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Secularism, national identity, and the role of the intellectual

Dialogue no. 2, May 2005, between Ramin Jahanbegloo and Shlomo Avineri

Jahanbegloo: I have been thinking for the past several years about the situation of intellectuals in the Middle East. I believe we live in deeply troubled times in the world and particularly in the Middle East, and it is certain that Middle Eastern intellectuals can play an important role in the future evolution of this region.


One of the biggest problems of Middle Eastern societies lies in the inability of intellectuals in this region of the world to make up their minds about who they are. Are they specialized experts and professionals operating within specific market-oriented and technophilic spheres, adapting rapidly with the changing economic and political situations? Or independent souls whose only commitment is to truth and who add their voices to the public debates in the Middle East? In my humble opinion, intellectuals in the Middle East have to confront this dilemma and draw the necessary conclusions for the future of peace in this region.

For a long period of time the Middle East suffered from the existence of intellectual elites who gave up their intellectual habits and submitted to the strict rules of ideologies such as Marxism-Leninism or Islamism. As a result, these intellectuals have been to a great degree traitors to their own status and very often re-interpreters of the political realities of the Middle East in accord with their purposes, while closing their eyes to truth. Intellectuals assisted the spread of ideological messages in the Middle East, whatever they were, by becoming the icons of discontented, disillusioned and frustrated generations anxious for change and peace. Political parties and clergy used the intellectuals to extend their organizational power and political control.

An intellectual struggle in the Middle East is not only of a political nature, but also a permanent struggle against what Michel de Certeau calls "an enforced belief". A public intellectual in the Middle East should act as a check on this enforced belief and bring forward a new tone of debate in the public sphere. This desire for a critical rather than an ideological discussion is exemplified by what Edward Said called "speaking truth to power". To do such a thing, intellectuals in the Middle East need to position themselves outside the masses and question in a radical way the very idea of the "public sphere" itself.

Beyond the choice between tradition and modernity, there is a world of conflict and vision that can stimulate the contributions made by intellectuals to the public debate in the Middle East. This contribution is accompanied by the interpenetration of western and eastern thought. The Middle East represents the historical foundation of the eastern and western civilizations. Therefore, it is natural that intellectuals in this region of the world try to root themselves in a national culture, but it is even more natural that they feel a need to be nurtured by multicultural roots.

This oppositional practice emerges as the re-appropriation of the secular into the political context, in contrast with the practices of the theological, but also in opposition to the quasi-theological dogmas of national organizations and party politics. In other words, the secular intellectual in the Middle East needs to put morality ahead of politics. This has not yet happened.

Avineri: The role of intellectuals in any society is indeed one of the elements crucial to its development, yet intellectuals come in all stripes and it is not only Middle Eastern intellectuals who should be criticized for their shortcomings. After all, the French Revolution's reign of terror was instigated by people whom we would today classify as intellectuals: Lenin and most of his comrades were intellectuals (how many people could ever understand his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism?); and not all Nazis were thugs--Dr Goebbels was certainly an intellectual.

To my mind, the way to assess historically the impact of intellectuals on any given society depends on the society in which they are operating: where civil society is weak, where nonconformity is generally frowned upon, where tolerance and pluralism are lacking, intellectuals will find it difficult to steer society toward a more open political and moral climate.

This, and not just that many intellectuals in the Middle East may be in the thralls of Marxism or Islamism, seems to me to be at the root of the inability of so many societies in the region to be reformed and transformed. And it is here that one should make distinctions. I may be wrong, and if so, please correct me, but Iranian society--with its rich history and multi-layered traditions, where Islam is only one of the building blocks of national identity--appears to offer many more options for critical intellectuals to find within their own society legitimizing elements for change and transformation than is the case in many Arab societies, where Islam is, in one way or another, linked to the heritage of Arabism, and truly critical thinking may be stunted.

The weakness and pusillanimity shown by so many Egyptian intellectuals when faced with the persecution of Sa'ad Eddin Ibrahim is amazing when compared with critical voices one hears coming from Iran. So many Arab intellectuals view themselves as guardians of the "true" vocation of their Arab national movement as against what they see as corrupt politicians willing to make compromises: this was also evident in the reluctance of Arab intellectuals to speak truth to power--to use Edward Said's phrase-- when it came to criticizing Saddam's repressive regime. There are too many Robespierres lurking in the shadows.

Can an intellectual overcome the limitations of his age and society, and jump over Rhodes (to use Hegel's memorable phrase)? Where does he get his values from, and how does he make them legitimate within his own society?

