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THE INABILITY OF THE ARAB MIND TO CRITICIZE

To my fellow Arabs:

What we may call the “critical mind” is almost non-existent today in the Arabic speaking societies. This is largely due to the meager margin of democracy allowed and to the fact that top positions, in many cases, are concentrated in the hands of a few incompetent individuals whose intellectual capacities and management skills are mediocre at best.

When we add to this the current proliferation of a reactionary religious culture, it is understandable that there should be a marked decrease in rationality, a lack of participation marked by extreme negativity, and a prevalence of constant and fixed ideas that cannot hope to hold up against the objective criticism that is crucial to true development.

All of these factors actively hinder social mobility, resulting in a general state of incompetence that in turn leads to a decline in standards at all levels. Invariably, rational thinking takes a back seat.

Eight centuries ago, Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averoes, 1126-1198) attempted to revive rationality and to draw attention to its merits, only to be met with an onslaught of hostility and criticism from Arab societies. Ironically, he was welcomed in France, where he proved instrumental in the defeat of French theocracy.

And today? If we but glance at a weekly article in El Akhbar newspaper by an individual with a mind spewed straight from the womb of the Middle Ages, we will soon realize the reason for our rapid decline and sorry state of regression. When a newspaper of repute with a wide national circulation allows what amounts to a weekly demolition force against the values of humanity, civilization and progress, it is small wonder that we should be taking giant steps backwards.

The articles bemoan a glorious past that actually never existed outside the writer’s imagination, and was in fact characterized by excessive bloodshed and slaughter (which tended to be the norm all over the world at that time). The writer goes into endless tirades against “The Other”, who is pictured, quite simply, as the devil, and in true tribal fashion, persists in seeing this Other as a vile enemy intent upon ‘destroying’ us and who must therefore be fought with words – and with the sword.

This kind of ‘reasoning’ is typical of the desert culture, characterized as it is by tribal values, isolation, and danger lurking behind every dune. In actual fact, the Other is neither devil nor angel; and based upon this premise, we should engage in a constructive interchange of ideas and discussions, that can only benefit both sides and further the cause of progress and of humanity at large. This said, we should bear in mind that the concept of “humanity” is completely alien to the nomadic tribal mind.

The Other played a significant and enriching role in our lives during the past two centuries, and has had a profound and positive influence on journalism, the theatre, literature, translation, and thought in general. I can safely say that Egypt was a melting-pot blending the Egyptian with the Other in a harmonious and productive fusion that resulted in countless works of beauty, refinement and cultural merit.

Isolation, on the other hand, has spawned a decline in aesthetic values and an ugliness that few can deny. I have every hope that the minorities in Arabic-speaking countries will serve as a catalyst for the dissemination of progress and refinement, taking society forward towards the age we live in, rather than backwards to a past that belongs to the Dark Ages.

In addition to the absence of a critical mind in our lives today, I have serious doubts as to the existence of a class of intelligentsia in all Arabic-speaking countries. Ever since the Fifties, most Arab regimes have been careful to create what I can only call “the official intellectual”. This ‘intellectual’ may be an excellent reader and researcher, but is almost invariably no more than a civil servant with none of the independence that is crucial to the creation of a class of free-thinking and effective intelligentsia that is not subservient to the ruling regime.

It is a sad fact that a large number of intellects in our society have been lured by Bedouin or Baathi petrodollars, while others have fallen prey to the law of attraction to official positions. Thus have most Arab countries become sadly devoid of free-thinking intellectuals, and if further proof be needed, we have only to note that almost all our intellectuals today churn out identical views on most issues, a phenomenon that is simply uncivilized and uncultured.

The picture becomes clearer when we realize that rationality in our society has suffered two major defeats: the first was the triumph of the school of copying in the tenth to the 13th Century over the school of reason as exemplified by the students of Aristotle, headed by the brilliant Ibn Rushd.

The defeat of the champions of reason saw the end of centuries of relatively enlightened thought and paved the way for centuries of stagnation, inflexibility and inertia. Then, early in the 20th Century, Egypt began to intellectually awake.

The “Renaissance Movement” was tragically short-lived. The second blow was the defeat of the Egyptian school of enlightenment, exemplified by Ahmed Loutfy El Sayed, Salama Moussa, Taha Hussein, Aly Abdel Razik and El Akkad (before he retracted his views upon his dismissal from the Wafd party). Perhaps the last of these great thinkers were Louis Awad, Hussein Fawzi and Zaki Naguib Mahmoud.

Egypt in the Twenties was undergoing an intellectual boom in its capacity as a leading Mediterranean country enjoying the fruits of the Renaissance Movement. The spread of Fascism in the Thirties and the defeat suffered by Egyptian liberalism put paid to the school of enlightenment in this country. Nevertheless, I am confident that a third school of enlightenment is beginning to make its presence felt here in Egypt, and am confident that it will eventually prevail, even if present-day liberals do not witness this outcome in their lifetimes.

It is my firm belief that the battle of progress with reactionary forces can only end in the triumph of the former and the retraction of the latter, though as I say, we may not live long enough to see the end of the battle.

[Tarek Heggy, a native Arab Egyptian, is one of Egypt’s most prominent intellectuals and most successful business managers. He is the author of innumerable articles and several books, and is a frequent guest lecturer at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England.]