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Contemporary Arab Ideology

‘Abdallāh Laroui
Document type:
Articles and Essays

Contemporary Arab Ideology

‘Abdallāh Laroui


He is a historian and political theoretician, active in the Moroccan national movement. He studied in Paris and is now professor of history at Muhammad V University, Rabat.

Laroui usually writes in French, leaving it to others to translate his works into Arabic. In this selection written in 1967, he critiques the Arabs’ tendency to misread their own and Western history. First, he takes to task those Arabs who raise a false dichotomy between the East and the West couched in terms of Islam versus Christianity. Next, he attacks the facile adaptation of European liberal nationalism by those seeking to end the decline of Arab civilization. These individuals maintain that the Arab is naturally free but that his freedom has historically been appropriated by imperialist outsiders like the Ottomans; the solution would be to remove alien rule. Finally, Laroui addresses what he believes to be the false prescription of those who believe technology and industry will alone suffice to reverse Arab decline. Having critiqued the shortcomings of each of these perspectives, he concludes that Arab and “Western” ideology cannot in any event be seen in isolation from one another.

For three quarters of a century the Arabs have been asking themselves one and the same question: “who is the other and who am I?”

In February 1952 Salama Mūsa entitled one of his articles, “Why Are They powerful?” The “they” have no need to be defined; “they,” “them” are the others who are always present beside us, in us. To think is, first of all, to think of the other. This proposition, whether true or false for the individual, is true at every instant for our life as a collectivity. This, then, is where we should begin.

Who is the other for the Arabs? For a long time the other was called Christianity and Europe; today it bears a name vague and precise at the same time, that of the West.

Three Men, Three Definitions

In contemporary Arab ideology it is possible to distinguish three principle ways of grasping the essential problem of Arab society: the first situates itself in religious faith, the second in political organization, and the last in scientific and technical activity.

The man of religion keeps the East-West opposition in the frame of an opposition between Christianity and Islam. He carries on a twelve-century-old tradition of the East and West of the Mediterranean basin. For a long time, victories and defeats alternated. This time, however, the war was rapid and the defeat durable: the enemy takes up his position and organizes himself according to his own norms. Nonetheless, the cleric can maintain the illusion that it is the old confrontation that continues. Besides, for this type of accident, he has a justification which is always ready: “When we want to make a city perish, we order the rich and they give themselves over to their villainry. The word against that city fulfills itself and we destroy it entirely,” says the Qur'ān (17: 16). There is no need then to study the enemy; he is nothing but the instrument of evil. Everything finally resolves itself in the relations of society with its God. This position has an unlimited advantage because, in theory, it settles the problem definitively.

Whether the years of misery are numbered by tens or by hundreds, they are explained and justified once for all.

Why is it, then, that at a given moment this satisfaction wears off? Because of the dialogue which the other imposes.

A response, then, is called for, so the cleric, having guarded an inspired silence, begins a study which is condemned in advance: reducing everything to the letter of dogma, he tries to find there the secrets of strength and weakness, and naturally he finds nothing but words.

He hears it said: “the weakness of Islam derives from fanaticism and superstition.” He takes up his texts, reads and re-reads them, and finds there nothing but tolerance and reasoned faith. Islam, he replies, is recognition of God according to the paths of reason; absolute monotheism, it abrogates all false divinities, human and inhuman, and thus guarantees the most absolute liberty to the individual; a religion clear and without mystery, it has more chance than any other religion to unite reasonable men around the one God.

He also hears it said: “the strength of the West is based on reason and liberty.” While trying to get an idea of that liberty in history, he comes across anti-clerical writers, not by chance, and is horrified to hear that Galileo was imprisoned, Descartes was calumniated, Rousseau persecuted, and Giordano Bruno perished at the stake because he dared to defend the rights of reason against the state. His thoughts turn to Abraham in the Qur'ān, hero of personal investigation, and he asks himself: How can Christians dare to speak of tolerance after so many crimes? Of course, he does not think for a moment about the persectuion of the Mu‘tazilites by the Caliph Mutawakkil1 Caliph Mutawakkil in the ninth century stamped out the somewhat nationalist theological school of the Mu'tazilites. [Ed.], nor about the auto-da-fēs of the Almoravids.2 Almoravids: Muslim dynasty controlling North Africa and Spain (1049–1145). [Ed.] In the history of Islam he sees nothing but the translators of Ma'mūn3 Ma'mūn: Caliph in the ninth century, predecessor of Mutawakkil who encouraged the Mu'tazilites and also the translation of Greek science and philosophy. [Ed.] hunched over their Greek and Syriac books, and the rare manuscripts of Hakam4 Hakam II: most famous of Umayyad Caliphs of Spain. Under him in the tenth century Cordova became an intellectual capital. [Ed.] which the Spanish barbarians, it is said, grabbed up after the fall of Cordova5 Fall of Cordova from Muslim control in second quarter of thirteenth century. [Ed.] to use for making cheap bridges.