Jahanbegloo: I agree with you that intellectuals play an important role in the formation and evolution of civil society in all societies (either western or eastern), and therefore they could and should be criticized for their shortcomings in the process of democratization, especially under totalitarian rule and dictatorship. Yet I do believe that the role of the “intellectual” has been totally misunderstood and misinterpreted in the Middle Eastern countries, especially in the Arab countries, where as you say critical voices are rare when one has to choose between dictators like Saddam and democracy. Actually, if we make a comparison between the rise of intellectuals in the Middle East and the birth of "intellectualism" in Europe, we can see many differences. The most important among these is what Max Weber calls the "disenchantment of the world". To my mind, Middle Eastern societies and more especially Islamic countries have not gone through this process of “disenchantment”. When we take a look at the birth of intellectuals in Europe (and more specifically after the Dreyfus affair), we see that intellectuals are the most important sociological actors of modernity. As a matter of fact, their struggle for critical rationality and civil liberties goes hand in hand with their critique and refusal of instrumental rationality and spirit of domination.

Since in your response to my first statement you mentioned correctly the role of Iranian civil society, I would like to add a few historical details to your statement. Iranian elites started dealing with the issue of modernity 150 years ago after the Qajar defeat against the Russian army. The nineteenth century Iranian reformers whom we can consider as the “first generation of Iranian intellectuals” were perfectly conscious of the fact that it was not enough to rely upon the antiquity of Iranian civilization to think about its continued ability to survive. They tried to establish a relationship with men of power that would have permitted them to dictate their blueprints for reforms. These blueprints naturally remained without immediate impact among the men of power to whom they were addressed. These intellectual reforms encountered a widespread opposition from the court and the Ulama.

Unlike the first generation of Iranian intellectuals, the second generation intended to introduce modern civilization to Iran, not only by imitating the West, but through a coherent and systematic approach to European culture. With the popularity of Marxist ideology among the third generation of Iranian intellectuals, the new culture for translation and knowledge of modernity was drawn inevitably toward moral and political absolutes. Intellectuals claimed to be “givers of lessons” and acted as “moral legislators” who were critics of both the state and the society.

Very different from the second generation, perceived as the heir of the Enlightenment, the third generation of Iranian intellectuals was mainly influenced by the totalitarian outlook of Russian Marxism. Post-revolutionary Iranian civil society is symbolized today, from my point of view, by a period of transition from utopian thinking and a quest for an “ideological modernity” to a non-imitative dialogical exchange with modernity and the West.

Avineri: I was fascinated by your review of Iranian developments, which are so different from those in the Arab world. While I am not familiar with the different stages described by you, to my mind this explains a lot about current developments in Iran--and the basic deficit in parallel developments in Arab countries. I agree with your reference to Weber's "disenchantment of the world" as being a crucial ingredient in these developments. Weber might have been too much beholden to the Protestant tradition so central to the German academic discourse, but he put his finger on the major issue: European society--in the West, not in Eastern Orthodoxy--went through such a disenchantment via the Reformation, and it was the Reformation that led to the enlightenment. Muslim societies did not go through a parallel process, and this may explain many of the phenomena we were discussing. Am I right in suggesting that in the Iranian case the ability to draw on a "usable past", harking back to an enlightened Persian heritage (or a modern reconstruction of it) made it possible for Iranian intellectuals to find alternative sources for their identity beyond Islam? With all due respect to our Arab Muslim friends, for Arab intellectuals such an option does not exist: before Islam, after all, there was only jahiliya.

So when Arab intellectuals tried to find a foundational overarching narrative for modernization, there was very little that they could find within their own societies and their history. Hence the incessant recourse to western ideas and the sometimes naive and undifferentiated attempts to implement them on Arab soil. Western liberalism, constitutionalism, nationalism, fascism, socialism--all have found, as Fouad Ajami so masterly describes, their apostles in the Arab world. Yet because they were totally anchored in external phenomena, and in many cases linked with western imperialism, they did not find deep roots in society--or were so sadly distorted as to give us "modernizers" like Saddam Hussein or, in a way, even Nasser. After this colossal failure, the "return" to Islam appeared for many as the only credible option.

This leads me to an interesting possible parallel to what happened in the West, among 19th century Jewish intellectuals in Central and Eastern Europe. They tried to distance themselves from orthodox, rabbinic Judaism, yet still wanted to link themselves to a Judaic tradition: this they found in the reinterpretation of the Bible not as a sacral text but as an epic rendition of ancient Jewish history; a return to Hebrew not as a language of rabbinic discourse but as a secular language; and, eventually, some of them found their way to Zionism as an expression of a modern, national relationship to an ancestral land. But about this, perhaps, later.

