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October 28, 2006

Two faces of Arab intellectuals

Filed under: Islam, Mellemøsten — limewoody @ 10:23 pm

During the 1980s, a friend of mine – a left-wing, secular-minded Syrian writer living in Paris at that time – surprised me by his open admiration for the newly organised Hizbullah. At first I thought his admiration was merely a passing fancy. But when Iraq occupied Kuwait in 1990, he and I finally collided. He could not disguise his delight at the “annexation” of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s troops, which made me regard his secular, leftist views as a joke. Yet his career led him ever deeper into the arena of the struggle for human rights. With European financial support, he issued a periodic newsletter on human rights, which for years had not a word to say about Saddam’s crimes, nor about women’s rights. Meanwhile his relations with Arab Islamist groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, deepened steadily.

His joy over the 9/11 attacks, as well as his admiration for Osama bin Laden and his “blow at the heart of America,” fit the rest of his political development only too well. He constantly sought justifications for Islamist acts of violence, as if he were acting under the ancient Arab tribal principle that, no matter what internal differences we might have, we must stand together as one man against an aggressor.

My contact with that old friend has since been severed. Nowadays he regularly appears as a guest on the satellite TV channel al-Jazeera, where he comments, in his usual, warm and self-righteous tone, on issues of human rights and on Syrian politics in general.

Unfortunately, this brief biographical sketch might all too easily be extended to a large proportion of Arab intellectuals. Many of them are characterised by a carefully masked double standard. In their home countries they present themselves as guardians of traditional Arab values, but when writing in other languages for foreign audiences they express very different, more cosmopolitan views.

The Arab intellectual behaves like a despotic father. No internal family matter may be exposed to the outside world; regardless of what the reality may be, a façade of unbroken unity must be maintained. This is especially evident with respect to such matters as relations with Israel, the scandal over the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the attacks of 9/11, the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, or the recent war in Lebanon. In private talks with such people, one hears opinions that are radically different from what they publish in the newspapers the next day. It is as if the views propounded in the Arab media are not based on independent thinking, but formulated as opportunistic statements for public consumption.

Gamal al-Ghitani, the Egyptian novelist who is also editor-in-chief of the weekly literary journal Akhbar al-Adab, is notably restrained when commenting about such crimes against humanity as have been (and continue to be) committed in Rwanda, Darfour and Iraq. But when the affair of the Danish cartoons was at its height in February of this year, he sounded like some preacher at a mosque and called for a boycott of Danish products. When the Danes finally proffered an apology, he interpreted it as being motivated by fear for sales of Danish cheese rather than as an acknowledgement of respect for Islam.

Or take the famous poet Adonis: In the West he is seen as a Syrian exile who sharply criticises Islamism and the state of the Arab world. But his statements and his silences in recent decades present a completely different picture. Upon the death of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, the Arab masses went into profound mourning – and Adonis lamented his passing with a poem. This prominent exile has had nothing to say about the victims of the Syrian regime over the past four decades. But he published another old-fashioned panegyric to the victory of the Iranian Revolution in 1978, in which he wrote: “I shall sing for Qom, that it may transform itself in my ecstasy / Into a raging conflagration which surrounds the Gulf / The people of Iran write to the West: / Your visage, O West, is crumbling / Your face, O West, has died.”

The Lebanese poet and journalist Abbas Beydoun is a cultural correspondent for the Lebanese daily as-Safir. He is also a frequent guest commentator for a number of German newspapers. Interestingly enough, those of his articles which appear in German differ markedly from his pieces in Arabic. In Der Tagespiegel of July 26, 2006 and in Die Zeit of July 27, for example, he criticised Hizbullah’s solo attack and confrontation with Israel, going so far as to describe it as a military putsch. He also emphasised that the majority of Lebanese want peaceful development in their country. But in the edition of as-Safir dated July 28, we find him writing, in cliche-ridden rhetoric, about Hizbullah’s great deeds, which, he stated, had generated respect even among the party’s sceptics and critics: “Regardless of the former Arab position, Hizbullah has erased a guilt, and corrected the world’s memory, in order to compensate for Arab frustration and expunge a sense of shame.”

Many Arab writers and publishers regard themselves as secular, enlightened and critical – in other words, as intellectuals who stand up for freedom of speech and, of course, for human rights. Two months after the 9/11 attacks, during an Arab book fair, a rumour suddenly made the rounds that an aircraft had crashed into a high-rise building in Italy. Many people immediately thought this was a repeat of the previous attacks on America. Numerous publishers and editors shouted Allahu akbar (God is great) and welcomed the presumed act, which turned out never to have happened at all. Some of these intellectuals are welcome guests at conferences on Euro-Arab dialogue. But I wonder about the value of such events, when some participants lack all credibility and the emphasis is on mere politeness and flattery.


The article originally appeared in the Berliner Zeitung on September 14, 2006.

Khalid al-Maaly, born in as-Samawa, Iraq in 1956, is a writer and publisher living in Cologne. Together with Mona Naggar, he recently issued a “Lexicon of Arab Authors of the 19th and 20th Centuries.”

Translation: Myron Gubitz.


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