Brother/Sister, Where Art Thou?

This is the study that I have prepared during my first stint as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution (July-December 2004). Though completed, the study was never published by Brookings, it was simply too whimsical to pass as a policy paper, and although I had permission to publish it elsewhere while acknowledging that it was prepared at Brookings, I got too caught up with the activities of the Tharwa Project and my the interrogations I faced upon my return to Syrian to follow up on this. 

Brother/Sister, Where Art Thou?

In search for the new generation of Arab intellectuals

Ammar Abdulhamid
Visiting Fellow

The Saban Center for Middle Eastern Studies
The Brookings Institution Project on the US Policy Towards the Islamic World

Executive Summary

The shortage of young and talented voices and figures in the contemporary Arab intellectual scene is a real and serious phenomenon with far reaching implications for the future of the Arab World. Continued recourse to authoritarian practices on part of the ruling regimes, socioeconomic difficulties, endemic institutional corruption and inefficiency (especially in the educational field), the lack of specific support institutions and free and affordable access to information and communications resources, the patrimonial nature of the prevailing culture, and certain psychological factors such as fear, apathy and cynicism, have all combined to create a certain climate that makes the emergence of talented and creative young figures on the intellectual scene well-nigh impossible.

Still, and for very much the same reasons, those who did manage to emerge, betray an inadequate understanding of contemporary local, regional and global realities and seem ill-equipped indeed for the task of producing the necessary reform visions that their countries desperately need.

Meanwhile, the Arab Street today seems to move increasingly to the duo effect of righteous indignation, voiced by popular preachers (religious and nationalist), and melodious incantations, sang by pop stars. In this, the balance is continuously tipping in favor of the former, as pop culture continues to feed the collective sense of guilt of the population, and pave the way towards a necessary recourse to repentance.

For its part, the civil society remains decimated and weak, as most of its champions have grown old and equally cut off from contemporary local, regional and geopolitical realities, and as the influx of young people onto the scene remains pitiful indeed.

Judging from the lack of resolve and vision on part of existing Arab regimes, and their inability to produce or implement any serious reform programs over the last few years, it should be clear by now that the Arab World cannot tackle this problem, or any other of its basic developmental problems, on its own. There is a need here for the establishment of an international alliance of sorts meant to focus on issues of reform in each Arab country. This alliance should include representatives of the reform elements within existing regimes, international advisors and donor organizations, and representatives of the Arab civil society movements.

In this, and considering the democratic shift that has taken place in the Arab World over the last few decades with more than 50% of the total population is now below 18, special attention should be paid to the problem of youth empowerment and the production of a new generation of young and talented Arab intellectuals whose role in producing and internalizing the necessary reform visions cannot be overstated.

Preface & Acknowledgements

This brief study will focus on the unique and serious phenomenon that is the absence of an indigenous young generation of contemporary Arab intellectuals, and will examine the factors contributing to this phenomenon and its potential implications for the future of the Arab World and the Middle East.

The study is by no means exhaustive and is not intended as an authoritative statement on this sensitive and complex issue. Rather, it is meant as a potential impetus for a more systematic and comprehensive approach to a problem that is bound to plague the Arab World for many decades to come. For the necessary role of intellectuals in inspiring peoples and leaders alike and in charting out new paths for the development and progress of their countries cannot be overestimated.

The study was inspired, in part, by the now well-known Arab Human Development Reports of 2002 and 2003 and seeks, in effect, to take some of the arguments made in these reports to their logical conclusion. For instance, the 2002 Report speaks of three main deficits hindering the process of reform and development in the Arab World: a freedom deficit, a knowledge deficit and a deficit in women empowerment. Considering these deficits, especially the first two, the lack of qualified cadre of Arab professionals and intellectuals should not come as a major surprise really. Nonetheless, the causes, manifestations and implications of this serious phenomenon do merit a separate analysis, which is exactly the subject matter of this essay.

Still, and due to the lack of previous research in this area, the study was based largely on a number of interviews with young intellectuals from a variety of Arab countries.

The study also comes as a series of personal reflections on my part, being an aspiring young Arab intellectual myself. Although this approach might seem rather unorthodox at first for a work intended to have some scholarly and policy relevance, it was, nonetheless the most logical approach in the circumstances.

The intellectuals that were interviewed for this study come from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. Their ages range between 22-45, and most admittedly showed more interest in non-literary writings – mostly articles and essays. Still, many poets and short-stories writers were interviewed as well. In many instances, I have also relied on my recollections of conversations and debates that took place with many of my intellectual colleagues over the years.

Seeing that many interviewees requested not to be clearly identified, for fear of potential official backlash against their involvement in the preparation of study funded by a US think tank, I opted, in most cases, to identify people by their first name only, while providing some information regarding their professional background.

On a different note, the reader has to bear in mind that the emphasis throughout the essay has always been on “indigenous” elements, that is, on young intellectuals still living in the Arab World. Young Arab intellectuals emerging in the West or who have relocated to it (as emigrants or exiles) are not considered here because they experience a quite different set of dynamics than their colleagues who continue to live and work in the Arab World.

Moreover, the activities of expatriate Arab intellectuals are for the most part ignored in their countries of origin, considering that most of their writings are carried out in the languages of their new adopted countries, and that the Arab world currently lacks serious translation efforts. For this reason, and although their works might be quite important in ad of themselves and might indeed acquire some relevance in the future, as far as the Arab peoples are concerned today, they fall, for the moment, outside the scope of this study.

Preparing this study would not have been possible had it not been for the continuous support of my colleagues at the Saban Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the Brookings Institution, especially: Peter W. Singer, the head of the Brookings Project on US Policy Towards the Islamic World, Tamara Coffman Wittes and Flynt Leverett, senior fellows at the Saban Center, and Martin Indyk, the Director of the Center.


Any observer of the contemporary Arab intellectual scene, even one who is not familiar with the intellectual fermentations of the first seven decades of the Twentieth Century, is bound to notice the drastic and glaring shortage of young voices in it. Some observers, however, will admittedly qualify this statement by adding the adjective “talented,” signifying that, in their opinion, the problem is that of quality not quantity. Perhaps on the whole they are right. But then this makes the problem even more serious and more worthy of analysis.

For how can the Arab World embark on the much needed march of reform and modernization in the absence of visions and strategies based on a deep understanding of the forces and processes shaping the realities around it? And who but the intellectuals can provide such visions and strategies?

The apparent lack of talented young participants in the contemporary Arab intellectual scene poses a very serious challenge indeed, one that, if left unresolved, cannot but bode ill for the future of the Arab World. For intellectuals and intellectual debates have been at the forefront of all previous reform initiatives in the Arab World. Indeed, all Arab political movements, regardless of one’s assessment of their legacy, and all Arab social transformations were initially based on the writings and contributions of various intellectual figures, academics, religious reformers and literary figures alike.

How are we to interpret this phenomenon? What are the reasons behind this apparent lack of young intellectuals in the contemporary Arab World, at a time when a quick glimpse at the last century could easily reveal the existence of a host of such influential figures, ones who shaped the public debate in the Arab World for decades and who are in some ways continuing to do so now.

These include such academic, literary and political figures as: Sati’ al-Husri, Michel Aflak, Antoun Saadeh, Adonis, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, Mahmoud Darwish, Ghassan Kanafani, Hisham Sharabi, Hussein Marwa, Nizar Qabbani, Naguib Mahfouz, Tawfic al-Hakeem, Unsi al-Haj, Muhammad Arkoun, Abdallah Alaroui, Tayyib Tizini, Bourhane Ghalyoun, etc. Or even Islamic intellectuals like Muhammad Abdo, Ali Abd al-Razek and Abdul Rahman al-Kawakibi, who opted for renewal, and Islamist ones, such as Rashid Rida, Sayyid Qutb, Muhammad al-Ghazali, Malik bin Nabi and the omnipresent these days Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who advocated adherence to the existing social and legal code of Islam and attempted to provide a more “modern” articulation of what they conceived to be the Islamic political theory.

Most if not all these figures have managed to achieve a certain amount of fame and recognition by the time they were in their early twenties.

Where are the equivalents of these figures in the contemporary Arab intellectual scene? If one can argue that the absence or shortage of such figures today is related somehow to the declining fortunes of Arab nationalism, then what about the Islamist intellectuals, at a time when Islamism is clearly on the rise?

Or, to frame the problem in somewhat broader terms: why has the influence of serious intellectual debate on public life in the Arab World decreased so drastically? In other words, what is the real phenomenon here: a lack of young intellectuals, or a decline in the importance and relevance of the intellectual debate in contemporary Arab societies? Or are these simply two sides of the same phenomenon, namely: the decline of intellectual life in the Arab World?

This indeed seems to be the case. As a result of the authoritarian predilections and practices of various Arab regimes, their control of the mass media and its use for purposes of propaganda, the Arab people seem to have simply lost interest in intellectual debates and confidence in the intellectuals involved, seeing them as being too ideological, westernized and servile to be credible.

Furthermore, the rise of the visual media in the mid 1990s, the proliferation of satellite networks and the introduction of the Internet, served to change the nature of the intellectual scene and debate all together. Indeed, it changed the very definition of the term intellectual. The intellectual, for most people, was now the TV journalist and news analyst, and, for the religious and faithful, the TV preacher.

This shift towards the visual media has served to break the government monopoly on news, and undermined official propaganda. But it also had the effect of discrediting many of the existing intellectuals. For by attempting to benefit from the relative freedom now available through these new channels, the older intellectuals appeared to contradict their earlier pro-regime stands that they had been forced to assume and ended up, therefore, sounding somewhat hypocritical.

Still, the figures that emerged to fill up the available positions were not exactly new. Rather, they were the previously marginalized or second-tier (and in some cases, second rate) members of the older generation itself now seizing a chance to be heard. The really new, not to mention young, voices to emerge remain quite few in number.

More importantly, however, the very nature of the visual media encouraged a more sensationalist and less sophisticated, if not downright shallow, analysis of the issues. The battle for ratings meant that the content and format of the debate needed to be packaged in such a way so as to appeal to the widest possible spectrum of viewers. Or, to be put things more bluntly, to the lowest common denominator.

All issues, no matter how serious, could now be tackled, from homosexuality and endemic corruption down to peace with Israel and the necessity of indigenous liberal reforms. But the format and conclusions of the programs involved were always framed in such a manner as to reflect and reinforce rather than challenge popular attitudes. For the inclusion of established religious and nationalist figures in these programs, ostensibly to keep the coverage balanced, and the soft treatment that they often received in comparison to that reserved to critical and liberal figures, ensured the eventual vindication of “our” traditional values vis-à-vis “imported” ones.

“Our” traditional values, in other words, have always been vindicated and defended, but never seriously challenged, not to mention clearly defined.

Suggesting solutions or alternative answers or approaches was not the point of the new intellectual exercise. The point was to feed a growing new appetite for existential consumption that has suddenly developed in the region, one that is not too different from the ritualistic aspects involved in traditional acts of worship. That is, the debate has become a self-justifying ritual, important in and of itself, not for what it can teach us or inspire in us.

The rise of the visual media, therefore, served to empower the different segments of Arab societies in a rather disproportionate manner, favoring the masses and the demagogues over the old intellectual elite, and drowning the few isolated liberal voices that have always been struggling to make themselves heard. It has also reinforced the more obscurantist or darker tendencies in the Arab World, facilitating the acceptance of illiberal and unenlightened interpretations of the faith.

But this should not be surprising really. It is indeed a natural byproduct of the fusion of a culture, which is still largely medieval in its basic outlook, and modern exogenously-derived technology. This is also the essence of the failure of the older generations of Arab intellectuals: by focusing on the political end of the challenges their countries faced, they neglected to tackle the more critical social, cultural and economic dimensions of the Arab predicament.

The element of “liberalism” that some detect in the scene, namely: the rising power of pop culture and its wanton disregard of traditional values, is not as “liberal” as it seems really. In fact, this phenomenon introduces the necessary guilt element that religious preachers and illiberal forces can use to attract more and more people, especially the young, to their way of thinking. On the short run, therefore, the proliferation of video clips and pop artists, serves more as a prelude, nay, an accompaniment, to the gradual, though rapid, implosion of the region, into an extremist and atavistic quagmire.

It is only when this pop culture begins to inspire new interpretations of the traditional and religious values that liberalism could be said to have truly gained a foothold in the Arab World. And it is only when this purely cultural liberalism is introduced into the scene that the fortunes of political liberalism could be judged as rising. So far, only haphazard attempts can be detected.

On a different note, and for the purposes of clarity, the intellectuals in our study shall be broadly defined to include poets, novelists, essayists, scholars and academics, journalists, news analysts, visual media pundits and, in some cases, even civil society and human rights activists and members of the political opposition, their academic and professional background notwithstanding. This broad definition is mainly intended to take note of the increasing importance of non-literary non-academic figures, especially journalists, pundits and activists in defining popular attitudes in the Arab World, and to dismiss a priory any claim to the effect that the conclusions reached here were somehow influenced by a narrow definition of the term intellectual.

But perhaps a closer look at the intellectual types shaping the Arab scene today will help drive this point home. This will be the subject of Chapter 1 of the study.

Chapter 2 will underline the difference in ethos between the formative times of the Arab World and modern times.

Chapter 3 will examine more closely the problem of access to print, visual and electronic media in the Arab World and its implications for the young generation of Arab intellectuals.

Chapter 4 will examine the problem of the lack of the necessary support institutions that could facilitate the emergence of new and young voices onto the intellectual Arab scene.

Chapter 5, on the other hand, will examine the contemporary intellectual scene itself with special focus on the contributions, or lack thereof, of the young Arab intellectuals.

Finally, Chapter 6 will include some conclusions and recommendations to the parties concerned with the future of the Arab World.

Chapter 1: The New Breed of Arab Intellectuals 

As we have noted in the Introduction, the contemporary intellectual scene in the Arab World seems to be dominated by new intellectual types, including journalists, visual media pundits, dramatists and civil society activists. Meanwhile, the role of the traditional intellectual figures, including the academics and the literary figures, including poets and novelists, seems to be on the decline.

So, who are these new intellectual types? And what does the decline in the importance and relevance of the traditional intellectuals exactly denote? This is what we shall briefly discuss in this chapter.

1) The News Analysts, a controversial profession

In the late 1970s and for a period of few weeks, Syrian public TV, the only TV station in the country at the time, embarked on a relatively bold venture. The news department appointed Mr. Marwan al-Sawwaf as a news analyst to appear on the evening news and offer his own take on various regional developments.

Mr. al-Sawwaf was a respected figure with a good reputation as a social and artistic critic and a commentator, and his analysis of the news was always in agreement with the standard government line. His style, on the other hand, was quite lively, especially when compared to the pale performance of the newscasters who simply read the news from a text handed down by the authorities.

This is exactly what doomed the experiment. For despite the fact that he never deviated from official line, Mr. al-Sawwaf did, nonetheless, radiate an image of independence and authority, not exactly the kind of image that the Baath Party was interested in fostering at the time (or even today). Authority and thought were indeed prerogatives only of the government and the Party.

For the liveliness of his style, then, Mr. al-Sawwaf was dismissed from his position as an analyst and was returned to his old job as presenter of a weekly program focusing on artistic and cultural activities, a position he held for many years afterwards. The analysts who were appointed to replace him simply read a text prepared for them by the authorities, and news analysis, which had briefly become an important part of the newscast, was once again a rather boring affair that very few people bothered to follow.

