In this article we will go through the final interview given by the “sheikh of Arab liberalists,” Egyptian intellectual Fouad Zakarriya, who passed away last Thursday at the age of 83. This last interview was given by Zakarriya to Asharq Al-Awsat in mid-February 2010.
Fouad Zakariyya is truly a symbol of Arab liberal culture. He criticized Islamist fundamentalism as well as pan-[Arab] nationalism and Nasserism. Zakariyya championed ‘scientific thinking’ which was also the title of one of his books popular in the Arab world. He thought carefully about the shortcomings of Arab intellectuality, tried to remove the disguise of sanctity from what was not sacred, and championed the concepts of peace and moderation and opposed isolated ideologies whether they were pan-nationalist or Arabist. But that was not enough for Zakariyya; he practically contributed to building the scientific approach in the Arab world. We all remember his significant role in compiling the Kuwaiti World of Knowledge Encyclopaedia. He was one of the greatest intellects who nurtured this major initiative seeking to raise awareness about the scientific critical approach in the Arab world.
Coincidentally, I received the news of this great patriarch’s death whilst flicking through one of the volumes of the magnificent World of Knowledge Encyclopaedia. Fouad Zakarriya oversaw the translation of ‘A History of Western Philosophy’ by the British philosopher and historian Bertrand Russell. It is a spectacular book in which Russell looks at the shaping of Western mentality from Ancient Greece until modern times in a style that blends literature, philosophy and subjective thought in one. This work was further enhanced by Fouad Zakarriya who produced a magnificent Oriental rug using Western thread. The final outcome was a sight for sore eyes and a delight to all rational minds.
In this work, Zakarriya’s distinctive way of thinking clearly stands out and is strongly related to Western thought and philosophy. In the detailed introduction to Russell’s book, Zakarriya explains the logic behind presenting the book to Arab readers. He clearly states critical remarks about Russell and argues that Russell remained prisoner to the central Western vision towards the European entity. Russell considered Greek philosophy to be the earliest centre of reasoning in Europe or rather the first stop on the journey of modern humanistic thought, therefore nullifying or marginalizing the East’s early contribution of questions regarding human thought with respect to the essence and existence. These questions were initially formulated and developed on the banks of the River Nile in ancient Egypt and by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers of the Sumer and Assyrians.
Zakarriya rejected this illusive Western centralism but at the same time he notes that Russell was not one of the bigots of European self-centred thought. Zakarriya maintains that in his book Russell timidly points out contributions made by the East to European thought.
So Zakarriya is an interactive and positive writer and translator who is completely aware of his own cultural identity as well as that of others. Nevertheless, he is not obsessed with the West. George Tarabishi wrote a book called ‘Sickness by the West’ that was somewhat unfair to Fouad Zakarriya. To be honest, through careful scrutiny, we find that there is no such thing as “closed geography” for knowledge and culture. This concept has never existed since the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia in Iraq, the Nile in Egypt and Mount Olympus in Greece to the present age of the internet. The blame is to be entirely put on politics and its lies that create fictitious identities, nations and memories, all based on non-academic sources.
Let us return to the final words of Fouad Zakarriya in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper on February 18, 2010 conducted by Ehab al Malah. Asked about his intellectual projects, Zakarriya said he was not comfortable with the term “intellectual projects” because it exaggerates ordinary attempts to fathom certain issues. “It is a term in which there is generalization and exaggeration and I do not like to use such terms more than necessary like those people mentioned in your question did,” he said in reference to [Mohamed Abed] al Jaberi, Abdullah al Urwi and Tayeb Tizini as well as others who contemplated the Arab reality and looked into the roots of its crises and problems. They did not succeed in forming a clear-cut Arab intellectual current that could lead to a social liberation movement and real intellectual enlightenment. Their efforts did not result in the creation of an enlightening intellectual current similar to what the French thinkers and philosophers known as the ‘encyclopaedists’ had accomplished back in the 18th century before the French Revolution. The efforts of those Arab forerunners, unfortunately, also failed to match the achievement that was accomplished by Russian authors and intellectuals in the 19th century prior to the Bolshevik Revolution.
