Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab, Enlightenment on the Eve of Revolution: The Egyptian and Syrian Debates (Columbia University Press, 2019). 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Elizabeth Kassab (EK): I have been interested in contemporary Arab thought for many decades now. In 2010, I had just published my previous book, Contemporary Arab Thought, when the Arab revolts broke out. In that book, I had recognized the deep discontent of Arab intellectuals, and of Arabs in general, to the severe deterioration of aspects of their societies, and I had tried to document the intellectual articulation of the causes and expressions of this discontent. But I had no idea that the discontent would explode in the Arab streets before the end of that year. When it did, I was like so many others in the region, totally absorbed by the events and curious to know how people, intellectuals in particular, were perceiving them. So, I followed their writings and comments in the daily press, in audio-visual and social media platforms, and gradually in scholarly articles and monographs. With the accumulation of the gathered material, I projected a book on Arab intellectuals and the uprisings, focusing on Egypt and Syria, with a chapter on the tanwir (Enlightenment) debates preceding the uprisings. This chapter morphed into the present book.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

EK: The book analyzes two sets of debates on tanwir, which took place in Cairo and Damascus respectively during the two decades that preceded the 2010 Arab revolts. It tries to discover the issues that were raised in these debates and to explore the contexts in which they emerged too. The literature it investigates includes books, articles, and interviews that are anchored in the different realities of the two countries. Such writings are not academic exercises meant for academic settings, although academics are among their authors, in addition to novelists, drama writers, and literary critics. The writings address instead the socio-economic, cultural, and political conditions in the country in question and express concern about their consequences for the people living in it, primarily for their dignity, freedom, safety, and future.

The tanwir debate in Egypt was directed during the 1990s against the rise of violent political Islam of the 1980s, and included a state campaign promoting tolerance, rationality, and enlightenment. The campaign involved the re-publication and dissemination of books from the Nahda (the Arab Renaissance of mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century), and the organizing of big conferences celebrating its major figures such as Tahtawi and Qasim Amin. For this, the state mobilized its intelligentsia who in turn were happy to defend the cause of tanwir against those obscurantists threatening their liberties, values, and even physical security. Islamist intellectuals entered the fray to challenge the tanwir claim of the state and its intelligentsia, and to accuse the latter of distorting the true nature of the Nahda. According to the Islamists, this Nahda was not a secular modernization movement as it was claimed, but a movement of religious renewal. Interestingly, the significance and nature of the Nahda in modern Arab intellectual history occupied an important place in this tanwir debate, not only in Egypt, but also in Syria as we shall see later. Moreover, the Islamists denounced the mendacity of a tanwir campaign by a state that was repressive and corrupt. The decade that followed then witnessed a scathing deconstruction of the whole tanwir debate of the 1990s by independent Egyptian critical thinkers. They saw in it the elitism and authoritarianism of an intelligentsia that on the one hand lacked any critical autonomy vis-à-vis the state and on the other failed to engage people in their liberationist impulses.

Conversely, the Syrian discourse on tanwir was directed against the brutal autocracy of the state. It saw the light of day in much narrower margins of expression given the greater oppression of the Syrian state. It was articulated by Syrian writers who knew in the 1990s that the possibilities of impacting realities on the ground were pretty much close to nil, and that they expressed their thoughts was at their own peril. However, they believed that the least they could do was to be witnesses of the devastating ruination that was visited upon their societies as a result of the rule of corruption and brutal violence. In their act of intellectual as well as passive political resistance, they recognised the importance of reconnecting with an intellectual legacy that was severed from them by state indoctrination, in other words, namely the legacy of the Nahda. For them, this legacy contained a democratic and humanist culture that served as a source of inspiration. One of them called that mission Sisyphean. They could not but cry in the wilderness until such time that some change would become possible. Some of those writers did not achieve that threshold, but those who did saw some margins of action open up with the passing of the old Assad and the coming of the younger one. It was the time of the Damascus spring in the early 2000s, and then the severe repression again, until the explosion of the revolts in 2011 a decade later. During that short window of the Damascus spring, writers, academics, and artists participated in the citizens’ forums that were set up to discuss public affairs. Throughout the two decades, they consistently warned against the disruption of the social fabric of the country, the polarization between its regions and classes, the collapse of moral and social values under the impact of a pervasive corruption, as well as the downfall of culture, education, health services, and economic life. For them, all this had led to the spoliation of the human being and what they called for was the need to reconstruct it and, in doing so, restore human dignity and freedom.

