Erich Fromm's advice for troubled times
Mr Lechhab, what attracted you to Erich Fromm?
Hamid Lechhab: The connections Fromm made between philosophy and psychology interested me, and then, there was his language. It was Fromm who got me learning German. When I first came across him, not many of his works had been translated into Arabic and I was simply fascinated by the way he writes. Fromm isn't necessarily easy to comprehend, but while his subject matter is academic, he writes in very accessible language and that motivated me to learn German.
You learnt German because of Fromm?
Lechhab: My interest began when I was still living in Morocco. I studied psychology and philosophy there, and during my studies I attended lectures in which one or two texts by Fromm came up. They aroused my interest, but that’s all it was at the time. Then, during my doctorate in France, I bought a few books by Fromm, but I wanted to read more.
Nothing else had been translated into French, however, so I said to myself, well I guess I’ll have to learn German to read Fromm in the original. And after one semester of German in Austria, I tried reading Erich Fromm in the original.
After one semester?
Lechhab: Well, actually, it took me five years to master the language, by which time I was also able to understand Fromm properly.
Philosophy through colonial blinkers
What was it that fascinated you?
Lechhab: The way Fromm writes, but also what he writes about. He's very multifaceted, and he's in no way superficial, he delves deep into the material – with his concept of freedom, for instance, or the themes of religion or consumption. He doesn't beat about the bush; he gets straight to the point, with none of these sentences that use endless sub-clauses. He’s very clear. I liked that.
But there is something else as well. When I discovered the German language, it occurred to me that what we inherited from the French colonial period in Morocco was deficient. For us, the Occident was merely France.
As students, we encountered few philosophers who weren't French. When I studied in France later on, I realised that German philosophers were completely absent from our curriculum. You could say making German philosophy and psychology better known in the Arab world has become my life's work.
In April 2022, you conducted a 23-part interview series with Rainer Funk, Erich Fromm's literary executor, for the magazine Al Massaa in Casablanca. The interviews were then published in book form by a Jordanian publisher, and in German. How did this series on Fromm's central theses and his significance for our contemporary world come about?
Lechhab: The interviews have a long backstory. Starting in 2000, I began writing a few reviews on books by Fromm every year, translating them subsequently into Arabic and placing them with Moroccan newspapers and magazines.
I had also conducted a few interviews with Rainer Funk, the administrator of Fromm’s literary estate, for various Moroccan newspapers in the past, and this continuity proved successful. On average, I would say I’ve published five or six pieces a year on Fromm in Morocco.
Fromm milestone in Morocco
One Fromm milestone in Morocco was a major conference in the beautiful Batha conference hall at the University of Fez, in collaboration with the city of Fez, the Goethe-Institut and the Austrian embassy in Rabat, which I helped organise. I wanted to give something back to the University of Fez, in return for what it gave me as a student. Seventy-five Fromm experts from all over the world came to the conference, as well as some 40 Moroccans. The conference was vital for introducing Fromm to a wider audience in Morocco.
It was the first – and so far the last – time that the International Erich Fromm Society had organised a conference in a Muslim country. And Morocco has the edge in the humanities within the Arab world, so other countries in the region heard about Fromm via Morocco.
At that time Abdelhadi Boutaleb, advisor to the former and the current king, was on board with the project – he has since died. A publication was produced in Arabic and German to accompany the conference. It was sent out to universities right across the region, with some even ordering additional copies.
What do you mean when you say Morocco has the edge in the humanities?
Lechhab: The subjects I’m talking about here are philosophy, psychology and sociology. Philosophy has been offered as a subject at all Moroccan universities for many years – though that wasn't always the case. At one time you could only study philosophy at Fez and one other institution. As a result, there are many books and papers on philosophy being published in Morocco. The same can't be said for all Arab countries; there are some countries that were against teaching philosophy, in the Gulf for example, but such attitudes are slowly changing.
Last year, for instance, there was a philosophy congress in Saudi Arabia, which featured Moroccan academics first and foremost. Tunisia is on a par with Morocco in that regard, there is some philosophy in Algeria, Lebanon used to be good, and Egypt has a completely different point of departure, influenced by the Anglo-Saxon tradition, relating in particular to positivism. One exception was renowned philosopher Hassan Hanafi at Cairo University. Until around 25 years ago, Egyptian philosophy had a strong influence on the philosophical landscape across the Arab world.
Liberation within – not from – religion
An entire series, featuring more than 20 short interviews – that's comprehensive. How do you explain the interest in Fromm?
Lechhab: The series was published during Ramadan; we agreed that with the editors, because it’s a time when people read more than usual, and of course it was good because I got the impression the topic appealed to people. We received numerous letters from readers. Apparently even people I would have classed conservative were interested in Fromm's critical thinking.
I think it has a lot to do with the approach that Fromm takes to religion. It means that even a more conservative and religiously-oriented person can find something of interest in Fromm’s thought.
Fromm criticises the orthodox strictures of religion as he experienced them himself, growing up in a Jewish household. Is that interesting?
