The following post is by Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab, author of Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective. Portions of this were also part of a BBC interview with Kassab. (You can listen to the BBC interview here.)
I have been working on contemporary Arab thought for many years now, and the notion I have come across most frequently in contemporary Arab writing, whether in academic publications or in the press, was that of ‘ajz, an Arabic term denoting impotence, helplessness, incapacitation. An increasing sense of hopelessness seemed to dominate the mood of the last few decades. A bitter sense of disability weighed on people, including artists and intellectuals: the disability to change anything in their lives, whether politically, economically, or culturally.
This thick darkness contrasted in my mind with the amazing lucidity, sobriety and audacity with which critical Arab thinkers had analyzed their realities over the last few decades, particularly after the Arab traumatic defeat of 1967 against Israel, and the even more traumatic experience of living under corrupt and ruthless autocratic regimes that were established around that time. Their critical effort was directed in the first place inwards, at re-examining dominant ideas, at trying to understand what had led their societies to such levels of oppression, socio-economic inequalities, dismal healthcare, poor education, cultural anxiety, political humiliation and loss of dignity and self-respect.
Concepts such as authenticity, liberation, tradition, modernity, the West, the nation, Islam, identity and difference were revisited with critical rigor and the successive struggles for liberation and improvement earned serious reflection. For me, this was a tremendous work of enlightenment, in the midst of much mediocrity, mendacity and ideological aberration. It was also a precious ray of hope in this darkness that had overwhelmed us, a last show of dignity for a people crushed by the yoke of so much adversity. It lifted the veil over the real causes for our dire predicament – not least political disenfranchisement.
I wondered how could so much light and so much darkness coexist at the same time? Why had this critical energy not been channeled into institutional change, in education, in the media, in politics? Why had it not gained the acknowledgment it deserved, both locally and abroad? In my conversations with Arab critical thinkers, I kept asking: So how does one turn this critical awareness into real change? My question was often met with sad smiles. Yet repeating the question over and over was my way of expressing my own frustration, since we all knew well the answer: state repression, conservative forces within society nurtured by that repression, as well as big money resulting from state abuse on the one hand and oil on the other, simply did not make possible any move into a better reality. Enlightened critical thinking could not, on its own, bring about real changes. But the questions kept turning in my head and with them the bitter frustrating answers kept coming back too.
And then came the Tunisian uprising and later the Egyptian revolt, and now the Libyan struggle and they enlightened me about the true key to change, namely the basic human instinct against injustice and abuse that is bound to explode sooner or later. Not wanting to be arrested and jailed arbitrarily, not wanting to be tortured, raped, killed, robbed, not wanting to be deprived of a future, to be humiliated, to be lied to or to be impoverished, not wanting to be denied education, expression, political participation – in a word, not wanting to be incapacitated and reduced to insignificance with no human and citizenship rights is the key to demanding empowerment, to breaking the shackles of fear in the face of terror and making change finally possible. This basic human rejection of aggression and dehumanization is then the indispensable foundation for a move towards enlightenment.
It was not, and had never been, a question of the Arabs failing to understand Montesquieu or John Locke because of religious barriers, cultural specificities, or even an Arab genome for Oriental despotism. It was not about the absence of some cerebral democratic culture or an inability to better themselves. Rather, it was about facing sheer brutal force. Courageous men and women had for many decades defied state terror and struggled for human and democratic rights, often paying the price of their uprightness with brutal intimidation, imprisonment, torture, exile and sometimes even with their own lives. Today, they are joined by the masses.