Showing posts with label Arab world. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Arab world. Show all posts

Friday, 10 January 2014

The danger of seeing the Middle East exclusively in 'religious' terms

Georges Corm
Lebanese economist and historian Georges Corm's latest book criticizes the essentialist and reductionist perceptions of the Arab and wider Muslim world held by my many Middle East of observers and policy-makers dealing with that region. In his Pour une Lecture Profane des Conflits, he reflects on the debilitating effects the 'Clash of Civilizations Thesis' has had as the ideological driving force behind the 'War on Terror'.

At present this is hindering an appropriate understanding of what is at stake since the seismic shifts that have changed the political landscape in the Arabic-speaking parts of the Muslim world, with regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the troubled state of affairs in Iraq, the protracted civil war in Syria, and lingering unrest in countries such as Bahrain.

Because of the way these conflicts are reported and approached by outsiders dealing with the recalibration of policy-making or mediation in ongoing conflicts, the pervading view is:
that even after revolutions that were initially inspired by secular issues, the countries of the Arab world cannot shake off religion as the dominant force in politics. With its excessive political energies, political Islam remains the dominant power factor in the region.
Former Finance Minister Corm's book proposes a different way of looking at developments in the Middle East at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century; turning the gaze away from the erroneous view that gives undue privilege to the religion factor.
In actual fact, he explains, the Arab world is concerned with very different issues: the just distribution of power and resources, a functioning state based on the rule of law and democratic participation. However, Corm elucidates, an adequate language has not yet been found for these concerns, or rather, it has not yet been able to make its voice heard over the dominant religious discourse.
Over the course of three or four decades, he writes, every significant political opposition in the Arab world has placed itself in the religious camp. That has left traces that cannot be erased from one day to the next.
Central to Corm's analysis is the destructive influence of reactionary Islamic ideologues fueled by Saudi oil money, who reject the in themselves laudable ideas that underlie the Enlightenment:
The motto "liberté, égalité, fraternité" (liberty, equality, fraternity) was once very closely observed when it came to distributing power and wealth. Who gets what, and in whose favour do the distribution mechanisms work? It is not long ago, writes Corm, that questions like these were a fundamental part of every political science degree in the West, but that is no longer the case.
Instead, these have been replaced by a focus on culture, a factor that underlies both Huntington's new model of global order and the in Corm's equally mistaken foregrounding of multiculturalism, which has attained the status of ideology, but which is also  'discreetly similar to religious fundamentalism'. According to one reviewer:
Corm's culture-based interpretation of the Western perception of the conflicts currently permeating the Near East is fascinating. The only question is whether it still holds true. After all, many people in the West have indeed learned to take a closer look, to take the demands of the first protesters seriously and at face value.
Many now also share Corm's assessment that Arab secularism has sacrificed its own good reputation. Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Assad Senior and Junior in Syria – all of them built up dictatorial regimes that trampled their citizens' rights underfoot and unleashed their secret services on all those who dared to question their rule and demand reform. And where words like democracy and the rule of law have not only lost all value but even have to serve as excuses for the crimes of allegedly progressive regimes, promising political ideals are turned on their heads.
Western observers and policy-makers should stop hiding the cynicism of their decades-long support for Arab autocrats  behind a facade of supposedly culturally sensitive explanations and boldly promote the reappreciation of democratic and humanitarian principles because of their normative validity.

To read the full article click here.

Below is a clip of a lengthy discussion with Corm on the situation in the Middle East:

Friday, 3 May 2013

Sadiq Jalal al-Azm: Muslim Secularist talks about the Syrian Uprising

Last week, the Syrian website Al-Jumhuriyah, run by a conglomerate of Syrian writers and researchers supporting the uprising against Bashar al-Assad, published a lengthy interview conducted in January 2013, with one of Syria's foremost thinkers, the philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, who has It focused  on his views about recent developments in his country and the role of intellectuals in bringing about change.

