The Arab Intellectuals Who Didn’t Roar – NYTimes.com
IN mid-June, the Syrian poet known as Adonis, one of the Arab world’s most renowned literary figures, addressed an open letter to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. The stage was set for one of those moments, familiar from revolutions past, in which an intellectual hero confronts an oppressive ruler and eloquently voices the grievances of a nation.
Instead, Adonis — who lives in exile in France — bitterly disappointed many Syrians. His letter offered some criticisms, but also denigrated the protest movement that had roiled the country since March, and failed even to acknowledge the brutal crackdown that had left hundreds of Syrians dead. In retrospect, the incident has come to illustrate the remarkable gulf between the Arab world’s established intellectuals — many of them, like Adonis, former radicals — and the largely anonymous young people who have led the protests of the Arab Spring.
More than 10 months after it started with the suicide of a Tunisian fruit vendor, the great wave of insurrection across the Arab world has toppled three autocrats and led last week in Tunisia to an election that many hailed as the dawn of a new era. It has not yielded any clear political or economic project, or any intellectual standard-bearers of the kind who shaped almost every modern revolution from 1776 onward. In those revolts, thinkers or ideologues — from Thomas Paine to Lenin to Mao to Vaclav Havel — helped provide a unifying vision or became symbols of a people’s aspirations.
The absence of such figures in the Arab Spring is partly a measure of the pressures Arab intellectuals have lived under in recent decades, trapped between brutal state repression on one side and stifling Islamic orthodoxy on the other. Many were co-opted by their governments (or Persian Gulf oil money) or forced into exile, where they lost touch with the lived reality of their societies. Those who remained have often applauded the revolts of the past year and even marched along with the crowds. But they have not led them, and often appeared stunned and confused by a movement they failed to predict.
The lack of such leaders may also be the hallmark of a largely post-ideological era in which far less need is felt for unifying doctrines or the grandiose figures who provide them. The role of the intellectual may be shrinking into that of the micro-blogger or street organizer. To some, that is just fine. “I don’t think there is a need for intellectuals to spearhead any revolution,” says Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi-born poet and novelist who has written extensively on the Arab Spring and now teaches at New York University. “It is no longer a movement to be led by heroes.”
That belief may soon be tested. As revolts continue in Syria, their leaderless quality — so useful in deterring crackdowns by the secret police — has become a liability. Organizers in and out of the country are now struggling to shape a set of shared political goals, and intellectual coherence and leadership is increasingly seen as important in that process. “No one wants to be accused of hijacking the revolution,” says Sadik Jalal al-Azm, a Syrian philosopher and advocate of greater civic freedoms. “This excessive fear is becoming a hindrance.”
To some extent, the intellectual silence of the current uprising is a deliberate response to the hollow revolutionary rhetoric of previous generations. The Arab nationalist movement began in the 1930s and ’40s with idealistic young men who hoped to lead the region out of its colonial past, backwardness and tribalism. The Syrian political philosopher Michel Aflaq and other young writers and activists found inspiration in 19th-century German theories of nationalism, and envisioned their Baath Party as an instrument for modernization and economic justice.
But the party and its misty ideas were soon hijacked and distilled into slogans by military officers in Syria and Iraq, whose “revolutionary” leadership was really just the old tribalism and autocracy in a different guise. In Egypt too, Arab socialism soon became little more than a pretext for dictatorship and reckless policies at home and abroad. Arab nationalism reached its zenith — or its nadir — in Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, who saw himself as a godlike intellectual, publishing his own fiction and imposing his delusional Third Universal Theory on Libya’s hapless people. Everything in Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya was styled “revolutionary.” When the rebels overthrew his government this year, they found it difficult to separate the names of their own revolutionary councils from the ones they were overthrowing.
The protesters who led the Arab Spring had grown tired of the stale internationalist rhetoric of their forebears, which had achieved little for the Palestinians and had deepened the divisions among Arab states rather than unifying them. They wanted to focus instead on the failures of their own societies. “Previously, everything was reduced to the exterior: are you pro- or anti-American, what is the role of Israel, and so on,” says Hazem Saghieh, the political editor of the London-based Arab newspaper Al Hayat. “This revolution is entirely different.”
