Arab Political Thought: Past and Present. Georges Corm. London: Hurst & Company Publishers/Aga Khan University Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilizations, 2020. Pg 367. ISBN: 9781849048163.
Evelyne Accad, University of Illinois, Lebanese American University
This remarkable outstanding book by Georges Corm, a major Arab Lebanese thinker of our century, has come at the right time to enlighten us and warn us about the dangers we are being faced with, not only economically, politically, ecologically and socially, but more importantly in the formation and structure of Arab thought and its evolution process. Obviously, Arab thought is at the chore and impacts all these other domains. It is therefore of upmost importance.
The book explains and expands on what could be done to remedy centuries of neglect, lack of analysis and research as well as misreading and oversight, leading to the various crisis and lack of solutions we are finding ourselves presently in our part of the world.
First published in 2015 by La Découverte in Paris as Pensée et politique dans le monde arabe : Contextes historiques et problématiques XIX-XXI siècle, it is a translation from the French by Patricia and Atoma Batoma.
Already well-known in French and Arabic for his numerous erudite books, articles, interviews, political activism and teaching on Economics, Political Science, Contemporary History of the Middle East and North Africa, Georges Corm, Professor at the Institute of Political Sciences at Saint Joseph University in Beirut as well as at the American University in Beirut deserves greater recognition in the English speaking world. It is about time for such an outstanding intellectual, contributor to the advancement of Arab progress and development, to be more analyzed and studied in English speaking circles and Universities. His voice needs to reach a greater public as it opens doors to our, otherwise, very depressing future. These doors have remained closed for too long out of conscious or unconscious efforts and political endeavor to “concealing or marginalizing the thousands different facets of critical thought and finely crafted knowledge” (p. 296). Corm remedies this lack in this remarkable book.
One of the central questions the book raises in poignant ways is “how to escape the dark tunnel we find ourselves in.” (p.288) The claim having been made so far by many intellectuals, political activists, the media, etc., that Arab political thought, whether of the religious reformist or nationalist, anti-imperialist, and progressive, is responsible for the various forms of political Islam today, preventing Arab societies from moving forward, is a wrong assumption. Furthermore, this erroneous analysis, being followed in most universities around the globe is superficial, dangerous and harmful, leading Arab leadership in further pits, gaps, wrong paths, misunderstandings and increased violence and destruction. “The major problem of secular or modernist thought was not its failure to conform to the realities of the Arab world… Rather, its near total invisibility in academia and the media, both Western and Arab, is unquestionably what stifled it in favor of debates that were exclusively theologico-political, redundant, and circular. Whether they were portrayed positively or negatively, these debates continued to be the focus of what bordered on being a marketing campaign to promote the different Islamic movements and their leaders as if they constituted the main political and social force in the Arab world. This state of affairs led to a vicious self-perpetuating cycle.” (p. 291)
To correct this huge gap, Corm provides us with about three hundred pages of analysis and detailed accounts of Arab thinkers who have been neglected, silenced, or downright assassinated and who could provide a more accurate, challenging and profound way of looking at the Arab world. He encourages students, researchers, professors and intellectuals around the globe to give them their dues, to research and analyze them and to engage into their thinking which could bring about major transformations and solutions to the decline of Arab societies and Arab thought we are presently witnessing.
Among the remarkable thinkers presented in the book are already known ones but mostly thinkers that have too often been neglected and ignored. Chapter one describes the richness and diversity of cultural expression in Arab civilization from the Iraki poet Abu Nuwas (757-815) to the Lebanese Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) who emigrated to the United States, to singers and music composers who marked their times and are more popular than political or religious leaders (Umm Kulthum, Fairuz, Abdel Halim Hafez, Farid al-Atrash, Warda Al Jazaïriyya, Abdel Wahab, Marcel Khalifeh …). Arab philosophers such as al-Kindi (ninth century), Ibn Sina (Avicenna 980-1037), Ibn Rushd (Averroes 1126-1198), Al-Ghazali (1058-1111). Not to forget the jurists (Maliki, Hanafi, Shafi’i, Hanbali) as well as the exceptional work of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) born in Tunis, who is the originator of the philosophy of history as well as sociology, economics, political science and anthropology. Major novelists and crafters of the Arabic language are also briefly mentioned.