Jahanbegloo: I would like to continue our debate by addressing the last part of your statement on the idea of national relationship as an expression of modernity. More than 150 years ago, Marx and Engels boldly claimed in the Communist Manifesto that “national differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing”. For Marx and Engels, the future of mankind was to be nation-less, classless and religion-less.

Certainly the world has changed and so has Marxism, yet nationalism is more alive than ever, not only as a sense of belonging, but also as a framework for political identity making. We can see this process very clearly in the contemporary history of the Middle East. Let me take once again the Iranian example, but this analysis could be easily applied to Turkey. Both modern Iran and modern Turkey were shaped by nationalistic ideas and there is no doubt in my mind that nationalism continues today to play a significant role in the social and political life of Turkish and Iranian citizens.

Evidence of nationalism in Iran is difficult to discover prior to the 19th century. We need to associate national identity in Iran with the cultural encounter of Iranian elites with the West after the Persian-Russian war. The Constitutional Revolution of 1906 represented in a new manner the entry of Iran into a new political era and created a series of clashes among the traditional and the modern political forces. Yet continuous foreign interference in the affairs of Iran helped to legitimize Islamic movements there as nationalistic powers. With the Mossadegh failure in 1953, a new form of Iranian nationalism was promoted by the Islamic groups and the clergy in Iran. This process has been intensified in the past 26 years since the Iranian Revolution.

Even if the Islamic government has frequently stressed the role of Islam as a major source of identity, opposed to the secularism of the Pahlavi dynasty, Shi’ism seems to have provided a national collective consciousness that we can call “religious nationalism”. The most obvious example of this is the use of the word “Iran” by the Islamic leadership since the war against Saddam in the 1980s. This recalls the vitality of nationalism in the Iranian political and cultural consciousness.

Today, secular nationalism is gaining ground among Iranian youth and even among devout Muslims in Iran. Such a development reminds me that because Islam was imported to Iran by the Arabs, it is not as central to Iranian identity as it is to Arab identity. Five centuries ago, the Safavid dynasty conceived Shi’ism as an Iranianized Islam, largely to distinguish itself from Arabs and Ottoman Turks. Today, once again, Iranian nationalism is changing the Iranian political identity. But this time Iranian nationalism is looking toward a secular future.

Avineri: I found your analysis of the Iranian Islamic Revolution in terms of the Iranian historical discourse fascinating--I can only wish more people outside of Iran would be aware of this. It certainly provides a key to the understanding of what happens in your country--and paves the way for hopeful developments in the future.
Those elements of continuity and change in the national consciousness, which integrate and transform a religious tradition under the impact of modernization, are also something that happened in Jewish history in post-Enlightenment Europe.

With secularization gaining ground in the 19th century, many Jewish intellectuals in Europe rejected orthodox religiosity, but still wanted to preserve elements of their Jewish identity in a modern context. Hence, as I pointed out earlier, they interpreted the Bible not as a religious text, but as a repository of an historical and moral heritage, telling the story of the Israelites--their kingdoms, wars and internal strife, moral prophecies and hopes for redemption. In tune with European nationalism, they viewed Hebrew not as a sacral language (a sort of Jewish Latin) but as a national language, uniting Jews in different countries round a national-linguistic culture and tradition. Consequently, 19th century Jewish intellectuals in Central and Eastern Europe started writing poems, novels and philosophical tracts in a modernized Hebrew; finally, some of them reconfigured the religious Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel--then part of the Ottoman Empire--not as a Holy Land, but as the ancestral land of the Jewish nation. These are the origins of Zionism in the age of Enlightenment and secularization.

In parallel fashion, some Jewish intellectuals, under the impact of European socialist ideas, re-read the Bible and found in it a message of social justice and salvation. The Sabbath was transformed from a religious day on which labor is prohibited to a harbinger of social legislation--a prescribed day of rest for all. Religious precepts about redistributing land among the people--because, so religious tradition says, the land belongs to the Lord--were interpreted as proto-socialist egalitarian measures of social redistribution. And the Exodus from Egypt was reshaped as the first attempt of slaves at emancipation and a quest for freedom (Michael Walzer in his book Exodus has used this most creatively in his account of different modes of emancipation and salvation).

These 19th century Jewish intellectuals were, on the one hand, revolutionizing Jewish collective consciousness and the Jewish narrative. But for all their being under the impact of European ideas, they fashioned their interpretation in a context of Jewish history and continuity: this gave their revolutionary ideas internal legitimacy. And thus they could be both extremely critical of the stifling rabbinic traditions against which they rebelled, but also innovative and revolutionary within a context of historical continuity.