My main conclusion was that despite their different settings, both the Egyptian and Syrian debates understood tanwir as a form of political humanism: in short, it was a call for political engagement in public affairs that would secure human dignity and freedom. My main observation was that this was exactly the demand that was voiced by people on the streets of Egypt and Syrian during the revolts of 2011-2012. This was not to say that the street demands were either caused by or the result of the work of the tanwir proponents of the 1990s and 2000s. Rather, that those proponents, like their fellow men and women later, perceived the darkness of their times in the absence of dignity and freedom caused by the sheer brutality of politics, and that they saw in democratic political participation the only egress out of their predicament.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

EK: The book is clearly in the same field of contemporary Arab intellectual history as my previous work, but it is focused solely on the major theme of tanwir. In my previous book I had tried to span a wider canvas of debates that followed the defeat of 1967, all of them dealing with cultural crisis and cultural critique, but ranging from cultural self-reflection, to critical theology and intellectual decolonization.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

EK: I would suggest that anyone interested in contemporary Arab intellectual history might find the book useful. It would be particularly informative to people who want to know about some of the intellectual discussions that took place in both Egypt and Syria on the eve of the recent Arab revolts.

Modern and Arab intellectual history remains a young field that is slowly developing. We in the Arab world alas grow up knowing precious little about it. It is not taught in our schools and universities, and we end up with the impression that our modern history is a senseless tale of “sound and fury,” deprived of intellectual articulation and reflection. This is clearly a false impression. Disseminating knowledge about this intellectual history in general education is one means of providing a basic awareness of it that might also pave the way to those who want to know more about it. Intellectuals of the modern era have often lamented the lack of cumulative stock-taking and transmission onto others. This has often led to people to think that everything constantly needed to be thought out from scratch.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

EK: I am currently working on a book on contemporary Arab philosophy, in which I draw the contours of a field of study that is still very much in the making. It is inspired from my teaching at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. No textbook or comprehensive survey of the field exists to date and so the need to weave together texts, themes, and figures in order to compose a picture that could convey a sense of the concerns that have been preoccupying Arab philosophers since the mid-twentieth century. This would make a new contribution to contemporary Arab intellectual history.


Excerpt from the book (from the conclusion)

Tanwir as Political Humanism

The Egyptian and Syrian fin-de-siècle writings on tanwir are quite explicit: their subject is the darkness of their times spread by the ominous developments of the postindependence regimes. The darkness they address is concrete: their authors’ future and the future of their fellow citizens doomed by corrupt and violent states. It is the darkness of present times overwhelmed by endemic socioeconomic and political problems and the systematic prevention of people from participating in dealing with them publicly and rationally. It is also the darkness of a past that one could refer to in order to position oneself intellectually and politically in search of alternative futures, a past that is now blurred by an overwhelming state ideology. It is the fear and mistrust imposed by repression and violence, the darkness of state prisons and torture cells, and the darkness of state mendacity, cynicism, and opportunism. It is feelings of impotence, humiliation, insecurity, and despair. It is deprivation of basic health care, education, liberties, civil rights, and even human rights.

The Cairene and Damascene tanwir discourses I analyze in this book are intellectual attempts to come to terms with this darkness, to grapple, diagnose, and propose remedies for it, even when it has been clear to their authors that implementing those remedies was not possible, as in the case of the Syrian Sisypheans. Making lucid sense of the late twentieth-century Egyptian and Syrian predicaments, and searching for and debating about the right explanations and conceptual tools to face it, are the central objectives of those discourses. Shedding light on the nature and causes of the present situation and igniting a glimmer of hope in a better future are essential aspects of the tanwir work undertaken by the debaters. Denouncing the hypocritical and abusive state discourse on tanwir, as we saw in the Egyptian case, and naming and resisting the manifold state abuses of power in both Egypt and Syria are the most salient endeavors of the critical writings on tanwir. Religious fundamentalism and Islamist violence are also targeted, but these are perceived to a great extent as epiphenomena of a more fundamental problem; namely, the regimes that have confiscated their states and prevented the development of democratic processes and policies. Contrary to the claims of the Egyptian and Syrian regimes that they are fighting the dangers of religious extremists, they have consistently manipulated the Islamists to legitimize and reinforce their own power, while presenting themselves as enlighteners or modernizers. They have also nurtured various forms of confessionalism and sectarianism under the guise of secularism and moderation.

For the critical tanwiris, the predicament is primarily political, and its remedy lies in reclaiming the right to political participation. Only through participation, they believe, can the abuse of power be fought and the damage produced by it stopped. The damage is seen in all sectors of life—as indicated by the recurring term “al-kharab al-shamil” (the general ruin)—but most importantly in the destruction of the human being. Tanwir, in the sense of the practice of reason and freedom, is to contribute to the reconstruction of the human (“bina’ al-insan”), to serve her emancipation, and to restore her dignity and well-being. Hence, I argue that this tanwir amounts to a political humanism, a view that has at its center and as its goal the human being, through the restoration of political life and democracy.

