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An Arab Cultural Summit - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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In the opinion of Prince Khalid Al Faisal, the President of the Arab Thought Foundation [ATF] and the Arab intellectuals who were acting on his behalf and who met at the ATF’s most recent conference in Beirut, there is an urgent need for the inception of an Arab Cultural Summit, in the same manner as the Arab Economic Summit. This is because, according to Prince Khalid’s letter to Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa, “the cultural crisis is no less dangerous to Arab society [than the economic crisis] even if its outward appearance, manifestations, and implications are different.”

Perhaps the call to institute an Arab Cultural Summit – something which I personally agree is very important – is overly ambition, particularly with regards to Arab countries lack of genuine desire to promote and develop their culture, and discuss its problems. This also makes the assumption that Arab countries hold cultural issues in such high regard that a summit should be allocated to discuss them.

As I mentioned previously, there can be no doubt about the importance of [discussing] cultural issues and the deplorable status-quo of Arab culture away from the broad controversy and extensive discussions on the dilemma of defining the term “culture” as well as the discussions – or rather the fighting – on the role of an Arab intellectual with regards to public affairs, and the intellectuals relationship to the state. Not to mention [staying away from] discussing the role of an intellectual as a writer or creator of political slogans, and discussing the extent to which Arab intellectuals have caused Arab countries problems and decline.

This is because the broad outline of Arab culture in the past – and perhaps even today – has been restricted to three fields; Arab nationalism, Islamist intellectualism, and the left-wing. These three examples have been the intellectual and propaganda support structure that allowed nationalist officers, left-wingers, or Islamists to attain power, such as in Libya, Sudan, and South Yemen. Real Arab cultural development has been hindered as a result of this to the point that Arab intellectuals have now gathered in Beirut demanding that Arab leaders institute a summit to discuss the problems of Arab culture.

These intellectuals are the ones who caused these problems in the first place, and now they are meeting to complain about them!

Michel Aflaq, Zaki al-Arsuzi, Akram al-Hawrani, Hassanein Heikal, and Sati’ al-Hasri, and other members of the Arab cultural elite contributed to the formation of the previously mentioned Arab culture which Arab [political] regimes have based themselves upon. Therefore the question that must be asked at this point is: Is the Arab intellectual the solution, or the problem?

However let us set this controversial debate aside, and agree in principle upon the merit and significance of this call to institute an Arab Cultural Summit, and consider that according to Prince Khalid’s letter to Amr Moussa, the real purpose of this call is to place “cultural development on the right path” and “to address the [Arab] cultural retreat.”

Nobody can deny that refreshing cultural development is vital. The literacy rate in the Arab world is extremely low and the book publishing industry is weak. In fact the entire art scene in the Arab world is developing at a snails pace, and this is a scene that is stuck in the middle of a society which is scornful and hostile to the arts. This is despite the fact that this society is one which consumes pirated movies and sentimental songs. This is a paradox, but one for discussion at another time.

Therefore there can be no doubt about the fragility of the cultural situation in the Arab world, and the ATF itself was founded due to the pervasive feelings on the intellectual and cultural problems of the entire Arab world.

However at this point we must refer to some of the complications surrounding this important call to institute an Arab Cultural Summit, such as;

Is there an agreement in place between those who consider themselves to be Arab intellectuals with regards to discussing and diagnosing Arab cultural problems?

Do these intellectuals even agree – in principle – that such problems exist and that they require emergency treatment?

Even if these intellectuals agree that a crisis exists, do they agree upon its definition?

In other words, is this problem the lack of contact with society at large [and can it be remedied] by incorporating modern concepts into the texture of Arab culture, and encouraging the arts movement to tie their aesthetical values to the public’s awareness?

Is this something which can be agreed upon when discussing the Arab cultural crisis?

Or is there a large group – perhaps even a majority – of Arab intellectuals who do not consider this to be part of the cultural crisis, and disagree that this is the way to resolve it?

Or do they perhaps believe that the way out is to revolutionize the culture through patriotic or Islamist struggle, transforming Arab culture into a culture of resistance, rather than just a consumer culture?

According to everything that we read and see with regards to Arab intellectuals lamenting the problems of Arab culture on almost a daily basis, Arab intellectuals do not blame the Arab cultural crisis on its disassociation from the problems of society, but rather on Arab culture being subservient, and not involved in the revolutionary struggle.

Therefore, we see that there is genuine disparity amongst Arab intellectuals on the issue of defining the role of culture, as well as the nature of Arab cultural problems. This is not surprising as Arab intellectuals themselves are part of the political and cultural division which includes everything from the extreme right-wing, to the extreme left-wing.

Every [political] trend had its own cultural aspect and renowned intellectuals that support it, whether we are talking about Islamists, nationalists, left-wingers, or libertarians. To clarify this point even further, let us recall that two of the most renowned Arab intellectuals were born to the same parents, however one is a libertarian right-winger opposed to the left-wing, and the other is the complete opposite. Of course I am talking about the sons of renowned Egyptian scientist Ahmed Amin; Hussein and Jalal Amin.

The division between Arab [political and cultural] trends is deep-rooted, although it seems that such divisions are unclear to the old Arab [cultural] elite who still have speak in a loud voice when confronting Western and Arab regimes. This cultural elite is mainly comprised of nationalists and left-wingers, along with intellectuals from the Muslim Brotherhood and those Islamists who follow in their footsteps. However a new cultural awareness is emerging among the young people who believe that the Arab [cultural] problems are a result of failed [cultural] development, and this has nothing to do with endless revolutionary speeches against Israel and imperialism.

There is a problem with poverty, education, administrative corruption, social intolerance, sectarian tension, as well as the Arab citizens’ dissociation with society in general, not to mention the individuals’ lack of responsibility to society.

These are all new issues that are not included in the discussions and investigations of our ageing Arab intellectual elites.

It is true that the Arabs are divided whether this is because of contradictory interests, due to fear of reform and change, or perhaps even because the term “Arab” as an identity and civilization has become extinct.

Why is this surprising?

Perhaps the Arab identity has become extinct in the same manner as the Pharaohs, the ancient Greeks, and the people of Sheba, but it simply takes identity longer to understand this, as opposed to the biological extinction of animals in the wild. Therefore the convulsions and tremors [experienced by Arab culture] are nothing more than a characterization of this. Ultimately, all this talk is just hypothetical, but one cannot expect intellectuals to be above such [political and cultural] divisions.

And so what happens next?

The call issued by Prince Khalid Al Faisal, the president of the ATF, remains an opportunity for us to question the intellectuals and hold them accountable for the [cultural] discourse that they shaped over the previous decades. This is not meant to discourage the institution of an Arab Cultural Summit, and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa previously informed Asharq Al-Awsat in an interview that he may call for the cancellation of the second Arab Economic Summit as the recommendations of the first Economic Summit that took place in Kuwait have yet to be implemented. I do not believe that the Arab Cultural Summit – if held – will be more successful than the Arab Economic Summit, as the intellectuals, by their very nature, seek to disagree, rather than agree.

With all respect and appreciation towards the Arab League, the fact is that what the ATF is doing in a unilateral manner to serve culture and implement programs to familiarize the public with cultural dialogue, and accustom them to a climate of intellectual criticism, is more beneficial and easier to implement than the efforts made by the Arab League.

Arab League summits have not resulted in any advancements in political or economic issues, and the Kuwait [Economic] Summit became a controversial political forum, and there is no guarantee that the same won’t happen with an Arab Cultural Summit.

Therefore I believe that what Prince Khalid Al Faisal is doing in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world, and what Sultan Al Owais is doing in the UAE, and what Mohamed Benaissa is doing in Morocco is far more beneficial than summits which may not achieve anything.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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