However, two decades later, and thanks to the introduction of satellite TV, news analysts became the foremost public intellectual figures not only in Syria but throughout the Arab World, their influence on public opinion rivaled only by that of popular religious preachers. One could indeed say that the news analysts are now the popular preachers of Arab nationalism.

Faisal al-Kassem of Al-Jazeerah fame is an excellent case in point in this regard.

Mr. Al-Kassem’s nationalism is all too evident both in the way he chooses to moderate discussions in his famous program, The Opposite Direction, and in the articles he writes for a variety of Arab newspapers.

Mr. al-Kassim’s brand of nationalism became very evident in his recent attack on Arab “neo-liberals,” as he calls them while comparing them to US neo-cons. For the real liberals, to Mr. al-Kassem, are those whom he describes as “nationalist-liberals,” that is, those who “amalgamate the struggle for democracy with the struggle for nationalism and with safeguarding the Arab values, interests and rights.”

As for the Neo-Liberals, Mr. al-Kassem claims that they are “often praised by Zionist circles” and “found their match in the American neo-cons.” The neo-liberals’ articles criticizing Islamic extremism are nothing more than “poisonous arrows aimed carefully at all that is Islamic,” and their criticism of Arab nationalism makes them forget that “their beloved Samuel Huntington… is a die-hard supporter of his own Western nation to the extant that he dreads other cultures,” while their denunciation of armed struggle, whether carried out by Hamas or Iraqi insurgents, is nothing but an attempt to appease “their Anglo-Saxon and Frank masters.”

“By Allah,” Mr. al-Kassem concludes, “with such liberals, who needs Zionists and fascists?”[1]

The times have NOT changed that much it seems. Arab intellectual nationalists continue to denounce their more pragmatic colleagues using the same old ornate and vindictive rhetoric. Now, however, they are doing it more loudly. The new media outlets and the ability to use them to circumscribe censors and transgress against traditional “red lines,” have thus far served merely as vents for growing Arab anger and frustration and as mirrors for lingering Arab confusion and worsening identity crisis. They are yet to be used to conduct a serious debate or dialogue on the nature of the intrinsic problems and developmental challenges currently facing the Arab World.

Meanwhile, the news analysts are for the most Arab nationalists, most of whom belong to the old generation of intellectuals, who managed to find new pulpits from which to preach their confused message and carry out their verbal assault against their perceived enemies.

The fact that Arab nationalists ended up dominating the news analysis scene was a simply byproduct of the fact that, except for Islamists, there was simply no other viable alternative. Arab political and social realities have never exactly been accommodating of liberal values and figures, a fact complicated by the way various regimes used the Arab-Israeli Conflict to consolidate their grips on power. Still, and on the surface of things, Arab channels could have arguable made some attempts to attract some liberal voices to their ranks. This would have made their coverage appear more balanced and would have given their operations a greater aura of objectivity and professionalism.

In truth, however, and considering the fact that liberal analysts, with their critical attitude vis-à-vis certain well-ingrained social values, and their greater openness to the West, and the US, coupled with their attempt at de-emphasizing the role of the Arab-Israeli Conflict on the regional scene, having such analysts around would have easily drawn the ire of the public and would have been used by the various regimes to dismiss the host channels as being part of an imperialist Zionist conspiracy. This is, in fact, the very accusation that Al-Hurra TV, for instance, the recently launched US-sponsored satellite TV channel, has to deal with at this stage.

As such, and from a business point of view, hiring liberals would not have made business sense. Hiring Islamists, on the other hand, would have made even less sense considering the explicit nature of entertainment programs hosted by the majority of Arab satellite channels. In fact, the only Islamist analysts out there work mostly for channels like Al-Jazeerah, which offer no entertainment programs.

Arab nationalists, therefore, seemed to have represented the only viable choice for the owners and operators of Arab satellite networks. This strategy seems to have worked. Most Arabs today get their news from watching satellite networks rather their official stations. So long as commentators and analysts continue to reflect popular resentments vis-à-vis the ruling regimes, and avoid falling into conflict with traditional values, the average Arab would continue to turn on their TVs and listen in to the likes of Faisal al-Kassem his anti-liberal views notwithstanding.

2) The other new intellectuals – Screenwriters

The rise of the visual media throughout the 1990s has given prominence to another variety of intellectuals, namely: screenwriters. This has become of particular importance, especially in Egypt and Syria, the two main competing poles of TV drama in the Arab World. In fact, screenwriters have come to occupy the position previously filled by playwrights and novelists, some are indeed novelists themselves who realized that they can reach a wider audience through TV and satellite networks.

Increasingly, TV dramas (and comedies) have become the new vehicles through which certain social (and political) concerns are voiced. Taboos, social and political, are being constantly challenged and, occasionally, broken, but, admittedly, on a much lesser scale and in a lesser brazen manner than could be achieved in novels, academic works and/or documentaries.

For instance, two years ago, a Syrian comedy series called Spotlights, which airs annually during the month of Ramadan, the pinnacle of the TV season in the Arab World, ran a spoof in one of its celebrated episodes of Alawite generals working in the security apparatuses in Syria. The episode showed both the generals’ limited grasp of reality and their brutality. Even though the protagonist was never identified as an Alawite, his accent made that fact clear to all viewers, especially those familiar with Syrian realities. The episode, then, has clearly broken a long-standing taboo in Syrian political and cultural life, and though, no crackdown ensued against the series’ producers, writers and actors, the level of criticism went down considerably in the following seasons.

Be that as it may, the very nature of TV dramas and sitcoms seems to limit both the scope and depth of the intellectual pursuit involved. You simply don’t want to lose your audience by being overly sophisticated or brazen. The sensibilities of one’s audience always have to be taken into consideration. In fact, political taboos might be easier to tackle in this regard than traditional values.

In another one of its episodes, Spotlights focused on the activities of popular religious preachers in the country showing how they feed on the credulity of the believers to enrich themselves. The episode was first aired on an Arab satellite network, yet the viewers in Syria watched it and many were dismayed by it. The ensuing popular outcry against the episode, especially the protestations of the country’s clergymen, convinced the directors of Syrian TV not to show the problematic episode on the local channel, and the actors involved in the “unholy” sketch were convinced to make a public apology to protect themselves against possible extremist attack. This took place in one of most staunchly secular countries in the Arab World.

It is clear then that, while we are witnessing a maximization of the reach of the intellectual exercise, this is clearly taken place at the expense of its daring and quality. Nonetheless, TV, newspapers and tabloids (and to a lesser extant the Internet) seem to have firmly established themselves as the arena where the contemporary Arab intellectual debate is taking place.

One such tabloid that often deals with serious and socially sensitive issues is the UAE-based Zahrat al-Khaeej, a weekly magazine dealing with women and family affairs and the usual celebrity-related news and rumors. The magazine is distributed all over the Arab World and is probably one of the most read Arab periodicals at this stage. The magazine format which combines coverage of the serious and the mundane is very telling in this regard.

Still, the whole issue would not have been as negative as it may seem at first (perhaps a sacrifice in depth and quality of analysis is important for a short period of time in order to reach and involve a wider audience), had there been alternative outlets out there for the serious debate (as is the case in western societies which, otherwise, tend to host a similar development), and had the message being constantly delivered not been so simplistic, nationalistic and even, at times, Islamist.

For regardless of the topics involved (homosexuality, marital infidelity, wife battery, government corruption, the Arab-Israeli peace process, etc.), the final word seems always to belong to the religious scholar representing the point of view of the Sharia, or to Arab pundit or official representing the traditional Arab nationalist stand.

Indeed, and as we have noted in the Introduction, the real beneficiaries so far of the rise of the visual media seem to be the Islamists, the nationalists and the traditionalists, who are currently fusing together into a single current, with the nationalist shedding out their secularist veneer and aspirations, and the Islamists conforming more to traditional modes by relinquishing calls for reform and renewal and providing religious justifications for existing societal norms and practices.

While Radio Sawa and al-Hurra Channel launched by the US seem to have been envisioned in order to compensate for this trend, the content so far provided through these new outlets remains too shallow and too tightly controlled by American interests to truly appeal to the intended audience, intellectuals and commoners alike. But then, these two channels are still in their early phase of their operation, and perhaps their programs will be more carefully designed in the future.

But, so far, no one has provided a specific vision or formula for how a liberal message and analysis of issues and developments can be delivered through Arab satellite networks. Until this issue is addressed, the rise of visual media will not be the positive development some observers have taken it to be, and the salvific potential of screenwriters as our new intellectuals, despite the fact that most of them are indeed secular minded, is pretty limited, if not nonexistent. TV dramas, video clips and tabloids, in their current format, are not likely instruments in the process of Arab salvation.

3) Academics, Novelists and Poets – a declining relevance

Students of modern Arab history, and surviving members of the older generation of Arab intellectuals, could tell many stories about the impact that books, whether academic or literary works (especially poetry, and more particularly poetic works dealing with the Palestinian Nakba of 1948 and its aftermath), used to have on the Arab cultural scene and the Arab public imagination back in the heydays of the Arab intellectual exercise in the mid-Twentieth Century. But recently, not a single book managed to stir up any serious controversy in Arab societies.

The death fatwa that was issued by an Egyptian Islamist against Syrian author Haidar Haidar in 2000 on account of the “atheistic” stands advocated in his novel “A feast for the seaweed” took everyone by surprise, because the novel was published in 1980, received no major acclaim at the time and was long forgotten. That is until the fatwa was issued.

The novels of Algerian-born author Ahlam Mustaghanmi, on the other hand, generated more of a sensation around the same period than an actual debate. It was Ahlam’s sensuous writing style, and not her chosen subject matter or her ideas, that was the real star of the show.

As for the academic works of Egyptian scholar Dr. Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid, well, they were known only within very small circles. Dr. Abu Zeid became a household name only after a court ruling separated him from his wife on the basis of a fatwa declaring him an apostate. In order to safeguard their marriage, the couple had to leave the country and go to the Netherlands where Dr. Abu Zeid is currently teaching at the University of Leiden. It is this story, rather than Dr. Abu Zeid’s works and ideas, that received attention in the media and the press. Very few articles, not to mention books, discussing or responding to the ideas advocated by Dr. Abu Zeid have so far appeared.

Is fear a factor here? One may wonder. It definitely is. But, perhaps a change in ethos reflecting the shift in favor of the visual media and tabloid culture is also involved. And perhaps the new generation of Arab intellectuals has other things in mind, or other handicaps that are preventing it from speaking out or being heard.

4) Rights and Civil Society Activists

The inclusion of rights and civil society activists in the ranks of Arab intellectuals should not come as a surprise really. For most of these activists do indeed possess suitable academic credentials and do belong to the older generation of Arab intellectuals. Moreover, no theory of citizen rights and duties could be advanced in an intellectual vacuum and by people who do not possess the necessary qualifications to offer an intellectual defense of their stands.

So, and despite the fact that most activists, such as Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the Egyptian rights activist, and his Syrian counterpart, Aktham Noaissah, prefer to write short articles and reports documenting abuses and advocating causes, rather than engage in more ambitious academic or literary endeavors, they are, nonetheless, proving to be an important force in the contemporary Arab intellectual scene, much more so than the traditional academic and intellectual types at this stage.

This is so because their articles and reports, not to mention their activities, such as demonstrations and sit-ins, seem better suited for the new media outlets, which by their very nature tend to be more driven by headlines and sound-bites than elaborate treatises and complex intellectual argumentation. Some activists are also working in these media and are involved in developing some of its more socially critical programs. But their efforts in this regard, and as we have noted in the Introduction, are offset by the format of these programs and the choice of the interviewed experts.

Nonetheless, the activists seem to represent the answer to the challenge posed by the dominance of nationalist and traditionalist forces over the contemporary Arab intellectual scene. But, and for the time being, civil society activism in the Arab World remains in the embryonic phase and youth involvement is still quite limited.

As such, the current intellectual scene in the Arab World continues to be dominated by nationalist and traditionalist types. The more liberal and secular figures tend to express themselves via drama and activism. But the dramatists’ mandate to tackle serious social and political issues is being constantly eroded, and the activists are only now emerging on the scene and they are unlikely to make a major difference on their own, due to the huge gap that separate their ideals from the realities surrounding them. They haven’t built a social context for their particular brand of activism yet, and theirs is an uphill battle in this regard.

Moreover, the effect of the visual media on the depth and complexity of the current intellectual debate might represent, as some would contend, a universal phenomenon at this stage and not restricted to the Arab World. Still, the reason why it is so problematic in the Arab World is the fact that as an “evolutionary step,” so to speak, it is not taking place as the culmination of a long and effective period of intellectual fermentation, as had been the case in the West. Rather, it seems to be sealing the fate of any viable Arab intellectual exercise, at least in the short run.

This is not a forgone conclusion, of course. But it does come as a warning sign that, unless certain actions are adopted to regenerate the intellectual debate in the Arab World and make it more socially and politically relevant, for example by involving more young voices in it and making it more focused and responsive to the developmental needs of Arab societies, we could be witnessing the degeneration of most parts of the Arab World into an atavistic quagmire governed by blind demographic forces.

In other words, the quest for the next generation of Arab intellectuals is, in fact, nothing less than a furtive, and perhaps even desperate, attempt at preventing the Talibanization of the Arab World. Except for the activists and some dramatists, the new breed of Arab intellectuals does not seem up to the task, and might, in fact, be more part of the problem at this stage than the solution.

Chapter 2: The Gap in Time

The authoritarian predilections of Arab governments, the rise of the visual media, the discrediting of figures belonging to the older generation of Arab intellectuals, and the further marginalization and isolation of the few liberal intellectuals are, as we have argued in the Introduction, some of the major factors involved in the shaping of the contemporary Arab intellectual scene.

Still, there other factors that need to be born in mind in this regard, including:

  1. The failure of the Arab nationalist experiment as well as that of the more particularistic alternatives, such as Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian nationalisms.
  2. The collapse of the Soviet Union, a development that undermined the credibility, legitimacy and appeal of left wing ideologies in the region, despite the fact that they had for long shaped the domestic intellectual debate, especially when combined with Arab nationalism.
  3. The failure of the reformist trends in Islam and of Islamism itself in their intellectual challenge to western culture and civilization even in the most stalwart strongholds of Islam, even in places such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where the current rise of militant Islamism seems to represent more of an atavistic reaction to a triumphant and continuously alluring westernization than a serious intellectual challenge to it.
  4. The decrepit state of the educational systems on all levels, primary, secondary and collegial, with its emphasis on rote memorization, its corrupt and inept administrative and teaching cadres, and their inability to accommodate the increasing numbers of students.
  5. The prevailing socioeconomic conditions in the Arab World which serve to encourage an internal “migration” from continual involvement in intellectual activities into more economically promising fields. Socioeconomic conditions also discourage existing intellectuals from engaging in activities that could jeopardize their main sources of income. Related to this is the phenomenon of brain-drain, which is manifested here in the fact that many existing intellectuals, even those belonging to the earlier generation, have already left the Arab World and took residence in Europe or the US, with the majority of younger intellectuals and professionals following, attempting or wishing to follow in their footsteps.
  6. The culture of political apathy fostered by the authoritarian practices of the ruling regimes, which brook little tolerance for any criticism of their rule, coupled with the growing sense of cynicism in existing intellectual circles, regarding the possibility of change, be it social or political, and practices or cronyism and nepotism existing in the various media outlets and institutions through which the current intellectual debate is taking place.

