Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 March 2006
Issue No. 786
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Anouar Abdel-Malek

Anouar Abdel-Malek: And the light flickers on

Anouar Abdel-Malek, the textbook history buff, pulls no punches -- a self-confessed Sinophile, he has dedicated much of his career to studying the ancient great civilisations of Asia, China in particular. "It must be made absolutely clear that there were civilisations that preceded the West," he insists. "As Europe began to awaken in the 16th century, China began its decline in 1587 when the Ming Dynasty failed to carry on ruling the Middle Kingdom," Abdel-Malek points to the contrary parallel. This is a very strange question, indeed. "Why did the Ming Dynasty abruptly ground to a halt? That is the magic of history -- the secrets of the rise and fall of civilisations." Born in Cairo on 23 October 1924, Abdel-Malek was educated at the Collège de la Sainte Famille, the Jesuits (1929-40). Today, as an octogenarian he divides the year between his native Egypt and France where his daughter Nadia and his granddaughter Anna live. Professor Abdel-Malek is widely acknowledged as an authority on the subjects he has made a career of. Today he is internationally acclaimed as a leading Egyptian intellectual who has written extensively about the notion of the historical formation of the intelligentsia and the means of understanding history and civilisation.

Abdel-Malek is also keenly interested in the ancient civilisation of his own homeland and its environs. He has a touching emotional attachment to Egypt, both ancient and especially contemporary. His hope is to interest and educate the younger generation about their own history and civilisation -- mainly through his works at this stage. He spoke fondly of a group of intellectuals including Peter Gran, Galal Amin and Martin Bernal who used to meet regularly in Cambridge, England, every summer.

It was a reunion of sorts, a meeting of minds, and it offered a golden opportunity to exchange ideas and compare notes. A prolific writer, Abdel-Malek has written extensively in academic journals and is a regular contributor to Al-Ahram, Le Monde and other Egyptian and Western, mainly Francophone, publications. Among his works are the seminal Social Dialectics: Civilisation and Social Theory (1982); The Civilisational Orientation in the Making of the New World (1984); Contemporary Arab Political Thought (1984); Culture and Thought (1983); Science and Technology in the Transformation of the World (1979) -- editor in conjunction with Gregory Blue and Miroslav Pecujlic; Nation and Revolution: Social Dialectics (1981); Intellectual Creativity in Endogenous Culture (1981); and The Civilisational Project: The Visions of the Orient at the 30th International Congress of Human Sciences in Asia and North Africa.

photos: Mohamed Wassim Click to view caption
photos: Mohamed Wassim

If there exists a grid against which to measure one's attachment to a philosophy or theoretical conception, it is Anouar Abdel-Malek's own chequered career. His strongly anti-Western take on history often worked against him. But he is not anti-West per se; he only likes to think of himself as putting Western civilisation in its place -- in perspective. After graduating from Ain Shams University, he left for France, where he enrolled at the Sorbonne. He soon emerged as one of the leading intellectual lights of the 1970s and 1980s.

Abdel-Malek's name is often closely associated with Professor Immanuel Wallerstein, Yale, and Professor Martin Bernal, Cornell, of Black Athena fame. The first is more particularly relevant; for, like Abdel-Malek himself, he is interested in "World Systems" and the origins of Western Civilisation. Abdel-Malek is also keenly interested in "the culture of sociology". Indeed he has devoted his life to "the alternative civilisational project".

His denunciation of Orientalism in 1963 predates that of Edward Said's. He acknowledges three formative thinkers: Durkheim, Marx and Weber. His mentor, however, without question, is Joseph Needham. Like Abdel-Malek, Needham was deeply learned and sagacious. He was the formidable scholar on China, and he inspired Abdel-Malek to look seriously into the treasures of that ancient land. The pivotal figure in the story of Anouar Abdel-Malek is Joseph Needham, who opened up the wondrous world of China to the budding academic at a time when few scholars had busied themselves with Chinese history. The onus at the time was on the Chinese Revolution -- on Communist China. "Joseph Needham, the master teacher, was a great inspiration for me personally."

