Critical Arab thinking and cultural malaise

By agency reporter
April 1, 2011

Elizabeth Kassab is a scholar of philosophy, and taught for many years at the American University in Beirut and Balamand University in Lebanon.

Dr Kassab won several fellowships and was a visiting scholar and professor at Columbia University, and a visiting professor at Yale, both in the USA.

She has been widely acclaimed for her book Contemporary Arab thought: Cultural critique in comparative perspective (Columbia University Press, 2009), which examines the “Arab malaise” from a political, rather than cultural perspective, and in a post-colonial, rather than exceptionally Arab, context.

NOW Lebanon ( interviewed her recently, and we reproduce the question-and-answer session with grateful acknowledgments to them, and the agreement of Dr Kassab.

Q: What is the core theme of the Arab critical thinkers that you write about?

Elizabeth Kassab: Most of the themes that these thinkers are busying [themselves] with have been there for a long time in the Arab world, since the Nahda [ “renaissance” or “awakening”] in the 19th century. You have these questions on why others have progressed while we have not. What’s wrong with us that we are not able to achieve independence, development or democracy? And this sense has been there for about 150 years, and as the [21st] century progresses, you are less and less hopeful of achieving them, unfortunately… because I think the 20th century has been very discouraging for Arabs after the struggles against colonialism, against the British and the French mandate, and against the establishment of the state of Israel.

Q: What is the cause of the “Arab malaise” according to these thinkers?

EK: For a long time, people tried to give a cultural explanation for the [Arab] cultural malaise: There is something flawed in our culture, so we need to fix our culture to fix our situation. But throughout 150 years, there have always been voices saying that the problem is political rather than cultural. From the very beginning, if you start from the Nahda, for people like [scholar Rifaa] al-Tahtawi, the cause of the malaise was [lack of] political justice – as long as you had despotism, repression of human rights, then you’re not going to have a healthy country or society. In the 1930s, and also in the 60s and 70s, there were [the seeds of a] political reading of the malaise... I think that from the 90s onward, in the writings of many political prisoners… you have that political critique really being articulated… The big challenge is: How do you channel that critical spirit into politics as individuals? That, I think, is the one million dollar question.

Q: What is the thought process of these thinkers?

EK: The work that the Arab critical thinkers did was to look inward. Their work is of self-examination, self-critique and the re-visiting of the ideologies that [were seen as the solution at the time, such as] socialism, nationalism or Islamism. And then after having tried these things, there comes a time of maturation where some people can sit and look back and say, “OK, what have we achieved or why haven’t we achieved any of those goals?”… And this is the contribution of Arab critical thinkers, that they were able to maintain some sense of sober thinking, of self-critical thinking without falling into the two extremes that you find very often in post-colonial societies: either you go into self-glorification… or self-hatred, [which] you find very often.

Q: Why do these critical thinkers in the Arab world remain so invisible?

EK: I think because they’re not sensational… To undertake critical thinking is a long-term, difficult, in-depth work, so it’s done silently… Arabs themselves don’t know them. The public is so overwhelmed by extremists, nationalists or Islamists; it’s the ideologies that attract attention... One of my struggles in fact is to shed light on this critical thinking, to recognize and acknowledge its value and to disseminate it… In Lebanon for example, you graduate from high schools and universities without ever hearing about them. Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, Saadallah Wannous, Mohammad Arkoun, Abdallah Laraoui – take any of the thinkers that I cover in my book. They are really not well-known, or at best, people have [only] heard their names.

Q: Despite the “Arab malaise”, you write positively about how 2005 was a turning point for the Arab world, using the example of the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon after the death of former Premier Rafik Hariri. What are your thoughts on this movement? What of 14 February? (*)

EK: I would say that the energies are to be channeled toward the critique of the leadership of the 2005 movement. I think what I would like to see on 14 February is the people voicing their criticism of the leadership of their movement and holding the leadership accountable and sanctioning it for its mismanagement of the energy of the movement. So I think instead of just abandoning the movement or the commitment to political justice – for a system of politics that is based on human rights and respects diversity – I think the people should criticise their own leadership, like what Samir Kassir was saying, “an intifada inside an intifada.” I think his call is more relevant today than ever. And I’m going to add that I don’t think the critical movement and the citizens’ movement is limited to March 14… I think the people of March 14 should find bridges to movements outside March 14, who also work toward those goals.

