The Arab World’s Cultural Challenge

The Arab World’s Cultural Challenge

We must first of all reconnect with the Arab and Islamic tradition that built spaces for cultural autonomy over centuries. A new cultural norm, appropriate to the contemporary world as well as our own traditions, means engaging the Salafist model with respect, but also with courage, says Hicham Ben Abdallah El Alaoui.

For the last two centuries, the ulema (Islamic scholars) have always been suspicious of modern forms of cultural production and expression, which carve out spaces that engage social subjects in ways of understanding their lives and their world that are implicitly autonomous from religion. For the most part, whatever the ulema said, artistic and cultural practices have operated in a sphere that constituted a continuum, even if certain activities (modern art and painting) were more westernised and consumed mainly in effendi (westernised bourgeois) ghettos.

Underlying this wary tolerance was a theological mode of thought (kalam) in which religion encompasses more than sharia: It accommodates a pluralist notion of society as a vast ensemble where culture develops alongside religion. In this conception, a wide array of profane literary and artistic activity (poetry, calligraphy, plastic arts, music) can be understood as being in continuity with religion. In this way, diversity and creativity have remained an integral and treasured part of our history.

Part of the grandeur of Islam was its ability to absorb a myriad of cultural influences. The Muslim world protected, studied and developed the great traditions of classical literature and philosophy. It was not a place for burning books, but for building libraries to preserve them. It was, for some time, the guardian of the founding documents of what became known as “western civilization.” It understood that these were a part of the intellectual legacy of all mankind.

With the rise of Islamist movements, however, a new public norm took root, often characterised as Salafist, since it is based on a narrow version of a “return” to religious orthodoxy. This new social norm is, for the most part, implicit — an unofficial ethos or ideology, only rarely enforced by legal or administrative sanction. But it is even more powerful as a result. The authority and centrality of the new Salafist norm derives not from the power of a regime, but from the fact that an unapologetic Islam has installed itself at the heart of Arab identity; it has become the central signifier of resistance to westernisation and neo-colonialism.

In earlier decades, Arab nationalism fought off any such overbearing religiosity; today, “moderate” secular voices refrain from challenging it. They are caught in an identity trap, constantly limiting their discourse, in fear of being accused by religious conservatives or regimes of undermining Arab authenticity and independence — even Arab nationalism itself.

There was a striking example of this last summer, when a group of young Moroccans decided to break the Ramadan fast with a picnic in a public park. Along with the predictable reactions from religious quarters, the USFP, Morocco’s main social-democrat party, also demanded punishment for the fast-breakers. This leftwing “religiosity” was couched in nationalist terms: It was an insult to national culture, and a disruption of the consensus on Moroccan identity. The government charged the youths under a secular statute for an offence against “public order,” in a way that had never been done before. This simple challenge to the Salafist norm turned out to be too radical for all the politicians.

The cultural seen as pagan

The public space is increasingly dominated by a cultural norm based on elaborating a set of strict rules, a series of dos and don’ts, read off from a strict construction of religious texts. As religion is becoming a more dominant element of public ideology, it is contracting around Salafism, creating a context in which the cultural is now more easily perceived by believers as not just profane, but pagan. A capacious understanding of Islam as a partner with culture has been shrunk into a narrow version of sharia that excludes the cultural. The passages between the sacred spaces of religion and the secular discourses of profane culture are being barricaded.

This dynamic of Salafisation occurs even as people continue to consume a proliferation of profane and secular cultural products via television, videos, the internet and popular literature. It is easy to identify the “western” and global forces driving secular culture, and denounce it as “foreign”; but this would be to ignore the creativity with which Arabs have appropriated and transformed the contemporary means of cultural production.

At the level of elite culture, there is a burgeoning patronage system for artistic modernisation, financed by western foundations and transnational NGOs — but also by foundations of the Gulf. At the popular level, there is the dissemination of western media conglomerates. But there is also the growing presence of indigenous media outlets — from news sources like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, through popular soap operas and the popular literature of self-help and romantic advice, to the explosion of musical and artistic creativity, which the internet has made possible and Arab youth have seized upon enthusiastically. In the Arab world as everywhere else, it is a prodigious cultural mash-up, whose commercialised version is the “festivalisation” of modern Arabic culture — a phenomenon in which Arab businesses, promoters and middlemen are entirely complicit (see “Arab showtime”).

Most of these cultural practices are without religious intent, saturated with global influences and, to all intents and purposes, completely secular. Despite the growth of political Islam, attempts to Islamicise art and culture in the Arab world have been relatively weak and ineffective. Still, caught between the pressure for modernisation from secularised global culture, and the pressure for solidarity and authenticity from the Salafised indigenous public norm, artists and cultural producers in the Arab world have taken to calling themselves “Muslim” (but not “Islamic”) – even though their artistic practice has nothing to do with religion, and may be implicitly contributing to the secularisation of Arab societies. By calling themselves Muslim, they are affirming an identity, not a religious practice.

