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Where are you, Arab intellectuals?

A plea for the poetic inspiration and vision needed to counter despair, complacency, repression and extremism.

Shawkan/Demotix. All rights reserved.

As ISIS continues its bloody march into Iraq and Syria and the memory of the Arab Spring recedes into painful oblivion, one question haunts me everyday: where are our Arab intellectuals? 

You: Arab poet, novelist, playwright, filmmaker, philosopher, doctor, painter, why is it taking you so long to deliver us from the politics of despair, to inspire us, and to jolt us into action? Yes, the foreign incursions in your land infuriate you, the beheadings of ISIS revolt you, the complicity of our leaders repulses you, but we demand more than just your indignation.

We are desperately waiting for you to lead our belated cultural revolution. Help us unlearn the language of pain and desperation and teach us how to speak hope and emancipation.   

You see our loudest voices are our most vulgar and despicable and you, our so-called luminary, when you ever roar, well, we can’t hear you. Amidst the streams of blood in the streets of Baghdad, Tikrit, Aleppo, Tripoli, Sana’a, and Paris, who is calling us to a new future? Who is speaking to us from a mountaintop? Whose ideas inspire us today?

Sadly, Al Qaida speaks to us from the darkness of caves and the Islamic State hails us from the barrenness of the desert. Few listen, but most of us resent the dearth of our reformers, the staleness of our politicians, and, above all, the eerie silence of our intellectuals. Our past is rich, but our present is remarkably poor. That existential gap is at the root of our contemporary despair.

The Arab world is intellectually depressed, bursting at the seams with frustration, gambling with its youth and burying its shimmering hopes of salvation. It is no surprise that the agents of this implosion are none other than the apocalyptic goons of the Islamic State. So what do you propose we do, dear Arab intellectual?   

It’s complicated, you say. Those who speak up wind up in jail, killed or blasted with the slur, “infidel.”  Sadly true, but we are sitting at the edges of a precipitous cliff with two grim choices: live in police states under the mercy of censorship and the semblance of democracy or join militant groups like ISIS and Al Qaida and share in the illusion of a hollow religious triumphalism. Don’t you see that we live on the shoulders of our more enlightened ancestors and on the ideas of other cultures.

The wisdom of our now too distant philosophers was in their intellectual audacity to reread our texts and challenge our dogmas. Their legacy is their enduring contribution to our universal history, not just our Arab and Islamic history. Their important work was not free of risk. They had to labor in fear of retaliation and deadly accusations of heresy. How far are we from the lucidity and generosity of their thought?

Our textbooks sing the exploits of our civilization but only with a tone of ruins and envy. Those western values of democracy, tolerance, and equality so proudly promoted in the massive march following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, well, we helped build them too. The French then invoked their great philosophers Voltaire and Monstesquieu on the question of tolerance; our great thinkers Averroes and Ibn Khaldoun also wrote on the virtues of tolerance. 

These are our values too and we must reclaim our place in history so we can restore our intellectual and emotional dignity. All the oil wells, Kalashnikovs, and F-16s of the world could not get us there. Only you, Arab intellectual could make us dream again of the value and weight of our own ideas.

ISIS is a warped idea and you simply cannot bomb an idea out of sight. You need a stronger idea, not a vengeful reaction; a humane proposition, not a hopeless resignation; and an inspiring imagination that reconnects our culture, our values and our faith with the world at large. 

Many Arab intellectuals have spoken loud and clear against religious extremism and dictatorship. Few of you even marched with protesters during the Arab uprisings, but we need more from you. Iraqi poet Sinan Antoon told the New York Times at the height of the Arab Spring events, “I don’t think there is a need for intellectuals to spearhead any revolution. It is no longer a movement to be led by heroes.”

Well, intellectual heroes are fundamentally what we need today to help us lead a cultural revolution. The Arab Spring has short circuited because at the root of its anger was no enduring intellectual vision, just a political claim of change, still unfulfilled today.

Take example from the late Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet who became the voice of his people documenting the misery of their existence and commemorating their spirit of resistance. But his penetrating verse did not only dwell on suffering, but also prolonged hope for an eventual return to the homeland in the midst of political deadlock and aggressive occupation. Darwish defiantly challenged those who claimed there was no such thing as a Palestinian people and in doing so rallied Arabs behind a cause that animates much passion today and sends millions to the streets to protest Israeli occupation.

We need a similar courage and commitment from our intellectuals today. We crave poetic inspiration and guidance when the forces of politics conspire to keep us mired in our complacency and stuck in our obedience. 

