Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1361, (21 - 27 September 2017)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1361, (21 - 27 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Two discussions with scholars

We have much to learn about the region from at least some Western scholars, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

I am usually a harsh critic of what foreign political scientists say about our region. And it is true that the “Islamism” specialists, with some brilliant exceptions, do an appalling job, exhibiting a kind of arrogance and blindness that reminds me of previous generations’ adoration of Stalinism.

To paraphrase the late US political scientist Eric Voegelin, I am especially angered by this as I have a professional duty to read what they write. But they seem to be oblivious to the fact that they also have a professional duty to avoid saying stupid things.

However, Western academia produces a large number of serious, even great, scholars who improve our knowledge discreetly, work hard, and do not waste their time courting the media or fighting for power. I feel I have to apologise to these. Confusing them with the others is deeply unfair. I have learnt, and I am learning, a lot from them, and they often have very intriguing insights.

I have had friendly discussions with two of them. Admittedly, one of them is a rising star, or at least he is no longer quite anonymous. Both of them have taught me a thing or two.

The first one is a teacher of contemporary Arabic literature. A Facebook friend, he sometimes corrects my mistakes in Arabic. We finally met in person 12 days ago. He and his students closely monitor the Egyptian literary scene, and here is his diagnosis — that the Egyptians are formidable storytellers, but that their novels are often too long.

They describe aptly the social environment and the actions of their protagonists. But their psychology is less subtle. The Egyptian street is the main theatre of events, and this more often than not is a masculine world.

Egypt recently produced a very important novel, the nightmarish dystopia Mercury by the little-known but highly talented writer Mohamed Rabie, my informant said. After our discussion, I went out to buy two copies of the book. The shop assistant told me that most of the buyers of the novel had been foreigners. I made two or three telephone calls to critics, who all confirmed my colleague’s assessment: that this was a major contribution to contemporary literature.

The professor’s analysis of the Egyptian writer Youssef Zeidan’s first two historical novels Azazil and Al-Nabti was also very shrewd. He prefers the latter. Its main idea — how the north of the Arabian Peninsula perceived and understood the birth of Islam — was more original, he said, and the possibly controversial evocation of the historical background was conducted in a more subtle way than in the earlier book.

We also agreed that many Egyptian people draw their historical knowledge from novels and films and not from academic books. The results can sometimes be problematic — as Zeidan himself discovered when he discussed the mediaeval warrior Saladin’s record in public a few months ago. The story told by the late Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine in his film version of Saladin proved impervious to academic criticism, he discovered.

The professor also had some thoughts about the writer as the “spokesman of the nation”. During the 1960s and 1970s, three giants competed for this position. Zeidan now seems to be interested in renewing this tradition, even though times have changed.

The second academic I mentioned can be described as specialising in Islamic philosophy. We have discussed a lot of topics together, from the Christian father Anawati’s sorrow during his last years (Anawati is a towering figure in this field) to the new arguments developed by those specialising in “radical Islamism”. He also had some interesting comments to make on recent Egyptian research in his field. But we mainly talked about the works of the French social scientist Emmanuel Todd.

Two of Todd’s essays, one on post-September 11 America and the other on post-Charlie Hebdo France — were and are highly controversial. But Todd remains one of the few who foresaw the collapse of the former Soviet Union, and his main theses deserve serious discussion.

Todd tries to establish connections between family structure, political culture and the political regime. His three crucial dichotomies are: the liberal/authoritarian family; equal/unequal families (regarding for instance the laws of succession and inheritance); and exogamy/endogamy. Of course demography counts as well, especially when children leave the paternal home.

For Todd, studying family structures can tell us a lot about political cultures and regimes and their possible longevity. Authoritarian families produce authoritarian political cultures, and so on — the typology is complex as it combines many criteria. Todd says it is no accident that Russia, Germany, China and Italy gave birth to some of the nastiest political regimes of the 20th century. It is no accident that liberal democracy is a British invention, he argues, and it is no accident either that France was for a long time in a “swinging mood”, as there are two different models in the country.

Todd is not happy with the Brexit, the decision by the UK to leave the European Union. Central Europe has a long story of authoritarianism, he says, even of illiberalism, and he wonders whether Germany’s aversion to its own past will be a lasting protection. We are already witnessing a kind of authoritarian revival in Central Europe, he warns. Europe badly needs a British presence as a counterweight to its own worst elements.

If I correctly understood what my friend was saying, Todd has another unpleasant thing to say to the Europeans. They tend to think that the nuclear family, with its absolute equality between men and women, is the ultimate thing, and to consider families based on patriarchal leadership to be an archaic model. In fact, the nuclear-egalitarian model is the starting point of Todd’s history. Patriarchal families are the result of a long process of complexification, and not the starting point, he feels.

As I have not read Todd’s last book, I do not know if he wants to say that the currently prevailing model in Europe is unsustainable. Todd is a left-winger, but of course his thesis has support in rightist circles and has been popular with many leading historians. It has been lambasted by leftist ones, and political scientists have hated it for its determinism and developed many objections to it. They tend to think that democratic political institutions sooner or later secrete a democratic political culture. I tend to consider the two extremes to be too arrogant.

Funnily enough, Todd said some ten years ago that according to his thesis Egypt and Syria should be highly unstable countries. But in fact the opposite is true, and I have to admit that I am unable to explain why this is the case.


The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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