- Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective
Documented by over 700 sources and copious notes, this impressive book offers a rare analytical account of the cultural malaise of the Arabs today. In recent years, many works on the Arab world have been published, but few have attempted to study what the Arabs say to explain why, after several generations following their 19th century Nahda (Renaissance), they are still suffering from repression and failed development in the 21st century—long after political independence from their former European colonizers and after the establishment of several nation-states.
In the second half of the 20th century, Arab thinkers of various convictions continued earlier proposals for achieving modernization. Some offered ideas based on Arab nationalism, socialism, or Marxism; others offered ideas based on Islamism, urging the application of Islamic principles in society and the state. Their writings were mostly ideological and gave rise to many debates. When Israel defeated the Arabs in the 1967 War, a national pan-Arab trauma led Arab intellectuals to intensify their efforts and move additionally into areas of anguished self-criticism and of deep search for identity, trying to understand the causes of their defeat and to propose ways of overcoming them and of achieving modernity—activities which some have called a second Nahda.
Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab’s book is not intended to be a comprehensive intellectual history of the modern Arabs, for it focuses mainly on these post-1967 intellectual efforts and examines the debates they engendered. Kassab introduces her examination with quick studies of earlier thinkers. She then moves to Arab critique after the 1967 defeat and elaborates on several thinkers, and subsequently embarks on a study of three important inter-Arab national conferences: the 1971 Cairo conference on “Authenticity and Renewal in Contemporary Arab Culture,” the 1974 Kuwait conference on “The Crisis of Civilizational Development in the Arab Homeland,” and the 1984 Cairo conference on “Heritage and the Challenges of the Age in the Arab Homeland: Authenticity and Contemporaneity.”
She observes that, in the papers of the Arab intellectuals at the conferences (as in their published writings), there was a deep concern with the past and how to accommodate it to the present needs of modernization without losing what was increasingly being [End Page 315] called Arab “authenticity” and “identity” based on what was perceived to be “the heritage.” The Arab legacy of the past was mostly seen as representing the self, and it was identified to a great extent with Islam. The conference discussions therefore focused mainly on Arab culture and it was seen, as in the published writings, in an idealist manner and isolated from historical conditions, when it should be—in her opinion—historicized and contextualized and should not be presented, along with authenticity and identity, in essentialist terms that remove the faculty of agency from modern Arabs and the power to achieve change. She notes an unhealthy fixation on tradition, a generally culturalist approach, and an intellectualization of the Arab malaise.
Dr. Kassab then examines Arab writings in the latter decades of the 20th century and observes braver minds that dared to discuss the unthinkable such as Mohammed Arkoun, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, and Fatima Mernissi with regard to Islamic theology, and those who called for an Islamic theology of liberation like Hassan Hanafi and for a Christian-Arab theology of liberation like Na‘im ‘Ateek. She further examines the secular critiques of Farag Fouda, Fouad Zakariyya, Aziz al-Azmeh, Bassam Tibi, Hisham Sharabi, and others who advocated “values of egalitarian, inclusive, plural, and democratic citizenship” in a conception of an Arab nationalism earlier articulated by Qustantin Zurayq and Sati‘ al-Husri, that recognizes religion without being religious.
In her final chapter, in order to show that modern Arabs are not alone in the people of the world who pass through a phase of self-reflection and search for identity after a traumatic experience...