Today, the works of Needham assume critical importance, for China is fast assuming superpower status, at least in Asia -- an economic power in its own right. "Why is it that they have succeeded and we haven't? Four or five centuries ago there was no concept of the West," he points out. "How did the world become what it is today? I am especially interested in the historical formation of the intelligentsia. In the Arab world the intelligentsia has been divided into two different and often competing strands -- the liberal modernists, and the Islamists." To a blasé observer, this is the binary picture, yet these are not necessarily competing nor homogeneous ideologies. "The liberal modernists from Tahtawi to the Marxists were traditionally inspired by Europe and the West. The Islamists, on the other hand, have been obsessed with the conflict with the West," he muses.

There are many in the West who believe that there are now two main enemies of the Western world -- China and Islam. These are two ancient civilisations in possession of a value system that cannot be broken. Absolute monotheism characterises Islam. In East Asia, the matrix is Confucian -- the unity of man and nature. The power of mobilisation of both Islam and China are tremendous. The centre of gravity moves, but the concept of time is central to the conception of these great geo-cultural areas. Today, there is a Western obsession with Islam. But, the "yellow peril" holds a morbid fascination on the collective Western imagination. "Then there is the rising star of China. The United States works with China, not with the Arabs." In this way, therefore, Abdel-Malek will hark back to his favourite subject -- China. "Look who's listening? No one."

Abdel-Malek made a career out of putting world history in its place. Needham, Mao, Sultan Galiev and Sun Tzu were his sources of inspiration. In retrospect, his insight seems blindingly obvious. "Why did the West succeed where we failed?" The question admits of no easy answer. "And, why is China's star rising at this particular historical moment?" Again, no straightforward answer. That doesn't seem to matter to the world's politicians. The re- emergence of nationalism in international politics is a new phenomenon. Amnesia is a terrible thing. Was it not Mao Zedong who once told his people, "Surpass Britain and catch up with America." And today, China is doing exactly that. Abdel-Malek is proud of a painting of a youthful Mao in traditional Chinese garb that is perched above his desk. That's when I smile admiringly at the exquisite and inspiring Mao portrait.

Sitting in his Heliopolis flat overlooking the Merryland Park, Abdel-Malek gives a distressing description of apathetic, hostile or ignorant officialdom. A painting of admiral Zheng He and another of Mohamed Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt, hang on the wall of his study. For the great Ming navigator (1371-1433) embodies the greatness that was China. In 1415, the mediaeval Chinese eunuch admiral, reputedly a Muslim, brought back a giraffe from East Africa to the Ming court in Nanjing. He also presented the emperor and his courtiers with "camel-birds" -- ostriches and "celestial stags" and "celestial horses" -- respectively oryx and zebras. His armada of giant junks -- some 300 ocean-going vessels and a crew of 30,000 men -- stood testament to the glories of Chinese civilisation.

To his critics, he has always been a man whose time has passed.

He now waxes philosophical. "Time is the master. Therefore the conceptions of time can be said to have developed as a non-analytical vision, as a unitary, symbiotic, unified and unifying conception. Man could no longer 'have' or 'lack' time; time, the master of existence, could not be apprehended as a commodity. On the contrary, man was determined and dominated by time," he notes. In the same spirit Abdel-Malek extrapolates about his theory of "endogeneity".

"By bringing to bear the concept of 'endogeneity' on the analysis of different, and differing, phenomena and processes, more often than not in the three continents -- but also, to a growing extent, in the less developed regions of advanced industrial Western societies -- it became possible to posit the possibility and legitimacy of autonomy and independence, self- reliance and, in the international field, non- alignment -- in a word to equip theoretically and philosophically the mighty wave of independence, the quest, reconquest or resurgence of national-cultural, or cultural identities."

"Endogeneity was to be used as the matrix within which positive potential could best be harnessed, with the aim of initiating an innovative path," Abdel-Malek extrapolates, slowly but surely. "Fundamentalism appeared more as a voluntary process of return to the fundamental, constitutive, formative factors of national cultural identity, first and foremost as a defense mechanism against the intrusion and penetration of unwanted foreign influences." He contrasts endogeneity with fundamentalism.

