"Arab Culture Is Stagnant"
People often speak about Arab culture, even though there are major differences between Arab countries. Would it not be better to speak of Arab cultures?
Tayyib Tizini: It is certainly possible to speak of both a unity and a diversity in Arab culture. The variety stems from the special circumstances out of which we have grown. If we visit the Maghreb, for example, we will be confronted with a particular Arab culture because the Maghreb has experienced its own historical processes.
The more cultures a society has assimilated into itself, the richer it becomes. That is much better than speaking with one voice. Another example: if a Moroccan, a Mauritanian or a Syrian all speak with the one voice, then their language becomes poorer, as if one would play only on one instrument.
If we put the public and the private in our conversation into a context, then we have to speak of a private public space and a public private space within a global context. And that means too that we have a unified culture, but our ability to express ourselves within that culture is as varied as the differences between our social, political, human and psychological relationships and our understanding of artistic education.
What are the problems and conflicts today with which Arab intellectuals feel they have to deal?
Tizini: Since the birth of a globalised world order, the rate at which change takes place throughout the world has speeded up. The new world order is a child of the twentieth century. If you look at the issues in Arab culture before the birth of the new world order, you will see that we were above all confronted with questions about progress and freedom. But now we are speaking about new problems which are calling our entire existence and our entire history into question.
The new world order influences all world cultures, of which one is the Arab culture, and now that it has come into existence, we are confronted with a power which we are unable to understand.
The globalised world order consumes nature and man in order to transform them into products. It's working at rebuilding the world so that it functions as a globalised market. That's why different cultures identify themselves with the globalised world. Arab history too is being rewritten by the globalised world, so that it is being reduced to a single globalised language, English. That's why we are nothing compared to other cultures, as long as we profess only one way of life.
What do you see as the task of Arab intellectuals if they are to confront this problem?
Tizini: The central question, which was the one asked by intellectuals and reformers during the period of the renaissance, is: why does the Orient look back, and the Occident look forward? My answer is: we should move forward with history and make freedom a reality.
Even so, the Arabs look back to a past in which lack of freedom was firmly ensconced. That doesn't mean to say that Arab culture is caught up in itself and that Arab people can't be creative. The modern Arab renaissance could not reach its great goals because Western capitalism got there first.
Do you think that the choice of Damascus as Arab cultural capital can contribute to making culture an important part of Arab society, or perhaps to making it into an important part once more?
Tizini: If Damascus becomes Arab cultural capital, then the Syrians will have to deal with Arab culture and its damaged condition. We experience however a reduction of all this to a matter of facades, folklore, festivities – but such things don't promote culture.
That's why we have to open up political discourse, business and society, in our own most fundamental interests, since we are confronted with a project of globalisation which wants to destroy them. The answer to this can only be to open the circle up, from inside to out.
The term "Islamisation" with reference to Arab societies dominates both the Arab and the Western debate. How can you explain this phenomenon?
Tizini: When there is no cultural, political or social movement in a country, alternative forces emerge. That's the reason the Arab laicist renaissance has failed to take hold. Religious fundamentalism has emerged instead, rejecting variety and proclaiming a unity of being according to which everyone has to be Muslim.
In addition to that, those who support this ideology want to subject social, natural and economic sciences to this dogma. No doubt, Islam and other religions have their own dignity and significance. But that they should dominate society and force it to submit to a single dogma condemns them to destruction. One has to confront the Islamisation of society with national, democratic and laicist alternatives.
Who is responsible for the increasing religious radicalisation of Arab society?
Tizini: The Arab elites are mainly responsible, since they have not dealt with the essential problems of Arab society: the problems of unemployment, restricted freedom and a culture under censorship. Millions of young people are not in a position to satisfy their daily needs. That has the consequence that they look for alternatives. These alternatives can be divided into three journeys. One is the trip to paradise for those who find no solution here. For them, the extremists are the preachers of a better world on the other side – and Islam is the solution to all problems.
The second journey is into oneself. Someone who can't come to terms with the real world escapes into the infinity of his inner world.
The third journey starts in front of the gates of the Western embassies, in the illusion that the trinity of liberty, dignity and financial security exist only in the West. But the situation in the West has become more complicated. And these people live in a circle of hopelessness, since their homeland cannot support them, and the rest of the world does not want them. It's precisely in this pond that the "Islamist movement" fishes – and lays the foundation for its theory of death, which starts from the conviction that a return to our ancestors will solve all problems.
How do you see the theory of the clash of civilisations? And can a dialogue of cultures and civilisations mitigate this clash?
Tizini: Huntington divides the world into eight civilisations. Two of them are dangerous: the Muslim and the Chinese. He prophesies that the next century will be dominated by a clash of religions. To start with, he certainly wants to say that there are religions which have huge amounts of crude oil in their areas of influence.
So in this conflict, it's all about the mineral resources of rich regions – and not about Islam, as it exists in poor countries like Mauritania.
On the other hand, we can't speak about the clash of religions, since every religion has its own homeland in which it has spread. It is certainly possible for religions to coexist peacefully, since all share the same absolute truth. So the solution is to recognise this reality, without interfering in the internal affairs of the others, since every religion believes that it holds the key to the truth. There is no clash of cultures, although many of those involved in political conflicts clothe them in religious and cultural language. In that sense Huntington is right when he speaks of a conflict of interests which happens to find itself being worked out in countries in which Islam plays a major role.
Interview by Afra Mohamed
© Qantara.de 2008
The Syrian writer and philopher Tayyib Tizini is one of the most prominent intellectuals of the Arab world. He studied and got his doctorate and his professorship at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Tayyib Tazini taught for many years at the University of Damascus. Among his works are an "Introduction to Arab-Muslim Philosophy in the Middle Ages" and many studies on the history of Arab-Muslim thought. In 2003, he called on the Syrian regime to enter into a dialogue with critical forces in society.
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton