Panel 2

Panel 2 – Critique From Within: Intellectual Discourses and the MENA Uprisings
Mohammed Hashas

Title: The Predicament of the Arab Spring: Mohammed Abed Al Jabri’s Project of Renewal and the Way Ahead

Abstract: The Moroccan philosopher Mohamed Abed Al Jabri (d. 2010) has left a rich heritage for scholars of Arab- Islamic Studies of various sub-fields. Reading the so-called Arab Spring from theoretical perspectives of this philosopher may challenge many of the common approaches applied to it. This paper is part of an ongoing book project on “Al Jabri and the Future of the Arab World.” Based on his study of Arab-Islamic intellectual history, mainly his magnum opus Critique of Arab Reason and Introduction to the Quran, this paper argues that the Arab Spring’s predicament is threefold; 1-and-2) it is doubly an internal predicament, and is also 3) an external one. That is, there are two major internal obstacles to change (1-intellectual crisis and 2- political dictatorship), besides an external one (3-Western hegemony). These I will be referring to as three hegemonies, or sulat mutasallitah in Arabic, literally meaning “oppressive sovereignties or centrifugal forces.”

The idea is defended following this major conceptual line: 1) reading Al Jabri’s call for an epistemological break with the classical intellectual tradition, 2) the political manifestations of renewal through democratization and pluralism within, and 3) the political regional awakening through Arab unity to encounter external hegemonies and enter the modern world order). The first two concepts make one part of the issue, the internal factor of the predicament, while the third concept matches the third external factor.

These concepts will be summarized and contextualized, in the light of the on-going Arab revolts, as follows. First, I present Al Jabri’s view of the internal hesitancy of Arab-Islamic scholarship to apply self-criticism and historicist approaches in reading the tradition. The point to deduct here is that the Arab Reason has yet to make a decision about what relevant approach to follow in modernizing and democratizing from within. The Epistemological break, based on an Averroest reading, appears the most relevant path to follow to overcome conflations and complexities that the modern world no longer accepts, according to Al Jabri. Such a break benefits the tradition, and is part of it, not alien to it. Second, the problem of religion and politics is originally an external one, a European one, imported and projected on the Arab-Islamic tradition. However, this does not mean that the available Islamist alternative captures the soul of the tradition. Neither a divisionist/binary approach of religion and politics nor a comprehensive one as that of the Islamists understands the flexibility and the diversity that characterized the tradition. Only a renewed reading of the two traditions in their historical contexts can overcome the predicament of religion and politics. Third, considering the wave of the Arab revolts, which can be read as an endeavor to revive the project of Arab-Islamic Renaissance (Nahda) of the 19th century, this paper argues that the Arab world is still a space of external stakeholders that hamper a smooth change. Al Jabri’s idea of Arab Unity is presented here as one of the most reasonable projects that target regional cooperation for politico-economic, as well as cultural, renewal and contribution to world politics.

Bio: Mohammed Hashas is a postdoctoral research fellow at LUISS Guido Carli University of Rome, and an adjunct professor at the American University of Rome, teaching Arabic, and Islam and Politics. He holds a PhD in Political Theory from LUISS, with a dissertation entitled “The Idea of European Islam: Voices of Perpetual Modernity” (2013). Hashas was a research fellow at Babylon Center for the Study of the Multicultural Society in Tilburg, the Netherlands (July- October 2010), and at the Center for European Islamic Thought at the University of Copenhagen (Sept 2011 – July 2012). His papers so far have appeared with the Journal of Muslims of Europe, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, and the Journal of Studia Islamica. He is currently co-editing a volume on Imams in Western Europe (forthcoming with Amsterdam University Press, 2016). Hashas has been contributing opinion articles to web magazines and newspapers in Arabic and English since 2007, in both Arabic and English. His academic concerns are the emerging European Islamic thought, Arab-Islamic political theology, and the ongoing socio-political and cultural transformations of the Arab societies, with a focus on Morocco.

Sarah Eltantawi

Title: Nahda vs. Sunna as Theology vs. Politics: Tracing the Genealogy of the Muslim Brotherhood to Understand Contemporary Islamist Movements

Abstract: Renowned Anthropologist Talal Asad has recently written about the question of tradition and religion in contemporary Egypt. Writing about the popularly-backed coup of July 2013, Asad (2015) asks “why liberals and the left in Egypt sought to exclude ‘religion’ from political space.” The answer, for Asad, is a liberal-left modernist ideology that insists religion be expunged from the public realm. Embedded in Asad’s question are two assumptions I probe in this paper: the first is that the Muslim Brotherhood and the idea of “religion” (or even “Islam”) can be conflated; and the second, the implication that the Muslim Brotherhood are themselves not modern.

On the first point, I suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood should not stand in for the word “religion”, per se, but for a particular type of religion (or Islam) whose focus is on hierarchy, authority and political obedience while maintaining a strategically ambiguous and vague theological and legal profile perhaps in the service of those ends. I demonstrate that this emphasis on an authoritarian Islam — once it found its way to state power — proved deeply unpopular with Egyptians. On the second point I question whether the lens of “modernity” is the most useful one to apply to the historiography of the Muslim Brotherhood, and suggest an alternative lens, called the “sunnaic paradigm.”

Bio: Sarah Eltantawi is currently Assistant Professor of Comparative Religion at The Evergreen State College. Her research focuses on the social meaning and symbolic value of political transitions in Egypt and Nigeria. She holds a PhD (2012) in the Study of Religion from Harvard University and has held postdoctoral fellowships at Brandeis University (2013), UC Berkeley (2013), and the Forum Transregionelle (EUME) at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin (2013-2014).

Carlotta Stegagno

Title: Arab Spring and Arab intellectuals

Abstract: Moving from the idea that the existence of an active and conscious public sphere is one of the main characteristic of democracy and that its absence is one of the main impediments to grassroots democracy, my paper aims to analyze the causes that led to the deterioration of the Arab public sphere.

This cultural deficit, represented by the lack of an active group of intellectuals, has limited the means through which the society could direct the course of events during the outbreak of the so-called Arab spring. As consequence the political climate could not be understood and explained because of the “absence“ of the intellectual class, which created a vacuum that had been filled by radical forces. The so-called Arab springs were therefore headless because they were led by leaders unable to organize and to direct them using cultural and intellectual tools. For instance, the murder of the Lebanese journalist Samir Kassir in 2005 deprived the Syrian opposition of a leading figure able to direct the different souls of the Syrian uprising.

To be more specific I investigate how the narrowing of the cultural sphere, due to the censorship measures implemented by the authoritarian regimes, affected and limited the evolution of the intellectual class. I also highlight the sociological, physiological and political reasons which caused the depletion of the Arab public sphere.

In particular I focus on the role played by the intellectuals in the social and cultural framework, in this regard I refer to Antonio Gramsci’s ideas expressed in “Gli intellettuali e l’organizzazione della cultura” and in “Quaderni dal Carcere” (Selection from prison notebook) as a lens trough which analyze the role of intellectuals in the Arab public sphere.

Bio: Carlotta Stegagno received her PhD in Political Thought and Communication from the Department of Political Science, University of Genoa. Her research interests include Middle Eastern and Islamic History, and International Relations. She spent six month in Jordan engaged in a post-doc scholarship at the School of International Studies and Political Science, University of Jordan in Amman within Hermes Erasmus Mundus Programme.

Kara Abdolmaleki

Title: How about a Third Pill? Indigenous Modernity beyond the Eurocentrism/Nativism Binary

Abstract: With the end of the colonial age and the third world countries’ struggle for political independence, Middle East and North African intellectuals scrambled to assume an epistemological position towards Europe, their big Other, and propose indigenous model for modernization. However, MENA intellectuals have often oscillated between the two sides of the Eurocentrism / Nativism binary. On the one hand, comprador intellectuals have sought to emulate the experience of European modernity, turning it into a Procrustean bed of sorts, upon which Middle Eastern traditions can lay to be measured, stretched, or sawed off. On the other hand, nativists rejected everything “Western” as deplorable and corrupt and proposed an essentialized view of culture. This paper seeks to look at the legacy of intellectuals that suggest a third way, that would paint “a theoretical vista that is free from the self-congratulating swagger of Eurocentrism and the self-deluding slumber of nativist thought” (Milani 21). Drawing on the work of thinkers such as Iqbal Lahouri, Ali Shariati, Jalal Ale Ahmad, Hamid Dabashi and Dariush Shayegan, this paper will first try to suggest that social movements in MENA countries can prepare a bedrock, upon which an indigenous bottom-up model for modernization can take shape. Secondly, based on Critical Theory’s critique of the philosophical foundations of European Modernity, this study will try to project a preliminary epistemological image of an indigenous modernity.

Bio: Kara Abdolmaleki is a doctoral candidate in the Comparative Literature program at the University of Alberta. He has worked with several journals and magazines including the London-based Cine-eye Magazine and Inquire Journal of Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta. His research interests include Modernity and Modernism, Psychoanalysis, the Frankfurt School, Phenomenology, Film Studies, and ​Iranian Literature.