Syrian philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm
Sadiq al-Azm's thinking is very much shaped by Marxism and  he has written on a wide variety of subjects, including Arab political affairs after the defeat of June 1967,  freedom of thought, platonic love, secularism, democracy, and globalization. However, he has also written very perceptive studies on religion, including critical assessments of Islamic thinking and Muslim responses to Orientalism

When asked how the author of A Critique of Religious Reason and other skeptical works about Islam could join a revolution that had started in the mosque, he responded that for too long intellectuals had closed their eyes to Syrian reality just in order to preserve their own mental and physical survival. Now:
the revolution is a Syrian settling of old accounts and an overdue payment of bills that were the result of Syrian silence and cowardice in moments such as the siege of the city of Hama in 1982, and its destruction and killing of its people
Moreover, it is not the first time that he sided with a revolt towards regime that was led by religious people, including clerics; Muslim and non-Muslim:
The author of Critique of Religious Thought also stood with the revolution of the Iranian people against the rule, corruption, and tyranny of the Shah, and against his famous intelligence apparatus known for its ferocity (the SAVAK). He stood with it despite the fact that that the leadership role of the clergy and ayatollahs was evident from the outset, and as I recall, the left in those days was almost entirely in favor of the Iranian people’s revolution despite the fact that demonstrations emerged from mosques, cemeteries, and funerals
The author of Critique of Religious Thought also stood with Liberation Theologists in Latin America and other places, because Liberation Theology supported people’s liberation movements in those countries against base tyrants such as Samoza in Nicaragua, criminal coup-makers like Pinochet in Chile, and the rule of the bloody generals in Argentina. After all this, is it possible for the author of the mentioned book to fail or let-down in the issue of standing with the revolution of the Syrian people against the rule that has surpassed Samoza, Pinochet, the Argentine generals, and the Shah of Iran combined in its tyranny, murder, and destruction?
What tilted the balance of inaction towards action in the case of his home country was set in motion in 2000; when a republican government was changed into a hereditary dynasty and the indignities the Syrian people had to suffer simply became too much. Still, there is a chill and sinister side to al-Azm's words
Syria swallowed the humiliation quietly and sedately, which was an unenviable position these days, and blood is being spilled today to erase its effects. The moment that the “Damascus Spring” tried to light a candle at the end of the tunnel, it was eliminated with a visible ferocity, and once again, Syria was silent and it accepted the suppression of the Damascus Spring with shocking normalcy. I will say again, in its revolution today, Syria spills this much blood in order to atone for all its past sins and erase its shame, and for this reason, I am with it.