"Lines were drawn around visible potentials, hitherto little heeded. But then, towards which results?" he ponders, pausing. "Endogeneity appeared more as an intellectual category; while fundamentalism belonged to the realm of ethics and psychology." Abdel-Malek was far from being the only Egyptian intellectual to criticise the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq, but the powers that be in Western academic circles rounded on him particularly viciously. He has always been well aware of how jeopardising American security by daring to disagree with an American president ended. "At least I stayed alive," he humbly notes.

"Others have fared far worse." For the most powerful Western nations had to fight rather than scheme their way to world supermacy -- the United States, Britain, France and Russia are still today the leading world military powers. Europe has an uneasy relationship with its imperial history but it still exemplifies some of the worst aspects of Western chauvinism -- witness the race rioting in France and the wrathful reaction.

I asked Abdel-Malek if he felt any sense of vindication that his doubts about the war have become mainstream. "The director of the National Museum in Baghdad, speaking in front of television cameras, said that since her entire family had been killed she had lost the ability to cry," Abdel-Malek remembers.

"Minutes later, she walked into the museum display halls, under the glare of the cameras, to inspect the damage. Thousands of statues, artefacts and rare paintings had been destroyed or stolen by marauders under the very eyes of US occupation forces. And then the same woman broke down in tears -- her sadness shared by all with a shred of decency left in their hearts. If criminal aggression was a war for 'democracy', why was Baghdad looted?"

Abdel-Malek is a great believer in making the effort to engage the young. Universities aren't endowing our youth with a sense of their country's history. "It is important to educate the young. But the press isn't particularly interested." So what can we do to help educate the young about the past? Warfare is an abominable part of history.

Which history syllabus would take such a radical approach? History is not taught as a continuum. "Capitalism has made the world one." Vietnam, following in China's footsteps, changed direction -- today it has double digit growth rates. Latin America is fast changing, too. The historical formation of the intelligentsia in our part of the world was founded on the troubled symbiosis between the Muslim world and the West. There has always been the contradiction between the liberal modernist on the one hand, and Islamists on the other. The liberal modernists are not a homogenous group -- they range from the essentially European-inspired, such as Tahtawi, to the Marxists. The Islamists, too, can be divided into moderate and militant. The militant Islamists are those who came to embody anti- Western defiance. Who are the most Westernised intellectuals in Egypt? The names that appear most regularly in the West have been co-opted. Many intellectuals were silenced because of their nationalist stand. It is a fate worse than death, sometimes. On the other hand, some consider being left to lead a life of relative silence and oblivion a small mercy. Yet there is no worse fate for an intellectual who favours communicating his ideas with others over oblivion.

"Who now speaks of Gamal Hamdan?"

True nationalists are marginalised. Worse, they are being silenced for their nationalist stands. In fact, nationalism has become something of a dirty word. It is as if the establishment has a vested interest in mediocrity and political apathy. Abdel-Malek explains that the West was created by bloody revolutions. The French Revolution was savagely brutal and bloody. The American and Russian revolutions were, likewise, very violent.

Some of Abdel-Malek's favourite books include The Expansion of International Society edited by Hedley Bull and Adam Watson and Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China, published in 1937 barely a decade before the Communist takeover of China. "If we study the historical-geographical constitution of the nations and societies of the Orient -- Asia, around China; the Islamic area in Afro-Asia -- it will be immediately clear that we have before us the oldest sedentary and stable societies of socio-economic formation in the history of mankind," Abdel-Malek explains. He says he feels at home in China, primarily because he sees many similarities with Egypt. They are both very ancient and sedentary civilisations. "I first visited China in October 1978, barely a month after the end of the Cultural Revolution. I was jet-lagged and we were awakened at 6am to visit the Great Wall. After breakfast at 6.30 we were off to see this great wonder of the world. I always remember what my guide told me. 'Please remember that we built this wall 2,000 years after you built the pyramids'. They hailed me because I was an Egyptian; Egyptian civilisation was older than Chinese."

Abdel-Malek is not as interested in India. He has been a frequent visitor, but for him India is "the state of dissimulation and deception". He speaks fondly of the continent, but he doesn't see the affinities between India and Egypt that he sees between Egypt and China. "India is a continent of composite cultures, often competing civilisational influences. China is an ancient nation- state, like Egypt but on a much bigger scale."

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