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  • Enlightenment on the Eve of Revolution: The Egyptian and Syrian Debates by Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab
  • Jens Hanssen
Enlightenment on the Eve of Revolution: The Egyptian and Syrian Debates, by Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019. 226 pages. $30 paper.

Arabic translations of Immanuel Kant's work go back to 1924 when al-Salafiyya Press published "On Pedagogy" in Cairo. By contrast, Kant's "Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?" ("Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?") made a relatively late appearance in Arabic. But between 'Abd al-Ghaffar Makkawi's first translation in a Festschrift for Egyptian philosopher Zaki Nagib Mahmud in 1987 and Isma'il al-Musaddaq's retranslation of 1997, the question of enlightenment and Arab history took root. The lively and, indeed, soul-searching debates that made up this sea change are the subject of Suzanne Kassab's important new book. Enlightenment on the Eve of Revolution is anchored in Kant's famous definition of enlightenment as "the ability and willingness to use one's own reason in an autonomous way, without tutelage" (p. 74). However, readers who expect a triumphant account of how Arab debates of englightenment (tanwir) inspired the Arab uprisings of 2011 will be disappointed; and so will readers who expect an indictment of Europe's Enlightenment as a European conspiracy to legitimize colonialism or of Arab advocates of tanwir as liberal stooges for European imperialism.

Instead, the intellectuals assembled here are caught in a dangerous web of authoritarian regimes, religious fundamentalisms and western imperialism. Kassab de-idealizes Kant and his interlocutors and argues that 'even' the European enlightenment project was theologically infused, hostile to popular classes and revolutions, and in the end sided with the state. This premise serves to buttress her critique of the Egyptian enlightenment-as-tanwir discourse as a statist project. Neither disseminationist nor deconstructionist, Kassab's approach to the emergence of tanwir discourse is comparative and contextual. And her method consists of providing detailed summaries of key texts written by over two dozen Arab intellectuals and then explicating them in dialogue with each other and within the problem space of Arab political culture in the aftermath of the cold war.

Whereas her previous book Contemporary Arab Thought compared debates in the Middle East after the 1967 defeat to those in the 1970s and 80s Latin America and the Caribbean, here she sets up an intra-Arab comparison along the time-space axis of Cairo and Damascus and the 1990s and 2000s. Egyptian and Syrian intellectuals have shared many commonalities and intersections—most notably in Beirut—since the demise of the Soviet alternative to Western hegemony. For both sets of thinkers, the Arabic nahda, the reform and revival period of the 19th and early 20th centuries, has served as the Archimedean point on which they staked their critiques of contemporary [End Page 682] Arab politics and their visions of a better Arab future. Yet Kassab teases out very well how the different state-society relations in Egypt and Syria set the nahda-astanwir discourses on different trajectories in the two decades before the Arab revolutions. Two unexpected results stand out in Kassab's meticulous reconstruction of the debates: first, Syrian dissidents were more critical of Arab authoritarianism than their Egyptian colleagues; and, second, whereas the former identified the crisis as political in nature, the latter focused on culture and strove for conciliation (al-tawfiqiyya), harmony (al-talfiqiyya) and accommodation (al-wasatiyya) between "Islamism" and "secularism."

The book begins in Cairo at Egypt's turn toward neoliberal authoritarianism in 1990. International Monterary Fund–enforced structural readjustment policies impoverished a fast-increasing population and facilitated Islamist groups' recruitment drive. Amidst the ensuing campaign of mutually reinforcing Islamist and state terrorism, liberal Islamists and secularists vied for interpretative authority over the essence and etiology of the modern Egyptian state.

Kassab's anti-hero of this trend of Kantian statism is the éminence grise of Egyptian philosophers, Mourad Wahba. He had coined the influential concept of "Averroës Paradox," i.e. that the rich rationalist legacy of 'Abbasid and Andalusian philosophy was suppressed in the Middle East while setting the West on its path toward progress. In...


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