Chapter two emphasizes the issue of religious and national identity that has torn the Arab thought apart. The Lebanese Albert Hourani (1915-1993) on the history of the Arabs which, according to Corm, reads more like a book on Islamic civilization. The Tunisian Hichem Djaït born in 1935 reinforces ‘Arab-Islamic’ concepts. Many great writers such as the Egyptians Taha Husayn, Abbas Mahmoud al-Akkad and the Lebanese Abdullah al-Alayli were inspired by the ‘sacred history’ of Islam. On the other hand, the Jordanian Fahmy Gedaan, in much lesser known works, sees the danger of this return to a religious past. A flood of literature seeking to expand on the Wahhabi doctrine of Islam has participated in creating a new Orientalism (Ibn Taymiyyah from Turkey, Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi from Pakistan, Sayyid Qutb from Egypt).
Chapter three examines the epistemological framework for understanding Arab thought which has considerably been impoverished over the last decades. Massignon, Blachère, Sauvaget, Berque, Monteil and Rodinson have been replaced by abundant production on political Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Islam activists. Arab intellectuals have been fascinated by European writings in which they are featured. Edward Said’s Orientalismdeveloped and re-launched the debates around these issues. Albert Hourani expands on many thinkers who have helped shape Arab thought : al-Tahtawi, Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi, al-Boustani, as well as al-Afghani, Muhammad ‘Abduh, and finally Rashid Rida, Shibli Shumayyil and Farah Antoun. According to Corm, Hourani categorization and analysis are not neutral since he implies that the Christian by birth amongst them are more secular and radical in their views, something not found when one gets closer to the texts of both Muslim and Christian thinkers.
At the core of chapter four is the attempt to understand what unifies Arabs who are so quick in disagreeing. One of the fascinating observations is the migration of million of Arabs to the petroleum-exporting countries which led to “conspicuous austerity and ceremonial religiosity, but also dissolute private lives and fortunes built on corruption.” (p. 75) National disenchantment is well reflected in an essay by the Tunisian thinker, Hélé Béji. The Iranian revolution had a tremendous impact on thinkers who saw many of them turn to Islam as a resistance to materialist Western capitalism. Brilliant thinkers like Mahdi Amil, a Marxist Lebanese intellectual who was assassinated in Beirut in 1987, showed how Islamising thought came to replace materialism and atheism. The negative effect of oil wealth was that it created technological laziness as well as major indebtedness by some Arab countries.
Chapter five exposes the major sources of disagreement in Arab thought and the political elites: Balkanisation of Arab provinces, the Palestinian question, the Cold War and American dominance, the Iranian revolution, all of which worsened the lack of unity among Arabs. The creation of the state of Israel and its continuous expansion has had a big impact on the evolution of Arab thought. But it was slow in coming as seen at first as the continuation of European colonialism. It became of central concern with the successive Arab-Israeli wars in 1956, 1967, 1973, the invasion of Lebanon and occupation of Beirut in 1982. Zahlan and Corm exposed the links of some of the Evangelical movements to Zionism. The Islamisation of Arab thought can be traced back to 1960 in contrast to Arab nationalism promoted by the Baath Party.
Chapter six expands on what led to a renaissance thought. How Europeans were welcome in Egypt, specially the Saint-Simonians because they helped accelerate development. This is when great Arab novelists like Zaydan, Husayn Haykal appeared which led to a great time for cultural flourishing. Distinguished thinkers on Arab nationalism such Al-Kawakibi emerged. It also brought about a magnificent feminist movement which started in the nineteenth century and continued to the present day.
Chapter seven develops the ideas of Arab renaissance described as a desire for modernity with thinkers from Al-Azhar university and the feminist movement. Important names are related : al-Tahtawi, ‘Abduh, Amin, ‘Abd al-Raziq and Taha Husayn. The status of women became a major concern. Qasim Amin wrote The Liberation of women in 1899 in which he challenged her condition. Two thesis on this topic were defended by Fahmy of Egypt and el-Yafi of Lebanon. Huda Sharawi in Egypt launched the movement in the 19th century, followed by Doria Shafik, Hifni Nasif and Zayn al-Din in Lebanon. Other outstanding women such as May Ziade, Nawal El Saadawi, Fatema Mernissi are presented and analyzed; their role is delineated within Arab renaissance along with many other illustrious figures such as Lutfi al-Sayyid, Ismail Mazhar, Jurji Zaydan ; in the Maghreb : Abdelkader of Algeria, Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi, ‘Abd al-Hamid Ibn Badis,. All of these thinkers deserve to be mentioned, analyzed and written about in order to reveal the richness of Arab thought.
