The Arab intellectual, past and present

When we speak of intellectuals we are, deep down, searching for answers. The term often carries expectation, authority and perhaps a bit of uneasiness, like that which comes when your family doctor emerges from an examination room without his usual weariness. But what if intellectuals don’t have answers? What if they don’t have authority? What if the intellectuals we have been used to are no more?

These not-exactly-hypothetical questions shouldn’t make us feel orphaned or vulnerable, and we shouldn’t, in efforts to create an illusory sense of control, dismiss all intellectual work with a nihilistic sleight of hand: “It’s all meaningless anyway.” This supposed void, however, is deceptive: It blinds us to a new generation of intellectuals who are not already established — ones that emerge when there is a need, ones that we do not usually think of when we think of intellectuals (à la Edward Said or Noam Chomsky).

Notoriously hard to define, so-called intellectuals usually live between worlds. On the one hand, the literati are socially defined by their cultural and symbolic capital. And yet, insofar as they are literati, they imagine themselves to exist in a lineage that goes back to religious authorities — say, ulema — which means they also imagine themselves to have a transcendental, almost prophetic authority to speak both for and beyond their time. Like religious authorities, secular intellectuals sometimes decide to serve the establishment, but it is generally believed that their authenticity stems from their capacity to dissent, like Socrates’s gadfly. What makes this special group of elites interesting is precisely the fact that their prestige and legitimacy are directly connected to their dissenting posture — their tendency to create trouble — for speaking beyond their time and space. 

The following essay developed out of a conversation that the two authors are engaged in around the theme of intellectual history and the Arab uprisings. We decided to read together several important texts in this field (listed below), discuss them together, and put pen to paper to reflect on themes that came up in our exchange. 



Contemporary accounts of Arab intellectual history usually start with the 19th century Arab Renaissance (Nahda) and Albert Hourani’s famous Arabic thought in the liberal age, 1798-1939 (1962) which saw a reaction and/or an extension to the European Renaissance. The Nahda, literally translated as “awakening,” is the project of cultural and political modernity from the early 19th to the early 20th century, following the expansion of the European powers into the region. The next stage was the 1967 defeat (Naksa). Its very name contains a question and an answer. The diagnosis provided by this generation of intellectuals carried a lot of guilt and self-flagellation — a turn inwards, so to speak. With the post-independence nation states turned sour, the main culprit is no longer the foreign enemy, but us. For example, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, considered an important intellectual representative of this generation, blamed the clever personality (al-shakhsiya al-fahlawiya) theorized by the Egyptian Hamed Ammar. The conman-like traits of this personality, attributed to the Arab soldier and statesman, became an easy way to explain away the defeat. An essentializing argument in itself, it ushered in a culturalist discourse that became commonplace among liberal intellectuals of the time. This turn inwards, however, led to interesting, daring and almost confessionary critiques. But like all isolated, ahistorical critiques, it didn’t stand the test of time. Here, the 1990s generation made themselves visible, returned to structural critique and engaged with global themes like the nature of authoritarianism and its counter-concept (not necessarily opposite), humanism.

Attempts have been made to locate the uprisings in a longer intellectual tradition that stems back to the liberal age of the Nahda. No one was more qualified to write such a history than Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab. A philosopher by training, Kassab takes intellectuals very seriously and on their own terms, without the slightest cynicism. Her recent book, Enlightenment on the Eve of Revolution (2019) is not just about the Egyptian and Syrian revolutions from the point of view of liberal and leftist intellectuals. It is, more importantly, a sequel to her first, encyclopedic Contemporary Arab Thought (2010). The two should be read together. 

Long confined to the dilemma of cultural modernity against heritage (turath), the terms of the debate have now changed. Kassab calls such a shift “political humanism”: “The quest for democracy has gradually overtaken that of identity,” Kassab writes in her 2019 book. And it is not hard to see Kassab’s loyalties: she evidently supports such a shift. The dilemma between cultural modernity and turath was too exhausted, too narrow — if not wrongheaded from the beginning. Retrospective critiques agree that Nahda writers misconceived both cultural modernity and turath in their heroic attempt to reconcile them. And more tragically, although by no means ignored by Nahda writers, the specificity of political modernity (as opposed to culture) was forgotten or suppressed for too long.