The shift in emphasis to civil rights and democracy at home did not come out of the blue. Some Arab intellectuals began speaking this language long ago, including Mr. Azm, the Syrian philosopher, who after the humiliation of the 1967 war with Israel published a groundbreaking book called “Self-Criticism After the Defeat.” Others followed suit gradually, and during the short-lived “Damascus Spring” a decade ago, Syrian intellectuals signed the Declaration of the 99, a call for greater civil rights and openness. Many were jailed afterward. The bravery and persistence of these intellectuals — and others like them in Egypt — may have quietly prepared the ground for the uprisings this year.
But in recent years their voices often went unheard, because their secular language had little resonance in societies where political Islam was becoming a dominant force. Nor did Islamic reformers fare much better when they tried to cast their political critique in religious terms. The Egyptian scholar Hassan Hanafi, for instance, in the 1980s began calling for the creation of an “Islamic Left,” a socialist ideology rooted in religion. He was branded a heretic and had to seek police protection after receiving death threats from jihadists. His work gained an audience in Indonesia, but not in his own country, said Carool Kersten, a lecturer at King’s College London who has written on Islamic reformers.
Not all Arab intellectuals fell into these traps. Alaa al-Aswany, the Egyptian novelist, became a fierce critic of the government of Hosni Mubarak in recent years, protected from arrest by his celebrity. He was among the first writers to speak to the protesting crowds in Tahrir Square in January, and in March, he delivered a punishing performance during a televised debate with Ahmed Shafiq, the prime minister appointed by Mr. Mubarak. The following day Egypt’s ruling military council fired Mr. Shafiq, and many credit Mr. Aswany with the achievement.
But Mr. Aswany made clear from the first that his only real goal was to serve as a bullhorn for the demands of the protesters in Tahrir Square. He offered no ideas of his own.
Inevitably, and perhaps unfairly, the current Arab tumult has been compared with the uprising against Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, the last great social upheaval of comparable scale. Intellectuals played a much more prominent role in those movements. In Poland, for instance, “the unification of intellectuals and labor unions was really important,” said Anne Applebaum, a columnist and the author of an authoritative book on the Soviet gulags. “They helped shape the movement and ran its publications. They facilitated conversations between various workers’ groups. They functioned like the Facebook page of their era.”
The dissident Czech playwright Vaclav Havel wrote an essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” that became a kind of blueprint for how to survive with dignity in a totalitarian country, and later emerged as a champion of his country’s Velvet Revolution.
It may be that the connecting role these figures played is less needed today. It may also be that the ideological platforms of earlier revolutions are obsolete, given the speed of communications and the churn of new perspectives. “It is too fluid, too fast-moving, too complex,” says Peter Harling, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. “It is too difficult to come up with a paradigm. People are looking for short pieces that illuminate some aspect of what they’re going through, not grand theories.”
Still, Mr. Harling added, among Syrian intellectuals, “none of them has articulated any kind of forward-looking political platform,” and that failure has contributed to anxieties about the protest movement’s direction.
To the extent that any ideas have arisen from the Arab Spring, they relate to the “Turkish model” — the often-heard hope that Turkey’s blend of mildly Islamist ideology and democratic governance can inspire similar success in Arab lands. But this analogy is a facile one, and may well yield disappointment in the months and years to come.
Turkey’s experience is hard to replicate, in part because the country has had the kind of thoroughgoing revolution against tradition that Arab intellectuals of the 20th century only talked about. Starting in the early 1920s, Turkey’s great autocrat, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, overhauled the country’s education system, bringing over the American reformer John Dewey to advise him. He abolished the caliphate and gutted the country’s legal system, instituting a strict separation of church and state. The first elections took place in 1946, and only after decades of struggle (and several coups d’état) did Turkey start earning applause for its democratic ways.
Without that punishing preparation, the Arab world’s new revolutionaries may end up repeating history, even if they do study it. Last week, amid the euphoria over Colonel Qaddafi’s death, a few skeptical voices could be heard in the din of triumphant Internet messages in Arabic.
“Let the killing of Qaddafi be a lesson to the revolutionaries as much as to the rulers,” one Arab Twitter user wrote. “And let revolutionaries everywhere remember that Qaddafi came to power by making his own revolution 40 years ago.”
Robert Worth is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine who has reported from Egypt, Yemen and Libya.