A New Spirit of Revolution

Al-Azm is among the most critical of Arab thinkers. In an interview with Mona Naggar he sheds light on the role of intellectuals during the Arab Spring and the current state of protest movements in the region

By Mona Naggar

"In Eastern Europe, intellectuals played a key role in laying the groundwork for the collapse of dictatorships. The role of Arab intellectuals is admittedly weaker, but there are still some parallels", says Syrian philosopher al-Azm


Most Arab intellectuals now support the revolutions, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia. Before the outbreak of the protest movements, however, the position of many intellectuals toward the dictatorships was not clear. Hasn't the time come for some self-criticism?

Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm: I don't think anyone ever did a survey of Arab intellectuals to determine their views and positions. Such studies are rare in our part of the world. We rely on speculation, impressions and the spontaneous interpretation of events. If we think for example of an Egyptian intellectual living in a totalitarian system, he would have been forced to come to terms with that system. I do not believe that he served that system. I know from the experiences of many intellectuals that they had to make a number of compromises in order to continue working as university professors or writers – compromises that were however, in my opinion, not all that compromising.

When a revolution then takes place such as the one in Egypt, many intellectuals behave just like everyone else: some are afraid, others actively participate. If the revolution succeeds, all the nightmares are swept away and the days of making concessions are over. They can now move around freely. I don't think there is a need for these intellectuals to exercise any self-criticism. They can at the most supply some explanations. But there is also another group, namely those who made themselves into the regime's mouthpieces. They worked in the media or glorified the president. If they are plagued by a guilty conscience at some point, they can then offer an apology. But no one will believe them – no matter what they do. They can't erase the past. Most of them will withdraw from the public eye.

Shouldn't an open discussion take place about the position of the various intellectuals?

"High level of maturity": We are now witnessing a new sprit and a new practice of protests, says Al-Azm


Al-Azm: It's still too early for such a discussion. Voices have to come from inside calling for people to work through what has happened. I do not want to take the intellectuals to task too strongly, unless the situation is crystal clear, as in the case of Jaber Asfour, former director of Egypt's Supreme Council of Culture and the last minister of culture under Mubarak. There was a time when he kept a certain distance between himself and the regime. But then that distance disappeared. It is impossible to respect such people. Now we are watching as lists of persons and institutions surface that received money from the Libyan regime. When, after the revolution, stable relations and democratic and civic structures hopefully emerge, it will be necessary to launch a discussion. But I in fact believe that intellectuals played a key role in laying the groundwork for the revolutions.

What do you mean by that? The revolutions were conducted by the youth, weren't they?

Al-Azm: For a long time intellectuals have – wherever possible and sometimes symbolically and in a more indirect way – taken a pronounced stance on behalf of civil society. They have fought for human rights. One example is the "Communiqué 99" from 2000, which was signed by 99 Syrian intellectuals. We can read there nearly all the slogans that were held up in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt: suspension of the state of emergency, the call for freedoms. All of the demands, hopes and the general political direction can be found in this communiqué. The secular and enlightened intellectuals in particular played a major role. Even the major religious parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, were influenced by it.

People continue to express anger at the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria: according to human rights organisations, more than 60 people have been killed since the beginning of the protests on 18 March


A role is also played by the "Turkish model". I mean by that the model embodied by Turkish Islam: a party with Islamic aspirations, in an Islamic country with an imperial past, rises to power in a peaceful democratic manner without anyone doubting the legitimacy of the elections and without the country sliding into catastrophe as has been witnessed in other countries where Islamist parties have tried to take office, such as Egypt, Syria, Algeria or Sudan. Many intellectuals have discussed this model, spoken about its significance and wondered whether it is worth emulating.

You were one of the signatories of the "Communiqué 99" and one of the intellectuals who have always stood up for human rights and freedom of opinion. Did you have the feeling that your efforts ultimately left their mark on these revolutions?

Al-Azm: I would not presume to claim that my efforts led to these revolutions. But numerous efforts were doubtlessly undertaken. This includes not only the work of intellectuals, but also the realities and how the intellectuals reacted to them. Many spoke of the failure of various models, for example the model of Arab socialism or of Nasserism. They began to contemplate alternatives, concluding that democracy can be the only alternative.

Despite the points you cite, the role of Arab intellectuals in society is still a minor one today. How do you explain this?

Al-Azm: On the one hand, the role of intellectuals is weak, but there is also another side to it: we are influenced by the French model of the intellectual who intervenes and takes a stand on major and important issues. On the other hand, the intellectual plays an even more important role in societies with a high rate of illiteracy. Not because he's especially important or his thinking is particularly profound, but because his significance must be viewed in proportion to the education and culture of his environment.

Off to a fresh start: Tunisia's opposition must regroup and find a new political orientation after the fall of Ben Ali in the so-called "Jasmine Revolution" in January 2011

​​ With us, the intellectual has inherited something of the status of the religious scholar. Something of the respect shown for religious figures is transferred onto intellectuals as well. But when it comes to their effectiveness, their room to manoeuvre is indeed extremely limited. It would be different if all citizens were to live in freedom. If it were possible, for example, to teach at university and express one's opinions freely. In Eastern Europe, intellectuals played a key role in preparing the ground for the collapse of the dictatorships. The role of Arab intellectuals is admittedly weaker, but there are still some parallels.

Do you expect intellectuals to play a more active role after these revolutions?

Al-Azm: I can't predict what will happen, but I at least hope so. Egypt and Tunisia are currently going through a "charismatic phase" – a state of freedom and intoxication. But this state of affairs will not last. Everyday life will return. This spirit will also flow into the newly founded institutions and into the reform of the existing ones.

What were the biggest surprises for you with respect to the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia?

Al-Azm: The absolute remoteness from the methods used in earlier protest movements. Formerly, banners would have been emblazoned with slogans like "Death to America, Death to Israel" or "The enemies of the people don't deserve freedom". Such sentiments suddenly vanished. And the break with them did not take place gradually, but rather abruptly. In earlier protest movements there was always a climate of crisis. Now things were completely different. We are now experiencing a protest movement in the Arab world that toppled a president while music was played, people danced, recited poetry and released balloons into the air. This resembles what we are familiar with from Europe or the USA. The days of the earlier protest movements are not so long past. We need only think of the protests against the Danish Mohammed caricatures or the "Satanic Verses" by Salman Rushdie, or the demonstrations for Palestine. We are now witnessing a new sprit and a new practice. This attests to a high level of maturity. Even the religious statements we heard were of an individual nature. Anyone who wanted to pray did so. Anyone who did not want to pray didn't have to. Anyone who wanted to stand under the cross went ahead and did it.

Mona Naggar

© Qantara.de 2011

Sadiq Jalal al-Azm was born in 1934 in Damascus. He studied philosophy in Beirut and has taught as professor at the Universities of New York, Beirut, Amman and Damascus. One of his best-known works is titled "Critique of Religious Thought". His latest publication is "Ces interdits qui nous hantent" ("The Prohibitions That Haunt Us"). In 2005 al-Azm was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Hamburg. Editor: Arian Fariborz, Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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