Why did the postindependent era reach this level of darkness? What went wrong with nation-state building, development, liberation, and modernization? Why did life in these countries become so brutish, unsafe, and desperate? These questions had already started to be raised by Arab intellectuals and Arabs in general a few decades after the wave of independence in the Arab world. The Arab defeat of 1967 and the establishment of military regimes since the mid-twentieth century aggravated these anguished interrogations. But the ensuing years of autocratic rule (in various forms) pushed many Arab societies to ever-worsening socioeconomic and political conditions, reaching ominous levels in the 1990s and 2000s. This exacerbated those interrogations further, and the tanwir debates came to serve as an expression of the urgent need to name, address, and react to those menacing ills.

What share of responsibility did ideas, ideologies, and culture have in causing this disaster? Culturalistic readings of the “aftermath of sovereignty” abounded in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, blaming tradition, national character, religion, westernization, mentalities, modes of thinking, worldviews, and damaged identities for the unfortunate course of the postindependence era. Minority reports, however, as I argued extensively in my previous book, pointed quite early on to political disenfranchisement and the confiscation of political life. It is this political reading of the aftermath that comes to the fore in a most pointed way in the critical tanwir debates of the 1990s and 2000s.

Interestingly, this political reading involved a rereading of the history of ideas that had accompanied these countries during Ottoman rule, through the French and British mandates, and to independence—in other words, a reading of the nahda. The nonculturalist approach did not mean discarding the significance of ideas, for ideas were important in understanding the course of events, discerning their causes and effects, and indicating the way out of the predicament. Rather, it meant a nonreductionist understanding of ideas that perceives them in their historical contexts and sees them in interaction with lived realities, as expressions of those realities and as tools to deal with them.

The centrality of the nahda in both the Egyptian and the Syrian debates was unmistakable. In fact, as I also showed in my previous book, the significance of the nahda for the postindependence era had already been the topic of much discussion since the 1960s: What was the nahda about? What did it amount to? Did it succeed or fail, and for what reason? Was it an aberration caused by an unhealthy infatuation with the West, leading to an estrangement from the self? Was it a form of religious renewal? Was it a trend in secularization? Was it an ideology of modernization imposed on people to overpower them? Did its ideas connect to actual policies? Did people in general relate to them in any way? What were its strengths and weaknesses? What impact did it have in its time and what effects, if any, are to be found in the present time? These questions were raised for decades before the tanwir debates, but they gained additional significance in the debates. That significance came with the growing realization of the failures of independence. Did these failures reflect the failure of the nahda; that is, the failure of the ideas of reform, progress, modernization, development, and liberation? The prevailing assumption among most Arab discussants in the second half of the twentieth century was that the nahda, at least in its basic impulses, was indeed oriented toward those projects, whether they were eventually misled or not. Hence the question about the fate of those projects was also a question about the nature and fate of the nahda.

According to some Egyptian thinkers, the regime used this earlier intellectual history, called the nahda, to misrepresent itself as the bearer of nahda values and ideas, and as a way of distinguishing itself from the obscurantist Islamist fanatics. Egyptians, like many others in Arab countries, were presented with these two options for leadership: the “enlightened and tolerant” regime or the Islamist extremists. Egyptian critics denounced this misappropriation and misrepresentation and called for the actual practice of those values and ideas, basically those of reason and freedom. Such a practice would produce an enlightening understanding of the socioeconomic, cultural, and political phenomena of the present and uphold those values concretely and consistently. Egyptian critics also criticized how these values and ideas were practiced during the nahda; namely, with authoritarianism and elitism. For Syrian critics, on the other hand, the problem was that Syria had been severed from the nahda legacy through the political system put in place in the 1970s. They found their fellow Syrians and Arabs in general estranged from that legacy, and that when mentioned, it was misunderstood and blamed for the present predicament.

The challenge for Syrian critics was to remind people that there was a time before the Assad regime, and to encourage them to believe that there could and should be a time after it too. It was important for them to show that there had been a time when plural ideas were given a margin of free expression and when free debates were conducted. For the autocratic regimes had confiscated not only political life but intellectual life as well, particularly in Syria. This had led to an intellectual and cultural desertification in addition to the political one. It was crucial to reconnect with an intellectual and political history that existed beyond the Assad era, a history that offered a vision different from that of the Assad reality. “Al-Asad ila al-abad” (Assad forever) was to be challenged by bringing in history, ideas, and a cultural legacy that could inspire and empower. The nahda was for these critics a promising democratic Arab culture that could or should be an enabling narrative for change. In the case of Saadallah Wannous and Faysal Darraj, this remembering was not resigned nostalgia for an idealized epoch or a wishful “back to nahda” movement. Rather, it retrieved an alternative politico-intellectual narrative to the one imposed by the Assads. It was also, more broadly, an alternative option to the choice presented by many an Arab regime: “Either us or the Islamists!”