Lechhab: Religion is a central theme for Fromm, but his criticism is always objective and never sweeping. Fromm never said religion is a bad thing per se. For many Arabs, this is an important distinction, unlike the ideological propaganda from the West that says Muslims need to separate state and religion.
Such demands don’t go down well in the Arab world. On the one hand, Fromm said that what the three monotheistic religions ask for goes against human nature, but on the other, he also wrote that humans need religion – that was clear to him. This position is better received in the region than the position of Western modernity and the French Revolution, which completely rejects religion.
In Fromm you find the quest for a form of religion or spirituality beyond narrow-minded dogma.
Lechhab: Fromm is interested in the liberation of humanity within religion; he wants to understand it differently, and he analysed it systematically in terms of his own religion, Judaism. He never attacked the other religions, he just spoke about his own religious background, and in so doing he also gave Muslims the instruments they need to interrogate Islam without completely rejecting it.
He offers an alternative. Fromm interrogated his own religion systematically and academically, and this method can also be used on other religious traditions – that’s my understanding of it.
With students in Morocco – I go there two or three times a year to give lectures – I regularly discuss Fromm’s understanding of religion and how you can transfer his understanding of a humanist religion to Islam. It isn’t about destroying the old, but understanding it in a new way.
People yearn to be free from external pressures
Another important subject for Fromm is the individual’s freedom from external pressures, especially in his 1941 work The Fear of Freedom. Is that a stronger theme in the Arab world today, where what was once a collective order is breaking apart?
Lechhab: In Fromm, freedom is not only a political, but also an individual matter. The issue concerns every single human being, especially where they want to liberate themselves from paternalism of all kinds. Fromm looks at how to free ourselves from the external pressures placed on us by tradition, religion, the power of clans and dictators, and that is extremely relevant in the Arab world right now.
Today, individuality is increasing, but it’s still a new development, stimulated not least by economic and technological changes. But this development also scares many people, because the preconditions for individuality don't exist in the Arab world the way they do in Europe; there isn’t the infrastructure and the education system to go with it.
In economically weak Arab countries, the material conditions aren't there, either. There, people are still materially reliant on their families, so they can't emancipate themselves. These days the family may not play quite the central role it did 25 years ago, but it's still important for the individual.
Processes like these usually take a while.
Lechhab: It all takes time. In the big cities, where people can make a living without being materially reliant on their parents, you can live a self-determined life without any problem. You see nuclear families there now, almost the same as in Europe. But that only applies to the big cities and to certain social classes; no one else is able to do it. For many people, that is a major issue. They want to lead an independent life, but for financial reasons, they can't.
Young people looking to forge their own path
The freedom of the individual from external norms is a central idea for Fromm as well. Does that hit a nerve?
Lechhab: Definitely. The way Fromm conceives it in detail, with his concept of authenticity, isn't easy to understand, but it is exactly what young people in Arab countries are looking for. They have to take on the ideas of their elders. Indeed, they're often blocked from forging their own path, and that's incredibly frustrating. That's why Fromm's ideas are welcome in the Arab world.
In which Arab countries – beyond Morocco – do you see a particular interest in Fromm?
Lechhab: The interest in Fromm is currently especially great in Iraq and Syria – both countries that have tried to free themselves from dictators. It's a small world now; you can find Fromm's texts (mostly in English) online.
Why Syria and Iraq? It's partly the political situation: Fromm's ideas about freedom, religion, but also peace are particularly important to people in these countries.
The same is true for Iran, by the way, but I don't know a great deal about that. Fromm achieved something that many other philosophers have not: his thought has retained its relevance over the years, because he was able to express it in an accessible way.
One of Fromm's most popular books in the West is To Have or to Be?, which is in part a critique of consumerism. Is that even an issue in the Arab world, where many people are barely getting by?
Lechhab: It's very relevant, actually, especially for those who have little or nothing, because they can't consume the way people do in the West. But many Western chains, especially French and Spanish supermarkets, all the way to global textile brands, are just as present in the Arab world as they are in Europe.
If you own a small greengrocer's shop, for instance, you can't afford these consumer goods. Over time, people's mental health starts to suffer as a result. They go to the supermarkets, see everything that's on offer, and come out with maybe one or two items, because that's all they can afford.
This is the same for the middle classes, and it weighs heavy on the soul. It's important to free ourselves from this compulsion to buy, we need to develop our own attitude towards it, so that we can say I don't need that, or I can't afford it any longer, and that's no disgrace. This is why Fromm texts that critique consumerism are especially popular in Arab countries.
Interview conducted by Claudia Mende
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin
Hamid Lechhab, born 1962 in Morocco, studied psychology and education in Morocco before obtaining his doctorate in Strasbourg. He has lived in the Vorarlberg, Austria, since 1990. Lechhab translates philosophical works from German into Arabic, including, in addition to Fromm, the correspondence between Heidegger and Hanna Arendt, works by the Austrian philosophers Josef Seifert and Hans Koechler, and Schopenhauer's critique of Kant. In 2019, he received the Gerhard von Cremona Honorary Prize in Toledo for his translations.