Advancing schizophrenia

What is occurring in the Arab and Muslim world is a kind of schizophrenia: In private, one regularly consumes the cultural profane (via television, videos, the internet, and popular literature, or in carefully segmented semi-public spaces); in public, one proclaims one’s Muslim identity, avoids going to a movie theatre, and perhaps makes a show of religiosity by attending the mosque, sporting a beard or a veil. The two forms of cultural experience unfold in parallel, but it is the religious norm that maintains hegemony in the public space. In the Arab and Muslim world today, cultural practices produce a process of secularisation, but no one may acknowledge or accept it.

This is not simply because of the social division between elites and masses. Well into the 20th century, there was a simple working compromise: westernised elites could traffic with profane culture while ordinary people stayed in the traditional cultural sphere dominated by Islam. But over the last few decades, education, literacy and the exponential growth in communication have brought profound changes. Contact with other languages and cultures has spread beyond the elite.

Today, we have increasing diversity in the Arab world: the young read novels, watch movies and videos, listen to music, read blogs – and create all of these things – in many different languages. They are not just consuming, but mastering, modern cultures that are intertwined with linguistic and cultural influences from the East, North, South — and, yes, the West.

It would be naive to presume that this diversification of mass culture will inevitably feed into movements for secularisation or democratisation. The same person reads novels or astrology books one day, and the next reads mass-produced religious tracts, bought in the same bookstore; or watches Ikraa (the Islamic TV chain) at lunchtime and Rotana (Saudi) after dinner.

The Salafists have adapted well to the new means of mass cultural diffusion: Paperback devotional and inspirational tracts and internet blogs replace theological texts. What is important for the Salafists, as for the region’s regimes, is that mass profane cultural consumption is seen as a distraction — not entirely respectable and with no implications for social or political change. One must show respect for the Salafist norm even if one does not practise it. Transgression is individual; the public norm is Salafist. This is a form of ideological “soft” power that is far more effective than any bureaucratically enforced censorship.

There is schizophrenia in the attitude to language, too. The ulema always deemed a scholar’s written work to hold the highest intellectual and social importance. The consequence, today, is a constriction in writing: An Arab intellectual does not write in the language he or she speaks. On this point, pan-Arab nationalism and Islamism agree: both insist that classical Arabic (fosha) is the only legitimate language for cultural expression. For pan-Arabists, fosha is the glue of the Arab nation; for Islamists, of the umma (community of believers). This ignores the profound divergences between actual usage (and even modern standard Arabic, the language of journalism, television, academic discourse and fiction) and fosha, which is rarely used outside of religious schools. It makes the novel a particularly suspicious genre, since it explores “existential” questions of life and its meaning; the novel is not just independent of religion, it reinvents the Arabic language far beyond the limits of fosha.

The same ambivalence governs law. Each Arab state has its own legal code, but almost all refer to sharia as the ultimate source of law. Each state defines its own version of legality and “Islamicity,” and does so for the most part by incorporating some secular principles of rights and justice; but none can refuse to acknowledge the primacy of sharia. The primacy of the Islamic norm governs the Arab polity at the moment. This norm maintains itself as the public standard of judgment, yet it does not always define or determine the real practices of courts and the law.

Policing piety

By accepting Salafisation in everyday mores (requiring or encouraging the Islamic headscarf, suppressing cinema, etc), the modern authoritarian state can renew its alliance with the ulema — the official, state-sanctioned guardians of Islam, who are more interested in exchanging favours with regimes than reforming them. It can tolerate (while officially keeping at arm’s length) quietest Islamist currents whose sharia programme consists mainly of mobilising religious ideologues (not agents of the state) who will obsessively police piety within the community. A modern state can act against the harshest sharia penalties (eg. stoning women who have been raped), but let the primacy of Salafism remain unchallenged.

Yet many secular intellectuals, who would otherwise pursue democratic reforms, end up relying on protection from the authoritarian state against the ulema or the fundamentalists; and find themselves having to defend it in return. To them, the state is the lesser evil to Islamism, protecting present spaces of cultural autonomy and the possibility of future liberalisation. For example, many secular intellectuals reluctantly supported the Algerian state during its struggle with the Islamists in the 1990s. Conversely, today in Egypt, the state protected the writer Sayyid al-Qemni after a fatwa against him (and in June 2009 gave him a medal).

