Today's date:
Winter 2002


State, Father and God in the Arab World

Mahmoud Hussein (Adel Rifaat and Bahgat Elnadi) are the two Egyptian-born intellectuals who write under the pen name "Mahmoud Hussein." As director and editor-in-chief of the UNESCO Courier and co-founders of Intellectuels Du Monde, they have been leading proponents of a dialogue between cultures to avert a "clash of civilizations." They are also the authors of Versant Sud de la Liberte (1990).

Paris-Today the United States and Europe look upon the non-European societies of the South as culturally homogeneous entities based on consistent value systems-Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism. In general, they are viewed as hostile to the modern ideals of individual liberty and democracy. According to this view from afar, these societies may contain a few marginal, fringe groups that speak up for secular and liberal values, but they are seen to be submerged in an ocean of despotism, fundamentalism and fanaticism.

This perspective on the South is extremely dangerous for two reasons. On the intellectual level, it obscures the profound realities of the South which, as a result of its chaotic and uneven integration into the world market, is characterized by social and economic bifurcation, cultural heterogeneity and open political possibilities. On the practical level, the Western attitude prevents it from supporting forces in the South which, often in difficult situations, are struggling to establish modern principles of law and liberty.

The societies of the South have emerged from a long and memorable past. They are the product of a history that is not exclusively their own. They certainly bear the marks of cultures with religious and traditional foundations that take for granted the pre-eminence of the group over the individual. They have, however, been irreversibly transformed by their colonial experience which gradually led to the disintegration of their community institutions and paved the way for the emergence of a modern individual.

As the individual was progressively weaned from his ancestral solidarities, he became psychically an orphan, culturally a hybrid and politically deprived of most of the rights and prerogatives of a citizen.

Today these societies are in a feverish fluctuation between outside influences and inside culture, between tradition and progress, with the individual endlessly torn and tormented with conflicts. It is through this existential wound that we can understand the true essence of the South.

Indeed, there is a fundamental difference between the individual who emerged in the Europe of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and the individual who emerged in all those societies dominated by European colonialism. In Europe, individuality meant liberty, progress, initiative, creativity; for the colonized, individuality meant alienation, loss of any frame of reference and bewildering solitude.

In the South the birth of individual self-awareness was a process filled with pain and conflict inflicted by the colonizer in a series of shocks-people were forced to live their individuality before they could come to terms with it intellectually, and with conceptual instruments that were alien to their culture.

Before colonialism, people had two interlocking systems of reference that claimed their allegiance. The first was the domain of clan, tribe, village and neighborhood-for each person, these constituted the primary dimension of his being. Second, the religious domain linked together the meaning of life, the secret of eternity, the fear of the political and peace of the spiritual.

When the colonial penetration was completed at the turn of the 20th century, the South's system of reference was shaken and traditional economic institutions were disturbed. The challenge was total.

It was mainly in towns that the individualization process gained strength. As the dislocation of the pockets of community life coincided with the introduction of modern social organization-bureaucratic administration, professions-a growing number of people found new intellectual references and new economic supports which centered on the individual's responsibility for his own actions.

Transformation was effected above all through the modern school. Introduced by colonial powers that did not hesitate to violate tradition, the new schools replaced traditional religious schools that soon lost their prestige, their teaching discredited. The modern school was the capillary system through which a new mentality was introduced. That modern mentality slowly but surely separated the circuits of rational intelligence from those of faith, giving the first impetus to an experimental and critical approach. In doing so, it etched the concept of individual awareness.

But this awareness stood alone when it was called upon to confront the omnipotence of the colonizer. Indeed, the confrontation only intensified the individual's feeling that he was torn between two worlds-the colonizer simultaneously aroused his secret admiration and humiliated him. The colonizer spread new horizons before him even as his innermost impulses were shattered. He offered him access to modern rationalism, but in doing so forced him to betray remaining vital truths. The colonizer introduced the tools of change, but kept the colonized in a status of endless subjugation.

Communications networks began to take root in towns, linking together these awakening individuals who, without breaking off their attachment to their communities, began to live lives beyond the reach of those ties. Different parts of town opened up to each other; cafes, clubs and associations bloomed; books and journals circulated, contacts and discussions crossed frontiers of tribe, family, craft organizations; ideas constantly circulated; general priorities emerged. Public opinion was born.

The collective entity that emerged was not simply the combined echo of all other awakening subjects. The collective was the object of transference, a superego sublimating the feelings of individual impotence; it was a point of refuge for those defenseless individuals who saw all the hallmarks of their identity tottering under the scornful eye of the colonizer. Individuals sought to create around themselves a new point of reference in which they could recognize each other and also gain recognition from the colonizer.

Thus emerged a third circle-national identity-to supplant the earlier circles of allegiance in clan or ethnic and religious identity. At the urging of the emancipated middle-class intellectuals, nationalism slowly grew out of the embrace of the first two, using secularization of political life as leverage.

What would be the specific reference points around which national character could be defined? The answer was a living language able to adapt to new forms demanded by modernity-a literary, artistic, philosophical, scienti?c and technical heritage rooted in the familiar landmarks of a people but that could survive outside of the religious world; a transposable code of values; a shared memory of past events, mythic or historic, on the basis of which political discourse could create a temporal vision of the past.

These elements were combined into a coherent discourse by leaders of national liberation movements. After the Second World War, the modern state carved out by colonialism became the repository of national spirit for a society that was still too incomplete and fragile to assume its own destiny.