My point is not to accuse you of cowardice or dismiss your work as trivial. Far from it. I simply call on you to address our paralysis today and provide that tone of hope and provocation to shake us from our cozy state of dogmatic bliss.

Egyptian feminist Nawal Saadawi, whose books have inspired a whole generation of Arab women, regularly invites young Egyptians in her home to talk literature, philosophy, and politics. She was one of very few vocal intellectuals in Tahrir Square. Surely, many of you supported the uprisings across the Arab world, but you failed to inspire millions of protesters when they finally found their voice.

Every revolution had its committed intellectuals who steered it, critiqued it, and inspired it at a time when it needed lucid ideas and enduring visions. We invoke Karl Marx when we think of the European Revolutions of 1848. We remember the political philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre when we think of the student revolts of May 1968. Anti-colonial liberation movements had the perceptive brilliance of Frantz Fanon and the biting poetry of Aimé Césaire. What Arab intellectual will we remember when we think of the Arab Spring? Can you honestly think of one?

Who could have inspired Zainab El Mahdy, a young Egyptian activist who took part in the events leading up to the ousting of president Mubarak, but recently took her life in despair? She grew acutely depressed about the bleak prospects of democracy after a brutal military takeover in what seemed to be a hopeful revolutionary climate in Egypt. Her last tweet captured her anguish, "There's no justice. We're lying to ourselves just to live."

Who else could have inspired the thousands of young Arabs who join ISIS? It is not simply the slick messaging and multimedia spectacles that lure these people, but the lack of similarly loud alternative ideas and hopes for a more dignified future that stunts their humanist resolve. When our young retreat to a bloody desert, self-immolate, and hang themselves to scream their angst and haunt us into action, the worst we can do is turn a blind eye or “lie to ourselves just to live”. Our questions are painfully existential and our intellectual depression is too deep to ignore. This is where it hurts the most.

Maybe we have convinced ourselves that we are a civilization consigned to the waiting room of history. But we have a humanist spirituality, brilliant minds, great human and natural resources, deep histories, creative artists, vast and beautiful landscapes. So why on earth are we in the back of the line? 

You, Arab intellectual must speak to us more and address us with an alarming urgency and hope. French Arab philosopher Abdennour Bidar did just as much last year when he wrote his open letter to the Muslim world bravely calling for Muslim self-critique and lamenting the fact that since the 18th century, Muslims have not yet responded to the intellectual challenge from the west. 

Our reactions have been, Bidar notes, either the spectacular obscurantism of dogmatic Islam or the caricaturesque modernity of technology fetishism and neoliberal consumerism. “Where are your wise, and do you still have any wisdom to offer to the world?” asks Bidar. “Where are your great men and women? Where is your Mandela, your Gandhi, who is your Aung San Suu Kyi? Where are your great thinkers whose books should be read around the world just as Arab mathematicians and philosophers were once important references from India to Spain?”

My generation of Arabs was instructed to leave when frustrated with the status quo. This is no viable exit strategy. We can’t simply quit and surrender these societies to the grip of atavistic ideologies. You want Arab democracy, but you wait for others to give it to you. You rightly denounce foreign imperialism, but you offer little to fill our vast political vacuum. You hope for change and when millions bravely take to the streets to secure it, you retreat to your cynicism and say it must be just a false dawn. What cue are you still waiting for?  

It would be unfair to assume that Arab artists, thinkers, journalists today do nothing to address their societies’ problems and anxieties. My concern is not the retreat of Arab intellect but the ability of the intellectual not only to diagnose the problems but also prescribe the solutions.   

Sure, many of our problems are not only of our own making, but let’s address those we inflict on ourselves. Unless we speak up and drown out those loud obscurantist voices among us, we will remain forever caged in our dogmatism or in our silence in the face of humiliation. 

What is under attack today are not our sacred symbols and faith as we witnessed in the Charlie Hebdo attacks, but how we use them to flatten our differences and fence off our intelligence. 

The spectacle of desert beheadings and caged burnings today is nothing more than a vicious metaphor of the futility of our ideas and the tragic retreat of our humanist resolve. Only the wisdom of education could deliver us from the lure of violence and the grip of frustration because as one important prophetic saying reminds us, “the ink of the scholar is more precious than the blood of the martyr.”

This is a plea to you, dear Arab intellectual, to spill more ink…

About the author

Nabil Echchaibi is associate professor and chair of the Media Studies Department and associate director of the Center for Media, Religion and Culture at the University of Colorado Boulder. His research focuses on religion and the role of media in shaping and reflecting modern religious identities among Muslims in the Middle East and in western societies.


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