A Place for the Arab Intellect

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“Today, the world of millions of Arabs is collapsing; whole societies are consumed by the flames of sectarianism, political fragmentation and economic disenfranchisement,” writes Hisham Melham at Al Arabiya.

It doesn’t take the most critical gaze to see the obscene degradation of entire countries, but it does take some amount of honesty to say so, and to lay blame. Melham wants to claim that honesty. And he wants to blame the delusions of Arabs.

Melham’s latest post is a continuation of his provocative article at Politico Magazine, where he critiqued a pathology unique to Arab civilization. He’s now advanced from blaming an invisible sickness that afflicts only Arabs to…blaming Arabs.

He turns specifically to a lack of self-criticism. Referring to the resounding defeat of Arab nations by Israel in the 1967 Six-Days War, Melham writes:

It became clear that the defeat was not only military, but political and cultural. The defeat was symptomatic of the failure of Arab regimes in creating viable modern, democratic polities free of outmoded political and religious dogmas.

And this is where Arab nations find themselves today. Melham mentions the destabilizing Western interventions, stifling military dictators, fatwas and ideologies, exploding populations, and the rotten economics of corruption and oligarchy. It’s all these things together, and not just one of them, that keeps Egypt and Iraq, Libya and Syria from a more hopeful future.

But even after he’s clarified that the current state of affairs has been brought on by a healthy portion of structural dysfunction, actual political/economic/demographic factors, he still manages to pin blame on a lack of introspection.

Have faith. An intellectual hero emerges! After the Arab humiliation of 1967, Sadik al-Azm, a Syrian philosopher, probed deeply into the failure in his book, “Self Criticism and Defeat.”

“The book was a milestone in modern Arab intellectual history,” Melham explains. “And al-Azm did not spare any political taboos, when he deconstructed the many glaring failures of Arab society, politics and culture.”

“Self Criticism and Defeat” represents not just one man’s intellectual struggle with his own society’s failings, but also the climate of a more open, liberal discourse in the late 1960s of the Middle East. According to Melham, the book and its subjects were widely discussed by intellectuals and scholars in Beirut, which came to be the Arab capital of critical thinking and literary culture.

No such city or discourse exists now. But that’s precisely his point:

During the heyday of Arab Nationalism, many Arab intellectuals entered into a Faustian deal with the custodians of power in their world. They accepted a deal in which they will not agitate for freedom and democracy, until the Nationalist fought their supposedly historic battles with the forces of Arab reaction, Israeli usurpation and Western imperialism. All the battles were lost, and with them the hopes of freedom and democracy.

Addressing the weakened civic life that defines Arab publics is the solution that alludes us and the one that’s most necessary. But before there can be a place for the Arab intellect—more vibrant cities on the edges of continents— we should ask: is lack of introspection really the problem here? Melham, who is the DC Bureau Chief of Al Arabiya (you know, presumably living comfortably in the US, under the rule of law) is calling for radical inquiry abroad when radical inquiry in many Arab states is the last thing people do before they are jailed. I don’t think that millions of Arabs need to hear from Melham that other, previously-colonized countries now have tremendous GDPs. Being honest about blaming the delusions of Arabs isn’t the renaissance of Levantine intellectualism. It’s just another bad argument from an older man who lives in the West.

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