It seems to me that this anchoring of intellectuals in their own societal historical narratives while at the same time transcending them is a powerful tool of moral responsibility and historical change. Both of us, who are no strangers to the Hegelian tradition, will recognize here the power of Aufhebung: historical change grows out of the dialectics of continuity and transformation, and is not concocted out of thin air.

Jahanbegloo: I would like to turn our debate to the question of secularization in the Middle East, which I think is closely related to the question of nationalism and to the role of intellectuals in this area of the world. If we come back for a moment to the issue of modernization in the Weberian sense of the term, we can say that modernization in Europe, as in the Middle East, has always involved a process of secularization, systematically displacing religious institutions and substituting for them those of rationality.

Secularization in the Middle East can be dated back to the 19th century, when the impact of the secular West on Arab, Iranian and Turkish societies called for social, political and cultural reforms. However, if we take a closer look at this process we can see that it has gone through several different stages: radical secularization, followed by radical Islamization (as in the Iranian case), and again by a resurgent secularization. Yet the relationship between secularization and democratization in the Middle East has been more complex than that experienced by the West. In many cases, nationalism and communism as secular modes of binding people in the Middle East retarded democratic development in this area of the world.

Middle Eastern societies came into direct contact with secularism as early as the first half of the 19th century, when they experienced military defeats against the West. The landing of Napoleon in Egypt in 1798, the loss of Greece by the Ottoman Empire, the defeat of Qajar Persia by Russia, were all felt as shocks of awakening that started a secularization process. But without democratization; most of the reforms in the Middle East began first with the reorganization of the armies. In Iran, a French military mission was sent to assist Crown Prince Abbas Mirza in the task. In Egypt, an ambitious Albanian military officer named Mohammad Ali lead the secularization drive.

Thus, secularization in the Middle East has been generally authoritarian. This created an inherent power conflict in Egypt, Turkey and Iran between modernist elites and Islamist elites. However, even the most devout believers in the Islamic countries came to realize that western civilization had only begun to progress once it had separated the religious from the temporal in all spheres of life. No matter how close Muslim scholars and intellectuals felt to their religion, the influence of western secularism on their thought has been undeniable in the past 60 years, and has only increased over time. Islamist movements in Iran, Turkey and Arab countries in the region have developed their own educated, technical and intellectual elites, which resemble the secular modernist elites they criticize.

Today, this process of elite formation among the Islamic movements is leading to de facto secularization, and therefore making support for radical Islam less likely among elites in countries such as Egypt, Iran and Turkey.

Avineri: Your account of modernization and secularization in the Middle East may indeed be the explanatory key for their problematic outcome. Unlike what happened in the West, these processes in our region were conscious adoptions of external--i.e. European--models, and did not grow out of local socio-economic conditions or out of internal developments like the European Enlightenment. Secondly--and this may be even more significant--they were instituted by political rulers, mainly with a military bent (Abbas Mirza in Iran, Mohammad Ali in Egypt), and did not grow out of the needs and interests of civil society. Hence they tended to strengthen state power and ended up underpinning an authoritarian structure, rather than creating a vibrant, pluralist and tolerant civil society with powerful political representative institutions. Because of this historical context, the efforts at secularization identified with these rulers tended also to be viewed by many as alien impositions, inimical to Islam and its heritage.

In this respect, Middle Eastern modernization has some interesting parallels to what has happened in Russia since Peter and Catherine (let's leave out the adjectives "The Great"): adopting western military and administrative measures tended to strengthen state authority, not to create a societal countervailing force. Putin is a true successor to this ambivalent and problematic tradition, just as under Lenin and Stalin the emancipatory potential of Marxism was turned into another tool of statist repression.

Maybe this authoritarian modernization and secularization has now run its course in the region. In Turkey, out of authoritarian Kemalism a more open society has emerged, and while the current AK Party represents a "return" to Islam that may be worrying, it is still done within a relatively open and democratic society. You point out encouraging signs in Iran, where a traditionally vibrant civil society has a potential for further development. Things are moving, for the first time, in Egypt, and Lebanese society has shown a remarkable potential for mass mobilization against oppression.

Maybe we are on the threshold of tremendous changes. It is here that the intellectuals will have an opportunity to prove whether they continue to be handmaidens and lackeys of authoritarianism or--as Gramsci has suggested--are critical enough to transform their societies in an emancipatory direction.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is director of the Department of Contemporary Studies at the Cultural Research Bureau in Tehran and a professor of philosophy at Shahid Beheshti University. His books include Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, Ghandi: aux Sources de la Nonviolence, and Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity. Shlomo Avineri is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His books include The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, Hegel's Theory of the Modern State, and The Making of Modern Zionism. Jahanbegloo and Avineri are collaborating on a book of reflections on the Middle East.