The following is a brief discussion of each of these factors:

1) The failure of nationalist ideologies

Perhaps the single most important reason for the failure of the Arab nationalist experiment was that it started out on the wrong foot to begin with: it assumed the existence of the Arab Nation and simply sought to bring about its political unity. That is, and from the very beginning, Arab nationalism failed to take under consideration existing cultural, social and economic differences between the various peoples and countries involved, and focused only on the political aspect of the issue.[2] Hence, the dissolution of the Arab nationalist movement into a power struggle between various ruling elites each seeking to become the leaders of the Arab Nation was indeed inevitable.

The Arab-Israeli struggle only served to complicate this situation, but it was not, as many still claim, the main reason for the failure of the Arab nationalist experiment. The 1967 War and the failure of the Nasserist dream came only as the shove that revealed that the boxer on the ropes was in fact already knocked out. In fact, he was not even really primed for the fight.

But the problem had manifested itself even earlier: in 1948 to be exact, during the “Israeli War of Independence.” Many analysts today, such Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma, interpret this war as having been more of an “Arab civil war” than an actual Arab-Israeli conflict. The main argument here seems to be that inter-Arab suspicions and fears had helped pave the way for declaring war against the fledgling Hebrew State, against the better judgment of many of the leaders and figures involved. It was the Arabs, it seems, and not the Israelis, who needed an external enemy to keep them from fighting against each other.[3]

Be that as it may, the failure of the Nasserist experiment, reinvigorated some of the existing particularistic alternatives, including the more pragmatic version of Syrian nationalism espoused, but never ideologically proclaimed, by the late Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad,[4] and the inevitable, in the circumstances, Palestinian nationalism whose fortunes were gradually, and perhaps, unfortunately, tied to that of PLO founder and leader Yasser Arafat.

But, and in the context of the former movement, the best that was achieved by Assad was de facto hegemony over Lebanon, a hegemony that is continuously being eroded today and has become more of a liability for the Syrian regime than an asset.[5] As for Palestinian nationalism, it seems to be taking its last breaths as we speak, following the recent passing away of its living symbol, and is gradually being replaced by an atavistic and militant form of Islamism. Still, the recent election of Mahmoud Abbas as the new Palestinian President, and his ongoing attempt at reforming the Palestinian Authority might help to create some kind of a balance between the two tendencies by infusing a necessary elements of pragmatism into the scene.

Egyptian, Lebanese and other particularistic nationalisms have not fared any better as political projects. That is, there are many people who would exhibit the “right” sentiments here and would insist on their Egyptianness, Lebaneseness and Moroccanness. But these remain only sentiments, meanwhile, the identity crisis inside each “Arab” country rages on. Translating this into an actual political platform have so far failed to attract popular support or influence the exiting power structures in these countries. The “Arab” identity crisis remains unresolved, and “Arabs” continue to be divided between all these nationalistic isms, among many other ideologies.

Moreover, the political failure of these nationalisms has, unsurprisingly perhaps, undermined their intellectual heritage as well. There is hardly any serious mention today, except in some very small and marginalized circles of old wannabes, of any of the names of the founding fathers of these ideological constructs. Sati’ Al-Husry, Antoun Saadeh, Michel Aflaq all seem irrelevant today. Their works don’t even get revisited anymore, not even by way of constructive criticism – it is as though they never existed.[6]

2) The failure of leftist ideologies

The fate of leftist ideologies was no less gloomy, seeing that as many of them, as is the case of Baathism and Nasserism, were, in fact, combined with Arab nationalism. Only communists and diehard Marxists maintained stances that rejected nationalism as a bourgeois institution.

Despite the fact that communist and Marxist intellectuals tended to be much more sophisticated than their counterparts and have managed, at one point, to inspire a certain dedicated following, especially among the young, politically, the movements were never allowed to grow. Arab regimes brooked no opposition of any kind to their rule, even when both regime and opposition subscribed to similar ideologies. In Syria, for instance, Communist opposition was either co-opted or crushed. There are currently two communist factions in the ruling coalition (the National Progressive Front) and hundreds of political prisoners who belong to outlawed communist groups.[7]

The failure of nationalist and leftist ideologies, however, does not mean that there are no faithful nationalists, Baathist, Nasserists, communists, and Marxists left in the Arab World. There are indeed too many of them. But they seem incapable of galvanizing popular support, or of modifying their discourse to reflect current global, regional and domestic realities. Their old debates and modes of discourse seem to have become meaningless and irrelevant, but nothing is emerging to fill the gap except for the unenlightened and simplistic discourse of salafi and wahhabi Islamists, combined with a vague yet strong attachment to Arab nationalism, one that is clearly divorced from any of its previous political manifestations.

The younger generation of Arab intellectuals can sense the weakness of the old ideologies and can see the results of the actions they inspired: they are indeed disillusioned, but they cannot completely let go, they have no alternatives and they don’t know how to work out alternatives on their own. Often, they simply seem ill-equipped for that.

3) The failure of intellectual Islamism

Disillusionment with the Arab nationalist dream became more pronounced in the aftermath of the 1967 War and the loss of the al-Aqsa Mosque to Israel. While this development served to introduce or revive the more particularistic nationalist alternatives noted above, for many people, the failure of Arab nationalism appeared as a failure of secular ideologies per se. The real alternative here was a return to the holy and the spiritual, that is, a return to Islam.[8]

The intellectual trend, of course, has been around from the very beginning, that is, from the time of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, if not the Napoleonic campaign in 1798, and has always had its adherents, ideologues and supporters. But, in the aftermath of the 1948 and 67 wars it gained that much more momentum becoming the one serious ideological challenge that Arab nationalist leaders had to contend with.

Although this trend has led to the establishment of a variety of movements and parties across the Arab World, its fortunes in Arab consciousness, nonetheless, became intimately intertwined with those of the Muslim Brotherhood movement and its challenge to the ruling regimes in both Egypt and Syria.

The well-documented political failure of this movement, however, has had an intellectual dimension as well that most analysts often fail to note. Indeed, the basic intellectual outlook of the movement, which still survives in Egypt, has not been elaborated on in any serious manner since the days of Sayyid Qutb (despite the occasional attempts by his brother Muhammad Qutb). For this reason, the bookshelves of Islamist bookstores became inundated with cheap salafi-wahhabi literature that fostered the proliferation of more atavistic, sectarian and all-in-all even less enlightened trends that seem to dominate the scene today, appealing to a wider audience that any intellectual circle has had in the contemporary Arab World.

Contemporary Islamist movements are not intellectual in nature and leave no chance for any serious intellectual debate. They are at best atavistic militant and messianic movements with nihilistic agendas,[9] and at worst, mere crime syndicates and cults seeking the enrichment and empowerment of their founders.

Intellectually these days, Islam in the Arab World offers no real food for thought. There are no current attempts meant to modernize the Islamic worldview and law, and traditions are accepted, advocated and regurgitated as they are. As a result of the failure of intellectual political Islam and continuing governmental crackdown on Islamist activities, and as a result of the rising power of popular preachers, working through the new media outlets, no room is left for novelty in the Islamic intellectual scene. Religion continues to constitute the one real enduring taboo in the Arab World.

As international media focus more and more on Islam these days, and on acts of terror committed in its name, breaking the taboos on discussing the nature and relevance of religious traditions today, becomes ever more hard for the new and young Arab Muslim intellectuals. This is so not only on account of the potential backlash they might have to face, but on account of the psychological difficulties involved a well. Reviewing your religious beliefs is difficult in itself, having to do it at a time when the communities involved seem to have zero tolerance for “heresy” and when the “civilized” world seems adamant on denigrating them, is tortuous.

Delving into a serious critique of Islam itself is an even harder endeavor by by all accounts.

4) The imploding educational systems

The decrepit nature of Arab educational systems and its implications for the future of the region was the subject of a lengthy discussion in the Arab Human Development Report, 2002. But, its importance and relevance for the phenomenon at hand is such that it does merit to be revisited here no matter how briefly.

One of the major problem facing the various Arab school systems, be it primary, secondary and/or collegial is that of skyrocketing enrollment sizes. There are simply not enough schools, not enough resources to build new ones (despite the high spending rates in this regard) and not enough places in existing schools to accommodate all. The number of teachers is too small in comparison, and the qualifications of these teachers are often dubious. Appointments to teaching and administrative positions in most countries continue to be based, for the most part, on cronyism, nepotism and parochial loyalties rather than actual teaching credentials. The teacher training programs and institutions themselves suffer from such handicaps.

As a result, and according to the Arab Human Development Report 2002, more than 65 million adults are illiterate, almost two thirds of them women, 10 million children ages 6 to 15 are out of school and enrollment rates in higher education are around 13%, in comparison to 60% in industrialized countries.

Moreover, schools in countries like Syria, Egypt and Algeria are so tightly controlled and so enmeshed in government propaganda that they often resemble in their structure and administrative hierarchy an actual security apparatus. It is not enough that the teaching methods are archaic and continue to depend on rote memorization and recitations, students and teachers often act on the assumption that their conversations are monitored and they could be held liable should they say the “wrong” thing.

This security climate, as Graham E. Fuller notes, is related to the fact that schools have been used in many Arab countries as fertile grounds for recruitment by various parties, especially, in recent years, Islamic parties.[10]

Meanwhile, teachers continue to intimidate students not only by means of threats of violence and actual use of physical punishment, but, at occasions, by threatening to report “bad” behavior to the authorities. For their part, students with “connections” make a mockery out of the educational system all together and run roughshod over all rules, by behaving as they like and moving from one grade to another in an automatic manner and regardless of their actual academic performance.

Laboratories and computer facilities are woefully lacking in most schools, and so are the teachers qualified to use them. Independent student organizations are non-existent or tightly-controlled, while teachers unions are all state-controlled and relatively useless and corrupt. Teacher salaries in most countries, as is the case with other state-employees, are mediocre and recourse to giving private lessons is common. Many are the instances when teachers actually intimidate their students into taking private classes with them.

In all this, the number of private schools is pretty limited and tend to cater mostly to the children of the political and economic elite. But even these schools have so far failed to produce a technocratic elite capable of filling the gap of leadership in most Arab countries. This is so, because the curricula in most of these schools are still state imposed and/or approved. Moreover, these schools do not solve the problem of the prevailing political culture that continues to encourage and foster apathy. If anything, the graduates of these elitist schools often go on to pursue their higher education and/or careers abroad.

From my own personal experience as a teacher at a couple of international schools in Damascus in the mid-90s, I could say that no less than 90% of the graduates from these schools go on to pursue their higher education abroad, with most declaring  their clear intention not to return despite their privileged position in the country. These people are not necessarily any more or less alienated than their middle class peers, but their privileged background affords them the opportunity to act out on their growing cynicism by leaving the country rather than fighting to reform it. Indeed, one of the most startling facts about the current ruling elite in the country, and this is definitely not a unique situation to Syria, is that the majority of their children study, work and live abroad. (So much for patriotism!)

In the meantime, very few Arab countries have so far adopted serious programs meant to rectify the crisis faced in the educational systems.

What sort of scholars, researchers, writers, poets and journalists can such a decrepit educational system produce within the context of prevailing political culture? The not so promising sort, to be sure. As for those few who do manage to preserve a creative spark in themselves, they often tend to pursue their schooling abroad and never return. What government oppression and incompetence and what collapsing economies and outmoded educational systems do not accomplish, the phenomenon of brain-drain does.

Is it any wonder, then, that the intellectual scene in the Arab World is so barren? What’s wondrous really is that there are still attempts and sparks glowing here and there, and though they are feeble and quick to fade, they continue to emerge.

The Language Barrier – Another Major Obstacle

One of the main handicaps of the new generation of Arab intellectuals, except those who come from a more privileged background, is their inability to speak a foreign language with sufficient proficiency. Again, the educational systems are mostly to blame here.

This situation severely limits the exposure of young Arab intellectuals to western philosophy and the contemporary intellectual scene in the West and other parts of the world. It also means that they are constrained to Arabic speaking channels as they attempt to follow up on regional and international developments. Their vista onto the world is, therefore, pretty narrow. The emotional and often one-dimensional nature of news coverage and analysis carried out by the Arabic satellite networks, newspapers, and even, in most cases, Internet sites, deprive the new generation of Arab intellectuals of potentially important sources of knowledge and intellectual development. The picture becomes more bleak when one takes into consideration the limited amount of books translated to Arabic every year. Indeed, the Arab Human Development Report 2003 asserts that less than 4.4 books per million are translated to Arabic every year, in comparison to 519 books in Hungary and 920 books in Spain. The picture is that dismal.

So, even though, some might argue that knowledge of second languages may not be that high in many western countries, such as the US for instance, the situation is not the same really. There is an active and continuous translation movement taking place in the US, especially with regard to other western languages. The fact that not so many books are translated from Eastern to Western languages, is, in part, a reflection of how little significant works are composed in these languages these days. The brilliant minds of the East, and not only the Arab World, are increasingly choosing to express themselves in Western languages, where the intellectual exercise is less hindered and dangerous and pays a proportionately higher dividend for those who engage in it, both morally and materially.

5) The Economic Factor – Intellectual Migration and Brain-Drain

One of the most devastating factors that can be witnessed today all over the Arab World is the phenomenon of the “migration” of the brightest minds into more commercial and business related activities and pursuits. The main drive behind this factor is a combination of fear and need. Intellectual pursuits in the Arab World are neither safe nor economically viable there days.

But this phenomenon, so argues Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution, is not unique to the Arab World.[11] Many countries in Eastern Europe, for instance, including Russia itself, are experiencing a similar phenomenon and for mostly the same reasons.

But of course, this comparison has its limits, for there is a tremendous difference between the economic conditions prevailing in Russia and Eastern Europe and those prevailing in the Arab World. The move towards free market economics in Russia and Eastern Europe has created many opportunities for involvement in business activities. But in most Arab countries no such move exists. If the intellectually-inclined classes in the Arab World are opting for business related ventures these days, it is mostly their economic need that is driving them in this direction, more so than the lure. They are indeed being pushed not pulled in that direction.

Fear of persecution is another factor that cannot but be considered as well. The continuing resort to authoritarian practices by Arab regimes is encouraging members of the younger generations, that would have otherwise felt more comfortable engaging in intellectual pursuits, into heading towards safer ventures and avenues.

Considering the decrepit nature of the educational systems in the Arab World, however, the net result is negative across the board: inadequate, or potentially inadequate, intellectuals are moving to become inadequate, or potentially inadequate, professionals. Both the economy and the intellectual scene are being negatively affected.

The brightest minds, of course, are leaving the country and the region all together and moving to the relative safety and prosperity of the West where they are enriching the academic and cultural lives in their chosen countries. This phenomenon is described by the Arab Human Development Report 2003 as a “reverse development aid.” Sarcasm galore! Meanwhile, the Arab World continues to lose its brightest minds at prodigious rates. Over 25% of 300,000 first degree graduates from Arab universities in 1995-6 emigrated. Between 1998 and 2000 more than 15,000 Arab doctors migrated.

It is relevant here to note as well that most of the surviving members of the older generation of Arab intellectuals either live or spend a considerable amount of time abroad, or are supporting themselves by depending on sales of their works abroad (to migrant communities) or by partaking in activities sponsored by international organizations in their home countries. Those who largely depend for their livelihood on internally generated income, by working for a state newspaper or cultural institution, are often constrained by their desire to maintain their jobs from involvement in “controversial” activities. Self-censorship for them is a must for survival.

