Amid the sweeping Arab Spring, the Arab Left has become a crucial topic requiring further exploration, agreed a group of 12 scholars who presented their papers at a workshop hosted at AUB July 6 and 7, 2012.
The "Intellectual History of the Arab Left” workshop, organized by the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies (CAMES) and the University of Copenhagen, was open to the public for additional discussion and hosted scholars in the fields of history, sociology, anthropology and political science who presented their pre-circulated papers and received comments from their peers as well as the audience.
“There has been a growing interest in the Arab Left, and during this workshop we concentrated on the intellectual history and how to study its methods, create debates around it, as well as addressing the questions that arise from it,” said co-organizer, Samer Frangie, associate professor of political studies and public administration at AUB.
The event was a follow-up to a 2011 conference on the Arab Left which took place at the Orient-Institut in Beirut.
“It’s a new attempt to study the Arab Left, as there hasn’t been enough work on it, so this was a good chance to get together again and share ideas and notes for our papers,” said Sune Haugbolle, co-organizer and assistant professor in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Copenhagen.
Keynote speaker David Scott, professor of anthropology at Columbia University in New York, spoke of the tension of generational perspectives, and how each generation has its own way of thinking, even if influenced by past generations.
“Succession and inheritance enables one to think of what gets passed on, what’s inherited,” he said.
“Intellectual traditions are integral and connected to the idea of generations,” he said, as a ground for criticism.
“There is a sense of moral criticism, sharing something and arguing about it. Radicalism, then, is a sustained application of thought of the matters that concern us deeply,” Scott said. “We’re all interpreters of the morality we share.”
To think in terms of memory and tradition, Scott said, the challenge is how to build an intellectual relationship with an early generation of scholars who register considerable disagreements, different outlooks on the same topics, and how to share views and criticisms, as each generation inhabits a change to the accumulated heritage.
Haugbolle’s paper -- “Wither a secular left? Decontestation of secular leftism in war-time Lebanon” -- focused on how secularism was debated and expressed in Lebanon during the 1975-1990 civil war.
It discussed how secularism was experienced as an everyday ideology through an analysis of popular culture, media and the works of political and cultural thinkers on the left, mapping the process of differences in ideologies over the 15-year war.
Frangie’s paper investigated Syrian intellectual Yasin al-Hafiz’s autobiographies in the context of the disappointment of the post-1967 era and the accompanying transformation in the political horizon, analytical basis and political subjectivities of a generation of modernist Arab intellectuals.
Al-Hafiz’s autobiographical writings set the stage for the quest of a new self, amid the turbulent transformations of this era. The tragic character emerges from the impossibility of reconciliation between the two intertwined narratives of his biography: of gradual emancipation from the surroundings on one hand, and the repetition of thwarted political beginnings on the other. The conclusion of this twin trajectory is a disengagement from the history of Arab thought and politics.
Ilham Khuri-Makdisi, associate professor of Middle East and world history at Northeastern University in Massachusetts in the United States, presented her paper, “Recasting the Intellectual History of the Arab Left: Global Radical Networks in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1870-1925.”
When leftist political parties did not yet exist, there were emerging practices in Egypt and Syria/Lebanon in the late 19th and early 20th century. Then a number of radical leftist ideas began circulating among various segments of Beirut, Cairo and Alexandria’s populations.
The ideas, described as selective adaptations of socialist and anarchist principles, included calls for social justice, workers’ rights, mass secular education and a general challenge to the existing social and political order, at home and abroad. People identified as radicals, socialists or anarchists had some of the same ideas.
“Arabic-writing publicists and intellectuals, many of them Syro-Lebanese, based in or around Beirut or in Egyptian cities, and who were part of a larger network linking Egypt, Syria, Brazil and North America, were generally important shapers of the Nahda,” she said.
The Nahda was a cultural renaissance movement that started in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Egypt, which then had spread to other Arabic countries such as Lebanon and Syria, bringing about modernization and reform.
An Italian anarchist network active in Egypt also played an important role in the articulation and dissemination of leftist ideas within a predominantly Arab-Muslim society.
Khuri-Makdisi argues that the presence and activities of such radical networks were central to the making of a globalized world and to the formation of visions of radicalism.
"It is important to emphasize there was interest in the Arab left during this time period,” she said, referring to the late 19th early 20th centuries. “It was a global moment where ideas were circulating, and the world was connected through information, similar to now, the challenges being faced, the role of state, the Arab Spring.”
Michaelle Browers, associate professor of political science at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, the United States, presented her paper, “Mahmud Amin al-Alim: Pragmatic Commitment and the Legacy of the Critical Left from Egypt's 1952 Generation.”
“The aim of this paper is to say something more general about the transformations in what we deemed a ‘leftist intellectual’ in Egypt in the past century by looking at the life of Egyptian figure, Mahmud Amin al-Alim, editor of several newspapers and magazines, while exploring his work in academia, the arts and politics, and how he influenced the intellectual history,” said Bowers.
For Bowers, this workshop was a way to unite with fellow scholars and receive constructive feedback from her peers.
“It seems as though the topic of the Arab Left had gone out of fashion, and now it’s coming back,” she said. “With this group of young scholars as well as seasoned scholars sharing ideas, and meeting in Lebanon, this is the beginning of a new phase to study the political struggles in the past century.”
“It’s a nice intellectual exchange,” she added.
Other papers included socialist Lebanon's political and ideological imaginary, the Leftist critique of takhalluf: Revisiting Cultural and Psychological Approaches to the Study of Arab Societies, How Nationalism Hobbled Feminism and the Left in Egypt: Latifa al-Zayyat's The Open Door, and some Caribbean and Arab thoughts on the post-colonial era of enlightenment.