The Cultural Consequences of the Arab Revolutions

Jun 11

Yesterday I attended a forum sponsored jointly by “Muntada Ibn Rushd,” roughly “The Averroes Society,” and the Iranian Cultural Center, the title of which was “The Cultural Consequences of the Arab Revolutions.”  Clearly, there was a disagreement as to what “Cultural” meant between the speakers and the audience, many of whom thought culture was narrowly limited to the arts.  Fortunately for me, however, the speakers and I were on the same page, namely, the Arab revolutions, and the future of political culture in the Arab world.  The speakers were, Abu Yarub al-Marzouqi, a Tunisian philosopher, who recently published a philosophical commentary on the Quran, Maryam Azzouz, a youth political activist, Radwan Masmoudi, a Tunisian-American director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, headquartered in Washington, DC, Amal Balkhairi, a youth activist in one of the Tunisian political parties whose name escapes me but claims the political “center,” and last but not least, a representative of the Iranian government, Muhsin ‘Iraqi.  ‘Iraqi is a religious scholar who studied in the Hawza at Qum.  The clip of the event that I have included is limited to some of Balkhairi’s remarks.

Marzuqi lectured on the intellectual pre-requisites for the creation of a peaceful civil society, arguing that it requires abandoning both textual fundamentalism (al-usuliyya al-naqliyya) and rationalist fundamentalism (al-usuliyya al-‘aqliyya).  Religious tradition can assist in overcoming textual fundamentalism through its historical commitment to the relativity of ijtihad, particularly, the Sunni position that refused to take categorical positions with regard to the sinfulness of the various parties involved in the early civil wars that broke out among the Muslim community.  So too, rationalist fundamentalism can be tempered by a commitment to Kant’s critical philosophy in which he showed that it was impossible for reason to know things as they really are “ma’rifat al-shay’ ‘ala ma huwa ‘alayhi.”  Unfortunately for the Muslim world, its politics since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire has been dominated by textual fundamentalism that negates philosophy categorically, and rational fundamentalism that negates religion categorically.  He sees the political manifestation of textual fundamentalism in the Pakistani constitution, and the manifestation of rationalist fundamentalist in the Jacobin-inspired Turkish version of secularism.  The challenge of the Arab revolutions, then, is to transcend these two options by adopting relativistic approached to knowledge and ethics that can allow for the co-existence of religion and philosophy.

Ms. Azzouz’s comments were fairly anodyne, stressing the role of youth in the revolution, and their demands for democracy, social justice and respect for rights transcended any commitments to particular ideologies, and that it was disheartening to Tunisian youth to see that the country’s political forces have failed to award youth prominent leadership positions in the political parties, or to take seriously the demands that led Tunisian youth to the streets in December and January.  In short, her comments seemed to be a plea for the political forces in Tunisia to move  beyond ideological scrums and move to the practical business of solving the country’s problems.

Radwan Masmoudi spoke of the importance of the Tunisian Revolution to his experience as a Tunisan and a Muslim living in the US, and how it had radically changed the perception of Arabs in the eyes of ordinary Americans.  For that reason, he stressed the importance of completing this task to its conclusion, and successfully establishing a viable democracy in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere.  He noted that while much had been done in getting rid of the ancien regime, more work remained in establishing the viable democracy that everyone in Tunisia wanted.  To succeed, Tunisians of all ideological backgrounds will have to work together despite their differences, while at the same time respecting the historical and lived reality of Tunisia as an Arab-Muslim country.