Chapter eight explores the various forms of Arab nationalism struggling for decolonization. Yasin al-Hafiz denounced the military defeat of Egypt in the hands of the Israël Army. Secular and anti-imperialist Arab nationalism emerged with thinkers such as Samné, Azuri, Ghanem, all bringing out the relationship between democracy and the emancipation of the nation from autocratic regimes. Khalid is an Egyptian thinker who thought in terms of reformist Islam. The emergence in 1928 of the Muslim Brotherhood coincided with the creation of Saudi Arabia. Rida, a Lebanese cleric, seems to provide evidence of this relationship in spreading the Wahhabi doctrine. Sayyid Qutb in 1950 Egypt became the emblematic figure of this fundamentalism.
Great thinkers who contributed to Arab nationalist ideology were: al-Husri, of Kurdish origin; Zurayk, a prominent Syrian intellectual who had a big impact and influence on the Arab world, saw nationalism as a necessity in the modern world; ‘Abd al-Daim devoted to education; and Nadim al-Bitar who authored many books on rereading the history of the Arabs in terms of revolutionary changes.
The main political currents adhering to Arab nationalism were: Nasser, the Baath party and the Arab Nationalist Movement. The Baath movement was initially developed by two Syrian intellectuals: Michel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi, both from the Middle class and opened to European culture, particularly the French one. Existentialism and personalism influenced their thinking.
Chapter nine looks at other forms of nationalism in the Arab world. They include the theories of Antoun Saadeh, founder of the Syrian People’s Party, specific forms of North African nationalism (FLN, Bourguibism, Ben Barka and the USFP, Gaddafi), and two pan-Arab cultural institutions: the Center for Arab Unity Studies and the Institute for Palestine Studies. The unifying element of the various Arab nationalisms is the Arabic language. The Palestinian linguist, Suleiman, shows how the Arabic language played a major role in the nationalisms of Musa, Husayn and Awad. The Institute for Palestine Studies was created in Beirut in 1963 in order to increase awareness of the Palestinian question. Khalidi and Zurayk animated the Institute with their research, publications and cultural activities.
Chapter ten reflects on the results of the political and military failures (Arab unity, liberation of Palestine) have had on Arab thought. Yasin al-Hafez expressed radical secular revolutionary thought. He was influenced by Fanon whom he cites extensively. Jalal al-Azm and Adonis fought against religious obscurantism. Al-Azm denounced various religious ‘taboos’ and defended Salman Rushdie. Adonis founded poetry journals and distanced himself from bloody conflicts. The Moroccan Abdallah Laroui attempted to explain, from a Marxist perspective, the permanent crisis of Arab intellectuals. Corm delves into Laroui’s work because “his originality is indisputable and his critical analysis of the successive stages of Arab thought (clerical, political, technical) still seems valid today.” (p. 187) Samir Amin is one of the best known representatives of Marxist Arab thought. An Egyptian economist, his numerous books analyze capitalism in the global South. Hassan Hamdan, known as Mahdi Amel, who was assassinated in Beirut in 1987, demonstrated the contradictions within intellectual Arab thought. He successfully and critically deconstructed their weaknesses. Another great thinker from Lebanon who was assassinated in 1987 is Husayn Mroué. His materialistic reading of heritage is impressive. Other Marxist inspired thinkers are Tayyeb Tizini and Elias Morcos. The thought of many of the intellectuals presented in this chapter was marginalized through the surge of Islamist thought, essentialist in nature, that became the dominant reference.
