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Gulf Intellectuals and Manliness | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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When you read some comments you can’t but help respond to them and debate them.

Recently, I read such a comment in an interview with a young popular poet in one of the Gulf States. The young poet suggested he does not like culture and intellectualism saying that that “goes against manliness.”

To those who are not aware of the consequences of words in the Gulf heritage, the term “manliness” is one of the most important, as to lose one it is to lose one’s status in the eyes of society and to fall into a bottomless pit. A man with no manliness is of no value, no dignity or status.

It is hard to explain the significance of the term “manliness” and to understand its social and psychological meaning. However, we could say, in a nutshell, that manliness is a term that encompasses chivalry, courage and generosity. In other words, it is a description given to someone who has all the necessary attributes. When someone explores the full range of manliness, he becomes the ideal man.

But what does chivalry mean in the local conception? This is a complicated issue. Specialized researchers have devoted themselves to analyzing these attributes and concepts. One of the best ever written critiques about the quality or concept of generosity came in a study by Saudi critic Saeed al Suraihi in his exciting book entitled ‘Hijab al ’Ada.’

It is not the intention here to explain these concepts and refer them to their economic and psychological causes rather, the aim here is to underline the intellectual crisis in the Arabian Gulf.

The crisis of the Arab intellectual is part of the intellectual crisis in general. It starts with defining the intellectual, his role, his crisis, and his faults and ends with describing his relationship with society and the state.

What contribution did Gulf intellectuals make to their society? Who are they? Before answering this question, we ought to point out that suspicion and fear surrounds the term “intellectual” in the general popular sentiment. Complicated relations also exist between intellectuals and institutions of power in their broadest sense. I remember a religious Sheikh once asked me: “What does the word thinker mean?” Then he added disapprovingly, “Even a donkey or a child can think.” Then he decisively concluded: “We are unfamiliar with those newly coined terms that intrude upon our faith and religious sciences. We know jurists, narrators, linguists, poets…etc. We have never heard of a famous person having his biography or life story translated on the basis that he is a thinker or an intellectual.”

To be honest, and despite the naiveté and harshness of the Sheikh’s words, he managed, just like the poet mentioned above, to put his finger on the problem of the Arab intellectual in his local context. Arab intellectuals do not know where to place themselves in society, despite being active members in their communities. This brought about the infamous popular portrayal of an intellectual’s character as someone who is fearsome, difficult, strange, critical, and rebellious and this all comes from the evil books he reads.

A friend of mine told me a funny story in this respect. He said his father once returned from the city of Riyadh to the remote village where he and his small family lived and where he had a modest library in his house where he used to read every now and then. According to my friend, one day his father came home and pulled all the books off the shelves and piled them up outside the house and set fire to them. When my friend asked him why he took such drastic action, his father answered: “I fear these books might change me.”

The definition of an intellectual is not only an Arab dilemma but also an international problem in terms of concept and definition. Many theories about intellectuals and culture have come out over the past period. There is the party-oriented intellectual or “the Gramscian intellectual,” the anarchist intellectual, the religious intellectual, the bourgeois intellectual, the absurd intellectual, the pragmatic intellectual, the associated intellectual, the dissociated intellectual etc.

Let us adopt the definition accepted by Bahraini thinker Baqir al Najjar in ‘Sociology in the Arabian Gulf.’ Al Najjar defined intellectuals as the following: ‘a distinguished group of individuals who work on exploring theoretical knowledge, its creation and formation as well as debating intellectual issues. This definition encompasses a diverse range of professional sectors with miscellaneous public or private interests that might or might not include their field of specialization. The distinguished social status enjoyed by the intellectuals grants them the power to influence others. In most cases, their intellectual status qualifies them to contribute to the formula of legitimacy or illegitimacy of the existing political and social structure.”

If we stick to this definition for this article, the term “intellectual” is broad enough to even include the intellectuals within the religious current in the Gulf region such as an outrageous Islamist figure like Dr. Abdullah al Nafisi, Muslim Brotherhood thinker Ismail al Shatti or Salafist Hakim al Mutairi. All those are part and parcel of the Gulf intellectual class. The same goes for Shiite leading figure Ali Salman or Sunni leader Adel al Muawida in Bahrain. Both figures are at the core of the intellectual class in Bahrain. The same could be said about Safar al Hawali and his peers in Saudi Arabia.

The idea here is that intellectuals are producers and guardians of specific concepts. They are the people who demand change and influence society. They are the ones who theorize ideas and protect them. This is their theoretical and practical function: production and protection. That applies regardless of the philosophical nature or standard description of their thoughts, whether progressive or regressive, fundamentalist or civil.

Intellectuals in the Gulf region played a key role in society before the discovery of oil and it revenues. Some Gulf countries witnessed remarkable activity by a class of intellectuals from a trade background because of its open nature or from a newly-educated class. These cultural elites served as the centre of social change and modernization. In his aforementioned book, Dr. Baqir al Najjar makes an important observation about the retreat of the role of the intellectual class with respect to enriching literary, artistic and political life in the Gulf region. This happened, for example, in Kuwait and Bahrain. Baqir al Najjar said, “The decline of traditional economic activity as the final outcome of the discovery of oil and the revolving of the economic activity around the sole proprietor of oil revenues, namely the state, forced the traditional elites to mingle with the state institution due to their dependence on the latter to sustain their economic prosperity and social role. This shift dramatically reduced the political and cultural role of this category; a role that stood out in the past by virtue of its critical and reformist nature.”

Despite the truth of what Baqir al Najjar wrote, a lot has changed over the past period. Though it is true that there was a new wealth and power equation due to the emergence of oil and that this introduced a new reality to society, it is also true that old countries and societies now find themselves facing new facts, particularly over the past two decades. I am talking here about the information technology revolution and the rise of new patterns of intellectuals unlike the old one. These patterns are still searching for their role.

To sum up, the history of intellectuals in the Gulf region is significant, and the present is full of life and the future is promising. They studied at universities, founded the press, and wrote in newspapers and introduced theatres and arts. They made up the advisory bodies for those in power. Thanks to the confidence that was placed in them, those intellectuals functioned as catalysts in Gulf societies, taking people from one level onto another. They were appointed as cabinet ministers yet thrown in detention camps as well. They represented their countries in various official circles abroad; they are the forefront of any change. Even those who were among the ranks of the opposition, whether leftists, nationalists or fundamentalists, made their indirect contribution to the overall change and progress by motivating people to raise questions and search for answers.

All these incidents and actions fall into the context of fearlessness, or according to the expression of our popular poet “manliness.” I didn’t raise the issue of Gulf intellectuals in their defence. The story is far more complicated than that. Mainly, I wanted to highlight the phenomenon of intellectuals in Gulf societies, especially at this fast pace of development within these communities.