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 A Book for a Book instead an Eye for an Eye - 30/10/2003

Sadiq Al-Azm




The League of Arab Nations will be the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2004. In Frankfurt, leading Syrian intellectual Sadiq Al-Azm now gave a speech on the occasion.

It is indeed a privilege to share this press conference with the distinguished Director General of ALECSO, Dr. Mongi Bousnina and an honor to have the opportunity to say something brief and meaningful about Arab culture in these difficult times.

On an occasion like this one, it is hardly possible to speak on any subject these days without having to justify oneself by ritualistically going straight into September 11, Islam, terrorism, Iraq, Palestine and the whole Middle East question; all of which should carry to discerning European ears echoes of such terrible old enigmas as the notorious “Eastern Question” and the discredited “Sick Man of Europe”. Actually, according to a recent analysis by the Syrian author, researcher and critic, Mohammad Kamel Al-Khatib, the “Sick Man” is still sick and the “Eastern Question” remains the untranscended Question of the new century.

Let me hasten to add that I have no intention of falling either into the temptation of discoursing on September 11, the “Sick Man” and co., or into that other typically Arab temptation of sliding into the ceremonial act of singing the praises of our glorious past and reciting that old lesson of how modern Europe got it all from us in the first place: Averroes, Andalusian high culture and civilization, Arabic science, mathematics, philosophy and the rest.

My intention, then, is to put before you some hopefully meaningful comments, illuminating observations and useful clarifications about Arab culture in the here and now. For, contrary to prevalent impressions abroad, and particularly in the West, recent and contemporary Arab culture, thought, criticism, literature, creative arts and so on are not as politically conformist, religiously unquestioning and spiritually stagnant as they often seem to appear to the outside world and at times to the inside world as well. This, in spite of all that is currently said, all over the globe, about the return of Islam, the resurgence of fundamentalism, Islamism, revivalism and the rest.

Modernity was forced upon the Arab world

For, modern Arab culture is in essence a long term sustained effort to somehow (a) come to terms with a modernity invented by Europe and (b) to adapt, as best and as quickly and as functionally as possible, to a dynamic modern world originally made and shaped by that same Europe, made and shaped not only without having consulted either Arabs, Muslims, Chinese, Hindus or any one else for that matter, but at their expense as well. The ups and downs, the pains and aches, the successes and failures, the resistances and struggles, the hatreds and animosities that dot this extended process of adaptation have their origins in the fact that the Arabs were first dragged kicking and screaming into this new modern world, and then modernity was forced upon them by superior might, efficiency and performance.

As a result, present Arab culture and history stopped making sense without Europe. In fact, the violent modern European intrusion into Arabdom created a final decisive and definitive rupture with our past that I can only compare to the no less final and definitive rupture effected by the violent Arab intervention into the history and culture of Sassanid Persia in the year 637 A.D. And just as the history of post-conquest Persia stopped making sense without the Arabs and their eruption on the local Farsi scene, similarly the post-intrusion history and culture of Arabdom stopped making sense without Europe, modernity and their eruption on the local Arab scene, making a clean sweep of all that had lost the ability to live and continue.

Hence, the many neuroses, narcissistic wounds, inferiority complexes, mirages, compensatory delusions, forms of adventurism, recklessness and desperate violence that respectively infect modern and contemporary Arab history, politics, culture and thought.

Contemporary Arab culture haunted by colonialist past

Hence also, the fact that the best in contemporary Arab culture, literature, poetry, art, criticism and theory is continually haunted by a whole variety of attempts to seriously and profoundly come to terms, unmask, expose, mediate, explain , revolt against etc..., all these painful realities; all their paralyzing contradictions, tensions, paradoxes and anomalies; all their rationalizations of those deep-seated, ritualized and stratified complexes of highly emotional beliefs, valuations, images and practices that give the sanction of sacredness, taboo and immutability to inherited illusions, dysfunctional attitudes and arrangements, anachronistic but cherished modes of living, thinking, governing and acting on the world.

This is why such issues as religious and social reform, modernization, liberation, independence, social justice, secularism, liberalism, socialism, democracy, toleration, freedom, despotism, citizenship, have all been, in one manner or another, on the agenda of modern Arab history, culture, thought and action since at least Bonaparte’s short occupation of Egypt in 1798.

Let me emphasize again that these have been and remain the burning questions that Arab culture, Arab thought, Arab criticism, Arab literature, Arab soul- searching continue to interrogate themselves about, continue to try to come to terms with and continue to seek to answer adequately, if possible, since at least the last quarter of the 19th century.