Chapter twelve describes the fierce battle between modernists attached to secularism and religious conservatives who saw the modernists as a depersonalization of Arab Muslim identity. This major dispute is analyzed through Abed al-Jabri, Professor at the University of Rabat and Georges Tarabichi born in Aleppo. Tarabichi invalidated al-Jabri’s vision of an Islamic mental structure closed in on itself. Corm notices that the dispute between those two intellectuals deserves greater studies and critical analysis because it is at the core of Arab identity. He encourages students to pick up the challenge. Yasin al-Hafiz characterized the tensions between the modernists and the fundamentalists as religious McCarthyism. Victims of this clash were Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and Farag Foda. Abu Zayd was declared an apostate by an Egyptian court in 1994, blamed for his liberal and open interpretation of Islam. But for Abu Zayd, it was such closed position that accounted for the lag in development of Muslim thinkers. He claimed that Islam could be a secular religion. Two other persecuted thinkers that met assassination for their ideas were Mahmoud Taha in Sudan and Farag Foda in Cairo. These victims demonstrate the atmosphere of religious intolerance created to diverge from the growing problems faced by Arab societies: inequalities, unemployment and exclusion, lack of entry into industrial modernity. Two major Arab intellectuals, al-Azmeh and al-Messiri give us windows into the possibility of establishing a civil state separating politics and religion.
Chapter thirteen looks at the attempts at ideological conciliation between Islamic identity reflection of a glorious Arab-Islamic past and the modernist, liberal movements with secular and/or nationalist tendencies. Fouad Ajami attests to the shift some Arab intellectuals underwent when they became successful in the West. He completely veered to the side of the American superpower paving the way to numerous others. He can be looked upon as a leader of the new liberal Arab thought. Larbi Sadiki, born in Tunisia and educated in Australia, claims that Islamists are major thinkers who have come out of Eurocentrism and Orientalism and hope to reclaim concepts of justice, consultation, legality, accountability and probity in the management of economy, polity and society. It is worth noticing that many of these intellectuals are close to billionaires, most of whom made their fortunes in the oil monarchies. They thus finance religious foundations, journals, universities, scholarships and academic chairs in major English-speaking universities. Ziad Hafez is an intellectual that is worth mentioning and studying. His writings are having a big impact on the Arab intellectuals. There are other important thinkers to analyze and discuss: Gamal al-Banna who distanced himself from his brother Hassan al-Banna founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Zakaria Ouzon of Syria, Sadok Belaïd at the University of Tunis, Abdellilah Belkeziz a respected Moroccan intellectual. Mohammed Arkoun, recognized as one of the main religious reformists, worked on present day Islam confronting its Tradition with Globalization. Al-Ansari denounced the schizophrenia of individuals who feel very secular to the point of atheism but who cling to Islamic identity. For him the spirit of conciliation paralyzes the dialectics of history. As for Muhammad Dahir, he denounces conciliation and qualifies fundamentalism as counter-revolutionary while promoting Mohammed Ali and Abdel Nasser as secular leaders.
An important movement within Arab thought is that of Wasatiyya, or the middle way, as an attempt to counter radical and fanatical Islamic thought. It was promoted by Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan and by Sadiq al-Mahdi of Sudan. They organized colloquia devoted to this other way of looking at Islam.
Other thoughts that claimed to be rooted in Arab Christianity come from two Lebanese thinkers: Michel Chiha who saw the need for political moderation as well as free trade, he predicted the future disaster of Palestine and Antoine Messarra, an activist who worked for civil peace after the tragic events that tore Lebanon between 1975 and 1990. There are also four churchmen, two priests from the Maronite community (Moubarac and Hayek), Grégoire Haddad a Greek Catholic and Georges Khodr a Greek Orthodox.
The last chapter offers an overview of Arab thought in the humanities and social sciences (anthropology, philosophy, history, sociology, economics, etc.) responding to the questions of the Arab world’s persistent decline, its underdevelopment and its inability to create a modern nation, a respected modern entity. Corm wants to show how some thinkers have “made very substantial contributions within various domains of the human and social sciences.” (p.266) There is Abdel Rahman Badawi who offers a bridge between contemporary European philosophy and Arab Muslim heritage, Nassif Nassar who published a reformist manifesto for a new society in Lebanon from a philosophical and conceptual perspective. Other philosophers are Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, Fouad Zakariya, Paul Khoury who approached the issues of Islamo-Christian dialogue, Soubhi al-Mahmassani, Hassan Saab, Malek Bennabi, Fathi Triki, Abdelkebir Khatibi and Mondher Kilani.