On the one hand, liberal intellectuals wanted to claim a liberal, reformist tradition that runs from Gamal Eddin al-Afghani to Taha Hussein in the name of a secularist enlightenment (tanwir). And yet, there is also the justified suspicion that it is this tradition which has continuously failed to realize its promises, a suspicion of the very way tanwir is imagined. This retrospective views the problem with tanwir as a doomed project of reconciliation that has not gone far enough in probing the metaphysical, legal and hermeneutic assumptions behind its undertaking and the traditions with which it engaged. This led it to be conciliatory with the state on the one hand, while its ‘modernist’ ambitions were fraught with difficulties that seemed to reproduce themselves endlessly in the debates between secularists and Islamists. The very position of the state with respect to its enlightenment mission is systematically ambiguous. So you get an example like Mourad Wahba, professor of philosophy at Ain Shams University and strong advocate of secularism, whom Kassab identifies with a governmental enlightenment — a statism that still sees in the modern nation-state a sign of secular progress. He can be contrasted with someone like Nasr Hamed Abu-Zayd. The figure of the enlightened tyrant, or the just tyrant, is as old as the Nahda itself, and it is also familiar from the Western enlightenment. Its ghosts live on. Although Kassab clearly sees a difference between statist tanwir and critical/radical tanwir, this does not radically alter her meta-narrative that there exists a continuity between tanwir and new humanisms, whose traces can be seen in the uprisings or even post-Islamist discourses. This division returned again in the betrayal by some intellectuals after 2013, too.


New generation

In the middle of the book, Kassab announces her intention to continue her massive project by looking at new intellectuals who have emerged from within the uprisings themselves, after the eve of revolution so to speak. She describes those new names as practitioners of what she calls concrete tanwir: a form of critique that is more grounded in political practice, and that is much less enthusiastic about the possibility of governmental tanwir

What makes those young intellectuals — whose writings range from satirical Facebook posts to serious academic work to new literary styles — a generation, so to speak? And is it too self-indulgent to call such an ill-defined group a new intellectual generation? And if the old guard of intellectuals is no longer relevant, then is intellectual production — traditionally conceived — dead? 

The sweetheart of postcolonial studies Gayathri Spivak asked, without posing an answer: “Can the subaltern speak?” The question isn’t about the speech uttered, because that’s easy, but the deaf ears on which this speech falls. We ask another question: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one was there to hear it, did it make a sound?”. It is our excavators, radars, and perked ears we need to activate, not the subaltern’s ability and readiness to speak.

This new intellectual generation is like a middle child, sandwiched between the self-confident, older sibling and the younger, carefree baby sibling. The middle child cannot accept the determinism of the old and refuses to live by the nihilistic ways of the young. She is incapable, above all disappointed, which is the flip image of hope. This generation inhabits the interregnum: the period which Antonio Gramsci describes as sitting between the old, which is dying, and the new that cannot be born. The important distinction that Kassab draws between governmental and radical tanwir has become so pronounced — especially since 2013 — that it is not even certain if this new post-2011 intellectual generation that Kassab celebrates would see themselves as belonging to the same tanwir tradition at all. 

One crucial difference is the centrality of prison experience and the language of cruelty. Intellectual historians, Kassab says, have found something profoundly interesting in the centrality of prison writings and torture testimonies in the way intellectuals now frame their narratives, experiences and perceptions, which seems to be developing into a separate tradition unto itself, clearly marked from older, more rationalist and intellectualist tanwiri, liberal discourses. There’s more to be written about what is new about this developing genre and why it strikes such a chord, and how different it may be from older humanisms that were also concerned with pain and suffering. This prison experience — the Kafkaesque sensibility that we have now mastered — enables us to connect the personal with the political in ways that may not have been possible before. It allows us to speak about ourselves as political subjects, first and foremost, in ways that we will only realize the significance of much later. 

A connected development is also the increasing presence of feminism to our intellectual baggage. Again, feminism is not foreign to tanwir, but there’s something more critical about third-wave feminism that again connects the personal with the political in ways that may have not been so clear before. In short, the increasing importance of both cruelty and feminism have underscored something that was missed from previous tanwirs and their obsessions with the modernity/tradition dualism: We now understand that authoritarianism marks an experience that is much more specific, and much more complicated, and much more personal and corporeal and structural than the older generation of liberal intellectuals might have assumed. 

