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close this bookMaldevelopment - Anatomy of a Global Failure (UNU, 1990, 246 pages)
close this folder3. The crisis of state
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View the documentNation-state and the ideology of nation in crisis'
View the documentEthnicity: myth and reality
View the documentThe cultural dimension of development in Africa and the third world
View the documentThe cultural dimension: the example of the crisis in the arab world today - the end of the Nahda?7
View the documentNew forms of the social movement
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The cultural dimension: the example of the crisis in the arab world today - the end of the Nahda?7

Think back to the image we could have of the probable or desirable future for the Arab world some 30 years ago, or even in the 19th century. Most Arab thinkers envisaged a modernized society, very similar to Western society in state organization, production and life styles, and an active partner in the modern world. As they saw it, this modernization, far from effacing Arab culture and language or undermining religious beliefs would have the opposite effect of showing their purity by freeing them from the stigmas of the decadent centuries of Ottoman domination. Without illusions as to Europe's hostility to the plan, these Arab thinkers were gradually radicalized along with the national liberation movement, and adopted an anti-imperialist element open to a perception of a more or less socialist future. A quarter of a century ago achievement of this aim seemed to be on the threshold. Nasserism appeared to be transferring the plan from the Egyptian domain to the entire Arab nation. A description of the more recent reality - civil war in Lebanon, the Gulf war. Israel's arrogant expansionism, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and anachronistic inward-looking, abandonment of the aim of Arab unity not only by the authorities but also by the popular masses, the impact of oil, petrodollars and the Gulfs influence - might have seemed a scarcely possible nightmare. What is the explanation of this step backward? What we offer here brings together in part a general analysis of capitalist expansion and in part a particular analysis of the plan of the Arab Nahda. The story is not unique.

Is not the entire modern history of the Third World one of repeated - and always abortive - attempts to establish a bourgeois national state as a partner in the world capitalist system? Time after time the failure leads to a closer integration into the infernal mechanism of worldwide expansion, renewing and widening the inequality inherent to capitalist expansion and showing more clearly the objective necessity for national and popular delinking to launch the long and complex transition 'beyond capitalism'.

Surely the worldwide expansion has reached the point where it dooms the Third World bourgeoisies to abandon their own plan once and for all, and accept 'neo-comprador' subordination. Nabda was the singular ideological and cultural form of the plan for Egypt and the Arab world; its time is past. The shortcomings and limitations of the Nahda, and the particular challenges confronting the region (oil and Zionism) will be discussed within this general framework.

The first manifestations of the modern Arab national plan precede what is generally called Nahda (whose first usage is attributed to Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, in the second half of the 19th century). In Egypt at the end of the 1 8th century, in the era of Ali Bey al-Kabir, these first manifestations were to crystallize in the reign of Mohamed Ali. They had a pan-Arab dimension from the start, clearly expressed by Ibrahim Pasha. From the start too, they expressed a plan of building a modern national state, that is, an objectively bourgeois state. It was, therefore, a bourgeois nationalist plan in the full meaning of the phrase - without any pejorative sense.

The most widespread view of the development of capitalism relies on the thesis that the societies of Africa and Asia before the irruption of colonialism were not capable on their own of transformation into capitalist societies, as they were still at a too backward state or were 'blocked' in the impasse of the notorious 'Asiatic' mode of production. Without repeating here our overall critique of this bizarre Western-centric reduction, we merely recall that in some non-European societies as advanced as Europe on the eve of the capitalist explosion, the struggles under way were precisely over the possible passage to capitalism, but aborted by European expansion which went on to distort the further development of these societies and peripheralize them. Egypt is one such case.

Current historiography treats the Mameluke regime on the eve of the French landing as a despotic and mouldering feudal regime and the country as abandoned to decline for several centuries. Ali Bey al-Kabir's attempt, in the second half of the 18th century, to turn Egypt into a modernized Arab state autonomous in regard to the Ottomans and to Europe, a kind of dress-rehearsal for what Mohamed Ali would do - in part at least - in the first half of the 1 9th century, does not fit into this historiography. It is attributed entirely to the individual's 'personality', that of an 'enlightened despot', along the lines of Peter the Great, just as the later modernization of Egypt was attributed entirely to the will of Pasha Mohamed Ali. But if in the latter instance the Napoleonic model may be cited as inspiration, there is no 'external' explanation for what inspired Ali Bey.

