musician Malek Jandali were brutally assaulted.
Many critics claim that modern technological changes, particularly in the rise of new media, have contributed to the dwindling influence of Arab intellectuals. As in the case of state repression, Arab intellectuals had to face myriad threats, including the technological changes that have come with globalization.
While physical repression dominated the control of intellectual life up to the 1960s and 1970s and even after, intellectuals’ march to bring about democratic change collided with the challenge of globalization, particularly its new media component. The platforms that intellectuals used to further their activities and agendas, such as newspapers and their cultural supplements, have been gradually diminishing, primarily for economic reasons. This development resulted in the absence of freedoms previously afforded to intellectuals, marginalizing them and leaving them on the sidelines of politics. Culture and intellectuals are in a great predicament, best elaborated on by Mahmoud Amin al-Alem: “We cannot say that there is a cultural, critical and creative front with effective and influential authority in confronting the authority of the prevailing Arab power culture,” as cited by Karam al-Helou in Independent Arabia. The critic Faisal Darraj writes that there is a “real alienation that has marginalized the intellectual, critical marginalization bordering on tragedy.”
With some exceptions, like Assad’s Syria and, to a lesser extent, al-Sissi’s Egypt, there was a slight emphasis on physical repression in many Arab countries. But the means made available by the new technology (the internet, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others) are capital intensive, beyond the resources of Arab intellectuals; thus, many resorted to working with major global and Gulf media corporations, which substituted their previous platforms. Many technological changes were introduced globally, utilized by the Arab states, republics and monarchies alike, and well-funded political groups, who incorporated dissident intellectuals by employing them in their social media, digital journalism, and television. Others worked for politicians or in jobs far from the public domain or politics.
Thus, Arab intellectuals have been left with few options since the range of their influence depends on their platform’s extent. The lack of resources to be part of the new global digital media that could provide them with such a platform prevented the intellectuals from reaching their target audiences, suppressing them from exercising the influence they once had.
The dependence on intellectuals has become part of a bygone era. Political parties no longer need the intellectual since the internet and professional consultants and experts provide more effective tools to serve their political agendas. Instead, the internet has shown that the only thing a politician needs is a large follower count on Facebook and Twitter, as stated by Ezzahi.
We do not expect the debate over the role of the intellectual in the Arab world to come to a halt any time soon. Professors and their student authors who cling to the past, namely traditionalists, will keep the debate alive. Perhaps Ezzahi put it best: Arab intellectuals continue to cling to the past, contributing to their decline, because most ignored the rising importance of the Internet or declined engagement in social networks.
In the early 90s, the former French communist intellectual Régis Debray emphasized that “the image worlds (new media) would neither kill nor replace the book,” a prediction that has since been dubious, considering that most traditional media has been digitized. Online news and journalism websites have multiplied, with new generations of journalists becoming social actors who perform the ‘traditional’ intellectual role in managing public opinion. Among the many defenders of the traditional intellectual is the novelist Omar al-Sufi who says in Al Arab newspaper that “the idea the intellectual has completely lost his intellectual authority, either on a decision-making or public opinion level, is not possible since this would mean complete emptiness, confusion, and regression.” Regardless, the discourse on the role of the intellectual will continue in the present and with future generations.
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