This handicap, indeed, seems to disproportionately plague the younger generation who have not yet made enough recognition to generate regional and international interest, and hence, support.

Young intellectuals even have to factor into the equation the necessity of continued family approval and, hence, financial support. This provides an additional impetus for self-censorship as well. Indeed, many young intellectuals find it difficult to be overtly critical of certain traditional values or certain political issues for fear upsetting and incurring the disapproval and wrath of their families.

6) Fear, apathy, cronyism and nepotism

Fear and apathy are the natural byproducts of many decades of authoritarian rule, security crackdowns and internecine wars. While many regimes have managed to achieve stability in their countries and secured their hold on power, the price for that was very high indeed. Arab societies today are more like miasmic swamps than flower gardens, and while decay could mark the beginning of rebirth, this denotes only a possibility not an inevitability. In order for the rebirth to take place much work needs to be done. The young Arab generations need to stand up to their own ingrown fear and shake-off their weighty apathy.

Naturally, this is easier said than done. Habits of the mind cannot be changed overnight. It has been years now since the introduction of the Internet, the most censorship free medium in the World, into Arab countries, and still, very few voices and initiatives have so far emerged to take advantage of it. If the few sites that have emerged out there managed to receive notice and make an appreciable impact, this is mostly on account of how stagnant the Arab intellectual scene had been for so many years.

The most important outlets, however, where some inroads by the younger generation would have been expected, are still the print and visual media. Yet, and despite the fact that many news faces did emerge, the scene of news analysis and editorialization remains heavily dominated by figures in their late fifties and sixties.

Asked to brainstorm and provide the names of the top news analysts and social and political commentators in the region, a group of young Arab professionals and intellectuals provided the following names, only 2 of whom are below 40, with most being in their 50s and 60s: Jubran Tweini (Editor of the Lebanese daily an-Nahar), Rajih Khouri, Samir Qasir and Nabil bu Mounsef (opinion columnists and analysts in an-Nahar), Chibli Mallat (Lebanese activist and analyst), Yasin al-Haj Saleh, Muhammad Firdos Atasi, Fayiz Sarah, Michel Kilo and Shaaban Abboud (independent Syrian analysts and commentators who publish in a variety of Arab newspapers and internet sites), Samir Attallah and Nabil Amr (opinion columnists and analysts for the Saudi-funded Arab international daily Asharq al-Awsat), Nahlah Shahhal and Dalal al-Bizri (columnists in the Arab London-based daily al-Hayat), Faisal al-Kassem, Sami Haddad and Ahmad Mansour (host their own political TV programs in the independent Qatari satellite channel al-Jazeerah), Matilda Farajallah (hosts her own program focusing on women and social affairs on the Arab satellite channel Heya), Zaven Kouyoumdjian and Rita Khouri (hosts their own talk-shows on the Lebanese channel Future TV).

Fear and apathy on the part of the new generation, not to mention lack of qualifications on account of the decrepit nature of the educational systems in most Arab countries, do count here as well. But, so do practices of cronyism and nepotism, or so we are told by almost every young intellectual who tried to get employment in any of the existing Arab newspapers or satellite channels.

Although hard data to back these allegations will be hard to present without some fieldwork, the accusations should not be treated lightly or dismissed offhand. Indeed, and for decades now, and due to the concern of the various ruling elites in the Arab World with maintaining their control over state institutions, appointments on the basis of loyalty and family ties have long become the most logical path for advancement.

Meantime, the private sector continues to be dominated by family interests. The Arab World has not yet allowed much room for the development of real functioning corporate entities where advancement can take place on the basis of a system of meritocracy rather than kinship or loyalties. This seems to reflect the current state of socioeconomic and civil development of Arab societies rather than the existence of some kind of conspiracy. Corporate entities, in the commercial or civic sense, cannot develop in a vacuum. The socioeconomic and psychological structure of the society itself needs to allow for their emergence.

Taking this into account, it should not be surprising then to hear that the existing Arab satellite networks and media outlets have not proven immune to practices of cronyism and nepotism. Considering the fact that most of the channels are owned by members of various ruling regimes and royal families, or close affiliates thereof, the contrary situation would have been the more surprising really.

And so it goes.

What all the above factors seem to indicate in effect, when they are considered together, is the fact that the Arab World seems to be currently going through a completely different set of geopolitical and psychological conditions than those that prevailed in the mid Twentieth Century, with the main ethos dictated more by a growing sense of failure, frustration, disappointment, cynicism, anger and even envy vis-à-vis internal, regional and global developments.

The Arabs of today, intellectuals and “commoners” alike, are products of failure and disillusionment on many different fronts and with regard to the many different causes that they have espoused over the preceding decades. Indeed, the predominant majority of Arab observers seem to be quite aware of that, but, and as has been their want before, they tend  to attribute the causes of their failure to external actors and/or to their decrepit, tyrannical and corrupt regimes. No serious consideration has so far been given to the role of the traditional Arab culture in its political, economic and social manifestations. No attempt at assessing the intellectual legacy of the previous generation has been made, and no systematic analysis of the nature of the current challenges facing the Arab World has so far been carried out. In fact, the now famous Arab Human Development Reports themselves have been produced for the most part by surviving members of the previous generation, such as the series advisor Clovis Maksoud, the one time head of the Arab League.

The new kids on the block, then, have so far produced nothing. Why? How do the factors noted above actually prevent the emergence of an active and competent generation of young Arab intellectuals? These are the questions that we shall attempt to answer in the following chapters.

Chapter 3: The Question of Access

“Opportunities were scarce, and you had to have some relative or connection to get the job. Then you had to deal with the fact that there was no one to train you, and with editors and administrators who were clearly not qualified to be in the positions they were in, and who doled assignments on a commission basis… To preserve one’s dignity and be true to one’s principles, operating on a freelance basis and publishing in regional magazines and newspapers were the best option. For me, this means that I am still not a member of the [Journalists’] Union, or any other union for that matter, and not entitled to any of privileges. On the other hand, I do maintain my independence and my self-respect.” Souad, a 33-year old Syrian journalist on her personal experiences.

As we have repeatedly noted earlier, the visual media, have become the new stage for the intellectual debate in the Arab World. The proliferation of commercial satellite channels and the desire to attract new audiences and fill up timeslots have served to push the limits imposed on freedom of expression and have allowed for a more free handling of certain issues previously deemed too sensitive, if not downright taboo. These include certain political issues, such as open criticism of government corruption and inefficiency, lack of internal reforms and Arab policies vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli Conflict, as well as certain social issues, such as the role of the Shariah in contemporary Arab societies, women rights, and even homosexuality.

Nonetheless, the rise of the visual media, as we have said, has also fed the process of decline of the quality of the intellectual debate taking place.

Conversely, the visual media by their very nature tend to favor the young. As such, and since much of the intellectual debate is taking place through the visual media these days, one would expect the intellectual interlocutors to be, for the most part, young. However, this is not exactly the case.

Despite the fact that many of the “serious” talk-shows and news analysis programs are indeed hosted by young (and handsome) men and women, the real content of the programs is prepared by a team headed by older figures, and the great majority of the guest experts are indeed above 50. When exceptions are found, they are usually encountered in programs meant to tackle social issues.

Some may argue that the situation may not be that different in other parts of the world. But the point here is that, in the Arab world, this phenomenon marks yet another field from which young Arab intellectuals are being excluded and yet another lost opportunity for the empowerment of the young.

Another failing of the visual media in the Arab World, therefore, is that it has so far failed to empower the young.

Zein TV – a channel for the youth by the youth?In 2001, a new TV station owned by the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was launched. The new channel’s main objective was to focus on the concerns of Arab youth and reflect the Arab youth culture. It was also meant to be run by a relatively young staff. Most presenters were indeed young people in their late teen and early twenties.

But if anybody expected that the channel will serve to raise any of the serious issues and challenges confronting Arab youth today, issues such as joblessness, changing social and cultural mores, gender relations and emigration, they were soon disappointed. The channel focused mostly on music and trivia. The few news programs consisted of young presenters reading prepared texts to the camera in the traditional manner, no attempts at analysis was made, and no social programs of any consequences were presented.

If the channel was meant to simply reflect the existing intellectual scene among the young, then it has succeeded to a great extant. If, on the other hand, it was meant to help stimulate intellectual dialogue among them and to empower them, than it has drastically failed. Being Lebanese (for the most part, Dubai does have a stake here as well), and considering some of the relatively serious debates that do occasionally take place on the campuses of various Lebanese universities, Zein administrators could have easily found some talented young voices to help stir up a few healthy debates. But, perhaps that was not the intention to begin with. Perhaps the intention from the very beginning was simply to provide a commercial entertainment channel aimed at the more youthful end of the demographic spectrum.

Be that as it may, Zein seems to have quickly lost its appeal, becoming just another satellite network out there focusing on music and entertainment.

Unsurprisingly, the situation is even worse with regard to traditional print media. Very few new voices are emerging. Publishers, for economic purposes and out of their own sense of cynicism, suspicion and perhaps even disdain for the young, still cling to the old and established names and would much rather reprint older works, even if they collected dust on the bookshelves of the dwindling number of bookstores in Arab countries, than attempt to invest in young authors and ideas. Indeed, and for what seems like an eternity now, not a single attempt has been made to promote the writings of young authors or to arrange for book signing events. In fact, organizing such events continues to be a rare occurrence even in the case of established authors.

The whole book trade, of course, and as the Arab Human Development Report 2003 has pointed out, is going through some rather tough times. In short, sales are low, print runs limited and prices high. Strict censorship rules imposed by the various monitoring institutions have joined to make the picture more bleak. Even translated books are subject to censorship and the titles are often commercial: a few self-help books, a few critiques of US policies and Zionism, and cook and travel books, for the most part.

The only flourishing book market, thanks to Saudi funding (official and private), is that of Islamic books. But even here, the emphasis is on reprints of centuries old works and more recent commentaries on them, rather than new intellectual attempts.

Even Islamist intellectuals, it seems, have no place. Only the most puritanical defenders of the faith are welcome.

Consider the case of the Egyptian Islamic evangelist, Amer Khalid, whose booklets and audio and video tapes are flooding the Arab markets and whose TV program on the Islamic satellite Channel Iqra[12] continues to draw huge audiences from all over the Arab World.

Mr. Khalid is by all means a traditional TV preacher whose main aim is to generate a feel good climate among the believers and to preach traditional faith as is but in manner more accessible to the average audience. His soft-spoken style and his modern disarming appearance (he always appears wearing a suit and a tie) come in sharp contrast to the usual fire-and-brimstone style of sermonizing that the puritanical figures prefer. Indeed, this has earned Mr. Khalid the ire of many Islamic extremists.

In fact, the extremist website of Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa (, has a special section on “Amer Khalid and his deviations” featuring articles and a full length book detailing the various transgressions of Mr. Khalid. And what are these transgressions?

Well, it seems that Mr. Khalid had referred to a traditional story regarding Caliph Omar I, one of the Prophet’s companions and a most revered figure by Sunni Muslims, according to which the Caliph himself used to distributed alms to poor members of the Christian and Jewish community. But, the operators of the site contend, the Qur’an specifies quite clearly how the alms should be distributed, and it makes no mention of giving alms to Christians and Jews.

Mr. Khalid also “consistently” mispronounces the name of a well-known medieval compiler of prophetic traditions, referring to him as an-Nissa’i, instead of an-Nassa’i, thus betraying his ignorance. He also speaks of the necessity of taking a step nearer to God, as if God is a physical presence constrained in time and place. And how dare he say that people have the freedom of worship, when God himself said that the only acceptable religion to Him is Islam? And so on.

Mr. Amr Khalid, a former engineer by profession, is merely trying to give a more benign image of Islam and make a living (if not a killing) out of it, as is the case with most if not all TV preachers. He does not attempt to challenge any of the basic creeds or modes of worship, and he rarely ventures into politics. His indeed is a very apologetic ethos for traditional Islam. Still, even he gets condemned whenever he is perceived to make the smallest mistake.

Be that as it may, if the only obstacle standing in the way of publishing has been that of access, one would have imagined that the Internet would provide a much needed and welcome solution. One would expect that, with the introduction of the internet into the scene, government attempts at controlling it notwithstanding,[13] more and more intellectual initiatives, championed by the young and aspiring intellectuals out there, would have emerged. Instead, young intellectuals seem to be missing here as well.

If anything, and judging by the few new and young voices that emerged on sites such as Islam On Line (an Islamist site) and Maaber (a secular site dedicated to non-violence), the Internet has served to underline the fact that access is not the only problem here.

What other factors are at play here then?

The answer could be summarized in two words: knowledge and initiative. Young Arabs, for the most part, are neither interested in nor capable of partaking in serious intellectual debates of the issues shaping their lives.

The knowledge gap that separates the Arab World from the rest of the world, which is, for the most part, the product of decrepit educational systems and lack of R&D investments, is indeed that serious: it did not simply engender a lack of a qualified professional class, but of a “qualified” intellectual class as well.

Some would point to a similar problem plaguing the democratic societies of the West, where pop and tabloid culture seem to be replacing serious intellectual debates as well. But the situation is not the same really. The Arab World is indeed at a considerable disadvantage here.

For the West has witnessed a centuries-long process of self-analysis and intellectual development, and despite the dominance of pop culture today, serious intellectual debate still takes place in the halls of academia and is still influential in shaping policies and popular attitudes. This has not been the case in the Arab World in recent times, despite the existence of serious existential threats to Arab identity as a result of having so many issues still unresolved and unaddressed.

So, first modernity and now pop culture – the Arab World, it seems, continues to be on the receiving end of developments in the West, and is always caught unawares and unprepared whenever that happens. Indeed, the only thing it seems capable of doing in this regard is to emulate and mimic, adopting a layer of conformity to modern values and standards, while harboring underneath a very traditional, even medieval, cultural ethos and values. This is in brief the essence of the contemporary Arab predicament.

Combined with a sense of fear and apathy, that runs as deep as the authoritarian predilections of society, on both the political and cultural levels, and a total lack of any serious initiatives and institutions meant to empower the young (as we shall see in the next chapter), the failure of the visual media revolution in the Arab World to grant more access to the young and to invest in them comes as a clear indication that the problem is not simply or only related to failures of the various regimes, there is something deeper than this at work here, something cultural.

Indeed, the patrimonial nature of the prevailing culture seems to be holding young Arabs hostage to the ideologies and causes of the older generations. In this scheme of things, young Arabs are not meant to bring anything intrinsically new, and are only meant to follow in the footsteps of their fathers. For the fathers and grandfathers are but prophets and the children disciples.

But Arabs, their numbers notwithstanding, are divided into 22 countries with disproportionate allocation of wealth and resources. The parochial groups in control of each of the Arab countries, that is the political, economic and social elite, are simply too small and narrow to allow for the possibility of young and serious reformers to emerge in their midst, offsetting to an extant the negative effects of the patrimonial culture.

Hence even those institutions that grew independently of governmental controls, simply because many of them were established and/or are operated from European bases, seem to suffer from the selfsame problems that plague Arab governmental institutions. It is the same patrimonial culture that is dictating the ethos here as well. 