This state had to impose its authority over society, attempting to subdue the chaotic forces that surged through it. The state had to remain above society in order to arbitrate its conflicts yet penetrate it if it hoped to install a lasting legitimacy. It had to recognize the forces of inertia and conservatism which persisted within the religious and traditional communities while still working to encourage the development of a middle class capable of reinforcing the state's hold on society and eventually opening the country to the modern world.

In the face of such an unstable transition, a country usually needed a strong ?gure who could embody the nation's common interests; a voice that would resound deep within the popular consciousness a figure of unity who could overcome the lost fellowships and personal impotencies; who could make it possible for each individual to find himself in communion with all the others.

From State to Father | The father figure - Nahhas Pasha, Nasser, Bourguiba, Nehru, Sukarno - stood as the guardian over the anxious individual, shielding him from the uncertain future, the growing anonymity of society and the frightening diversity of the world.

This figure thus fulfilled two essential functions. On the one hand, he reproduced at the level of the entire nation the structure of the grassroots community, whose members could recognize one another and win recognition in other people's eyes through the link with the Father. On the other hand, the Father figure accelerated the disintegration of that community's own form of expression, providing in exchange the comforting assurance of belonging to a national identity, gradually freeing politics from the influence of religion, steering people's minds away from the eternal and locating the collective destiny in historical time.

The individual was thus governed by the father figure over which he had little control. The private dimension of his life also began to demand more self-management which presented the individual with increased solitude and anxiety with every passing day.

This was a period of anguished growth for the individual. His collective self-awareness before others continued to deepen, his sense of personal dignity began to sharpen. He began to observe society and the world with a more objective eye. And yet the field of his fundamental rights was a wasteland, the extent of his political liberties tightly controlled.

He was expected to assume responsibility for his daily life without the opportunity to assume responsibility as a citizen. He was accountable to the state but could not demand the same accountability in return.

For all intents and purposes he was a citizen, yet he was shorn of that margin of real initiative that determines the conditions of his existence, such as the right to act upon the political options of the nation.

So long as the Father continued to be identified with the need for national unity, and so long as this unity was felt to be vital for protection against an external threat, the individual could find only a tentative significance in his prerogatives as a citizen. Only with discomfort and a sense of infringing on sacred rules did he ask questions about his fundamental liberties.

By the end of the 1970s, the affirmation of individual autonomy began to pick up speed as the models and standards of the world market penetrated the national market. The influence of the Father or his heirs faltered as the state lost its ability to mobilize an ideological ground.

Society thus began to split up, dividing among those who integrated successfully into the new international economic environment, accepting the cultural and psychological context, and those who were the victims of this integration and began to oppose it.

The majority of the middle class-civil servants and professional people who did not have access to the public trough of self-enrichment or frustrated students always ready to answer a strike call-found themselves driven out of the privileged brackets of the social body. Their standard of living deteriorated (nominal income generally remained static but the pressure of inflation from the world market tended to reduce their real purchasing power drastically) and they reluctantly found themselves in a new political and social situation, cheek by jowl with the working class, the disinherited and those groups still bound to the traditional economy.

For the intellectuals and the urban lower middle class, the new situation was a rude awakening of disillusionment and broken promises. The hybrid formulas underlying the nation-state were fast losing legitimacy and credibility. They would soon fall under the crush of economic failures, social and ethnic injustices and the many interrelated dissatisfactions that the state had engendered.

The opposition movements that then developed demanded an end to the hybrid nature of the state and the re-establishment of moral and political unity that the state had ceased to embody. They put forward programs to reestablish value systems that would regain the sense of identity and integrity that society was losing. These opposition movements ultimately faced real alternatives: Either the re-establishment of an order based on pro-national values of religion and communal traditions, or the pursuit of a more radical modernity in the form of a secular democracy.

FROM FATHER TO GOD | The first option, of which Islamic fundamentalism is the most striking example, aims to utilize the system of religious values (or ethnic or tribal values) as the source of political legitimacy, but then denies this legitimacy to all the country's citizens. The citizens are reduced to being believers-political discourse is once more a mere profession of faith.

Fundamentalism is popular at the present time because it speaks to all those who are frustrated with the modernist stage of national development and because it restores a sense of fraternity lost in the struggle against the harsh, implacable laws of the market. Fundamentalism also offers them the authentic as an answer to all things foreign; and it preaches morality amidst an environment of corruption. And above all, it satisfies because it relieves the individual of the unbearably heavy burden of doubt and risk, of individual responsibility and solitude. In exchange it offers them collective certainties sanctioned by holy writ.

The fundamentalist option will see its chances grow day after day because in an accelerating world that is less and less egalitarian, the countries of the South have lost the bargaining power that they once held in the balancing act between East and West. Their structural unemployment marginalizes half of their populations, and the future is more and more closed off, even for university graduates; and authorities, overcome by events, are often tempted to enrich themselves.

The option of human rights and democracy, defended by a courageous intellectual elite in conditions that often border on the clandestine, is at odds with the current trend. It assumes an intellectual, cultural and political maturity that depends on each individual citizen taking upon himself the risks of his personal destiny.

At this moment in history, the essential difficulty with the democratic choice rests on the fact that the conditions which will foster it have not yet been established at either the national or the international level. The requisite socio-economic equilibria will not be found within any of these Arab or Islamic countries (with the exception of the oil-rich states) unless conditions in the world at large are changed. This assumes, in the long run, that the industrialized countries would be willing to make sacrifices in their present standard of living by adjusting the price of commodities on the world market, through debt relief and development aid.

Stranded out on a limb, the most important need in the coming years for the individual in the South is for the solidarity of democratic, humanistic and universalist currents in both the North and the South. Only that link can effect the enormous changes needed and thwart the dark forces of intolerance that today threaten the fragile freedoms of the South.