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Intellectuals, Run for Cover… The Assassins Are Coming - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Earlier this week, I watched the Iraqi writer and politician Hassan al Alawi announce he would continue to criticize those in power in Iraq and would not refrain from expressing his disapproval, given that he didn’t belong to any political party but supported the Iraqi dream.

A longtime opponent of Saddam Hussein, Al Alawi understands very well the historical and social character of Iraq. At peace with his national belonging and his socio-cultural group, (he is a Shiaa), he appeared on al Mutakillah to discuss his soon to be published book on the Caliph Omar ibn al Khattab. In it, he highlights the common policies between Omar ibn al Khattab and Ali ibn Abi Taleb in state-building. He also expresses his anger towards Shiaa traditions of insulting and blaspheming the Sunnis and their symbols, such as Omar ibn al Khattab.

Alawi spoke bitterly about those who insult Omar and derided the Sunnis who convert to Shiism and condemn Sunni figures, including Omar, to prove their credentials. In truth, Hassan al Alawi was addressing his critics in both communities.

I do not wish to dwell on sectarian differences. Suffice it to say that the eternal conflict between Shiaa and Sunni was borne out of historical events. The disagreements later transcended history to become ideological.

His interview added to my concerned about the Arab intellectual and those who want to transform him into a figure that merely repeats old opinions, exclusively defending them and promoting them. They want him to remain marginal and secondary.

In this respect, I recall the words of Iraqi intellectual Sayyar al Jamil who said that the intellectuals in his country used to fear Saddam’s regime but now dread the numerous “regimes” in Iraq and dare not speak and analyze what they see.

To return to Hassan al Alawi, he was asked during his televised interview why the delay in publishing his book. “I will get the book published no matter what, even if I did in the process”, he replied.

These words are a part of a plethora of statements that have rung alarm bells and alerted us the ordeal faced by the writer and intellectual nowadays. His enemy or is no longer the powerful sate but the growing influence of terrorism.

The intellectual is embroiled in society by definition! He is always deconstructing issues and trying to understand how society thinks and what are its motives, limits, its belief system and ideologies…. Such is the concern of the true intellectual.

By nature, he strives for creativity and requires freedom in order to pose questions and deconstruct illusions. This is why he is the enemy of fixed formulas, especially if they multiply and become the norm.

This is how the intellectual faces two closed regimes that require him to repeat and preach and prefer him solely engaged in publicity, so that his voice is but one of many in the orchestra.

Indeed, some intellectuals are subjugated and made subservient. In this case, they no longer contribute to society and are unable bring about change. Instead, they guard society but do not saw the seeds of change!

Nowadays, the intellectual who wants to publicize his opinions is under siege…from people outside government! He is surrounded by the likes of Osama bin Laden and Moqtada al Sadr in Iraq …

In this climate, and given the circumstances and the dangers facing the intellectual, bin Laden’s latest televised speech, which was not broadcast in its entirety, becomes a sign of what I refer to as the intellectual’s ordeal.

For the first time, the leader of al Qaeda mentioned the names of writers, intellectuals and politicians, the majority of whom are Saudis, and called on his followers to assassinate them.

Bin Laden has used any tool in order to further his “cause”, including the conflict in Darfur and Islamic history.

What course of action can we follow, now that the intellectual is in al Qaeda’s firing line? Could this instigation have positive results and encourage critical intellectual voices to speak out? Isn’t this why bin Laden singled them out in his speech and declared war against them?

This argument has been advanced by many but I see it as a form of self-consolation and an attempt to minimize the problem.

The ordeal of Arab and Middle Eastern intellectuals is real and saddening. If proof were needed, the watchdog Reporters sans Frontieres indicated in its 2004 report that the status of freedoms in the region was appalling. In Iran , for example, the writer Akbar Ganji received a six year sentence in 2001 for an article he wrote accusing Iranian officials of being complicit in the murder of Iranian intellectuals and writers.

Worst than the damage carried out by governments in the Middle East is the one resulting from social institutions with a religious character. In Iraq, we are currently witnessing the massacre of intellectuals, writers and academics. In Algeria, writers and intellectuals were killed by armed militants groups. In Egypt, Faraj Fouda was killed and Najib Mahfouz was threatened by Islamist militants. Organized campaigns against intellectuals are taking place in Saudi Arabia, the last of which saw bin Laden rally his troops in the Kingdom to kill them.

Truly, it is a miserable state of affairs in our region. I fear that those who decry government control would one day long for it if they were to fall under the tyranny of terrorists.

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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