Actually, that period witnessed the flowering of the great movement of liberal reform and latitudinarian religious interpretation in Arab life, culture and thought that scholars, experts and historians, both East and West, have called an awakening, a renaissance, a religious reformation, the liberal experiment, Muslim Modernism, the Liberal Age of Modern Arab Thought, and so on.

In fact, this movement compressed in itself all at once: a theologico-legal reformation, a literary-intellectual renaissance, a rational scientific enlightenment of sorts and a politico-ideological aggiornamento as well i.e. bringing things up to date.

Late 19th century Arab enlightenment provoked counter-reaction

Now, because modern Arab history, culture and thought are not sterile, this great movement of reform provoked a counter-reaction in the form of a counter-reformation and a Muslim fundamentalist movement to go along with it. This reaction crystallized at the moment of the establishment of the Muslim Brothers Movement in Egypt in 1928; the mother of all fundamentalisms in the Arab World as well as in some other Muslim countries and societies.

The fact that this counter-reaction witnessed the birth of its formal organizational structures in 1928 was no accident. For the initial reform movement had made massive advances at highly accelerated speeds in Egyptian and Arab life, society, economy, politics, culture and law, during the 20s of the 20th century and particularly after the famous 1919 Egyptian revolution against British colonial rule. This is why in Naguib Mahfouz’s trilogy of novels about Cairean life in the first half of the past century, the male dominated and dictatorially run traditional Muslim household in Cairo collapses beyond the possibility of rescue at the exact moment of the eruption of Egypt’s great revolution of 1919. This religious counter-reaction naturally defined itself substantively as an anti-reformation, an anti-renaissance, an anti-enlightenment, and an anti-aggiornamento, all at one and the same time.

“To be or not to be” – Arab culture seemed to waver like Hamlet

It was this counter-reformation that gave rise to the powerful concept of “authenticity” in contemporary Arab culture and life eventually leading to the great Arab debates in the sixties and seventies over such polarities as: “The Old versus the New”, “Authenticity versus Contemporaneity”, “Heritage versus Renewal”, Identity versus Modernity”, “Religion versus Secularity”. At the time, Arab culture seemed to dramatically waver, hesitate, procrastinate and oscillate, Hamlet-like, before these opposites and between their extremes. The debates had their share of the passions of the elemental, the brooding intellectuality of the cerebral and the lyrical sensitivity of the poetical. At the same time, and as in Shakespeare most famous drama, “the times seemed out of joint” for the Arabs in all these tense exchanges, something “looked rotten in their state” as well, and the question of “whether they are the authors of their woes or there is a divinity that shapes their ends,” returned with as much tragic intensity as human beings can sustain.

The existential angst underlying all these issues, questions, soul searching, investigations and re-evaluations proved intellectually productive, culturally enriching, artistically creative and politically subversive.

One important example of all these stirrings of the spirit is to be found in the massive multi-volume philosophico-historical projects that purported to deal decisively, definitively and even messianically and salvationally with all these burning issues and problems, such as: Tizini’s From Heritage To Revolution, in Syria; Hanafi’s From Doctrine To Revolution, in Egypt; Muruwwa’s Materialist Trends In Arabo-Islamic Philosophy, in Lebanon; Jabiri’s Critiques of the Arab Mind, in Morocco; Adonis’ study of Innovation and Imitation, in the Intellectual History and Religious Heritage of the Arabs; Arkoun’s critical reconsideration of the Islamic knowledge-paradigm in light of contemporary French discourse theory, in France; and ‘Arwi’s Historicist wholesale reinterpretation of the Arab experience with modernity, in Morocco.

Another significant example is to be found in the strong interventions, involvements, participations and contributions made by Arab thought and culture to each of the major globalized debates and controversies that rocked the entire world in the last quarter of the 20th century, and I mean such things as: the Orientalism debates, the Islamic Revolution in Iran debates, the fundamentalism debates, the Salman Rushdie debates, the Islam and terrorism debates, the Islam and modernity debates, the end of history and clash of civilizations debates and the civil society and democracy debates.

A book for a book instead of an eye for an eye

I would like to end by expressing my pride and contentment, as an engaged Arab scholar and public intellectual, in the fact that throughout the Salman Rushdie ordeal and international commotion no violence, no incitement to murder, no calls to implement the Fatwa ever emanated from the Arab World. Actually, the only part of the Muslim World that witnessed a genuine, widespread and intense debate on the Satanic Verses, is the Arab World and particularly its Mashreq. As a result, a proposal was floated at the time calling on the Arab intelligentsia to abide from now on by the following code of honor: If our ancestors acted on the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we will now all act on the principle of a book for a book, a poem for a poem, and a novel for a novel. 

Sadik J. al-Azm

The speech was held on 9 October 2003 at the press conference on "The Arab League as a Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2004". It is published with kind courtesy of its author.


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