Eighteenth-century Egypt was flourishing, a bustling prelude to the imminent birth of capitalism. The Mamelukes were no longer the basic military cells of a tribute-paying organization and had become a political aristocracy in close symbiosis with the great trade and manufacture of an Egypt close to the European mercantilist model. The main class struggles were between the embryonic grand bourgeoisie (Mameluke aristocracy and great mercantile fortunes) and the numerous plebeian mass of the middle bourgeoisie: notables, artisans and rich peasants. Expansion of the internal and external market had the effect in the Delta of reinforcing private ownership of land, accentuating the differentiation between a (kulak) peasant bourgeoisie and poor and wage-earning peasants, just as it disrupted the urban corporations and began the transition from crafts to manufacture. All these violent social changes underlay the collapse of the old ideological, moral and religious order, and the birth of a new culture. The key question that arises is what was the underpinning for the reinforced and modernized central authority required for the transition to capitalism? The Mameluke aristocracy tried to replace the support of the Egyptian plebeian bourgeoisie with an alliance with foreign mercantilist interests, with particular emphasis on the minority big traders (Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, agents and proteges of the French who had taken over from the Italian cities). Within this struggle between two unequally advanced mercantilisms (of France and Egypt) there were already two lines: one to lead to a crystallization of an autonomous Egyptian capitalism and another to lead to subsequent 'peripheralization'.

France's invasion has its place in this struggle. Here again bourgeois historiography is inadequate, as it attributes Napoleonic glory entirely to the logic of military strategy (cutting the route to India) that was unreliable (as it left Britain in control of the sea). What is overlooked is France's anxiety to reconstitute an empire after the losses of 1763, because of its shortfall in cereals: France's agricultural backwardness was a handicap to overall capitalist development of the country, as the famine on the eve of the French Revolution shows. Marseilles imported from Egypt the cereals needed in the French Midi. The conflict for control of a rapidly growing trade was between French and Egyptian mercantilisms. After Egypt's failures France continued its objective with the conquest of Algeria from 1830 on.

In Egypt Napoleonic power was initially supported by the plebeian bourgeoisie in order to destroy the Mameluke state. But when it put Egyptian trade under its tutelage by turning to Levantine Christians, it alienated and eventually lost that bourgeoisie.

Mohamed Ali did the same. He relied on the big foreign traders and Levantine Christians as he sought to modernize his administration and army with the assistance of foreign technicians, relinquishing broad reliance on the plebeian bourgeoisie. Rather the reverse, he destroyed their economic status. In the countryside he imposed a return to the tribute-paying mode of production and, through a trading monopoly, established control over production and markets. In the towns he replaced the private enterprise of the bourgeoisie with state manufacture. Why this option? Largely of course because he observed the wide gap between Egypt and Europe and that modernization of the army, the essential instrument to give Egypt autonomy, would be costly. He was therefore obliged to make a heavy exaction on the peasantry and appropriate the utmost from the profits of industry and trade, and could not therefore share with the rural and urban plebeian bourgeoisie. But he then became the prisoner of the bureaucratic aristocracy, the only class he could rely on, and in the end to succumb to their exclusive control of the countryside. In 1837 he began handing out the land to the members of the aristocracy - in the form of tchifliks - in a process completed by Khedive Ismail, and establishing a comprador bourgeois agrarian aristocracy in Egypt and turning Egypt into an export cotton plantation. For Mohamed Ali's option also had the effect of condemning the country to eventual external dependence. It was the combination of this factor with external aggression in 1840 that brought the attempt down and drove Egypt inexorably along the path of peripheralization.

The abortion of Mohamed Ali's plan was followed by a series of attempts to reconcile the establishment of a modernized Egyptian national state (a rejection of the aspect of Arab unity) with integration in the capitalist economy. Khedive Ismail tried this first with the deliberate option for cotton specialization. It is well known that this attempt ended up with exploitation of Egyptian indebtedness by European finance capital and then the occupation of Egypt in 1882. Then the Wafdist liberal bourgeoisie tried it in the aftermath of the 1919 revolution. It is also well-known that despite progress in social organization (political independence, attempts at imposing parliamentarianism on the King and the British, educational development, as so on) and in the economy (the industrialization bid by the Misr Bank). Egypt was unable to overcome its 'underdevelopment' to put itself forward as a genuine partner in the world capitalist system. Nasser's plan tried it again in new circumstances that made it become more radical, through bitter conflict with imperialism, more open to a socialist perspective and ready to recover the Arab dimension hitherto lost.