Maaber and the trap of elitism  (

In 2000, a small team of young Damascene intellectuals launched what is probably the most intellectual Arab site on the Internet today, with its emphasis on philosophy, psychology and sociology, and on translating the works of notable modern western and eastern scholars. Yet, and despite its highly sophisticated content, the site developed a relatively faithful readership from across the world, and currently receives over 1,000 visitors/day. The majority of visitors come from various parts in the Arab World, especially: Syria, Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, Oman and Qatar. Additionally, a large number of visitors from western countries, mostly Arab émigrés, are involved as well.

The site, however, is clearly apolitical, perhaps even asocial. That is, its main focus is on philosophy (especially eastern philosophy), mythology, psychology, and related topics. The only window open for political intrusions is the section dedicated to non-violence and to the writings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., among others. The section dedicated for poetry, memoirs and short stories seem to offer occasional opportunities to wax political as well.

This policy adopted by the Maaber Team does not necessarily reflect fear of the authorities as much as it does disdain for politics. The political discourse, according to the founders of Maaber, tends to be too superficial as to trivialize the issues involved, moreover, and in the context of politics in the Arab World, it tends to be often controlled by demagogues and religious zealots. In a sense then, a real intellectual has no place dabbling in politics these days. The challenge that needs to be met first is to expand one’s awareness of one’s own humanity so as to avoid the pitfalls of superficial discourse on all levels.

This is an intellectual message par excellence, with a spiritual/psychological underpinning as well. One cannot but respect it.

However, three things are clear here: Maaber, in its current format and philosophy, seems to be preaching to the converted for the most part. That is, it does not seek to breach the divide between the “enlightened” and those unfortunate souls who may not know how to reach this “enlightenment” on their own. Moreover, as things stand now, Maaber does not provide a suitable forum for serious discussion of the Arab World’s social, and even cultural, ills.

Finally, and as far as attracting young minds to the “cause,” the Maaber site, considering the limited number of young contributors to it (that is, those below 40)* provides additional proof that there is indeed a serious problem of quality with regard to the intellectual exercise in the Arab World and the inability and unwillingness of young people to be involved in it.

* We have also to note that the majority of these young contributors publish mostly poems and short stories rather than essays, studies or analytical pieces. On a related note, I happen to be one of these poetic contributors, although I did at one occasion publish an article in the non-violence section in which I was critical of the violent character of the 2000 intifadah. The piece received a lot of angry responses at the time, marking what was probably the most politically charged debate in the history of the site’s chat room. The piece and the debate, however, serve to underscore the age-old maxim of sorts: professing a certain belief is easy, the difficulty lies in living up to it. For though none of the people taking part in the debate actually advocated violence, some seemed to justify it somehow by explaining how recourse to it does indeed represent a legitimate option and merits our support. This, in effect, was a defeat of the very message of nonviolence. This whole development was very disheartening, to say the least.

Chapter 4: A Little Help Would Be Nice, But… 

…little or no help is forthcoming.

The lack of support institutions meant to empower the young is another major reason for the lack of representation by young voices and figures in the contemporary Arab intellectual scene. Young people, especially when plagued by fear and apathy, are not going to emerge on their own. They need help, they need to be coaxed out. Yet, there does not seem to be any serious program out there meant to encourage youth participation in public life, especially in the cultural and political field.

Whatever few programs and support institutions out there seem mainly concerned with sports. Hence the existence in many Arab countries, such as Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Yemen, Lebanon, Algeria and more recently even Iraq, of Ministries of Youth and Sports. The dismal achievements of Arab athletes in such international contests as the Olympics, for instance, speak volumes of the efficacy of these institutions.

The various cultural centers that the governments operate in countries like Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Algeria, on the other hand, have no programs specifically aimed at youth. The most ambitious activities that these centers seem to champion is to hold various talks by national or visiting lecturers and scholars, focusing mostly on the Arab nationalist struggle against the Zionist enemy, with some leeway given for scientific topics.

Another problem is the lack of strong and active scholarship and fellowship programs meant to support the few young talented individuals who continue to excel despite all the difficulties and all the shortcomings of the Arab educational systems. The few scholarships that do exist are often distributed on the basis of loyalties and connections rather than merits.

Internships are more or less an unknown concept in most Arab countries, due mostly to the lack of places where someone can do an internship. Think tanks in the Arab World are all too few, and academic institutions too tightly controlled to allow for the flexibility of hosting interns.

Poetry, short stories and essay contests are a rarity, and when they do take place, they tend to be mismanaged from beginning to end: announcements regarding contests are not widely distributed, rewards are usually too symbolic, the criteria are not clearly stated, and results are often manipulated, unless the party responsible for the contests was some international cultural center or program.

Indeed, the international cultural centers in the Arab World (French, German, Italian,  Dutch, Danish, Spanish, Russian, American, etc.), do fill some of the gap here, not only by offering language courses, but sometimes music and art courses as well. The centers also operate film club, provide scholarships to their brightest students and encourage cultural exchange activities. The publishing of the Arab Human Development Reports have also encouraged these centers to focus more on youth-related activities, and to occasionally attempt to support indigenous reform movements as well, by inviting reformists to give talks at their premises and arranging meetings between reformist and interested donor groups.

Commiserating with these centers and their directors, however, does have its price, as it brings with it accusations of cooperating with foreign powers and serving foreign interests.

Still, for now, international cultural centers and embassies seem to be the only supporters of young intellectuals and reformists in the Arab World. This is not enough, of course, and, once again, only the more privileged few seem to benefit the most here. Taking courses at the centers is not exactly inexpensive. Moreover these centers operate, for the most part, in the main Arab cities, often the capitals. But, what’s a lower middle-class young man/women from a small rural town to do?

Chapter 5: The Tentative Protagonists

Boredom “Water Out!” – Two words written over

a faucet that allows a drop or two to

escape from time to time

leaving behind an echo that resurrects

much tension. Light bulbs that do not

light and wayward cigarette stumps in

every corner, and in between

the beds, haphazardly organized, where

young bodies exchange speeches on

awareness and future

projections, on the European

and Amrican west, and much

much on human rights. – It is the same

old despair for the same old

reasons, and the same old laughs

stabbed with drunken


Razan Izziddin (25)

November 2003


The fact that there is a lack of young Arab intellectuals on the scene, especially talented ones, does not mean that there is absolutely no one. In fact, there seems to be plenty around, when one undertakes a serious search for them. It is, then, the question of reaching out to these people, and of attempting to understand where they stand on a variety of issues and assessing the quality of their knowledge and comprehension of these issues that was somewhat problematic.

The approach adopted here and the conclusions reached will have to be described, therefore, as being more impressionistic than empirical in nature. No serious poll has indeed been taken and there are definite gaps in knowledge and exposure with regard to the necessarily intricate nature of the intellectual scenes involved.

An attempt was, nonetheless, made at classifying young intellectuals into two main groups: the quietists and the activists. The differences between the two are mostly related to the latter’s group willingness to run the political and social risks involved in assuming a public stand on a whole variety of issues.

The quietists, on the other hand, seem to be more cynical about the possibility of the intellectuals making a difference in their societies at this stage, seeing how cut off from both the grassroots and regimes they currently happen to be. Some quietists even doubt the very ability of an intellectual debate to make an impact on society at this stage, due to its growing radicalization.

Still, and as strange as it might sound at first, some activists do indeed betray a similar outlook, and would, therefore, ascribe their activism to a sense of duty, or the  simple desire to live up to their potential and act out on their natural impulses, rather than actual conviction in the viability of the intellectual activism at this stage. In other words, some activists seem to have simply stumbled unto activism, rather than embrace it as an “ideological” choice.

As such, then, this quietist/activist dichotomy is not as rigid at it might seem at first, and it is definitely not meant as a reflection of a moral value judgment. The quietist/activist dichotomy is only meant to highlight certain differences in attitudes and convictions.

For this reason, the analysis below holds true for both activists and quietists, unless clear distinctions are made. The main reason that this attempt at differentiating between the quietists and activists was made is because this distinctions further explains the seeming shortage of talented young minds and voices in the contemporary Arab intellectual scene. In other words, lacking faith in the viability of the intellectual exercise at this stage, the quietists are simply not coming forward, they are not interested in advertising their presence on the scene, and are content with the recognition they get in their own small and unofficial circles.

Probing the intellectual scene of any country or culture is a very challenging task indeed. But the task is even more difficult and daunting when the scene under consideration belongs to the underground, to the marginalized and increasingly cynical segments, as is the case here.

For this reason, and in order to be able to maneuver in this world without being lost, certain critical issues were chosen as the main subject for the pursuit. These issue were chosen on account of their importance and relevance in the shaping of contemporary realities in the Arab World. For indeed, no intellectual will be worthy of the name if he/she has no position or opinion on the issues that seem to shape life and reality all around him/her.

Considering the causes that have been identified in Chapter 2 – especially the ones pertaining to the failure of the nationalist, leftists and even intellectual Islamist ideologies, and bearing in mind the current US involvement in the region, the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process, the continuing rise of Islamic extremism, and the ongoing European and American attempts at bringing the region into the emerging global order, we are going to examine the views and opinions of young Arab intellectuals on eight critical issues, chosen due to their actual or perceived relevance in the Arab intellectual scene. They are:

1)      The very phenomenon of the lack of young voices in the contemporary intellectual debate.

2)      The Arab nationalist experience and the necessity of a comprehensive Arab internal reform.

3)      The nature of the Islamic legacy and the role of religion, Islam in particular, in society.

4)      The Arab-Israeli Conflict.

5)      The collapse of the Soviet Block and the end of the Cold War.

6)      The US role in the world.

7)      Globalization.

8)      Perceptions of sexuality.

Of all these issues, the last one might indeed raise some eyebrows, but its relevance will be demonstrated in the appropriate section below.

Iyyad, a not so typical quietist

This is a snippet of a conversation I had in 2002 with Iyyad, a 32 year old man from central Syria. Iyyad is an electrical engineer by training, but he never really used his degree. Instead, he operates a small business in Damascus with the help of his two brothers.  

Ammar: Who’s your favorite author?

Iyyad: Herman Hesse without a doubt.

Ammar: How come?

Iyyad: Because I found the idea of the People of the Sign, which he discusses in his novel Damian, quite intriguing, and compelling.

Ammar: What does that mean exactly?

Iyyad: Well, I believe that change is the prerogative of the elite, of the People of the Sign. Until we have enough of them in our society, change is unlikely to occur, and should it occur somehow, it wouldn’t be for the best. It wouldn’t be the kind of change you and I would embrace, it would not be the kind of change that will set us free, you see, in the social sense.

Ammar: So, do we have enough of the People of the Sign in our midst?

Iyyad: Not yet.

Ammar: Do you consider yourself one of them?

Iyyad: Not sure about that.

Ammar: How about me?

Iyyad: You’re too rash and immature Ammar. I don’t think you’ll ever qualify.

Ammar: Woe is me!

Iyyad: Woe indeed.

1. Brother/Sister, where art thou?

“I have several volumes of poetry that still go unpublished. More recently, I have written a book chronicling the history of my little birth-village in Palestine, but I cannot find a single publisher so far who would consider the literary merit of the work and make a decision to publish it on this basis. It’s all about commerce. No one wants to take a chance, or look at publishing as a joint venture. They expect you to pay for publishing costs and they expect you to do your own promotion, otherwise the book will sit on a bookshelf somewhere. Some of the villagers have offered to finance the publication of the book, but, as you know, that’s only half of the problem.

Yasser, late 30s, a Palestinian journalist living in Lebanon.  

For most young Arab intellectuals today, the phenomenon of their lack of representation on the intellectual scene seems to be a real one indeed.

To some, especially those who are relatively older (late 30s early 40s), this situation seems to come mostly as a reflection of the quality of contributions so far made by young intellectuals. Indeed, for the protagonists of this view, the burden seems to lie squarely on the shoulders of the young intellectuals themselves: it is up to them to demonstrate their worthiness of the positions they are aspiring to hold and the opportunities they are aspiring to have. Young intellectuals cannot expect to be given that of which they have yet to prove worthy.

To an extant, however, this position does beg the question of how to improve the quality of contributions made by the young intellectuals when they are being constantly denied the opportunity to air their views and engage in free debate thereof, and, thus, be, continuously challenged to improve the quality of their arguments. This position also fails to take under consideration the lack of support institutions meant to empower the young by providing new learning and training and attempting to compensate for the shortcomings of the educational systems.

Nonetheless, it does ring true on two counts: there is, as we have noted earlier, a certain knowledge gap at work here, and there is as well the question of apathy and quietism. What else could be stopping young intellectuals from taking more advantage of the relative freedom afforded by the Internet, for instance? Expense? This can easily be alleviated through sharing and cooperation.[14] Lack of access? Internet cafés are springing up everywhere in major cities, and, in many Arab countries, the internet has begun to penetrate into the rural areas as well, often as part of government-led or encouraged initiatives.

The reality is there seems to be an undeniably legitimate argument to the effect that young Arab intellectuals are not taking full advantage of the available opportunities to introduce themselves onto the intellectual scene in the Arab World. But, we have to note, every argument does have its limitations.

For, and as we have noted earlier, most existing outlets aimed at the Arab public, whether operated from inside or outside the region, including: newspapers and magazines, radio and TV stations, even internet sites, have demonstrably failed so far to open their doors to the young and talented. The absence of a clear system of meritocracy, continuing reliance on practices such as nepotism and cronyism, and the prevailing patrimonial culture, which expects the young to simply emulate and follow the wishes of their elders seem to be the major constraining factors involved here.

The lack of representation by young Arabs in the intellectual debate is, therefore, a real enough phenomenon, one that is noted and griped about by young intellectual wannabes. The question of access is often identified as a major constraint in this regard.

2. The nationalist Experience:

On the question of Arab nationalism, most young Arab intellectuals seem willing to concede the obvious, namely that the nationalist experience seems to have failed. But, with regard to the implications and causes of the failure, few has anything really concrete to say. Still, and despite the fact that Zionism, imperialism and, more recently, the US, are often mentioned as representing some of the major causes for this failure, the corruption and authoritarian nature of Arab regimes, and the failure of the older generations of intellectuals and activists are also included on the list of causes. As such, there is no actual concerted effort at ignoring the existence of an internal causation mechanism, as some would contend at times. But, so far, no systematic analysis of how this mechanism worked has been elaborated.

