Saturday 30 July 2011

The Arab Spring: Intellectual Underpinnings

The newly launched  Fair Observer Website has published an essay by yours truly on the intellectual discourses underlying the current social volatility and changes in the political landscape in North Africa and the Middle East.
 the outside world appears to be realizing that the region’s future is not limited to a choice between authoritarian strong-man regimes providing a precarious stability, or the uncertainties associated with an Islamist take-over. But what is still missing in analyses of these peoples’ revolutions - driven by rising Arab middle classes - is how political pluralism depends on intellectual opennessThis is not only because policy makers, political pundits and other Middle East watchers focus primarily on the antagonism between existing regimes and their Islamist detractors. 
The article showcases Egyptian philosopher Hasan Hanafi as an example of  what Mohammed Arkoun called the chercheur-penseur or 'scholar-thinker', whose contributions to a rethinking of Islam as a civilizational legacy were considered suspect by the political elites and controversial by the religious establishment and Islamists.
Hasan Hanafi
A former Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer, by 1960 Hanafi had already moved away from the Islamist agenda, focusing instead on the potential of Islam’s wider intellectual legacy for the emancipation of not just the Middle East but the Third World in general, from regressing into a theocracy.  Hanafi was no stranger to controversy. Because of his revolutionary reinterpretation of Islamic thinking along the lines of Latin American liberation theology, he had been in trouble with both Egypt’s state security apparatus and the Islamists before.  
The ‘Heritage and Renewal’ Project which he has been developing for the last thirty years envisages a new way of thinking for citizens of Egypt, the Muslim world, and eventually the entire Developing World, by critically examining the failings of their heritage as well as the shortcomings of the West.  Unfortunately for Hanafi, it caused not only suspicion among the state authorities, but his criticisms of atrophied traditional Islamic learning and rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood slogan ‘Islam is the Solution’ also caught the ire of the Azhar establishment and the Islamists.
However, it appears that these progressive ideas are now finally percolating through to the growing middle classes of increasingly better educated and critical young Egyptians and Muslims elsewhere.
 Amr Hamzawy, a political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment whose name briefly circulated as the new minister of youth after Mubarak’s fall, used the Islamist attacks on Hanafi to illustrate Egypt’s lack of intellectual freedom.
Amr Hamzawy
 Only now, in the wake of the February 25th revolution, is there a chance for the openness Hanafi has advocated for decades. In an article for al-Arabi Weekly, entitled ‘The Awakening of the Giant’, he  noted that: “The people broke the barrier of fear. They jumped forward along the historical path.” 
It seems that the Arabic-speaking parts of the Muslim world are catching up with other countries, where the space for lively intellectual debate has been less constricted:
Ironically, many of these thinkers have found more receptive audiences elsewhere in the Muslim world, in particular in Indonesia and Turkey [..]It is interesting to note how Indonesia and Turkey, two countries careful to avoid any direct reference to Islam in their constitutions, also appear to be the most open to lively debates on the place of religion in public life. This intellectual vibrancy is a crucial factor in the remarkable political transformations of the most populous Muslim nation-state in the world and the largest Muslim country in the Mediterranean. Indonesia and Turkey, too, suffered under military dictatorship while witnessing an increased display of personal Muslim piety. However, this is no longer pursued through political Islamic doctrines. Instead it has been translated into an agenda advocating economic development, universal standards of human rights, and democracy compatible with a moral compass based on Islamic values.
Hasan Hanafi in Indonesia
The read the full article, click here

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