Q: You said that the Arab thinkers need not be isolated, as they share a lot with other post-colonial countries. How do you compare the case of this region to others? Do you believe that critical thinkers from other regions, such as Latin America, are ahead in the critical process, and what can the Arab world learn from them?

EK: Yes, I think for a very long while, people have approached Arab debates only in terms of Arab issues. People have tried to make sense of things through religion, Islam, through Arab heritage, etc. And it is only when you widen your scope and look at other debates in the world that you see that Arab debates are not what they are because they are Arab, but because they are post-colonial to a great extent…

I wouldn’t be very comfortable or equipped… to say whether Latin America is faring better than the Arab world. I would say that it’s important for Arabs to understand that their preoccupations and their obsessions are not due to who they are, to their own culture, but that the post-colonial structure brings about this kind of preoccupation, and so opening up to the rest of the post-colonial world can break this isolation... It’s more enriching to learn from people that have more similarities with us. Now of course, every one of these regions has its challenges, and I think the predicament of the Arabs is that they are in a geopolitical situation that is very difficult: the oil, the wars, Israel. That doesn’t make things easier.

Q: In any case, would you say your book is a hopeful book?

EK: I think we can’t but continue to struggle, and I think that these critical thinkers do inspire hope by the mere fact that they exist, that among us, there are men and women who continue to think in spite of all the fears and traumas and temptations to be driven into totalistic ideologies, or to extremist visions – that some people have managed to maintain a level of sobriety and honesty under very painful circumstances. And I think this should be a great source of pride and a source of hope...

Q: What are your plans? What projects are you working on at the moment?

EK: I am now engaged in a new project in which I look at the Arab debates in connection with the Greek and Turkish debates of the same era, because I think these are neighbours with whom we have a lot in common. We are all post-Ottomans, and we very often forget that, and we have not only ignored that common path, but we have ignored each other.


Note: This interview was conducted on 13/02/2011. Every year since former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in Lebanon on 14 February 2005, there have been mass demonstrations in Martyr’s Square on the anniversary of his death. But not in 2011. Instead, to commemorate the death of the former PM, a gathering of some 5,000 people from all the 'March 14' parties took place in Biel.

Listen to Dr Kassab on the BBC International Radio Service here:

With thanks to Dr Harry Hagopian for enabling this interview to be published.


(c) Elizabeth Kassab and NOW Lebanon. Dr Kassab studied at the American University of Beirut business administration and philosophy, and continued her graduate studies in philosophy at Fribourg University in Switzerland. Her dissertation on the theory of meaning in the interpretative social sciences was published by the Editions Universitaires de Fribourg under the title The Theory of Social Action in the Schutz-Parsons Debate. She then spent three years as a post-doctorate fellow at the University of Bielefeld in Germany.

She returned to Beirut in 1991 and taught for many years at the philosophy department in AUB, and later at Balamand University. In 1999 she was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to work on her research project at the New School University in New York. After that she was Visiting Scholar at Columbia University for several years and a Visiting Associate Professor at the Yale Center for International and Area Studies in 2006-07. She was also an Arcapita Visiting Professor at the Middle East Institute of Columbia in the spring of 2008. Most recently she was a research fellow at the German Orient Institute in Beirut, and she is currently a fellow researcher at Erfurt University in Germany.

Dr Kassab's overall interest has been in the philosophy of culture, both Western and non-Western, with a particular focus on postcolonial debates on cultural malaise, authenticity and critique. Her latest book, Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective (Columbia University Press, 2009), is an examination of critical thinking in Arab and postcolonial (mainly African and Latin American) debates on culture in the second half of the 20th century. Her current research centers on the notion of enlightenment in these debates, especially among post-Ottoman Arab, Greek and Turkish intellectuals.

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