However, it is not long before a complication arises which risks putting the whole system of polemic in jeopardy. If reason is truly on the side of Islam and fanaticism on the side of Christianity, how explain the blossoming of the one and the decadence of the other? Muhammad ‘Abduh wrote: If we can validly judge a religion according to the actual state of those who practice it, we can affirm that there is no tie between Christianity and modern civilization.

Then the cleric recalls certain facts: the solitude of the philosophers Fārābi (d. 950) and Rāzi (d. 1209), the duplicity of Averroes (d. 1198), the anonymity of the “Brothers of Purity”6 Brothers of Purity: anonymous authors of some fifty letters, mid-tenth century, representing Ismā‘īlī doctrine. [Ed.] who, in the fourth century A.H. wanted to amalgamate Islamic faith and Greek philosophy. Henceforth he wants to recall all the ruses which reason had to use to defend its right to life, and he answers: “The cause of our weakness? It is our infidelity to the divine message.” The cleric then separates dogma from life. The first is kept pure and spotless while actual history is seen as nothing but a series of avatars of a revelation betrayed.

Previously, God, tired of being humiliated by his chosen people, took refuge among the Arabs, but later reason, hemmed-in by despotism and obscurantism, withdrew, in spite, to the Christians and gave them glory, power, and riches despite their religion. Andalusia7 Andalusia: for Muslims, includes practically all the Iberian peninsula, which was held by the Muslims for seven centuries. [Ed.] is no longer a land like others, conquered then lost. It becomes the symbol of reason which unloved and too often abandoned, abandoned us in turn. Fortunately, it is not vindictive; it can be tamed again if we decide to return to ourselves. Such are the thoughts of the modern cleric.

By that slight nudge everything is pushed back into order, and the promise God made to “his good servants” can be realized once more. This vision, still put forth by the man of religion, is not ephemeral. All through modern history it is found repeated by the pens of Arab publicists. It begins first by creating unanimity, then little by little loses its adepts, but remains in groups generally considered as backward. However, is it necessary to scratch very deeply to rediscover it, barely changed, among men who pretend to be open to objective truth?

Little by little the West is better known. Western history is studied for itself and not in small pieces for polemic. In the end, one is persuaded that if reason is perhaps absent from Christianity, it is certainly not absent from Europe and, in any case, whether it came from Andalusia or elsewhere, it has found propitious soil in the West.

To the extent that the cleric searches for polemical arguments against the Church everywhere and finds them especially in the writers of the century of enlightenment, to the same extent he opens the way for the domination that this century is going to exercise, little by little, over the Arab intelligence.

The eighteenth century still fascinates the Arabs. This century will always be loved for good and bad reasons because it supplies most of the arguments against the Church and its depravity and because it gives credibility to certain myths. What language is sweeter than that of Rousseau when he criticizes the duality of power in the Christian world and writes: “Muhammad had sound views; he tied his political system together in good fashion and as long as his form of government existed under his successors, the Caliphs, the government was one and good.” A single law ruling over this world and the next, guaranteed by the infallible instinct which God put in the heart of every man, isn't this the very essence of the Muslim city described by Rousseau which he justifies without knowing its ultimate goal?

However, can one read Rousseau continually without drawing close to Montesquieu, can one use indefinitely the philosophy of light uniquely against the Church? The moment comes when the unity of the system appears, and the Arab reader no longer sees Europe as the domain of the Pope and bishops alone. He begins to notice the Emperor also and the feudal noble, especially if he comes from Egypt or Syria where he suffered from Turkish tyranny and hears it said that those ancient lands of civilization fell precisely because of the Turkish occupation. When Montesquieu dissects oriental despotism, the Middle Eastern reader feels hatred for the Turkish usurper rise in himself. Still, he recognizes willingly that the Caliph, even in the brilliant periods of Muslim empire, governed according to his own good pleasure; conquered people were persecuted; the state had no end other than the exploitation of subject populations. He recognizes that property was precarious, commerce was discouraged, taxes were unequal, administration was venal, and justice was subjective. Yes, he finishes by admitting it was a reign of violence, fear, the unlimited power of one, and the slavery of all. The Caliph, shadow of God on earth, respected neither the life nor property of his subjects, and his violence, punctuated by brief and bloody revolts, resembled that of all who ruled over the ancient land of Asia.

