Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Analyzing Enlightenment and Change in the Middle East

November 10, 2010

The concept of “enlightenment” suggests the possibility to challenge one’s assumptions and gain new perspective. However, in an area as troubled as the Middle East, what does it mean to “become enlightened?” Can intellectual enlightenment effect concrete change? In her recent talk at the Institute, Elizabeth Kassab explored how Arab thinkers have understood enlightenment from the mid-19th century to the present.

Kassab, a visiting fellow and researcher at Germany’s Erfurt University, traced an intellectual trajectory from hope to despair. From the mid 19th to the 20th centuries, the key word for Arab philosophers was ‘progress,’ said Kassab. Thinkers sought to understand why other nations had developed greater wealth and military might than their own. If they found “the secret of progress,” posited the philosophers, they then could apply foreign strategies of progress to their own societies.

In the mid-20th century, Arab thinkers sought enlightenment through nation building. They believed that with the right leaders in power, anything was possible, Kassab said. Then came Arab states’ defeat by Israel in 1967. The military loss caused citizens’ disenchantment with national governments, and thinkers struggled to understand how promises of political rights and sovereignty could be broken.

By the end of the 20th century, disillusionment turned to despair. Against a backdrop of helplessness, several thinkers continued to try to “bring light into a sense of total darkness,” Kassab said. 

This search for enlightenment developed philosophical approaches that are still prominent today. For instance, thinkers stressed the importance of placing ideas in their historical, social, and political context. Kassab said that her own work as a scholar of philosophy has taught her the importance of this contextualization.

Without historical context, “you cannot know if an idea will take hold in society or not,” she said.

The question of “authenticity” posed another conundrum for Arab thinkers. A major aim within postcolonial thought is to affirm the value of one’s own society and history. “However, how do you value one’s culture without reifying it?” Kassab asked.

In a world where cultures constantly interact and shape one another, “cultural authenticity” may not be a useful concept. Kassab proposed instead that interrogations of authenticity are what matter.

“For these thinkers, critique itself is authentic,” said Kassab.

Unfortunately, this critique has been largely ignored by scholars; radical Islamic thought has taken center stage in the study of modern Middle Eastern intellectual movements.

This scholarly neglect mirrors the response by Arab societies at large, Kassab suggested. Due to the legacies of repressive regimes – including failing education systems and media censorship – people often turn to radical ideologies instead of the more sober schools of philosophy studied by Kassab. As a result, moderate Arab thinkers’ responses to political disenfranchisement are rarely converted into action, Kassab said.

Thus, though Kassab’s talk celebrated the vibrancy of ideas, it also underscored the disconnect between intellectual change and political change in the Middle East.

“How do you nurture hope in the midst of censorship, torture, and changing governments?” Kassab reflected. “It’s quite a challenge.”

Her talk was part of the Middle East Seminar Series.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Juliana Friend '11