Except, that is, for the few academic works carried out by Middle East experts in a variety of western universities. But these works have not been translated to Arabic, and as such, they have not yet influenced the debate on the subject taking place in the Arab World. Another exception in this regard are certain tentative attempts by a variety of young activists, focusing on the development of contemporary political culture in their own countries, such as the one carried by Syrian activist and former political prisoner, Yasin Al-Haj Saleh, on the “Political culture  of Modern Syria.” [15] (Check box below)

 The Basic Characteristics Of Syrian Political CultureThe lack of systematic effort on part of the young Arab intellectuals at understanding the nature of the contemporary Arab political culture, is not complete. There are indeed some promising attempts out there, especially with regard to individual country. The following excerpts are from an essay by a Syrian communist activist identifying the basic characteristics of contemporary Syrian political culture:

  • “The first characteristic of the Syrian political culture is its hyper-sensitivity with regard to all that is external, and the constant and heavy presence of an inside/outside dichotomy therein, with the implied outside here being mostly, though not exclusively, the West…
  • The second characteristic of Syrian political culture is the distinct alarmist or mobilizationist aspect that imbues all speeches and political ideologies in the country. The Arab Nationalists, be they Baathists or Nasserists, the Communists and the Islamists all exhibit this unique extra-ideological tendency to draw attention to the “critical nature of the current phase”, the “looming danger”, or “the burgeoning conspiracy that threatens the safety of the homeland”.  The enemy is forever at the gates, it seems…
  • Another constant of Syrian political culture is the treatment of homogeneity as a high and quintessential virtue, while difference and plurality are dismissed as occasional and ephemeral phenomena.  Indeed, the children of the 8thGrade learn that Arab culture “is a homogenous culture, all existing differences between its children are temporary and false.  They will all disappear as soon as Arab conscience is awakened.”In this regard, some authors go as far as considering “homogeneity as one of the Images of the Arab historical mind”, with image here used in its Kantian sense.  Here, the interests of, and choices made by, the ruling and leading elites meet with the objective need of the youthful societies to show greater solidarity and homogeneity…
  • Syrian political culture is also distinguished by its strong “statist” character.  The concept of state is well-nigh synonymous with that of politics and social and public life.  Moreover, each political strand of thought, including opposionist thought, is, in the final analysis, a thought about the state…
  • We have pointed out earlier how each demand for renewal cannot justify itself except by using a patriotic discourse and by stressing its potential ability to strengthen the national fibre and help consolidate the national stand and fortify national unity.  This in effect weakens the stand of the democratic opposition, which finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place: the oppression of the one-party states which monopolize patriotism, and the false calls to democratization issued by certain international powers concerned only with maintaining an open Middle East, true to its enduring strategic, economic and security vulnerability…
  • Both the mobilizationist and the revolutionary factors, with all the statism and collectivism they inspire, contribute jointly to the weakening of the chances for growth of liberal elements within the Syrian and Arab political culture.  Indeed, there is always a strong need for a powerful internally interventionist state in our part of the world, but perhaps it is time we established a state based on a social contract and a guarantee of pluralism and individual liberties…

Finally, and as we might expect, there is a strong utopian and salvific tendency in Syrian political culture, manifesting itself in a variety of forms: secretive, militant, extremist, party-centred, and ideologically centred (Marxist, Arabist and Islamic).”

Moreover, the validity of the nationalist ideal itself, that is, Arab unity, is still left unchallenged for the most part. Almost all young Arab intellectuals are still willing to profess their faith in it and belief in the ultimate necessity of achieving Arab unity. “It is not the nationalist ideal itself that failed,” so claim the majority of the interviewees, “it is the leading Arab political and intellectuals cadres.”

Some young intellectuals, like Souad, our 33-year old Syrian Journalist, ascribe the failure of Arab intellectuals in reaching out to the grassroots and building a support basis for themselves there, on their thorough westernization.

“The sickness plaguing the intellectual elite of the Arab world, be they rightists or leftists in orientation,” says Souad, “is that they are thoroughly westernized and have taken disfigured ideologies from the West and sought to apply it on our radically different situation, thus failing on two fronts: they never managed to understand the real essence of the philosophies they borrowed, and they lost the support of their own societies, due to their disdain of the local culture… I think these intellectuals were wrong to rebel so drastically against their own cultural and religious heritage and cut off their relations with it… Now and in the face of all of our institutionalized and revolutionary secular ideologies, Arab societies are rapidly falling under the sway of religious traditions and taking their vengeance against the rejectionist elite.”

Despite such criticisms, however, most young Arab intellectuals continue, to a tee, to perceive the dream of Arab nationalism as a mostly political issue. Moreover, the necessity of a gradual economic integration between the Arab states has been addressed only by a tiny minority, albeit in very general terms. The Nitty-gritty in this regard is being left to the various ruling regimes involved who have already committed themselves to the establishment of a Pan-Arab Free Trade Zone by 2010. In practice, however, no Arab countries seem to have adopted the right economic policies that could help it prepare for this eventuality.

Meantime, the social and cultural implications of Arab nationalism, and the various internal conflicts it generated in places like Algeria, the Western Sahara, the Sudan and Iraq continue to be ignored.

Indeed, the question of the concerns and aspirations of the ethnic minorities inhabiting the “Arab” World continues to receive scant attention. In fact, most quietists tend to be caught by surprise when the issue is raised, and tend to fall back on well-nigh fascist stands. Many Syrian Arab quietists, for instance, were extremely critical of the Kurds in the aftermath of the Kurdish riots that rocked the country, especially the northern parts, in March 2004. The Arab nationalist line that Syrians were taught in school for all their lives prevailed. The myth that was propagated by the security apparatuses to the effect that most Syrian Kurds were nothing more than refugees from Turkey and Iraq was readily accepted.

But then, many of these quietists seem to have taken their cue from surviving members of the older generation, who themselves continue to be quite unsympathetic towards the Kurds. The quietists might betray a degree of cynicism vis-à-vis the old generation of intellectuals, because they cannot but blame it for some of the failure they see around them. Still, the intellectual output of the old generation remains the normative one. There is an element of awe involved here and, more importantly even, an element of national pride.

Activists show much greater promise in this regard. By virtue of their own involvement in various attempts at reaching out to the grassroots, they became more aware of the ethnic (and religious) diversity of their countries and of the necessity of accommodating ethnic aspirations. Now, this does not mean that activists are willing to be very compromising in their stands, that is, ideas of autonomy and cultural and linguistic rights might still appear anathematic to them. Still, they do acknowledge the legitimacy of the concerns of ethnic minorities and are willing to consider options that will not, in their minds, impinge on national sovereignty or dilute too much the Arab character of the state.

As such, young Arab intellectuals still have a lot to learn in this regard. The ethnic communities in the “Arab World” are, for the most part, indigenous to it, they have been there form the very beginning, and, in some cases, as is the situation in Algeria or Morocco for instance, the Arabs are, historically, the immigrants. Insisting on the Arab character of the state is, simply put, chauvinistic. Moreover, raising the issue of ethnic minority rights is not an endorsement of separatist tendencies, as many Arabs think today, but an acknowledgment of existing realities and their intricate nature, and support of the idea of the “civic state,” of the necessary divorce of ideology and state, and not only religion and state. Whether this has been achieved in Europe or not is besides the point, the real question should focus on whether the concept of civic state is justified by the internal dynamics of Arab societies. If it is, then it is indeed legitimate.

There is another dimension to the issue of nationalism that should also be noted here, namely: the cultural dimension. The contemporary Arab literary scene continues to be shaped by mid-20th Century figures, especially poets, such as Nizar Qabbani, Mahmoud Darweesh and, to a lesser extant, Adonis. As for novelistic and academic works, quietists and activists alike seem more interested in the few translated works out there, especially those by Latin Amrican authors (for novels), and new European leftwing anti-globalization activists and theorists, such as Negri and Alain Tourin (for academic works). Indeed, Arab young intellectuals remain, for the most part, leftist in their sympathies.

Yet, and despite griping about the shortcomings of the older generations, young Arab intellectuals are yet to produce any critical enquiry into the works and achievement of these generations. But then, they are still young, so perhaps their attempts are still in the embryonic phase, or perhaps they need to be coaxed into embarking on them.

But the more likely answer is that they don’t know enough yet.

They don’t know enough about the Arab nationalist experience itself, because much of it is hidden and much of what they have been taught about it is too ideologically driven and censored. They don’t known enough about the recent past of their countries, for very much the same reason, and the same applies to the history of neighboring countries. They don’t even know enough about the demographic realities in their own countries, once again, due to lack of information about the subject and continuing disinformation spread by the ruling regimes. How can they even be expected to put what they do know in the appropriate context when there is so much that they don’t know?

3. The Islamic Legacy:

“Regarding the relationship between religion and politics, a problem always comes to my mind: who will be able to embody faith in a more perfect way? You might be able to find a person to do that, but a group? It is indeed difficult to find an integrated group where the devil of private interests will not intrude… Still, I believe that the Islamic system of governance is the best of all possible systems, because it is not only based on the common interests of those in rule, but also on a certain joint religious motivation that unites all… I also believe that Islam and democracy or shura are compatible, and that an Islamic rule that does not safeguard its existence by upholding the democratic ideals is not truly Islamic.” Yasser, late 30s, a Palestinian journalist living in Lebanon.

On the issue of Islam and its role in society, young Arab intellectuals tend to be divided into two groups: those with Islamic sympathies and those who are clearly secular.

Members of the first group may not say it bluntly these days, but they clearly still dream of the day when an Islamic state could be reestablished in their part of the world uniting all Muslim peoples, or at least, Arab Muslims, in a novel recreation of the caliphate system. For the Arab days of glory, in popular imagination, continue to be attached to the rise of Islam. Even a secular nationalist like Michel Aflaq, the ideological cofounder of the Baath Party, could not but acknowledge this important link between Arabism and Islam in his writings, and could not but attempt to tap into and reflect this ethos as he expounded his secularist nationalist teachings. For the weakened and marginalized Arab youth today, the temptation is even much more powerful.

But the young intellectuals are not exactly blind to the realities around them. They are indeed quite aware of the fact that achieving this dream is simply untenable at this stage, and that plans along these lines will be resisted not only by the authorities and religious minorities, but also by the still larger segment of the majority community itself (that is, in most cases, the Sunnis), which has long developed certain reservations with regard to the concept of Islamic Statehood.

For we have to bear in mind that there are a lot of secular minded Sunnis out there. More importantly though, we have to distinguish between two opposing Islamist movements: one that reflects the interests of the commercial elite, and another that is more populist in nature, and which, in effect, threatens the interests of this elite. The former movement uses religion as a purely political device to lobby for their interests and enter into alliances with other political groups. The latter, on the other hand, is much more “ideological” and does, in a sense replace the populist leftist movements of the 1960s and 70s. In Egypt, certain elements in the Muslims Brotherhood seem to be pushing the movement into the adoption of a platform that can enable it to appeal to the Islamic commercial elite. This is why, it seems, there are secular forces in Egypt today that have recently been more open to dialogue with the Brotherhood.

As such, young Arab Islamic thinkers are simply seeking the establishment of a political party, or, as is the case in countries such as Syria, the reestablishment of an Islamic political party, namely: the Muslim Brotherhood.

This is an aspiration shared by a lot of people on the grassroots level as well. But, as is the case with most Arab countries today, a considerable chunk of the population, has already shifted its allegiance to the more extremist and less enlightened end of the Islamist political spectrum – that of the wahhabis and salafis.

Indeed, the Islamist movements that we see proliferating in the Arab World today are not the kind of movements that can fulfill the aspirations of our young Islamic thinkers. Nor have these thinkers managed so far to make any serious headway on the grassroots level, creating an audience or a following of their own. The Arab street, it seems, can no longer be moved by intellectual discourse these days, even if this discourse is Islamic.

What moves the Arab Street today is the duo effect of righteous indignation, voiced by popular preachers, and melodious incantations, sang by pop stars. In this, the balance is continuously tipping in favor of the former, as pop stars continue to feed the collective sense of guilt of the population, and pave the way towards a necessary recourse to repentance.

As long as pop culture and the free lifestyle it indirectly advocates are not celebrated as a legitimate alternative to traditional values and way of life, as long as they are not based on a sound intellectual argumentation explaining their natural occurrence and evolution, they simply cannot pave the way towards any kind of liberal transformation of social values. In fact, they will have the opposite effect, as we have just noted.

It is not clear whether young Arab intellectuals, be they Islamists or secularists, are even aware of the importance of this observation.

So, even as the secular intellectuals assert the necessity of limiting religion’s role in public life, and as they adopt a “free” lifestyle that obviously clashes with the prevailing religious and social mores, the necessity of providing an intellectual articulation of the new way of life they are adopting and advocating continues to elude them. As such, secular intellectuals appear more and more as rebels without a cause to their distracters, a perception that continues to weaken their hand and influence, and lays them open for potential intrusion by the selfsame Guilt Complex mentioned above.

4. The Arab-Israeli Conflict:

“I prefer the term coexistence to normalization. But let me explain what I mean by that so as to avoid any misunderstanding. I have no problem with the Jews, neither on the philosophic, nor on the racial or religious levels, many Jews have indeed contributed to human progress. Normalization is not about war and peace then. This is about a conscientious stand vis-à-vis one’s actions and their impact on one’s surroundings and one’s neighbors. It is difficult for me, therefore, to coexist with a state that has not yet grasped the nature of its impact on others. I don’t accept that when it is practiced by my society, and I don’t accept it when it is practiced against me.”

Ziyad, a 38-year old Syrian Economist

On the issue of Israel and the Arab-Israeli Conflict in general, young Arab intellectuals stick very much to the usual Arab nationalist line, despite the fact that almost all Arab regimes have actually deviated from it: Israel is a cancerous growth, most are still willing to assert. But, since it cannot be cured (that is, since Israel’s military superiority ensures that we cannot destroy it), they argue, then we will have to put up with it, we will have to seek peace. But there will be no normalization (that is, we still retain the right to ignore and continue to dream of the eventual destruction of Israel).” Unsurprisingly, the young intellectuals also support Palestinian statehood, the “reestablishment” of Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem and the Palestinian right of return.

In fact, and for the most part, the issue of Arab-Israeli peace is left completely in the hand of the ruling regimes, despite the constant complaints about their corruption, inefficiency and mishandling of the Conflict. Indeed, no room for involvement by civil society and independent actors is envisioned here, and no desire for such an involvement seems to exist to begin with. The Israelis as a whole, even the Jews, continue to be seen as the villains.

The words of the Israeli and Jewish peace activists, like Meron Benvinisti and Noam Chomsky, are often quoted in Arab writing these days, but no one seems to have wondered as to the real meaning of this, namely: the existence of a group of Israelis and Jews who are definitely not villains and with whom we can talk and coexist. Isn’t that normalization in a sense? Isn’t that a sign that civil society on both side can contribute to the peace process?

This possibility doesn’t seem to have occurred to the minds of young Arab intellectuals and activists, and should it occur, there is probably enough cynicism and fear out there to dismiss it as a pipedream or an unnecessary risk that could discredit the young intellectuals in the eyes of the grassroots, alienating them even further.

They are probably right.

So, and for this reason, there are no creative solutions being envisioned for the issue of East Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their original lands, and there are  no attempts at elaborating on Crown Prince Abdallah’s Initiative, formally announced in March, 2002, and was adopted later by Arab leaders during the Beirut Summit, and which, in effect, promises normalization with Israel in exchange for peace and withdrawal from the occupied Arab lands.

On all these important issues, young Arab intellectuals, quietists and activists alike, remain studiously quiet. They simply have too much to lose to venture even a simple work in this context.

5. Globalization:

Smatterings “Globalization is like any tool, its effects, negative or positive, depends on who’s wielding it, how and for what purpose. The question of expertise and intentions is of paramount importance here. Only when the two are good will any good come out of it.”

“Globalization is Americanization, it is just another way for the US to extend its reach all through the world. It is an inevitable product of the unipolarity of the world we live in.”

“Globalization means the reintroduction of the law of the jungle into international relations. It is imperialism and colonization reinvented, sharpened and honed. Its end product is the homogenization of the human soul and the decline of human significance.”

Like most intellectuals and commoners all over the world so far, the writer of these words is definitely not necessarily an exception, young Arab intellectuals betray a very inadequate understanding of current global dynamics. But the glaring knowledge gap separating the Arabs from the rest of the world, and the question of access we have discussed earlier, clearly put the Arabs at a greater disadvantage in this regard.

