Arab intellectuals and the State

Arab intellectuals and the State

Amid the clamour and blood-letting in the Middle East – carnage in Iraq, fratricidal brawls in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon”s unhealed wounds and so much more – another less publicised battle is being waged: that of enlightened Arab intellectuals against the mindless taboos and conservative governments under which many of them live.

Yousuf Shaheen, the great Egyptian film director who died on last Sunday at the age of 82, was above all a brilliant entertainer. But several of his more than 40 films carried a lethal punch – against hypocrisy and blinkered religious fanaticism, and against authoritarian rule. He lent his support to kefaya (enough) the popular protest movement which sought, unsuccessfully, to bring an end to President Hosni Mubarak”s 27-year rule.

Cairo Station (Bab Al Hadid), 1958, shocked audiences by its sympathetic portrait of a “fallen woman” and by the violence with which she was killed. The Sparrow (Al Asfur), 1973, dared suggest that the source of Egypt“s defeat in the 1967 war lay in corruption at home. The Emigrant (Al Mohagir), 1994, aroused fundamentalist fury because of its depiction on film of the Biblical character of Joseph, son of Jacob.

It is not often understood in the West that the most virulent critics of religious obscurantism are themselves of Arab origin such, for example, as the Franco-Tunisian scholar Abdulwahab Meddeb, who teaches comparative literature at a Paris university and whose book La Maladie de l”Islam (The Illness of Islam) caused a storm in conservative Muslim circles.

“If fanaticism was the disease of Catholicism,” he wrote, “if Nazism was the disease of Germany, then surely fundamentalism is the disease of Islam.”

L”Exception Islamique by Hamadi Redissi, a professor of political science at Tunis University, is even more critical of stagnant Islamic societies.

He attributes their backwardness to conservative regimes; to the rise of a “military aristocracy” in several Arab countries; and to the exploitation of religion to ensure popular obedience. The solution, he recommends, is greater access to knowledge, greater political freedoms, and greater participation by women in every aspect of public life.

Another opponent of religious extremism is none other than the 84-year old Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz. His admirable call last March for a “brotherly and sincere dialogue between believers of all religions” led in July to a historic interfaith conference in Madrid, attended not only by Muslims, Christians and Jews but also by Sikhs, Hindus and Taoists.

Al Qaida has denounced the conference and King Abdullah personally – a reminder that the House of Saud is the prime target of the terrorist group, ahead even of the United States and Israel.

Libyan intellectuals have suffered for the past 39 years under the stifling rule of their “Guide”, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. A recent incident casts a harsh light on the nature of this regime, and brings no honour to the Arabs. One of the Colonel”s sons, the 30-year old Hannibal, and his heavily-pregnant wife Aline, were on July 15 charged with beating their domestic servants at a luxury Geneva hotel and causing a riot. Hannibal was held by Swiss police for two days.

The young man has a reputation as a hell-raiser. In 2001, he clashed with police in Rome, putting three in hospital. In 2005, he drove his Porsche at 140 kph down the Champs-Elys?©es and, in 2006, he beat up a pregnant girlfriend at the Intercontinental Hotel in Paris and then pulled a handgun on security guards. He was given a four-month suspended prison sentence for “voluntary violence against a vulnerable person” and 500 euros fine.

Instead of summoning home his son for a rap on the knuckles after the latest violent incident in Geneva, the Colonel decided to retaliate. Libya has threatened to halt oil supplies to Switzerland, barred Swiss ships from its ports, suspended visas for Swiss nationals, closed Libyan branches of Swiss companies such as Nestl?©, arrested two Swiss employees, and demanded an apology. Clearly, the Colonel believes that beating servants is acceptable behaviour by members of his family.

It reminds one of stories of the sons and daughters of powerful persons in various Arab countries who have been known to enter examination rooms accompanied by armed guards, less to protect them than to remind their examiners of the penalty of giving them a bad mark.


Controversial case

A more difficult and controversial case is that of President Omar Al Bashir of Sudan, whom the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has indicted on charges of genocide in Darfur. It is the first time that a serving head of state has been so indicted – clearly a black mark for the Arabs.

Terrible things have undoubtedly happened in this arid and neglected western province of Sudan since a rebellion broke out there in 2003 against the Khartoum government. But how to balance justice against political expediency? Al Bashir himself is thought to be more moderate than some of his hardline colleagues. The fear is that his overthrow could plunge Sudan into chaos.

It could prevent implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed between the central government and southern rebels, which provided for elections in 2009 and a referendum on independence for south Sudan in 2011. It could provide Al Qaida with an opportunity to return to its former base in Sudan. It could torpedo the new electoral law, just passed by the National Assembly, which promises to create the first freely elected government in 20 years. In the meantime, the ICC indictment appears to have spurred the Sudanese government into action. Al Bashir has toured Darfur – his first visit since seizing power in 1989 – and has promised economic aid. There is also speculation that a former interior minister and a former militia leader may be arrested and face trial for atrocities in the province.

Indicting Al Bashir is seen by many Sudanese – and indeed by many Arabs – as an affront to Sudanese sovereignty and as yet another example of Western double standards. When, they ask, will the ICC indict US President George W. Bush for the destruction of Iraq, or Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for Israel“s many crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories?

The Arab world is not alone, by any means, in needing to put its house in order – and, above all, in needing to listen to the voices of its enlightened intellectuals.