The state can even enter into implicit covenants with some militant Islamist currents judged less of a threat than the Muslim Brotherhood. It may even grant such groups parliamentary status as tolerated opposition. This enables the regime to crack down more harshly on jihadists or other Islamists contesting state power.

Brain drain

The precarious equilibrium among these contending social actors works to the advantage of the state, free to maintain a programme of harsh, but now more finely targeted, repression — all while reinforcing the Salafist norm.

Among intellectuals, this frustrating situation can produce various forms of political withdrawal. There is a real and virtual brain drain: many Arab artists and intellectuals live and work outside of their home countries. They might identify themselves as Arab and Muslim, rather than Egyptian or Tunisian, as they assert an identity whose founding elements are very close to those of Salafism: The Arabic language is fosha and to be Arab is inseparable from being Muslim. Intellectuals in geographic or ideological diaspora lose touch with their specific national and social base and become generic “Arab” intellectuals.

This withdrawal to the abstract unity of a virtual international community is exacerbated by the poor support intellectuals often receive from their state economies. The lack of support has led to a cultural milieu that is individualistic and depoliticised, looking for foreign audiences and funding. This external patronage has been forthcoming from western organisations like the Ford Foundation, as well as the philanthropy of Gulf personalities. As a result, we now see an increasing number of cultural artefacts, representing an abstract Arab/Muslim identity, produced for, and appearing in, western galleries and Gulf showcases.

In the realm of fiction alone, we now have multiple competitions for the best examples of “Arab” culture: the Emirates Foundation International Prize for Arabic Fiction (known as (the “Arabic Booker”), the Blue Metropolis Al Majidi Ibn Dhaher Arab Literary Prize (Lebanon), and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (managed with the Booker Prize Foundation in London).

There is nothing wrong with this, or with the potential for the greater integration of artists in our region into cultural developments throughout the world. But it is troubling that, as the status of the “Arab” artist rises among international audiences, he or she can become more disconnected from people at home, and less valuable to them.

Internet generation

The internet has fostered new spaces of cultural production and consumption. But while it can contribute to the growth and efficacy of a politicised protest movement, it does not in itself create political awareness. As we have seen in Egypt and Iran, it is an effective new tool in mobilising, but cannot substitute for the kind of grassroots organising required for serious struggle.

Jihadis use the internet most inventively and effectively for organisation and propaganda. Their Salafism has no problem with the technological aspects of modern culture — perhaps because they distinguish between the praiseworthy “thinker” (moufakir) versus the reviled “intellectual” (mouthakkaf).

The internet also contributes to isolation and segmentation. Users tend to form discrete groups who communicate exclusively — and often anonymously — through their screens, continually reinforcing a closed discursive loop. Anonymity allows dissenters to ratchet up their radicalism, while avoiding open confrontation and escaping any harsh consequences. Through the internet, it is easy to mock power, and avoid the real world.

Artists and intellectuals no longer (except in places like Iran and Turkey) spearhead movements for social, political and cultural change. They have become, rather, a kind of “court” faction, protected and tolerated by the state or by powerful and wealthy patrons, international and indigenous. The earlier contestatory figure of the artist, like the Egyptian writer, Sonallah Ibrahim, or the Moroccan musical group, Nass El Ghiwane, has largely disappeared. For example, the avant-garde Egyptian painter, Farouk Hosni, is now President Mubarak’s minister of culture. Hannane Kessab Hassan, translator of Jean Genet, was chosen by Syria’s prime minister in 2008 to direct the Unesco-sponsored programme “Damascus, Arab Capital of Culture.” Artists like Wael Chawqi (featured in the Alexandria Biennial) and Hala El Koussy (winner of the Abraaj Capital Art Prize from the Gulf) are not engaged in political contestation, however modern their ideas on culture and society.

Modernising cultural movements in the Arab world have real progressive potential. Those involved in them gain a symbolic transnational capital. They can try to influence trends within their own society, using this capital. Since regime manipulation is not perfect, in ceding new spaces of cultural autonomy and experimentation a process is unfolding that, in the long term, could foster a new type of opposition to authoritarian rule in the Arab world.

One thing is certain. If artistic and intellectual practice is to have an effect on democratisation, it will be necessary to engage the Salafist paradigm on its home ground, and present a credible and consistent alternative. This is not a matter of adopting anyone else’s prefabricated model. We must first of all reconnect with the Arab and Islamic tradition that built spaces for cultural autonomy over centuries. A new cultural norm, appropriate to the contemporary world as well as our own traditions, means engaging the Salafist model with respect, but also with courage.

Hicham Ben Abdallah El Alaoui is a board member of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies; scholar at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, Stanford University; chairman of the board of the Center on Climate Change and the Challenge to Human Security, University of California; and advisor to Human Rights Watch.