What is this globalization taking place all around us, and through us, and shaping our lives? Everyone has his/her theories, but all are willing to admit the inadequacy of their theories, which is a pretty encouraging attitude in itself and could, on the long run, enable the emergence of more critical analysis of this phenomenon.

Still, and to the leftwing intellectuals of the Arab World, the whole thing smacks of capitalism and imperialism and, as such, it is necessarily evil. There are indeed quite a few self-described anti-globalization activists in the Arab World, who, in a nominally socialist country like Syria, are  becoming more holier than the Pope by opposing, or, to be more exact, looking with dismay and alarm at, government efforts to enter into the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement and the World Trade Organization. The impact of such developments on the middle and lower classes in the country will be disastrous, argue the Syrian anti-globalization activists while revealing a serious lack of  concern and/or understanding of the impact of not entering into such agreements and organizations on the economy and the very viability of the country.

In a sense then globalization, as is the case in other parts of the world, has injected new blood into leftwing movements and currents, which, with their rather revolutionary rhetoric, can still appeal to the young and educated. One could also make a strong argument as to the influence of globalization on the current spectacular rise of Islamism in the Arab World and beyond.

6. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the US role in global and regional affairs:

“The collapse of the Soviet Union has unbalanced the global situation, and facilitated the emergence of the Amrican Empire. But the rise of China, which will become more consolidated by mid-21st Century, will serve to reestablish the balance. Europe will not do that. They lack the political will, and they are more likely to grow weaker and less independent from the US politically, as they continue to enlarge their membership. The current dispute we see and the attempts by France and Germany to assume a more combative stand vis-à-vis US policies are quite transitory and have indeed backfired. We can already see both countries attempting to mend things with the US and assume more conciliatory stands.”

Gamal, 36, an Egyptian human rights activists and moderate Islamist.

“How can a corrupt authoritarian system compete with another that never missed an opportunity to further develop and strengthen itself?” Souad, a 33-year old Syrian journalist.

“All tyrannies must come to an end eventually. This is embedded in their very nature. This is why the Soviet Union collapsed. This also why Amrica’s and Israel’s tyrannies are bound to end. As for Arab tyrannies, well, they seem to be the exception to this rule. Call it fatefulness, call it whatever, but we seem to be destined to live under tyrannies for the foreseeable future.” A statement by a 35-year old Tunisian human rights activist made to a group of colleagues on the sidelines of a 2003 conference in Europe.

The basic view of the young Arab intellectuals of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the increasing importance of US role in global affairs verges on the simplistic. Because here most show a complete lack of understanding of the inner workings of both societies, especially with regard to the United States.

Here, we encounter an amazing local phenomenon indeed, a truly amazing and very revealing local phenomenon.

For despite the fact that many Arab intellectuals received their collegial education in Soviet and East European universities and have indeed spent many years there, not a single work of note discussing the nature of these societies and the potential causes for their collapse has so far emerged in the Arab World written by Arab authors, old or young.

Indeed, there are many Arab intellectuals who studied in the West proper, that is, in the US and the countries of western Europe, and these too have so far failed to produced any work explaining and nature of these “victorious” western societies. But the failure of the leftwing intellectuals is much more shocking in this regard, because their ideologies have dominated the Arab intellectual scene for decades, and because the center of their ideological weltanschauung simply couldn’t hold and their world collapsed under the increasing weight of its own internal contradictions. Still, they produced nothing. They discussed nothing. They analyzed nothing. They did not even come out in defense of their ideologies.

How could we explain such an attitude? The only reasonable explanation we can come up with here, considering how many of the Arab leftwing ideologists have simply shifted their focus now to translating and commenting on the neo-anarchist theories advanced by the likes of Chomsky and Negri, is that they have never really learned to think on their own. Their works, it seems, have been nothing more than mere regurgitations of ideas and theories worked out and systematized in the West with little original contributions.

No wonder the younger generations are cynical about their predecessors.

Matters are complicated further by the continuing proneness of the intellectual elite of the Arab World to conspiracy theories. While this is in part an understandable phenomenon, taking under consideration the fact that the modern Middle East was, in many ways, the product of a well-documented conspiracy that is the Sykes-Picot Accord,[16] that Arab countries continue to be weak and underdeveloped, and that recourse to self-critical analysis remains pretty limited, it is nonetheless regrettable and has many serious repercussions for the viability of the Arab intellectual classes, old and new.

Fortunately though, there are many young voices out there who seem to have eluded falling into this particular trap. Indeed, the great majority of young Arab intellectuals that I have encountered over the last few years, especially the activists, had no problem detecting the idiotic and capricious nature of such popular allegations to the effect that the CIA was somehow involved in planning the events 9/11or that it had had foreknowledge of them and did nothing to prevent them, or that the Mossad was somehow involved.

This more enlightened attitude, however, was not accompanied by any kind of real sympathy for the Americans. As long as the US continues to be perceived as unsympathetic to Arab causes and Arab sentiments, it is very hard indeed for Arabs to be sympathetic to American suffering. The very novelty of the concept of American suffering and victimhood, however, should also be credited here for what seems to be an international phenomenon of lack of sympathy, more or less.

On the other hand, the US-led invasion of Iraq could not but generate a wave of resentment and of rallying behind the flag among the great majority of young Arab intellectuals, most of whom, as we have noted earlier, remain committed to the ideal of Arab unity, in the face of their growing cynicism in this regard. The “imperial ambitions,” or, to put it more accurately, the growing “imperial predilections” of the US and its inherent messianic tendencies have become all too visible to be ignored.

Is America embarking on what amounts to be the implementation of a new Sykes-Picot style arrangement of the region? Considering the fact that the Iraq invasion took place in the heel of the Afghan invasion, and considering the continuous threats against Syria, Lebanon, Iran and the Sudan, and the growing criticism of some of America’s closest regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, this particular conspiracy theory is all too popular among the ranks of Arab intelligentsias.

For it easily conforms to the socialist and nationalist predilections on which they were nurtured. They don’t need to “rack their brains” in search of some other potential answer. The fact that the US War on Terror could indeed have some legitimate justifications was not a possibility that anyone was willing to consider. It’s all about oil, is the usual refrain in this regard. How so? And could America’s interest in our oil supplies have been accommodated without having to face the possibility of direct invasion and dabbling in our internal affairs? No one is bothering to pose such questions.

6. Sexuality

Even with regard to such an alluring issue as sexuality, there is surprisingly little going on in terms of intellectual analysis. The Arab literary scene seems to have recently been shaken by the sensual topics and writing style of Ahlam Mustaghanmi, the Algerian born author who lives in Paris and Beirut.[17] But, neither Ahlam, nor anyone else for that matter, has so far presented what could be considered as the analytical foundation for a sexual revolution in the Arab World. In fact, most intellectuals, young and old, quietist and activist seem to be unaware of the importance and relevance of such a revolution in their lives.[18] This is indeed quite unfortunate. Why?

Because the issue of sexuality is intimately related to other critical issues such as the right to privacy, personal liberties and individual rights, that is, to the whole issue of the necessary and interlocking boundaries between public and private spheres.

The Hijab and Openness

The following discussion is based on a number of discussions and interviews with young Islamist intellectuals from Syria and Lebanon.

The issue of Hijab reveals much about the current mentality of many contemporary Islamists, Arabs and non-Arabs alike. It is even much more than an issue of women rights and gender role. It is, indeed, about openness onto otherness, onto difference, and the ability to really accept the legitimacy of other ways of life.

The preponderant majority of young Islamists will consider it hypocritical for a Muslim woman to maintain that she is religious and yet refuses to wear the Hijab. For a woman like that, according to Ali, a young Lebanese Islamist, is “allowing her vanity to intrude on her judgment and dilute her faith. The ruling on the Hijab is clearly stated in the Qur’an.”

The fact that this woman might be following a different interpretation of the Qur’an is dismissed off-hand, because this new interpretation would not have been made had exposure to western culture not taken place. Such an interpretation, therefore, is simply not authentic. “The basics of our way of life,” says Hassan, a 25-year old Syrian Islamist, “have to be based on our own holy texts, on a desire to mimic others.”

In other words, there is a conditionality to learning from others. The basics of the faith and of “our” way of life, should not be touch, there should be a Hijab here, protecting the purity of “our” ways and “our” faith.

Having this kind of attitude is indeed quite problematic, because Islam is a missionary faith, that is, it does require people it comes in contact with to change their ways of life, their values and their faith and embrace it as the one true religion. In other words, others are admonished to deal with Islam unconditionally, but Muslims are expected to deal with the rest of the world from behind a veil. Once this veil is removed, the Muslim becomes an apostate. And apostasy is punishable by death.

Very few Islamic thinkers, young or old, have managed to give a comfortable question to the issue of the veil, this mental veil and the physical one.

But there are exceptions. Consider this stand for instance, by a young Syrian preacher (mid 30s):

Ammar: Do you believe in the Hijab?

Reformist: Of course.

Ammar: Would you marry a woman who didn’t believe in it, even if she is religious?

Reformist: No. Hijab is more than just a piece of cloth, there is a message behind it to me, and I want a wife who would agree with me on the message. And indeed I am married, and I have two daughters, but they are too young for the issue of the Hijab yet.

Ammar: Would you impose Hijab on your daughters?

Reformist: No. I have the right to choose a wife that agrees with me, but my daughter should have the freedom to choose for herself. My part is to teach and to guide, but she should have the freedom to accept or reject, otherwise her stand would be morally flawed and insignificant because it comes as a result of imposition. Questioning the heritage that is passed on to us by our fathers is an obligation on every Muslim, although, admittedly, this could lead some to leaving the faith.

Ammar: Wouldn’t that bother you?

Reformist: No, because it is going to be such a rare occurrence really. For, in my definition of Islam, the great majority of the people of the world, including Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, are Muslim. Even those who would consider themselves atheists, might actually be Muslims to me as well, because many of them, I know, have a certain relationship with the unknown that is not so different than my own relationship with God.

This Reformist is, of course, a follower of the great medieval Sufi scholar Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi.

Still, and in order to better understand this point, let’s ask ourselves these questions: what is the most visible manifestation of Islamic behavior in Arab societies today? What is the first item on the agenda of any Islamic movement out there demanding conformity to Islamic standards and values? The answer, as we all know, or should know, is the Hijab.

But the Hijab is a clear cut statement on sexuality to say the least. It puts judgment on sexual affairs in the hands of the social and even political authority, that is, in the hands of the collective. The individual here is expected only to follow and conform. So, if the individual decided not to follow or conform on the basis of a clearly stated intellectual conviction in this regard, wouldn’t this amount to an actual intellectual challenge to one of the most basic pillars of Islamism today, namely: its totalitarian character. And could Islamism be defeated, on the long run, so long as its basic pillars remain intellectually unchallenged?

Many young Arab intellectuals call for greater respect of women’s rights in society and for amending the Sharia law in this regard, and quite a few even dream of a liberal Islamic reformation that can make this possible. But the intricate link between such calls and such a reformation and “sexual revolution” seems to elude most. The very concept of a sexual revolution seems to be incomprehensible, despite the fact that many young intellectuals in the Arab World lead lifestyles that are in themselves “revolutionary” from this stand point.

Rebelling against the traditional norms with regard to gender relations, however, will not acquire a real social dimension unless conceptualized and expressed in writing. The challenge posed by extremism in Arab societies today cannot be met without recourse to intellectual analysis. Arab bookstores are filled with books on sexuality that express the point of view and psychological predilections of the extremists and traditionalists, but not a single work expressing the point of view of the modernizers exist, at least not in Arabic.

If, once again, the problem is that of censorship, what about the Internet then? Chat rooms are already being used by means of circumventing societal restrictions on freer gender interactions, and to let out some steam with regard to sexual relationships though involvement in virtual sex. But, so far, not a single site appeared whereby sexual affairs and gender relations were discussed from an intellectual, sociological and psychological perspectives that could help challenge the traditional view on sexuality in the Arab World and provide the intellectual justification of the “freer” lifestyles for which many young Arab intellectuals are opting today.

The absence of such endeavors meant to articulate and validate more liberal alternative lifestyles, is leaving the Arab World in the grips of a unidirectional process of polarization, namely Islamic extremism.

Still, the picture is not necessarily as bleak as this. For the last few years has indeed witnessed the emergence of a variety of movements in the Arab World revolving in many respects around the issue of sexuality and privacy rights.

Two initiatives come to mind in this regard: the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, established by Egyptian human rights activist, Hossam Bahgat, and Huriyyat Khassa, or Private Freedoms, establish in Lebanon by Nizar Saghiyeh.

These two new organizations have managed over the last few years to raise some serious discussion, albeit in small circles, of such previously taboo issue as homosexual rights in their respective countries. Consequently, the two founders have often been on the receiving end of many verbal assaults and abuse by government officials, religious figures and even other human rights activists who accuse them of undermining the work for human rights by prematurely focusing on such socially-sensitive issues.

The two organizations have nonetheless managed over the last two years to carve visible niches from themselves in the human rights field in their respective countries proving that there is a constituency willing to deal openly with these issues, despite the risks involved, especially in a country like Egypt where religious extremism has long been a fact of life. This also shows that it is indeed possible to carry out such work and activities even in the presence of extremist currents.

Still, such activist stands by themselves cannot fill the huge gap in existing intellectual analysis of the phenomenon of sexuality in the Arab World. Much work still needs to be done here.

Two Success Stories (or an Armenian invasion)

1) “Since you’ve mentioned it”

Sireh wo infatahet, or “since you’ve mentioned it,” is an evening talk show hosted on Future TV, one of the Lebanese TV channels owned by Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The program seeks to shed some lights on a variety of social issues, such as suicide, runaway teens, rape, the handicapped, extra-marital affairs, etc. In other words, this is a very typical social affairs program, and as such sexual issues do get their fair share of coverage.

What makes this program unique, however, is the ability of its young presenter, Mr. Zaven Kouyoumdjian, to deftly manage the debates taking place keeping them direct and focused. Indeed, and for the most part, Zaven has proven capable of avoiding the pitfalls of sensationalism, and has managed to keep the debate rather objective and civil.

Zaven’s, however, is a rare success story for Arab satellite networks ventures in this regard, and seem for the most part to reflect his own personal abilities.

But that’s indeed how things need to be in the beginning. The successful and talented few can, when empowered and supported, inspire the many.

2) Issa Touma – an unlikely agent provocateur

Issa Touma (42) is a Syrian-Armenian photographer of and a gallery owner who, over the last decade, has managed to hold several international and highly acclaimed photographic, cultural and musical festivals in his native city of Aleppo. In doing this, Mr. Touma only sought to bring recognition to his city, his country and his talents and to improve his abilities through contact with more experienced western photographers, artists and intellectuals. “At that time,” wrote Mr. Touma in a letter that was widely circulated on the Internet in August 2004, “it was not possible for me to travel and so my response was to find a way to bring foreign artists to Syria.”

But his activities and his independence, however, aroused the suspicion of Baath Party apparatchiks, as a result, and “on February 2, 2003, I received a written order and directive from the Baath Party of Syria.. [stating] that I was to cease all my cultural programs and activities and forthwith submit all planned activities for the express approval of the Baath Party.”