Before Nasserism, power in Egypt was in the hands of social classes that may only loosely be described as bourgeois, despite their integration in the world capitalist system. The same was true elsewhere in the Arab world which, in the Maghreb, was still colonial as elsewhere in Asia and Africa until well after the Second World War. But gradually in the 1950s and 1960s, power in the newly independent states passed to the local bourgeoisie through various processes (land reform, nationalizations, coups d'├ętat, among others): and this bourgeoisie tended to become the local hegemonic class. The bourgeoisie in power then tried to advance its plan for building a bourgeois national state as a partner in the world capitalist system. In the Arab world, attempts at capitalist modernization, previously exceptional like those of Eygpt (the only examples are the attempt of Kheireddine Pasha in Tunisia in the 19th century and of the liberal bourgeoisie in Syria and in Iraq in the 1930s) became widespread. We have described this as the Bandung plan.

Analysis of evolution in internal politics and international politics would of itself provide an understanding of the historical process that led to the failure of the crystallization of new autocentric capitalist centres from peripheral departure points. An examination of the ideology of the attempts in question would further illuminate the external/internal forces dialectic. In this respect we return to the 18th century and the first half of the 19th in Egypt. The cultural stage was filled by the conflict between Ahl al-Hadith and Ahl al-Kalam, which too many historians regard as nothing but an absurd religious squabble. On the contrary, it marked the beginning of a potential reform of Islam, similar in many ways to the Protestantism-Catholicism conflict. The stress placed on discussion of the Hadith (the sayings and traditions of the Prophet - or attributed to him) encouraged an inventive spirit allowing the adaptation of the religion to the needs of the time. In reopening the 'gate of effort' (bate al-ijtihad), there was to be found a true Calvinist interpretation of Islam (and all the Eurocentrism known as necessary to believe, along with Weber, in Protestant exclusivity). At the same time in the popular milieu of the victims of the social changes underway the critique was mixed with a promising mystical odour, in the tradition of some Sufism. The analogy is inescapable with the currents that cries-crossed British religious ideology in the mercantilist era (Anglicans, Calvinists and radicals - Levellers). By contrast, the state bureaucratic power, such as Mohamed Ali's, preferred the Kalam, that is, a closed system of formally logical scholarly philosophy. Gradually, however this turned into pragmatism: the all-encompassing philosophy was relinquished in favour of acceptance of individual sciences. This evolution went along with peripheralization and is a good indicator of the comprador bourgeoisie's acceptance of a subordinate role. Pragmatic 'moderation' with a sprinkling of orthodox, conventional and conservative Islam was to become the creed of this acculturated bourgeoisie.

From the middle of the 19th century the process of integration of the Arab and Ottoman world in the world capitalist economy was such that the scope for autonomy enjoyed by Mohamed Ali's Egypt shrank to the point of virtually vanishing. The movement of reaction to this colonization was principally determined by rejection of colonization and thus acquisition of a prevailing anti-imperialist dimension. This was the case of the Nahda.

This movement is often reduced to its religious dimension through an emphasis on successive Muslim reformers: Jamal al-Din al-Afghan). Mohamed Abdu and Rachid Rida. This is, in fact, an intolerable simplification. Nahda is also a modernizing movement in language and culture, society and politics. In the field of language, Egypt and Syria underwent a veritable revolution creating an effective instrument for the revival of Arab unity. The critique of customs, to be found on a reading of Qassem Amin's writings on women's liberation and codifications of juridical and administrative systems was no less important. This all led quite naturally to a modernist view of politics. The national movement in Egypt, far from being exclusively 'an/i-foreigner', was, from the end of the 19th century, imbued with the ideas of the Western bourgeoisie: its most radical wing encountered socialism even before 1914. It was to be the same to a varying degree with the liberation movements that would later come to the fore in other Arab areas.

Consideration of this chapter of religion reveals the historical limitations and shortcomings of the Nahda. The latter did not overcome the duality for which Mohamed Ali opted: the juxtaposition of modern ideas in the civil domain and a moderately conservative interpretation of Islam. These historical limitations explain the gradual drift from reformist readings to the current anachronistic fundamentalism. This is why it may be useful to begin with an examination of the actual language of this history, with a study of the propositions of fundamentalism.

The fundamentalist state of mind looks at history from the standpoint of another language than that of a rationalism seeking the reasons for the evolutions in the real world. A particular view of society is put forward, that is endowed with the virtues of being able to resolve once and for all the problems of society and humankind. To reject this view is to opt for Evil against Good. History is regarded as the locus of this confrontation.