In response to a question why, as a  leading representative of the intellectual left he had decided to throw his weight behind the uprising, whereas many of its other exponents have remained at best equivocal in their support, or even refused to back it altogether, Sadiq al-Azm explained that this would first need an explanation of a development within the Syrian left:
 ... it is known that the left brings together committed activists and advocates from different religious, confessional, doctrinal, regional, ethnic, and tribal backgrounds for the sake of a future civil state which surpasses these primordial affiliations and loyalties. After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the left and its dispersal everywhere (especially the numerous and differentiated communist parties), many of these leftists reverted back to their primordial and more primitive loyalties, especially the religious, confessional and doctrinal ones
[...] the left split into a large block that adopted what might be called “the Civil Society program”. It is a program which emphasizes certain issues, such as: Respect of human rights (even if only in word, or in the minimum possible manner), priority for the idea of citizenship and its practice in addition to civil rights and public freedoms, equality before the law, separation of powers, a secular state, an independent judiciary, democracy, decentralization of power and effective governance rather than passing power around between family members, as is happening in Syria today. In other words, the largest bloc of the left retreated to the second line of defense in the form of a “civil society program,” and its defense in the face of military-security-familial tyranny on the one hand, and medieval religious obscurantism on the other hand. I think that this bloc of the left in general sympathizes with the revolution in Syria
Al-Azm stresses that he has not given up his leftist convictions and that he still considers Marxist analyses of social and political situations convincing. However, he adds the caveat that he is not referring to classical Marxist analyses, but the approach advocated by Frantz Fanon, which he considers more relevant to  developments in a country like Syria: is useful to return to it today for any attempt at diagnosing the Syrian revolution and understanding its nature, especially given that Fanon was a real pioneer in describing the mechanisms and the stages of transformation of political powers, parties, and organizations that start as parties and national liberation movements in oppressed third world societies but change into a clique of rulers completely separated from their beginnings, their popular foundations, and their liberal programs that they had adopted which formed the purpose for their coming to power, only for them to oppress and step on the neck of the wretched of their population
Returning to the issue of joining a revolutionary cause that was initiated by religious activists, he also takes a swipe at another leading intellectual, the poet Adonis (see also the blog post of 30 October 2011).
The contradiction here is not in my position, but in the position of those who once stood in support of the revolution of the Iranian people or the Liberation Theologists and their churches or for movements of national liberation almost everywhere, yet refuse to support the revolution of the Syrian people under the pretext that its demonstrations and protests spring from the mosque and not from the opera house or the national theatre, as Adonis justifies.
 Adonis preferred denial, evasion and justification in his dealing with the changing reality of the Arab Spring, and especially the popular revolution in Syria. Adonis had raised the slogan “positions for change, freedom and creativity” in his famous magazine Mawaqif (Positions); however, when the serious change began to occur in Syria and freedom was near, Adonis retreated more than two steps backwards instead of absorbing seriously and critically the development of the changing Arab reality, and instead of critically reviewing the axioms of his cultural and epistemological apparatus in light of the mobile and new Arab Syrian reality. His slogans imply that such an intellectual would be at the forefront of people leaning towards change and freedom in Syria and defending them, but he preferred to distance himself from all of this and he discarded his slogan in the dustbin of history.
Al-Azm also cautions against having exaggerated expectations of what a revolution can achieve in terms of structurally changing a culture that has become very much set in its ways: 'cultural change is socially cumulative and historically slow'. For convincing argumentations making that case, he refers to the writings of fellow progressive thinkers from the Maghrib, among others: Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri, Abdallah Laroui, and Egyptians like Fouad Zakariyya and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd. As for Syria, he believes inspiration can be drawn from such thinkers as Jamil Saliba, Anton Makdisi, Adib Allajmi, Adil Al-Awwa, Yasin al-Hafiz, Tayyib Tayzini

Returning to the ideological dimensions of realizing drastic changes in a culture and society, al-Azm believes that the key to genuine change is secularization and the creation of a civil society which can enact such social transformations. This is also the reason why he helped establish the 'Committee for the Revival of Civil Society' (al-Mowaten) and became an active participant in the 'Damascus Spring' forums:
what is most important in secularism and democracy is their energetic capacity, particularly in diverse and pluralistic societies… In addition to this capacity to provide a good, positive atmosphere to restore civil peace, and not to oppress and use bare force, and to provide well tested mechanism (in many countries and people and societies and cultures today) for peaceful transfer of power as widely as possible in society. Among the characteristics of secularism and democracy is that they provide a neutral ground for the meeting of the various religious doctrines and beliefs that are exclusionary by nature, allowing them to interact in the public space, the national arena, and the political landscape based on common denominators and voluntary, free consensus that makes it impossible for any of these doctrines and dogmas to survive in a vacuum
 He rejects the notion that some religions or cultures are per definition incapable of secularizing and therefore unsuitable for democratic systems of governance:
democracy is usually acquired, and the secular state is also acquired and is not that easy to launch. There has always been a great many obstacles, internally and externally, for all. I also do not think that the enlightened secular elites’ goal was originally only to prepare their communities to become eligible to accept democracy. Their goal, ambition, as well as their demand was a comprehensive renaissance of the vocabulary of democracy and secularism.
In analyzing why the secularization and democratization of Arab societies and political systems is such an uphill battle, the influence on al-Azm of Third-Worldist discourses as articulated by Frantz Fanon is clearly detectable: 
This not only happened to us, but to all civilizations, cultures, and peoplesIn the search for our enlightenment and renaissance, we always come back to Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani and Mohammad Abdo, but a bit of scrutiny will show that there was something like al-Afghani and Mohammad Abdo [Abduh, ck] and what they represent in Iran, Russia, India, China, Japan, and Africa. So I think that the issue of enlightenment is much larger than groups of educated and secular elites that are trying to make the people eligible to accept democracy through public awareness of the need of secularism and secularization to overcome the failures and existing deficit. And I do not think that the current Arab Spring revolutions are able to set aside the idea of a broader enlightenment in ahistorical sense, if they had wanted to, because they also speak the language of reform, democracy, renewal, freedom, dignity, renaissance, and constitutionalism.
As for the role of intellectuals in recasting Syria's future in terms of securing a democratization process in the wake of the anticipated regime change, al-Azm notes the following points:
one of the most important things that intellectuals can do in the beginning is get rid of what is called the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Information, then form their own cultural bodies, literary forums, intellectual circles, and independent autonomous unions, and manage them all without abidance to anyone or the dominance of one over the other.
 Then, it is up to the intellectuals to be generous with the best that they have to offer to the people, so that the intellectual in the New Syria is active and engaged. 
Read the full interview here.

Saturday, 24 January 2009


Over the last two months or so, a fortunate coincidence of circumstances has allowed me to educate myself about developments in contemporary arts in relation to both the Muslim World and Muslims in the 'Diaspora'. My impressions of Infrastructures and Ideas: Contemporary Art in the Middle East, a two-day symposium jointly hosted by the Tate Britain and Tate Modern on 22 and 23 January 2009, will -- for now -- be the last panel in a triptych on art (see also the posts of 29 and 22 November).

The event was kicked off by Professor Derek Gregory, a British-born geographer now teaching in Vancouver who has done important work on political and cultural geographies of late modern war -- a topic that seems to present itself almost automatically when dealing with a highly volatile region like the Middle East, and which for that reason is very illustrative of what Gregory called the 'Project of Cartographic Reason'. He used his presentation to problematise the designation 'Middle East', not only as a topographic term referring to a concrete place as such, but also as a less tangible concept with important cultural-political connotations. The significance of this point became clear throughout the conference, as participants struggled to come to terms with the subject area; using 'Middle East' interchangeably with 'Arab', or even 'Islamic World' demonstrated the widespread tendency to conflate these designations of evermore expansive regions. (Art historian Nada Shabout, author of Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics, rightly noted that sorting out such inaccuracies is crucial for the proper contextualisation of art).

Gregory referred to Juan Cole's Napoleon's Egypt, the subtitle of which, 'Invading the Middle East', points up the time in European history when the term began to receive currency. Later in the nineteenth century, 'Middle East' was used by the British Indian Office to refer to Persia and its surrounding areas, which were considered of strategic importance to the security of the colonies in the Subcontinent. During the First World War, Sir Mark Sykes -- intent on 'cutting out the cancer' that was the faltering Ottoman Empire and thus release those suffering under the Turkish yoke -- advocated the use of 'Middle East'. According to Gregory this was done in an attempt to undercut Lloyd George's persistent reference to a 'Near East', which implied a continued recognition of Istanbul as a centre of political gravity. Winston Churchill literally put the region on the map through the abrasive interventions of his recently established 'Middle East Department' (within the Colonial Office), which was basically responsible for the political geography as we still know it today.

Topography becomes connected with the politics of culture when the Eurocentric gaze projects the Middle East as an alien space, a 'tableau of queerness' (Edward Said in Orientalism,p. 103) that must be disciplined. The persistence of the imagery associated with such a designation is affirmed by Robert Kaplan's description of the Middle East as a region where 'Instead of bold lines on a map we have a child’s messy finger painting'. Another articulate international affairs commentator close to the American foreign policy making establishment, Fareed Zakaria, opined that 'when you get to this region, you see in lurid color all the dysfunctions that people conjure up when they think of Islam'. This, argues Gregory, evinces how 'geography is therefore the art of war' (again quoting Said, this time from The Politics of Dispossession).

London-based architect Eyal Weizman agreed with Gregory's observations, recalling the cartographic projections of Israel as a tiny blue spot in the surrounding red mass of the Middle East. Israeli perceptions of space see the Middle East not only as surrounding the Jewish Homeland; it is also 'inside' -- the Palestinians resident on its territory. For Weizman this affirms that the cartographic representations used in topography and geography are political subjectivities, which not only 'shape' the world, but also affect the way you act in it. To him this only underscores the importance of coming up with counter strategies for these campaigns of geographic warfare.

Issa Touma, an autodidact photographer who runs Le Pont Gallery in Aleppo, used the features of the Arab house as a metaphor for the challenges artists established in places like his native Syria face. Grim-looking exteriors hide often well-decorated interiors. Big walls discourage communication with the outside world, high windows are there to 'spy' on 'the street'. To an extent these residences are jails, as their design assists the familial patriarchs to exercise control. The same applies to many Middle Eastern societies at large, as Touma experienced himself: his gallery was repeated closed by the government. Because so much remains out of sight, Touma agrees that media images of anger, flag-burning, and violence, on the one hand, and the projection of a dreamy 'Arabian nights' utopia, on the other, will not be challenged easily. He believes therefore in the importance of contemporary art for showing reality -- which should also include people's dreams.

Aside from 'space' -- including its slippage into a variety interpretations -- other buzzwords circulating throughout these two days were 'diaspora' and 'movement'. The fluidity of these interpretations is reflected in events such as Homeworks in Beirut, and The Flying House initiative of Abu Dhabi art collector Abdul-Raheem Sharif, which showcases the work of Emirati artists since the 1970s (including those of his brother Hassan Sharif).

The inherent hybridity of such notions conjure up associations with fields like cultural studies and postcolonial theory, while the production and function of contemporary art outside the 'metropoles' of Berlin, London, Paris, and New York is indicative of the collapse of the West vs 'the rest' dichotomy. In his talk about the relationship between 'Tradition and Modernity', Cornell art historian and Africanist Salah Hassan invoked Stuart Hall's claim that the binaries of West/Non-West and Centre/Periphery are increasingly challenged by the creative ideas germinating in the spaces 'in-between'.

Panelists like photographer and video artist Zineb Sedira spoke of diaspora as an almost sine qua non condition for cutting-edge artists originating from the Middle East and North Africa. Paris-born but of Mauritanian extraction, now residing in London though holding dual French-Algerian nationality, her own biography appears to confirm this.

In a similar vein, Tangiers-based Yto Barrada noted the importance for MENA (Middle Eastern & North African) artists to be able to move around, because the local cultural environments are often still bleak and barren. However, with all the travel obstacles they currently find in their way, it proves difficult to establish contacts with fellow artists, curators and other culture brokers.

This issue of 'brokerage' was addressed in a panel session on Writing and Translation, opened by the renowned Palestinian poet and author of I Saw Ramallah,Mourid Barghouti. Challenging the postmodernist doctrine that the author loses ownership of his work after its introduction into the public space, Barghouti showed his dismay over a close-reading of his poem 'It's also Fine' by Linda Sue Grimes, in which it is claimed that he does not close the door on 'Islamofascist Jihadism'. According to Barghouti, Grimes is listening to her own voice rather than the poet's. Apparently, in her view, being a Palestinian it cannot be otherwise than that Barghouti 'must be writing as a jihadist addressing another jihadist'. That 'it's also fine' to die of old age or infirmity thus becomes an unattainable privilege for Palestinians if credence is given to such interpretations.

The understanding of non-Western literatures is not only hampered by a lack of nuance or unfamiliarity with local languages, but the absence of translations in European languages of writings on philosophy and history by Middle Eastern intellectuals. Arabs and others remain caught in the dichotomy of demonisation vs romantisation, which continues to oscillate between the images of Caliban and those emerging 'fresh from the hands of the Gods'. While Asians, Africans and Latin Americans are expected to acquaint themselves with the Western canon -- and should realise the rare privilege conferred upon by the provision of translations in their own vernaculars -- the reverse traffic is a still a mere trickle, an occasional favour bestowed on only a few select cultural giants.

Aside from the question of what gets lost in translation, or -- in the case above -- what is read into it, moderator Salah Hassan also amplified the role of other 'culture brokers' than literary translators. Laudable initiatives such as Bidoun, which provides a forum for discussing arts and culture in the Middle East, or the online journal Nafas, dedicated to promoting 'contemporary art from Islamic influenced countries and regions', are indicative of the artistic vibrancy in the Middle East/Arab World/Dar al-Islam.

Published in New York, Bidoun is presently run by founder Lisa Farjam and editor-in-chief Negar Azimi, who was previously associated with the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo and the Beirut-based Fondation Arabe pour l'Image. Supported by IFA, the German Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations, Nafas is part of the wider Universes-in-Universe platform, founded as far back as 1997 by Gerhard Haupt and Pat Binder and providing a forum (in English, German, Arabic and Spanish) for discussions on art from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. As someone with a vivid interest in all things Southeast Asia, I was particularly pleased with Haupt's report on a recent six-week presentation tour to Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, introducing the 'East' to the 'further East'. Although 'dedicated to contemporary art from the Maghreb to Southeast Asia, from Central Asia to the Middle East', the name 'nafas' -- from the Arabic for 'breath' -- was a deliberate choice to emphasis the individuality of the artists and steer away from presenting 'the' Muslim world as a monolithic whole.

This clarification touches on an important observation made by Salah Hassan, that aside from the interesting things evidently fermenting under the surface,there is currently also something of a 'hype' going on. In the wake of the post-9/11 surge in demand for information on all 'things Islamic', there was also an eruption of presentations, exhibitions, etc. on cultural developments, while prices of Middle Eastern art skyrocketed. Although this may be potentially good news for artists from the region, there is also a tendency on the part of museum directors and event curators to invite the same faces over and over again. Prince Claus Award recipient Christine Tohme showed her frustration over the fact that, sixteen years after launching the Askhal Alwan initiative, she is still one of the first calling points for anyone with the intention of organising something on Middle Eastern art. It made her wonder to what extent the contemporary art establishment in the West is aware of the dynamism and ongoing development of the arts in the field.

Also symptomatic of this state of affairs is the undeniable trend towards large-scale, and therefore expensive, undertakings, especially in the Gulf states. A number of conference presenters and discussants are themselves in one way or another 'implicated' in this (although the degree in which they were comfortable with this varied). Aside from Christine Tohme, Jack Persekian, founder of Jerusalem's Al-Ma'mal Foundation for Contemporary Art and Artistic director of the Sharjah Biennial, and Townhouse Gallery founding director William Wells, serve on the curatorial advisory committee of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project, which envisages the construction of a behemoth museum complex for contemporary arts on an island off the coast of this oil-rich emirate.

For this tremendously ambitious -- and money-swallowing -- plan, the initiator, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayid al-Nahyan, called on now former Guggenheim Director Thomas Krens and the Louvre in Paris, while renowned architect Frank Gehry was commissioned with the design.

The ambivalence surrounding such money-driven projects were also addressed by Shumon Basar's eloquent and humorous closing presentation on 'The Politics of Space'.* Inspired by Italo Calvino's festina lente, he captured the question whether the UAE art scene is held hostage in a political hijacking by a mixture of petrodollar grandeur, royal megalomania and parvenu Nouveau Riche in the catchphrase 'speed of forms, slowness of contents'.

* Somewhat ironically, Basar, co-editor of the acclaimed anthology of Middle Eastern architecture With/Without, used to work for Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born deconstructivist architect (former student of Rem Coolhaas), whose company designed the performing arts centre for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

Although, as one of the delegates noted, also in the Middle East (the) art (world) appears to follow the money, it evinces also there is a degree of self-reflection and questioning of such practices among those involved. In that respect, politics could take an example from the art world.