François Zabbal

"Arab Intellectuals Avoid Critical Issues"

During the past decade most Arab intellectuals have decried globalisation without even asking themselves if it is not in fact an unstoppable process calling for a specific thought-out response from society. A critical analysis by François Zabbal

During the past decade, most Arab intellectuals on the scene have felt themselves obliged to outbid each other in decrying globalisation without even asking themselves if it is not in fact an unstoppable process calling for a specific thought-out response from society. A critical analysis by François Zabbal

photo: private
It is not primarily globalisation that exterminates pluralism, but rather nationalist Arab regimes, François Zabbal argues

​​Syria got connected up to the Internet in 1996 and mobile phones reached the country in the year 2000. There were only 80 000 telephone lines in Syria in the 1970s, rising to half a million ten years later and a million and a half in 1996. The latter figure represents almost 8 per cent coverage or 9 lines for 100 people. This is more than in Algeria or Yemen but less than in the Gulf countries or in a Lebanon bled dry by sixteen years of war.

A plan put into operation in 1998 provides for the installation of another one and a half million lines in four years, to reach a density of 20 per cent. By 2004, the time it takes to connect a new subscriber up is scheduled to be three years, down from the current 15 years.

The WWW and the Arab world

The spread of the Internet and electronic mail has been sluggish since 1996, beginning at the universities and reaching just 1,200 sites and 4,000 subscribers last year. However, 20,000 Syrians are said to be connected to the world wide web via the Lebanon. The momentum which has built up in the last four years is said to be due to the current President of the Republic and former head of the Syrian Information Technology Association. What would things have been like otherwise? The mind boggles... Let's just conclude by adding that there are only 12,000 mobile phone subscribers, and projected figures for the coming decades are equally optimistic.

These statistics which are accessible to everybody, and taken randomly from the Arab press, are not the kind likely to feature in the analyses produced in bushels by Arab intellectuals on the impact of globalisation on their society and culture. Other equally suggestive and, let's face it, appalling figures for anyone who is in any way concerned about the future, could be brandished in the face of an intelligentsia whose background and training have never included the merest trace of science, technology or economics.

Circumventing the essential issues

What is globalisation? What are its effects on economic and social structures? What challenge does it hold for societies politely called "developing" in the jargon of international organizations? With globalisation, what role falls to the State in economic, political and cultural affairs? What are the effects of the information revolution and what are its implications for traditional forms of production? These questions are quite simply absent from Arab writings on globalisation.

However, since the Berlin Wall came down and since the second Gulf War, all the intellectuals on the scene have felt themselves obliged to outbid each other in decrying globalisation without even asking themselves if it is not in fact an unstoppable process calling for a specific thought-out response from society.

The extraordinary complexity of the phenomenon

An anthology of views from the flower of the Arab intellectual community is given in the complete review drawn up by Georges Tarabichi in a long study in Arabic printed by Al-Bahrain al-thaqafia (No. 26, October 2000) under the heading "The impact of globalisation on Arab culture". After having pleaded for an open discussion, without anathematization or reductionist judgments tending to portray advocates of globalisation as "liberals" or its detractors as conservative, the author underlines the extraordinary complexity of the phenomenon and the necessity of facing this fact without falling into the trap of oversimplification.

Before expounding the vision of globalisation nurtured by Arab intellectuals, he shows that the notion of globalisation has become fixed in the minds of Arab intellectuals well before the reality has made any inroads in Arab society. It is a fact that Arab society has seen neither an opening of markets, nor delocalization, nor implantation of multinationals, nor initial public offerings by nationalized enterprises. He says that, more than anything, globalisation was a chimera created by the intelligentsia and intellectuals for want of an enemy that would justify their role as defenders of the nation.

Thus, what is said about globalisation today is merely a rehashing of what used to be said about cultural and imperialist invasion, dependency or westernization. Mutâ' al-Safadi, a Syrian intellectual and Nasser supporter of the first order, writes: "globalisation is a cute expression to designate a generalized attack mounted against all the countries of the world with the aim of subjecting them to the will of Big Capitalism, which is industrial capitalism transformed into financial capitalism concentrated in colossal fortunes [...] capable of destroying national economies in an instant." (al-Wafâq al-'arabî, No. 2, Tunis, August 1999).

Another Syrian, as impregnated as his compatriot with the stench of Arab nationalism, goes a step further by identifying the word "globalisation" as a code word for "Americanization".

Short-sighted version of Arab Third World-ism

Let's move on to the archaic vision of capitalism! ... In actual fact, these intellectuals forced to live in exile for decades but still remaining true to the nationalist and socialist ideology whose victims they once were, are merely serving up the same old short-sighted version of Arab Third World-ism, adapted to suit today's palate.

Faisal Darraj, a Palestinian essayist living in Syria, also shares the view that globalisation is Americanization, in other words "cultural standardization aimed at creating a single cultural norm on a global scale, standardization being the generalization of American cultural values and rejection of all other values."

He cites hamburgers, jeans, Pepsi Cola and Marlboro cigarettes as instruments of a uniformization that is destroying cultural pluralism ("Culture in the globalisation era", in Dafater thaqafiya, Ramallah, No. 25, May 2000).

It's not globalisation – it's the nationalist Arab regimes

This kind of stale reasoning, half a century old, would be funny if it were not for the very real systematic struggle against cultural and political pluralism being waged by nationalist Arab regimes.

The fight against globalisation is a new cause which gives Arab intellectuals a good basis for once again styling themselves as guarantors of Arab identity after a period of withdrawal which strongly undermined their positions of domination and sapped the foundations of their discourse.

The past two decades have indeed seen a resurgence of more relentless and fierce flag-carriers of identity who put so-called lay intellectuals in the dock. On the way, the definition of identity changed to keep pace with its representatives: rather than the Arab-ness propagated in the 1960s, it is now Islam-ness that has to be preserved or indeed recovered, in the face of the undermining influence of westernization and modernity such as advocated by secular elites.

Globalisation imposes international legal standards

Yumna Tarif al-Kholi, an Egyptian epistemologist, claims that globalisation is first and foremost a linguistic plot: "... a violent attack by western civilization whose object is the downfall of the Arabic language, because we are the only nation (umma) in the world which speaks the language of its Sacred Texts." He goes on to say that the Arab nation will have died out in 100 years' time after having lost its language.

For Muhammad Abed al-Jabiri, an intellectual of high standing in Bahrain, globalisation is a head-on attack on the three pillars of the Arab identity: the State, the Nation (umma), and the Fatherland (in Ash-Sharq al-awsat, London, 7/2/1997).

The fact that globalisation imposes international moral and legal standards on governments of repression, that it would undermine the systems of censure put in place by the guardians of national authenticity – all that cuts little ice with Arab intellectuals, be they nationalist or fundamentalist. That is because the intellectual community's primary concern is to preserve an imaginary entity, the Nation, an entity that suffers neither interior division, nor differences of opinion, a Nation all of whose social classes come together in a united front against their single and common enemy, America.

It is not hard to recognize the Arab or Islamic version of the totalitarian ideologies which held sway in the 20th century and are still very much a force to be reckoned with in the Arab world.

François Zabbal

Translation from French: Mustafa Al-Slaiman

This article was previously published by the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

© 2005

François Zabbal, writer and philosopher, used to teach at the University of Beirut, but was forced into exile in 1984. Since 1996 he has been editor-in-chief of the culture magazine "Qantara," published by the L'Institut du Monde Arabe.

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