Amal Balkhairi seemed to be making a political pitch for her party rather than providing substantive views on the issues at hand.  She emphasized again and again the “moderate” nature of Tunisians, and the need to diminish the appeal of all kinds of “extremists.”  Her repeated references to the inherently moderate nature of Tunisians finally exhausted the patience of the audience when she made the claim that even the French left Tunisia without violent struggle after a process of dialogue and negotiation.  This led to a raucous reaction of disbelief from the crowd who immediately began to boo her and shout out the names of leaders of the Tunisian anti-colonialist resistance.  Another odd thing about Balkhairi’s presentation was her quite self-conscious decision to make it in “darija,” the local dialect.  Tunisians, as well as other North Africans whom I have met, are generally quite proficient in speaking fusha, formal Arabic, and almost always do on public occasions.  In this context, it was particularly awkward because the Iranian panelist, of course, could not be assumed to understand darija.  Nevertheless, he stated that he could understand 80% of what she said.

Perhaps the most interesting remarks were made by the Iranian speaker, who launched in what is not a customary, if grossly-simplified attack, on historical Sunni doctrines regarding obedience to the ruler, and then concluded with a call to reconsider what Islamic teachings offer with respect to governance, with particular reference to the Iranian model as one that successfully synthesized popular sovereignty and shari’a.

Unsurprisingly, that comment drew many snickers, and indeed, one of the commentators, ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Hamami, a leader of a leftist-party, after the usual and customary flattering of his Iranian guest, proceeded to demolish his claim that the Iranian Revolution could provide a useful model for Tunisians or other Arabs.  This theme was echoed by the comments of another Tunisian academic who stated that he had visited Iran numerous times as a guest of the Iranian government, and with all due respect to the Iranian representative, it was the Iranians who needed a corrective revolution (thawra tashihiyya) which could learn from the Tunisians, and not the other way around.

Al-Hamami also made several other important points, but one that I want to bring up was his emphasis on the centrality of Palestine: he stated his surprise that none of the panelists brought up Palestine, stating that the struggle for Arab liberation would always be incomplete until Palestine was liberated in accordance with the terms of a universalist political program.  Another interesting point that came up during the questions and answer period (although it appears that Tunisians don’t understand what “question” means, since they rarely ask a question, but instead give a five-minute statement) was whether in fact Tunisians can be proud of the reforms made with respect to gender in Tunisia.  Clearly, the Family Code of 1956 forms an important part of Tunisian identity, but at the same time, it seems that the dictatorship, for lack of a better term, prostituted the issue of women’s rights as almost its sole basis for legitimacy.  As one commentator noted, what’s the point of giving women the right to vote when voting was itself meaningless?  Accordingly, strong words were exchanged, including by a pair of women neither of whom wore who hijab, on whether these “reforms” were indeed reforms, or were merely authoritarian window-dressing.

During the comment period, there was a lot of discussion of the contents of the future Tunisian social contract (al-‘aqd al-ijtima’i) and here again the comments of the Iranian were interesting: he criticized what appeared to be the common assumption among the Tunisians that one could speak about forming a social contract without specific substantive moral premises, a point he was firm in denying, arguing that a contract’s enforceability cannot be separated from its validity, and one can only judge its validity by reference to some substantive norms that exist outside the contract itself.  His answer to this conundrum (and that of the Iranian regime) is that the validity of the social contract is to be judged by the premises of the Shari’a, and that’s why you need the Guardian of Experts, otherwise, the social contract contract cannot legitimately bind those who did not even participate in its drafting.

The Iranian was also asked some pointed questions about his government’s backing of Bashshar Asad, and whether this was decisive proof that it was a sectarian regime and not an Islamic one.  He did not answer this question, although it is not clear whether it was because time ran out, he forgot about it, or he intentionally ignored it.  (The format was such that everyone asked their questions, and then the speakers took turns responding to comments and answering questions, so it could have been any one of the possibilities mentioned could be the correct explanation for his silence on this point.)

Finally, another commentator, one Abd al-Rauf (I could not get his entire name or party affiliation), introduced me to a term that I had never heard before: “dhullocracy” (the rule of humiliation).  Dhullocracy was the nature of the Arab regimes prior to the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions, and it was premised on Western states humiliating (dhull) Arab rulers in turn humiliating their populations.  This was the first casualty of the revolutions, and their most important challenge is not to allow its return.

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