One way to describe the difference is perhaps these new intellectuals’ summoning certain ethical dimensions that were not considered before, rather than just simply being political. This is potentially the product of being exposed to a level of horror beyond anticipation — the kind that calls for a different orientation to power altogether.

Now, what may explain those subtle or not-so-subtle differences? 

The relationship with the masses changed, from a clearly hierarchical, elitist position towards the masses to increasingly more equal, horizontal ties with the readers. For example, the Nahda intellectuals were part of the elite, often educated in the West at a time when this was inaccessible to most people. The two other generations, naksa and the 1990s, began to feel less responsible for the education of the people, but metaphorically stood by their side and considered themselves victims. 

Perhaps the term intellectual is now closer than ever to its original meaning, first used during the Dreyfus Affair, as an insult: intellectual meant, as Christophe Charle puts it in The Intellectuals After Dreyfus (1998), to be “dreyfusard, that is a person who pretends to uphold things that the majority of the French refuse.” 

The intellectual’s natural habitat is the public sphere; however, what space does the intellectual inhabit if the public sphere is disappearing? Sociologists like Gil Eyal question this notion of publicness as a necessary condition for intellectual activity. He traces the addition of the redundant term “public” to intellectuals, like desert to Sahara and chai to tea — something we’d expect from Americans, not high-brow sociologists of knowledge — but for him the qualifier public is there to delimit the term: to do “boundary work” between those who are true intellectuals, and those who are not. It often seems that there are more debates about who is an intellectual than intellectual production itself, but for the purpose of this article, it’s important to complicate the idea of publicness and consider it as a byproduct rather than an end in itself. This is clear when we consider the actual public who constitutes this sphere. For a long time, we took the Habermasian framework for granted: one that is “made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state.” It is imagined as a class of several brilliant and engaged graduate students all respectful of their peers’ opinions and right to speak. It only takes the time to read this sentence to realize that this is rarely the case. This public then is considered a phantom, an intangible thing that concretizes when needed, that we produce when issues become too important to ignore. Think of it as the body of airplane passengers when the flight is canceled last minute: looks are exchanged, grievances are shared and alternative plans are drawn. There is now solidarity between these passengers, which creates of these individuals a collective that shares an experience and is working towards a common goal: giving a hard time to the airline office. This collective is called a putative group — independent individuals who have the potential of becoming a cohesive group, if this potential is activated by an outside influence.

What may be these new publics? And how do they change the intellectual landscape and problems addressed? A new landscape of civil society — including human rights organizations, issue-based advocacy groups, media platforms, arts spaces, etc. — emerged as significant platforms for intellectual production instead of universities, traditional political parties, or trade unions. Social media now has an increasing role to play, which has allowed intellectual accounts to become much more attuned to the personal and the testimonial voice. Those new publics, and the cultural time they inhabit, speak to a general dissatisfaction with the inherited dualisms of older tanwir or nahda discourse (modernity/tradition, secularism/religion, etc.) which fail for some people to capture the full significance of their ethical and political experience.


New zeitgeist

A question we need to consider seriously is, what sort of cultural temporality do we inhabit? What is our zeitgeist? An interesting diagnosis offered by Moroccan writer Abed al-Jabri is that we (as a region) are confused as to what our cultural present is, since our cultural time does not work in a linear fashion but is circular, with the old and the new coexisting in the same temporality. This is all to say that we had modernization without modernity, and now we are trying to catch up with postmodernity without having acknowledged our past. But maybe this multi-layered existence, holding often contradictory ideas, has its own type of complexity that enriches, rather than delimits.


Further reading

Hanssen, Jens, and Max Weiss. 2016. Arabic Thought Beyond the Liberal Age : Towards an Intellectual History of the Nahda. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hanssen, Jens, and Max Weiss. 2017. Arabic thought against the authoritarian age: towards an intellectual history of the present. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kassab, Elizabeth Suzanne. 2010. Contemporary Arab thought: cultural critique in comparative perspective. New York : Columbia University Press.

Kassab, Elizabeth Suzanne. 2019. Enlightenment on the eve of the revolution: the Egyptian and Syrian debates. New York : Columbia University Press.

Nader Andrawos and Alaa Badr 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism