Fate would have it that the recent passing of Egyptian intellectual Abdel Wahab Elmessiri nearly coincided with the publication of Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines’ collaborative “World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals” 2008 list.
Through an internet poll that closed last month, readers were able to vote for the figures that they deemed the most prominent and influential intellectuals of our time. The results were both striking and compelling with Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi and the contemporary televangelist [Muslim] preacher Amr Khaled appearing on the Top Ten list. Al Qaradawi ranked third while Khaled ranked sixth – I repeat, on a global scale. The ‘revolutionary’ Egyptian intellectual Abdel Wahab Elmessiri died in Cairo last Wednesday and there is a long and intriguing story that links these two matters.
Jumping to conclusions when it comes to the reality of reading attitudes, or rather ‘non-reading’, is an acceptance of such incomplete conceptions and conclusions. The reason behind this is that we, in both the Arab and Islamic worlds, are living a state of religious and political tension because of our wounded identity that has yet to heal.
The wound is still raw since the days we confronted the more advanced West and since Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, as he stormed our homes and exposed our horrendous scientific backwardness. Since the birth of the modern nation, it has been bearing its ailments which developed as a result of pending questions and significant differences over the identity of the state and its goals – not to mention the controversy surrounding the national state with its borders, flag, constitution and national anthem. Is it a religious or civil state, is it a national ‘state’ that can only exist and become legitimate after becoming part of the Arab Ummah, or is it just an Islamic emirate that represents yet another part of the absent caliphate? Who are we? What is our identity and what are our priorities? Are we nationalist states, Islamic emirates or Arab countries? And what is development and what is meant by secularism? How can we describe our relations with sub-identities, including clans, sects, regions and races?
All these questions and everything that relates to them are the starting point upon which the Arab world has based its political and intellectual trends since the central question was, and remains to be one, one about identity. This has been a long-standing subject of debate and controversy among the Arab intelligentsia because some believe that the question surrounding identity is only a mask that conceals a simpler and more direct question; namely, one about social and economic justice.
In any case, it makes no difference in the final outcome whether the debate around identity is driven by questions about social and economic equality or whether it is a question in its own right that is powered by its own charge; it still remains to be the gist of the political and media battles that we witness unfolding in the Arab scene today.
Those who reject this believe that the Arab political ruling class must be fought down because it is treacherous to identity; the Arab identity among nationalists or the Islamic identity among others, or even both to some.
Back to the results of the Top 100 Public Intellectuals list, despite the dominance of Islamic sentiment and support, as evinced through the examples of Sheikh al Qaradawi and Amr Khaled, there still remains to be an atmosphere of antagonism and polarization prevalent in the world in the wake of September 11 to the present day and it still marks a critical event in the conception of Arabs today.
Let us consider Amr Khaled as an example; who is he? And how has he surpassed names such as Mohammed Abed al Jabri (Morocco), Abdullah al Arawi (Morocco), Mohammed Arkoun (Algeria), Sadiq al Naihoum (Libya), Hisham Juait (Tunisia), Taha Hussein (Egypt), Hadi al Allawi (Iraq) and Ali al Wardi (Iraq), among many others? The aforementioned names are all distinguished Arab figures that have written and theorized extensively about the Arab mind and the Islamic culture and they have delved deep into the Arab and Islamic self with all its problems and controversies.
However, to prove that mentioning the aforesaid names is not in support of a particular secular trend, one may pose the question: Where have the theorists and thinkers of the Islamist trend gone? Figures like Hassan al Turabi (Sudan), Rashed al Ghannoushi (Tunisia), Taha Abdul Rahman (Morocco) and the late Abdel Wahab Elmessiri who focused his research and efforts to grapple with Western thought to expose what he deemed to be its ‘inhuman’ secularism whilst attempting to create a revolutionary Islamic human paradigm. He was dedicated to his work and persistent in his studies. Elmessiri was propelled by a leftist romanticist background that was heavily saturated by revolutionary purity and a fierce support of the subaltern classes to the extent that he may be regarded as the contemporary Islamic philosopher of rejection.
Why have figures such as [Francis] Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis, Turkish Islamic intellectual Fethullah Gulen, Bengali economist Muhammad Yunus, French intellectual Olivier Roy and German philosopher [Jurgen] Habermas, among many others, become among the world’s most influential people? Even Pope Benedict XVI’s inclusion stems from his capacity as philosopher and theologian, not for his clerical achievements.
Commenting on the success of Arab religious televangelist, ‘Al Hayat’ writer Dalal al Barzi asks a pertinent question: Do we no longer read the news but rather just ‘view’ ideas and art?
Has Amr Khaled’s preaching contributed anything new? Has he proposed a new religious discourse that is removed from the old one? Or is it simply the improvement of methods and appearances whilst the content remains the same?
Perhaps the answer to this question may not be important; however it is significant to ponder why Amr Khaled enjoys such wide popularity among Arab youth. Is it because of an identity crisis and the fear of tackling the present intellectual and political challenges whilst overcoming this fear by adhering even more to this identity – except with a modern edge this time?
I believe that conducting a study to highlight the reasons behind the success of a phenomenon such as Amr Khaled and his associates is an important critical duty, not by way of instigation or campaigning but rather out of a genuine curiosity for what goes on behind the scenes.
This calls for a reference to some of the final articles written by Abdel Wahab Elmessiri about Khaled. He praised him and added that he had shifted the preaching discourse from being ‘archaic’ into becoming a revivalist discourse. This is where we should stop to ponder a critical question: Do neo-preachers always uphold that they do not discuss fatwas (religious edicts) and politics? Yes, however; closer examination would reveal otherwise. Elmessiri who admired Khaled once said that it was a shortcoming on Khaled’s behalf that he did not talk about social injustice. Moreover, asserting that Khaled does not engage in any political activity would be equally untrue.
Do the results of the Top 100 Public Intellectuals indicate a conspicuous absence of good reading, an atrophy of the mind and the hegemony of preaching trends over our minds? Or does it point towards a passing stage that is characterized by frustration and a penchant for easy and convenient solutions while making celebrities of those who preach these solutions? We fear the first expectation and hope that it is the latter and only the coming days will tell.