This was not the first time that the Baath Party had tried to stifle the activities of Mr. Touma. But prior to that date, the problem was restricted to the local representatives of the Party and Mr. Touma had been able to get his way eventually. With this new ultimatum, however, the decision seems to be final. Ever since, Mr. Touma embarked on an active and open anti-Baath campaign meant to embarrass the party and help Mr. Touma regain the ability to organize his beloved exhibitions and festivals and to prove that “culture is stronger than any gun.”

Though the Baath Party is yet to reverse its decision, the very fact that Mr. Touma remains free and vocally aggressive is success enough in a country like Syria and under such conditions.

8. conclusions:

From the above analysis, we can see that feelings of alienation, marginalization, frustration and disenfranchisement, combined with lingering nationalistic and socialistic predilections, seem to shape the worldview of the great majority of young Arab intellectuals. The desire to be part of something better is always there, a sense of crisis is omnipresent, a heavy dose of disillusionment vis-à-vis all traditional answers is endemic, still, no major creative imitative or a different, if not downright better, understanding of the issues involved or of changing global and regional conditions have so far emerged.

The young Arab intellectuals are quite a talented bunch indeed, but they do seem to suffer from certain severe handicaps, due to the substandard education they have received and its ideological nature, lack of a free and/or affordable access to sources of information and communication, the continuing authoritarian practices of the governments, the patrimonial nature of the prevailing culture, the lack of economic empowerment, and the increasing unidirectional polarization of their societies in favor of Islamic extremism.

For these reasons, the intellectual input/output of these young intellectuals have been both quantitatively and qualitatively deficient, a situation complicated even further by their disheartening sense of apathy and their inability or unwillingness to face their numerous fears vis-à-vis the political and social authorities.

There is also a reluctance of even a lack of awareness of the necessity of committing themselves to a reexamination and a reassessment of the nature of the intellectual legacy that was passed on to them by the previous generation of Arab intellectuals. But then, this is exactly the kind of tasks for which young Arab intellectuals might be quite ill-equipped, considering their limited knowledge of original sources and their scope and exact nature, as well as the historical conditions in which they emerged.

But, and the establishment of more free and modern educational institutions could help bridge this gap, and while incentives can be offered to help young intellectuals to overcome their sense of apathy and their economic handicap, facing their fear of political and social authorities is a decision which only they can make. Unless, they assume responsibility for this, nothing and no one can help.

Chapter 4: Conclusions and Recommendations

It is clear from the preceding analysis that the Arab World is indeed facing a very serious existential problem. The knowledge gap that separates it from the rest of the world, its imploding educational system and its continued authoritarian predilections have combined to create a serious shortage of qualified professionals, as the Arab Human Reports have amply demonstrated, and, no less importantly, of young and insightful intellectuals, as we have just argued.

The situation is definitely not the result of a shortage in raw talent and potential. On the contrary, there is an abundant supply of that, which would have bode well for the future of the Arab World had it not been for the deficits in freedom and knowledge. The future, it seems, is simply not on the mind of so many people in authority positions the Arab world. Interest in maintaining the status quo and its disproportionate, or, to be more exact, its disproportionately-shared, advantages, continues to be the supreme concern of the ruling elites, political, economic and social.

For its part, the civil society remains decimated and weak, as most of its champions have grown old and equally cut off from contemporary local, regional and geopolitical realities, and as the influx of young people onto the scene remains pitiful indeed, due to fear, apathy and even practices of cronyism and nepotism to which civil society organizations and institutions were not exactly immune.

Indeed, and if we are to brave a prediction regarding the future of the Arab World on the basis of what we know is wrong with it today, and on the basis of the lack of any real action or reform effort meant to help address and rectify the current situation, we can only say that the Talibanization of the Arab World, that is, its relapse into a quagmire of atavistic violence and mayhem, seems more and more at hand.

Still, and seeing that no one in the world today, as the proliferation of terrorist attacks around the world shows, can really afford such a development, and taking note of the fact that there emerged recently a plethora of brave and liberal initiatives undertaken by a variety of new civil society organizations and groups, made up mostly of young people, the window of opportunity seems to remain half-open. There is still a chance, it seems, for a last ditch effort at supporting change from within in the Arab World.

Nonetheless, and although this change has to take place from within, it should be clear by now that it could not be the result of internal dynamics only. External pressures on the Arab regimes and support for the liberal elements within the Arab World, be they reform-minded elements in the ruling regimes themselves or civil society actors and organizations, are crucial in this regard.

Indeed, nothing would work without this alliance. Left to its own devices, the Arab World seems to lack both the will and the necessary tools to work out its own salvation, as it has almost systematically deprived itself of these tools throughout the last six decades of its development. External meddling did admittedly play a role in this, but the decisive factor was an internal readiness, it seems, for this kind of collapse.

Call it the Civilizational Fatigue Syndrome, if you will. Call it the natural aftermath of a major macro-structural shift, i.e. the collapse of the long-standing classical empires (Ottoman, Qajar, Mugol, etc.), which seriously undermined the traditional worldview and foundational identity paradigms of the peoples involved. Call it a combination of both or any other factor. One thing remains clear through it all: the phenomenon of internal readiness for collapse is all too real. For this reason, external intervention, while indispensable in the working out of Arab salvation,  has to be carefully studied so as not to backfire and make the situation even worse.

In other words, the problem highlighted here, namely: the phenomenon of the shortage of young and talented Arab intellectuals who are actively involved in shaping the intellectual debate currently taking place in the Arab World, cannot be seen or treated in isolation from the overall problem of the eminent economic, political and social implosion currently looming in the Arab World. Indeed, this shortage is a mere manifestation of this larger problem.

Still, and due to the important and critical role that intellectuals play, or should play, in societies, especially during such times of crisis and transition, special attention should be given to this dangerous phenomenon.

US policy makers in particular should be concerned here, seeing that anti-Americanism is rampant in the region and that young Arab intellectuals, left to their own devices, cannot but fall victims to it, as their basic worldview continues to be dominated by nationalistic, leftist and/or Islamist rhetoric, the only available alternatives to them at this stage.

So, what sort of recommendations can be made to help reverse the impending tide of Talibanization, and empower the younger generations of Arab intellectuals and encourage them to adopt more a liberal outlook on life around them?


To the US, EU and International Community

  • First, and considering the fact that the US continues to suffer from an extremely negative image in the Arab World, US administrations should continue to try to link its particular reform initiatives to plans that enjoy more international backing, just as they have done with the G8 Summit Broader Middle East Initiative. Seeking UN involvement in this regard, may not be such a bad idea as well.
  • Establishing bipartisan support for initiatives dealing with reforms in the Arab World would make them more credible in the eyes of the various regimes and regional institutions. Otherwise regimes might continue to play their favorite game of waiting out this or that administration and hoping that the next administration will prove better from their point of view.
  • The establishment of a special UN Commission on Political and Socioeconomic Reforms meant to provide tailor-made reform programs for each individual Arab country should be seriously considered. Implementation of such programs, however, will have to be done in partnership with one or two partners among the developed countries. To some, this might indeed sound like a revival, albeit in a more politically correct way, of the old mandate system. Perhaps in a way it is. But this time, economic and political pressures and engagement will be the chosen tools for change, and not military intervention. A greater sensitivity to issues related to sovereignty should be shown at all times. The Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement could be seen as a step in this regard, but the problem with the agreement is that it has no specific plans of actions, strategies and monitoring mechanisms in place, so, there is no way to keep the pressure for change on and no way to measure progress. Creating specific partnerships for development between specific European countries and Mediterranean partners could help compensate for this serious deficiency within the framework of the Association Agreement.
  • Increasing support to educational initiatives, including increasing the number of student exchange programs, providing scholarships, internships and fellowships to qualified Arab students, supporting the establishment of affordable community schools and colleges in Arab countries, and supporting virtual education initiatives as a cost-effective measure to compensate for the lack of expertise in certain chosen sectors.
  • Increasing support for foreign language instruction centers to provide Arab youth with one more important tool that can help ease their access to knowledge and information.
  •  Establishing new and supporting existing translation programs, including translating critical works in science, literature, the humanities and social sciences to help offset the wide knowledge gap separating the Arab World from the rest of the world.
  • The US registration procedures and security checks adopted by the US in the aftermath of 9/11 have, unfortunately, led to a major decrease in the number of enrollment by students from the Arab World. These policies need to be seriously revised. The US cannot appear to be disdainful and prejudiced towards the very people it is attempting to empower.
  • Increasing the amount of cultural and artistic exchanges with Arab countries, especially with emerging independent groups of young artists and intellectuals, most of whom are active members of their countries’ fledgling civil societies. Such exposure to the intellectual and cultural scene in the West might inspire and embolden the young Arab intellectuals and artists, who could embark on new and brave ventures once they return to their countries, as the case of Issa Touma above proves.
  • Increasing support, financial, technical and logistic, to emerging civil society organizations in the Arab World. Perhaps, the greatest contribution in this regard will be to help civil society organizations build the necessary administrative skills to efficiently run these organization, as many of the civil society activists are not necessarily trained in this field.
  • Creating financial pools meant to support the larger region-wide projects, such as establishing schools and colleges. This will make the search for donors and the application process itself much easier and faster. For civil society organizations and activists in the Arab World often don’t know where to look for financial support, especially with regard to their more ambitious projects, and are usually turned off by complicated application processes. Such processes, to them, make donors seem uninterested or not serious in providing support.
  • Establishing special annual awards for young Arab intellectuals and artists meant to help foster the emergence of new and talented figures and to support them both morally and financially.

To Arab Governments and Civil Society Organizations

  • Education might seem to be the key to all reform efforts in the region. Indeed, education is of paramount importance. But the key to real reform is a clear cut commitment to political openness. Baring that no reform effort can produce any viable results. Education expenditures in the Arab World, as the Arab Human Developments Report 2002 shows, have been the highest in the developing world, and still the results are among the worst in the world. This is so on account of the corruption, the cronyism and lack of freedom of expression. The freedom deficit is the most dangerous deficit from which our part of the world is suffering. Unless there is a serious commitment to addressing this problem, the question of reform itself is mooted.
  • Allowing for private sector participation in the establishment of schools and colleges, and allowing for these schools to adopt their own curricula. This allow for much needed experimentation in this regard, and this will give parents some choice with regard to opting for schools that use more secular curricula.
  • Improving and simplifying the registration laws with regard to non-governmental organizations. These organizations could help shoulder the burden of developmental activities in their countries. Keeping all initiative in this regard in the hands of governments might ease their security itch, but, it will also overburden them and will, in effect, stop the reform process in its track.
  • Decreasing the control of security apparatuses over educational and civil society institutions, and their mandate to intervene in their operations.
  • Allowing for the establishment of independent teachers, students and writer unions.
  • Encouraging youth participation in intellectual and cultural activities by creating special funds meant to support their initiative.
  • Initiating residency programs, in cooperation with local, regional and international organizations, that can allow young intellectuals and scholars to take the necessary time to work on their private projects, such as writing a novel or undertaking a certain study.

Of course, these recommendations only touch the tip of the iceberg. The devil of details and specifics will only rear its head when the international community, Arab regimes and civil society organizations become more actively involved in changing the realities on the ground and the internal dynamics involved. Unless there exists a clear and firm commitment in this regard and soon, nothing will work. The forces of inertia and stagnation in the Arab World are indeed that powerful, and the clock is loudly ticking on the possibility of its peaceful and liberal transformation.

[1] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 26, 2004. For background information on this article, please visit the MEMRI site at:

[2] It has also failed to take serious notice of the aspirations and concerns of the various indigenous ethnic communities living in the “Arab World,” a failure that fueled a number of long-standing conflicts in the region (especially in Sudan, Iraq, Morocco and Algeria), none of which has yet been resolved.

[3] More on this in Joshua M. Landis, “The War in Palestine.” A study on Arab attitude towards the 1948 War that will be published as part of an upcoming book. “President Shukri al-Quwwatli went to war not for pan-Arab notions of unity or brotherhood, but to prevent that very same spirit from undermining Syria’s independence. He hoped to block King Abdullah from carrying out his Greater Syria unity scheme… From the outset of the war, the primary concern of the Arab states was the inter-Arab conflict and the balance of power in the region. In this respect it is useful to view the 1948 war primarily as an inter-Arab struggle or an Arab civil war, and only secondarily as a war against Zionism and the Jews. The widespread public desire for Arab unity threatened weaker governments and rulers, such as Syria’s, by de-legitimizing them and pitting them against other Arab rulers in the desperate scramble for leadership of the nationalist movement that all hoped to master.”

[4] President Assad probably saw the achievement of a Greater Syria as a useful stepping stone towards achieving the longed-for Arab unity, the ultimate goal he had always had to advocate as the leader of the Syrian Baath Party.

[5] As is the case with most of Assad’s other “national achievements” as well.

[6] We should note here that, although works of Antoine Saadeh continue to be reprinted, their circulation and appeal seem to be pretty limited. Indeed, the entire movement established on the basis of Saadeh’s teachings, that is, the Syrian Social National Party, has long acquired cultic and nostalgic dimensions, a development quite reminiscent of the fate of certain fascist movements in Europe, the original inspiration of Saadeh’s work.

[7] Inside the jail system, however, communists reportedly received better treatment than members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other outlawed Islamic groups. For instance, they were allowed to have access to newspapers and to keep abreast of the various developments taking place in the country and around the world. Islamists have no such luck. Moreover, most communist prisoners have already been released.

[8] A parallel development could be detected with regard to Arab Christians as well, though most observers often ignore this phenomenon and its potential consequences for Christian-Muslim relations and the stability of many the countries involved.

[9]  As is the case with all messianic movements, the particular faith or religion notwithstanding.

[10] “Any expansion of the numbers of secondary age students is certain to encourage opportunities for development and expression of political dissent. Secondary schools can become battlegrounds for political influence between state and other political forces, especially Islamists who have long had special interest in the influential power of secondary education.” Fuller, Graham E. “The Youth Factor: The new demographics of the Middle East and the implications for US policy.” The Saban Center for Middle East Studies at the Brookings Institution. Analysis Paper Number 3, June 2003.

[11] This is based on a private conversation with the author.

[12] Iqra Channel started its transmission from Rome in October 1998. It is currently the only Islamic satellite channel that serves Arab viewers.

[13] Software programs that facilitate navigation around and through the imposed firewalls can be found everywhere in the Arab World and at nominal prices, since most of them are pirated.

[14] In Egypt, Internet services are provided free of charge.

[15] Al-Haj Saleh, Yasin, “The Political culture of Modern Syria: its formation, structure and interactions,” a study commissioned by the Conflict Studies Research Center in the UK in March 2003 and published on the Internet (

[16] The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a secret agreement between the governments of France and Great Britain that identified their respective areas of control in the Middle East, following the conclusion of WWI. The Agreement was negotiated in 1915 by the French diplomat Geoerge Picot, and British Diplomat Mark Sykes. According to the Agreement, Britain was allocated the areas of Jordan, Iraq and Palestine, while France received control over Syria and northern Iraq.

[17] Shaken, that is, but not stirred. The debate surrounding Ahlam’s works soon dissipated, leaving no “legacy” worthy of analysis.

[18] My novel Menstruation was specifically written for the purpose of stimulating such a debate. Unfortunately, though, and as is the case with most of my works so far, I wrote it in English, and though it has been translated into several languages so far, Arabic is not one of them. Still, I plan to have the novel translated to Arabic over the next year and then posted on the internet. It is unlikely that it could be published by an established Arab publisher.