Arab thought in sociology and history include the impressive work of Hanna Batatu in political sociology, Mansour Khalid, Ali al-Wardi who wrote and eight-volume social history of Iraqi society, Maruf al-Rusafi who called for the freedom to criticize canonical literature, Abd al-Aziz al-Duri, Abdallah Laroui, Mostefa Lacheraf and Mohamad Harbi.
Arab thought in economics and technology have many shortcomings. Nevertheless we find substantial contributions by Galal Amin, Youssef Sayegh, Burhan Dajani, Abdelkader Sid-Ahmed, Ahmed Henni, Mahmoud Abdel-Fadil, Massoud Daher, Charles Issawi and Antoine Zahlan who identified the barriers to the development of local technological capabilities. Corm ends by saying that it was not possible to do justice to all of the enumerated or forgotten thinkers who would each deserve a whole chapter but he hopes to have opened some doors into more knowledge and recognition of the various disciplines within Arab thought.
In conclusion Corm notices that Arab political thought in its various facets is not responsible for the swing to various forms of political Islam. “As the twenty-first century begins to take shape, Arab students are following a university curriculum that is completely pervaded by an ideology that is both superficial and harmful.” (p. 289) The violent upheavals that have plagued the Arab world and ripped apart their societies and dismantled them certainly constitute the most disrupting and disturbing aspect of a thought that nevertheless moved onward despite all the odds. What accounts to its invisibility in both Western and Arab media and academic circles is the domination of theologico-political debates which becomes a self-perpetuating cycle hiding the richer aspect of Arab thought.
Corm rightfully notices that: “The time has come to break with the intrumentalisation of the three monotheistic religions, which has caused so much hardship for so many people without ever providing civil peace within those countries that sought to ‘re-Islamise’ their customs and laws on the grounds that this reflects the authenticity of their identity – a notion that has become high-value intellectual merchandise given the success it provides in academia and the media.” (pp. 292-293) He calls on the young generation of Arabs living in their countries or abroad to liberate themselves from the Islamophiles as well as Islamophobes and to pay attention to their rich culture breaking away from the stereotypical narratives that prevent us from moving forward. We should restore and deepen the largely ignored facets of Arab thought he presented us in this book. “To live with dignity within modern productive societies should remain the main objective, and if this were achieved it would bring an end to internal violence, inter-Arab conflict, and to unchecked emigration by Arabs who choose to cross the Mediterranean see illegally, leading to the tragic loss each year of thousands who perish along the way.” (p.295)
As I was working on this review in an apartment shared with my 98 years old aunt above the port of Beirut in the summer of 2020, the blast of August 4, destroyed the apartment, almost killed me and shattered the computer with glass, tore Corm’s book cover as well as tried to decimate the work I had started. I have only been able to restore it now. The ideas presented here have become all the more urgent. May Corm’s voice be heard and his ideas implemented in these more than troubled times.
I would like to recommend this book for Arabic, African, Middle Eastern and North African classes and I would definitely put it as complementary reading to any discussion on Arabic thought; I would also recommend it for purchase by University libraries as well as city libraries. The writing is quite easy and does not use academic jargon which makes it understandable to general audiences who could enlarge their knowledge about Arab societies, intellectuals, thinkers and activists. The index and bibliography are quite thorough.
Reviewer: Professor Evelyne Accad
Born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon. Professor Emerita from the University of Illinois and the Lebanese American University in Comparative Literature, African Studies, Women Studies, French, Middle-East Studies, and the Honors Program.
Publications include: L’Excisée/The Excised, Femmes du Crépuscule, The Wounded Breast: Intimate Journeys through Cancer, Voyages en Cancer, Blessures des Mots: Journal de Tunisie, Wounding Words: A Woman’s Journal in Tunisia, Des femmes, des hommes et la guerre: Fiction et Réalité au Proche-Orient, Coquelicot du massacre; Montjoie Palestine! or Last Year in Jerusalem, Veil of Shame: The Role of Women in the Modern Fiction of North Africa and the Arab World. Five edited volumes, seventeen book chapters, seventy-eight articles and more than one hundred book reviews.
Several awards among which: Prix Phénix 2001, France-Liban Award 1994, and International Edicator’s Award.
Co-Founder with Dr Jacqueline Hajjar of Beit-el-Hanane, an abused women’s shelter in Beirut, Lebanon since 2008.