When Zakarriya was asked about the real problem with the Arab mentality, he said: “An accurate analysis of the problem is the continuance or dominance of a single way of thinking or rather the prevalence of illogical thinking amid the absence of logic and the presence of superstition. All of this ultimately leads to further consolidating the difficult situation the Arab nations are suffering.”
In a statement that was befitting of a man who was days away from passing away, the wise Fouad Zakarriya said: “Minds do not change as a result of nothing. It is pointless to call upon people to try and change the way they think before changing circumstances and conditions because a call like this is an inverted call, as mindsets do not change by a superior decision or a long-term plan; they do not start to change until the conditions around them change.”
In clear criticism of the weakness of much of the Arab “elite” Zakarriya said, “There are still those among us who defend and promote charlatanism and sorcery. Despite being highly educated, many still believe in those practices. It all emanates from a sense of inability to face our own crises.”
In this final interview, Zakarriya frankly stated that the biggest problem Arab intellectuals encounter “is that of freedom. In other words, writers and intellectuals should be given all the freedom they need to voice what they believe in and want without imposing any kind of restrictions on them.”
Cleverly, Fouad Zakarriya refused to describe the reaction of Islamist sheikhs and jurists to the phenomenon of global terrorism and the responsibility of some young Muslims for explosions and Takfir campaigns across the world as a renewal in religious thought as a result of an inclination towards moderation and modern humanistic values. Zakarriya said, “9/11 in 2001 was directly linked to terrorism and had nothing to do whatsoever with the renewal of religious discourse, as some might claim. Religious discourse at that period was chiefly focused on distinguishing between Islam and terrorism.”
Asked about his political and intellectual battles throughout his life and whether he had any regrets in that respect, Zakarriya said, “I believe I have fought my battles in defence of my intellectual beliefs and in order to reveal certain orientations and currents. I’ll try to give you a clear and simple example to answer your question. Following the Yom Kippur War in 1973, I wrote an article entitled ‘Our Battle and Illogical Thinking.’ After this short article was published in Egypt’s Al Ahram newspaper, I was fiercely attacked everywhere I turned and in most Egyptian media back then. I was even cursed on the pulpits of mosques for trying to refute the claim that support came in the form of angels descending from heaven and assisting the Egyptian army in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Back then I said it would be unfair to ascribe our only military victory against our enemies in modern times to descending angels and denying the strenuous efforts exerted by the armed forces in training and preparing our troops for the battle and overlooking the efforts of all those who planned, prepared and trained for this war. It was as if I had declared apostasy when I stated this opinion.”
Zakarriya then spoke about his famous battle with “the number one Nasserist intellect,” Mohamed Hassanein Heikal. He described the encounter as the greatest battle of all because it was with Heikal in response to the latter’s ‘Kharif al Ghadab’ [The Autumn of Fury]. “My criticism of Heikal was mostly implicit and was an assessment of the era of President Nasser and the entire Nasserist experience. As always, I was keen to express my personal opinion, not favouring one ruler over the other. Regarding Heikal, I criticized him and revealed what he tried hard to hide. Any observer could easily see that by carefully reading my book in response entitled ‘Kam Umr al Ghadab’ and I am still completely convinced of what I wrote.”
Let us pay special attention to this last sentence. What I really like about this man is his strong determination in clinging to the fundamentals of scientific thinking and his struggle against national and fundamental charlatanism. But what is most striking about him is that he stuck to his independent cultural position even in his final days when we have grown accustom to seeing some Arab intellectuals, particularly in Egypt, become sloppy and lazy mentally as they get older. But this man continued to be a burning flame right up until the flame was blown out completely.
May Fouad Zakarriya rest in peace. I believe we ought to pay attention to his final words.