The new man, the politician who has taken the place of the cleric on front stage, thinks: our decadence certainly had secular slavery as its ultimate cause. All of a sudden, all the classical judgments, which he read formerly but did not assimilate, are going to regain force: that the slave could neither work well or fight, that agriculture, commerce, science, and philosophy can never flower in servitude. Like many others he reflects on the misadventures of Athens and Rome and lets himself be convinced that the fall of empires is always the victory of liberty over slavery.

Then Islam will be disassociated from decline, and the Turk will become the symbol of misery and failure. It will be said: as long as Islam was Arab it was free, tolerant, and victorious. Once it became Turkish it changed its nature and declined. Turkish Islam was victor as long as Europe was subservient and fatalistic, but as soon as it liberated itself at the time of the reformation, it conquered everywhere.

The new man, jurist and politician, is going to amalgamate Rousseau and Montesquieu and understand ideal democracy after the fashion of the English watchmaker.

Since the evil has been diagnosed, the remedy has been found. The Turkish regime was the power of a sole ruler; therefore, we should elect an assembly. The Turkish regime regulated all activities, therefore we should give free reins to private enterprise. The Turkish regime accommodated itself to ignorance, then we must sacrifice everything to spread instruction.

This jurist-politician is going to put himself to the task with quibbles and subtleties. The Prophet was wrong once concerning the technique of pollinating date palms and frankly admitted his error. From that the conclusion is abusively drawn that Islamic dogma does not impose a strict organization of public powers and that it can, consequently, accommodate itself to any regime whatever that Muslims choose.

Ijmā‘ (juridical consensus) becomes a veritable democratic charter, corroborated by the procedure which the Caliph ‘Umar chose to designate his successor. Ignorant or forgetful of the lessons of ethnology, he claims that the Arab is by nature free and that he cannot independently found a regime which is not democratic—an argument which at base takes up the racist determinism of E. F. Gautier.

Thus dogma is saved a second time because every classical despotic organization is declared non-Muslim and with the same stroke the future is uncovered: let us organize a representative democracy and power will return to us again. Everyday floods of eloquence are going to be poured out at the feet of creative liberty, and this great hope, now visible after so many years, takes on the melancholy aspect of a youth betrayed by destiny. Tāhā Husayn after twenty-five years reflected on his dreams, contradicted by reality, and lamented: “Believe me, the good, all the good for a man of culture and courage is to escape with his heart, his spirit and his conscience far from these times. If he cannot go elsewhere, let him at least exile himself in one of the epochs of past history.”

This liberal vision which carries in itself both diagnosis and therapy, is still found in all Arab countries. In certain countries like Egypt, discredited by its failures, it scarcely dares to make itself heard from time to time in the university or the parliament; in others like Morocco, it still has sufficient self-confidence to present itself openly.

Political liberty and parliaments do not give power; daily experience was not long in demonstrating this. No one yet doubted the real representation of the deputy, but knew very well that his speeches were forgotten as soon as they were delivered in the temple of the nation. This deputy: lawyer, doctor, journalist, or professor, fought to occupy high positions, but when he arrived there he sensed correctly that everything, politics and administration, escaped him and that his presence was necessary only during official feasts. He consoled himself knowing that his chief had no more power than he. Sometimes the latter explained to him that the big boss himself is only the shadow of a shadow. For a long time he used an image: the people, an invincible force; now he mouths it with bitterness. Even the people, guided by their elected representatives, keep an obstinate silence. The politician asks: liberty we have, but power? Since he believes that power is his due, he turns against the people. For the first time, with necessary distance, he sees the people as they are: ignorant, squalid, drowsy. Then the residences of the great families are fortified, the clubs close, and the cars streak along the streets with shades drawn to protect oneself against sights which are too violent. The peasant becomes the expression of another world, another humanity, and the politican-jurist no longer rejects with indignation the insinuation of foreigners about the influence of climate, race, and sun. Exasperated and disillusioned, betrayed by events, the man of quibbles keeps silence.

A newcomer then takes the floor. He is neither lawyer, magistrate, nor doctor. Son of a shop-keeper, perhaps a peasant, occasionally from a minority, in short the one who up till now was marginal. During this period of silence, he has acquired a new image of the West shaped by various pressures, and this image will serve as the norm by which he judges the society and the work of his elders.

