The power of self-delusion in the Arab world is a fascinating phenomenon. Take politics: instead of being honest about our disagreements we like to pretend that they somehow resemble western political conflicts. We get carried away and start using words like ‘leftist’, ‘liberal’, and ‘neo-liberal’ to give some depth to our confused fumbling, like a teenager trying to unhook a bra while desperately trying to come up with excuses. Those political categories are metaphors at best in this part of the world; our politics is driven mainly by narrow pragmatic considerations that have nothing to do with those imported political categories.
‘Enlightenment First’ in an editorial by Khaled Saghieh in Al-Akhbar. But what I mistook for an epiphany turned out to be yet another example of political cross-dressing. The gist of the column is that liberals in the Arab world are working in the service of dictatorships under the pretext of promoting reform and modernisation. Using recent examples from Egypt and Tunisia, Saghieh argues that ‘liberals’ are publicly supporting bids by corrupt rulers to stay in power. The threat of political Islam has apparently caused those liberals to ally themselves with dictators, an alliance that they justify through the need for development.
So far so good, but then Saghieh took a surprising turn and claimed that the preoccupation of Arab liberals today has shifted from freedom to ‘defending another ambiguous idea called “progress”. Let me just pause for a second here and declare my admiration for people who have resolved the paradox of calling themselves ‘progressive’ while simultaneously rejecting the notion of progress. You can have your cake and eat it; you deserve it for possessing this resourceful mental dexterity.
A while back, Saghieh edited a special supplement on Karl Marx in the context of the global recession. Saghieh was full of praise for Marx, but at no point did he mention Marx’s views on progress which I found strange. But now it seems that he’s going out of his way to distance himself from the idea of progress. Why would progress be ambiguous for a self-proclaimed student of Marx? What meaning could Marx’s work have outside the framework of progress? But then Saghieh’s mocking of the Enlightenment suggests that he doesn’t even think of Marx as an Enlightenment man...
Saghieh’s ambiguity about Marx is not in itself an issue; his Marxism is in any case only a rhetorical device not a real political choice. Similarly, the lackeys he's criticizing have nothing to do with liberalism, they are driven by narrow interests and a frustration with modernity. But what I find disturbing is the idea that just because sections of the elites have appropriated the idea of progress then we should proclaim the whole notion to be suspect. Rather than challenging their views and arguing against their corruption and collusion with authority, Saghieh is content to let them appropriate the idea of progress and talk in vague generalities about ‘the alternative’.
Of course he’s influenced in his opinion by the fashionable scepticism about progress in the west, but that’s precisely the point, why do we have to borrow the defeatism of post-industrial countries in our own societies? Our relationship with modernity is troubled at best; our social relations, economic systems and political arrangements are all caught between our aspirations and the dead weight of history. Scepticism about progress is an untimely indulgence under those circumstances.
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