In contrast with the rationalist point of view, the prolonged historical resistance by those religions that have been able to withstand social change shows their flexibility. This capacity to outlive the historical circumstances of their birth makes it impossible to speak of 'Christianity' or 'Islam', as Christians or Muslims do. As social phenomena there are Christianities, Islams, which have been a living reality to Christians and Muslims at various times and places. Divergent interpretations of observances, sects and schisms, de facto differences of attitude to the role accorded to the fundamental value system in social life, all bear witness to this. The fundamentalists are aware of this malleability, but reject it: the betrayal of principles worries them more than an explanation of the malleability.

The fundamentalists are not primarily interested in knowing why things have been and are what they are. What interests them more is to know how things have moved away from principles. They apply this method with much vigour if not rigour when they examine their own history, that of the Muslim world in this instance. By contrast, when they venture into the history of others, the history of Christianity and Europe for example, they are no longer impelled by a concern to distinguish the moments and attitudes that accord with their principles from those that betray them, and they seem more open to reason in understanding the evolution. But this other history is of little interest to them, since it has nothing to teach them; they are concerned only to the extent that Europe has had an impact on their own lives, by imposing its universal order through its imperialism.

An examination of the view of the past held by the fundamentalists is essential for anyone who seeks to understand how they pose the questions of today and how they articulate their responses into a plan whose feasibility can then be considered.

According to the fundamentalist reading, the history of 14 centuries of the Muslim peoples is little more than the history of their betrayal of principles. As soon as the Prophet was dead, the 'deviation' began. It was marked by the accentuation of material inequality, the appropriation of land and wealth for the benefit of a minority who monopolize and abuse power. But the 'deviation' is never explained, merely noted. The question remains unanswered: could Islam have avoided the evolution it has undergone? Could the small, relatively poor community, organized first as a sect at Mecca then as a city-state at Medina, have preserved its real mode of organization once the opulent Byzantine and Sassanian Orient was integrated into a great state?

The rest of the history of the Muslim peoples is, according to the fundamentalists, no more than a sorry tale of betrayal of principles. The condemnation is total, without nuances or exceptions. Philosophical debates are impious, condemnation covers all Arabo-Muslim philosophy and there is vilification of the interpretations by the Arab liberal bourgeoisie who wanted to revive the reputation of the 'centuries of Muslim enlightenment' (Mohamed Heykal. Taha Husayn, the Nahda of the 19th century and the Muslim reformers, the efforts at opening up by the Azhar and so on, are treated as manifestations of betrayal). A fortiori, it is easy to imagine how the fundamentalists regard the attempts at a reinterpretation of the 'heritage', that is, of this philosophy, in terms of struggles between progressive ideas and those of conservative mysticism.

On this basis, the fundamentalists believe that the choice before the Muslim societies is: an Islamic society or a non-lslamic society? But if there is no 'one' undeniable Islamic response to any of the questions life poses to our societies, there are always various, differing, responses that may well be justifiable in terms of compatibility with the dogmas of Islam. That is why the fundamentalists are destined to recruit across the widest spectrum of political attitudes: from the right to the left. That is why they are destined to tear themselves apart, as can be seen day after day, without really understanding why they are incapable of forming an unambiguous social plan. For Islam, according to them, is different and specific since it does not separate the religious (faith) from the social (organization of power, family, economic life). This unity was certainly a fact at the time of the birth of Islam. Islam was certainly an option (among other possibilities) and was chosen by the Arab society of the 7th century, facing its own problems. The unity has certainly been maintained subsequently in the Muslim world: although, if the faith has changed little, the social life associated with it has undergone giant transformations.

But is that something specific and unique? The European societies of the Middle Ages and the Ancien Regime also believed that they were 'Christian' in the sense that they could not imagine a separation between their religious faith and the forms of their social life. The faith itself was, in our opinion, little different from that of Islam, or at least the differences separating it from Christianity do not explain the differences separating the social lives of Muslim societies (through the ages) from those of Christian societies (likewise through the ages). The principles to regulate social life associated with each of these two faiths are equally flexible and have demonstrated this through their adaptation to social change.

Fundamentalism postulates the Islamic society-non-lslamic society opposition as an absolute. By this token, it prevents itself understanding what the non-lslamic societies are, as evidently they cannot be reduced to a single unity through time and space. In particular, to define 'modem society' as merely 'non-lslamic' makes it impossible to understand what it is. Fundamentalism's explanation of the modern 'non-lslamic' world is drawn from a mythical picture of 'Christendom' that bears no relation to its real history. According to this explanation, Christianity is an individualist religion that does not concern itself with the organization of society. A modern Protestant might perhaps subscribe to this interpretation of what Christianity must be, but the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages would not recognize itself there.

The fundamentalists, taking this position, are obliged to deny any social reality other than the religious. One is a Muslim or one is not. Among other things national reality disappears from the analysis. It is an old debate. Since the 19th century the peoples of the Arab and (largely) Muslim Orient have been asking themselves: what are we in the face of European imperialism? On what bases can we unite to resist it? As Ottoman subjects. Muslim believers or members of the Arab nation (or nations)? Islam, like any other social reality, may be the binding force, in certain circumstances. In Pakistan, quite evidently, it is synonymous with the nation, since the latter is nothing more than a non-Hindu but Muslim Indian nation. But in the Orient, history seems to have determined another social reality for the benefit of nationality. The (Arabic) language seems to be the unifying factor, going further than religious diversity among other factors (since there are Christian Arabs).

Space does not permit a closer examination of the evolution that led from Jamal al-Din al-Afghan) and Mohamed Abud to Sayed Qotb and current fundamentalism by way of Rachid Reda and the foundation of the Muslim Brothers. Just as it does not allow a closer examination of the current debates on the question of the 'heritage' (al tiras), its character and internal contradictions, and the discussions and polemics on Arab-lslamic philosophy of the Middle Ages. In brief, let us say that our views on these issues may be summarized in the following three propositions.

First: Islam as a social reality (and not as a religious belief) is, like Christianity or any other ideology, flexible and susceptible of varying interpretations according to the evolution of social needs and the strategies of the social forces confronted with the issue. There have been and will continue to be conservative readings (notably put forward by authorities in situ) or reformist readings just as there are readings in support of social revolution and others in support of anachronistic utopias. The danger of the latter is that they do not decide between the possible (reformist or even revolutionary) justification for social changes and (conservative or even reactionary) formalism. This gives them their appeal, but also their objective weakness. In that sense we have argued that to remain bound in this problematic is to make a choice that could lead to the society's collective suicide. There are certainly objective reasons to illuminate the drift in this direction. We have proposed two complementary lines of research on this: (i) the inadequate maturity of the Egyptian (and Arab and wider) bourgeoisie in the 19th century, whose reflection can be found in the fact that the Nahda did not decide between these readings and did not root out the anachronistic nostalgia, while the authorities since Mohamed Ali opted for duality and reformist-conservative Islam; (ii) the shortcomings of peripheral capitalist development, taking into account the amorphous local class structure, the low penetration of contemporary issues among the broad strata on the population, for example. Undoubtedly, oil earnings and the migrations accompanying the recent upsurge of the Gulf have been a factor in this turn to the past. But it is mainly a result of the despair engendered by the failure of radical national efforts. If this despair is due in part to the contradictions and internal limitations of the Nasserist plan, it should not be forgotten that Western hostility and the aggressions of its age-old weapon of Zionism are the ultimate cause. There is an element of hypocrisy on the part of the West in lamenting current Islamic fundamentalism when it has fought in every way possible against the progressive alternative.

Second proposition: the Muslim societies have in the past accomplished a first great cultural revolution, thanks to which Islam has been able to adapt to the demands of the management of advanced societies in the Orient, to make them aware of their heritage and take them forward into development. It is this first revolution that the fundamentalists 'complain' of instead of celebrating. Furthermore, for complex reasons that cannot be reduced to an 'external' factor (the Turkish conquest of the Khalifate in this instance), the Arab-Ottoman world began a long decline (this is not the place to repeat the arguments presented elsewhere on this subject). To escape this, a second cultural revolution is needed to enable Islam to adapt to the needs of the present and the future, to the capitalist world and even to its socialist supersession. There is nothing in Islam to prevent this possible evolution, but the Muslim societies have so far rejected it. The Nahda itself did not pose the question in the decisive terms required.

Third proposition: the cultural renovation and reconstruction of the Arab nation have not been welded together. Here again this is not the place to reiterate the theses we have put forward elsewhere on the concept of nation and the - necessarily peculiar - history of the Arab peoples: the movement that leads in an early phase to the tribute-paying and commodity centralization of surplus for all the Arab world, then, with decline, to its enfeeblement and fragmentation; the resulting characteristics of a 'multi-stage nation'; the reinforcement of the particular interests of the local bourgeoisies crystallized by the formation of modern Arab states in the wake of worldwide capitalism; the disaster occasioned by the oil revenue and 'wealth' of the Gulf; the inappropriateness of the ideology of formal pan-Arab nationalism, and so on.