The West, he will say, is not defined either by a religion without superstitions nor by a state without despotism, but simply by a material force acquired by work and applied science. Henceforth he will laugh at the ideas of the West the cleric and the politician shaped for themselves. In the great amphitheatre of Cairo University, Salama Mūsa in 1930 will pose the following question to Egyptian youth: “Do the Westerners have the same religion? the same racial origin? the same institutions?” And he answered: “During the past quarter of a century a single truth has become clear to me, and it is this: the difference which separates us from civilized Europeans is industry and industry alone.” The technocrat will cite often the example of Japan: does a religion more foreign to reasoned monotheism exist, is there a history more bloody, a people more subservient than those we find in Japan of the Samurai? Nonetheless, in little time Japan conquered whites and yellows simply because it went straight to the secret of the West. Let us do likewise; let us not waste our time any longer in theological discussions and in lamentations over an unfinished destiny. Science is certainly very beautiful, but it must be subordinated to technique; culture is a noble goal, but it comes after a specialized trade. Salama Mūsa affirms: “Today civilization is industry; its culture is science. Whereas the culture of agrarian societies is literature, religion and philosophy.”

The criticism of Islamic history which the liberal politician had timidly begun is now totally put aside. The technocrat feels no need to interpret dogma or to warp it from its traditional sense. He simply ignores it, since it does not determine the strength or weakness.

In excluding tradition from the discussion, he helps save it for the last time. The technocrat answers the argument of the preceding generation with: “Was it not under Cromwell that England laid the bases of its maritime hegemony? Was it not under the two Napoleons that France became an industrial power? Despotism hinders nothing; perhaps it is even a condition for the advancement of a people.”

This man, worshiper of technology, is often sad and quiet, but intellectually he is a terrorist; he refuses to put himself in question, and he scorns disinterested science. For him, the West is no longer opaque as it was for the cleric. He feels at home there, speaks its language, follows its logic and slowly, the past and its problems grow dim in his mind. He no longer asks: “What was our greatness?”, nor “Why, our decadence?” Insipid questions, he thinks, and goes off crying out: truth is for tomorrow, truth is technology. He believes he has gone beyond the cleric and the liberal politician; actually he has appropriated the West for himself by a short, effortless leap, having jettisoned his past a bit too easily. For all that, the West has not really become clearer to him; it is his history which has become more opaque.

While the liberal politician, betrayed by events, discredited himself more each day, the technocrat was preparing intellectually for the installation of the new state. When this day arrives, the technocrat will cry victory and will say as did Salama Mūsa in July 1952: “It is the most beautiful day of my life.” But the new state will not be long in recognizing that this technocrat is most often not a technician; it will listen to him for a while, then turn away quickly.

The question will be asked:

What do these three men represent in reality? Were they picked at hazard? Are they the expurgated editions of actual writers? If so, why were they not presented under their true names?

These three men, in fact, represent three moments of the Arab conscience which has been trying since the end of the last century to understand itself and to understand the West. They were described abstractly because they are found in diverse forms of literature (essays, newspaper articles, plays), and they are not incarnated in the same man for all the Arab countries.

No doubt there is already a presentiment that to judge these forms of conscience several questions must be answered: Do they form an historical sequence? Who has given them their general problematic? What relation is there between each of them and the social forces active in Arab society or in the West? However, it can be affirmed presently that the worst methodological error would be to deny the interdependence, already so evident, between Arab ideology and Western ideology.

Bibliography references:

From L'idéologie arabe contemporaine [Contemporary Arab ideology] (Paris: Maspero, 1967), pp. 15, 19–28.


1. Caliph Mutawakkil in the ninth century stamped out the somewhat nationalist theological school of the Mu'tazilites. [Ed.]

2. Almoravids: Muslim dynasty controlling North Africa and Spain (1049–1145). [Ed.]

3. Ma'mūn: Caliph in the ninth century, predecessor of Mutawakkil who encouraged the Mu'tazilites and also the translation of Greek science and philosophy. [Ed.]

4. Hakam II: most famous of Umayyad Caliphs of Spain. Under him in the tenth century Cordova became an intellectual capital. [Ed.]

5. Fall of Cordova from Muslim control in second quarter of thirteenth century. [Ed.]

6. Brothers of Purity: anonymous authors of some fifty letters, mid-tenth century, representing Ismā‘īlī doctrine. [Ed.]

7. Andalusia: for Muslims, includes practically all the Iberian peninsula, which was held by the Muslims for seven centuries. [Ed.]

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