Thursday, 16 June 2011

Canadian students to create 'Arab Renaissance'

A group of Canadian students have embarked on an initiative to bring about a renaissance in the Arab world. Calling itself the ‘Arab Development Initiative’ (ADI), the group intends to bring together ‘talented youth and organizations working for the development of the region’, and facilitate their interaction at conferences and workshops.

This endeavour is not exactly unique, but for a bunch of students, they’ve certainly started well; a glossy website and a very professional video promo featuring facts and figures about the Middle East that are a damning indictment on the region;

  • 44% adult illiteracy rate in Morocco and 35.6% in Egypt

  • 14% unemployment rate in Tunisia and 8.3% in Syria

  • In 2007 the Arab world produced a total of 5,644 scientific and technical journal articles. To put that into perspective, Turkey alone produced over 8,500.

I recently read in an article that in 2005, Harvard University produced more scientific and technical articles than the entire Arab world combined. Shameful statistics for a region much of which has vast natural resources.

Here is the video-

The absence of development, both economic and human in the Arab world has long been bemoaned. It’s become standard rhetoric to hear Arab intellectuals proclaim the need for an ‘Arab renaissance’ in order to propel it into the modern world.

This Algerian thinker certainly agrees-

The Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, despite being known as the love poet, declared in the title of one his poems ‘When will they announce the death of the Arabs?’

(متى يعلنون وفاة العرب؟);

...If someday they announced the death of the Arabs...
Then where would they be buried?
And who would cry over them?
They have no daughters...
They have no sons...
And there is no grief,
And there is no one to grieve!!

إذا أعلنوا ذاتَ يومٍ وفاةَ العربْ...
ففي أيِ مقبرةٍ يُدْفَنونْ؟
ومَن سوف يبكي عليهم؟
وليس لديهم بناتٌ...
وليس لديهم بَنونْ...
وليس هنالك حُزْنٌ،
وليس هنالك مَن يحْزُنونْ

  Fellow Syrian poet and master intellectual Adonis goes even further, and pronounces the Arabs a culturally extinct people.  

Adonis does not hesitate to decry the urgent need, in his view, for Arabs to adopt secularism and modernist values. His poetry often evokes violent images such as lightning purges and other aggressive acts of nature to emphasis his opinion that only a sudden, perhaps violent transformation could improve the lot of the Arabs. He opines that the Arabs have never really raised critical questions concerning religion, and that even ideologies such as pan-Arabism were therefore religious in nature. He regards the modern Arab reality as one that has failed to ‘disintegrate the tribal and sectarian structure’ and ‘has not melted into the new structure of democracy and the democratic option’. He puts the Arab world’s lack of vitality, innovation and ‘living culture’ as the result of not having a societal structure that allows the fundamental doctrines of religion to be criticized, retorting that Arab society is instead built upon ‘invisible forms of slavery’.

Yet Adonis is in no way opposed to religion itself, noting that the early Islamic thinkers innovated the art of text analysis and interpretation, and that such a re-reading of religion is needed in modern times before the conditions for lasting organic democracy can flourish. He therefore rejects any foreign intervention in the region to thrust democracy on the Arabs. Unless they nurture it themselves, it will not last.

Perhaps Adonis’s most damning statement is this:

“If I look at the Arabs, with all their resources and great capacities, and I compare what they have achieved over the past century with what others have achieved in that period, I would have to say that we Arabs are in a phase of extinction, in the sense that we have no creative presence in the world”.

Such statements might be eschewed as neo-orientalist if they were uttered by a westerner. Yet when Arab intellectuals speak of their own culture as extinct, one cannot deny the magnitude of such a claim.

There does of course exist a genuine Arab ‘creative presence’, although by anecdotal and empirical evidence it’s not flourishing on the scale it should be. Many Arab governments and organizations now see the creation of an entrepreneurial and innovative environment as a top priority for the region’s future.

Another Arab intellectual, the Lebanese Samir Kassir, described the contemporary political and cultural stagnation of the region as the ‘Arab malaise’, and devoted his book Being Arab to the question of how Arabs might overcome their crisis of modernity. Kassir, who was assassinated in a car bomb in Beirut in 2005, opined that Arabs must not wallow any longer in their past glories of the so-called Golden Age during the height of Islam’s expansion and influence, during which scientific and creative thought shone far brighter than Europe’s languishing Dark Ages. This rhetoric of an (Islamic) Golden Age replaced by continued stagnation and backwardness in contemporary times (with colonialism somewhere in between) has become common currency among Arabs and Arabists. The conclusion popularly made, is that the Arabs failed to come to terms with modernity and remain somewhat ‘backward’ in their development. Yet for Kassir, the late 19th century onwards witnessed a reformation of Arab literature in its very form; great strides were made by modernists inspired by their trips to Europe; Huda Shaarawi publicly removed her veil in 1922 in Cairo. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Kassir argues that the Arab world in fact encountered avant-garde movements in cinema, music, theatre, literature and intellectual exchanges that demonstrate that the Arab world grappled with modernity and had created a new living culture.

Of important note here is the work of the German historian Detlev Peukert, who first posited the idea that the German Weimar Republic (1918-1933) ultimately failed because the German people failed to come to terms with modernity. The failure of democratic and rational values to establish themselves in Germany, claims Peukert, led to the nightmarish disaster of the rise of irrationalism and extreme rightist tendencies that birthed Hitler. What Peukert’s work suggests, is that the Arabs alone cannot be seen as inherently backward or dependant on Western ideas and innovations as some neo-orientalist would have us imagine.

So what went wrong in the Middle East? According to Kassir, the failure of an Arab modernity lies in falsehoods adopted by the region through the ideologies of pan-Arabism and Islamism; both have failed to offer a viable paradigm of cultural, political and economic development and prosperity. Kassir maintained that the cultural achievements of recent Arab history were significant enough for the contemporary culture to use as a base upon which it can develop. It is  about time the Arabs rejected  the western neo-oriental interventionalist paradigm, and take matters into their own hands. What many writers and luminaries agree upon is that at the very least, democracy and freedom of criticism (whether or not under a secularist banner or not) will help spur the advent of what we might dare to call an ‘Arab renaissance’.

Another well-known initiative aiming to spur the Arab renaissance is the مشروع النهضة the ‘Renaissance Project’ at which presents some great articles.

Other prominent Arabs that often enter the renaissance/ enlightenment discourse are-

  • Nidal Naisa (نضال نعيسة) the Syrian advocate of civil and secular society describes himself as ‘born somehwhere between the ocean and the Gulf’; he appears quite regularly on debate programmes and writes articles here:

Many of the most progressive Arab thinkers participate in the Hewar project; a great website with some excellent content:

As for the Canadian student-led project, it’s perhaps a little to brazen to claim that they will begin a renaissance in the Arab nations. The website and the promo video are bizarrely not yet available in Arabic. No doubt the initiative will help raise awareness of the issues of Arab development, not least in the midst of the major changes occurring on the ground. Nevertheless, if the project successfully galvanizes the right people, and the necessary sponsorship at its forthcoming summit, it will impact the region and at the very minimum demonstrate to the world the ambitions and the potential of the Arab youth to determine a bright future for themselves. Good luck to them.

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