Sadik al-Azm feted

Apologies to faithful readers, but this is heavy-duty travel season. My itinerary is routing me to Washington, Boston, Hamburg, Izmir, and Istanbul. I’m already on the road, and I get back on July 4.

During this trip, I’ll be participating in one public event. The Asia-Africa-Institute of the University of Hamburg is confering an honorary doctorate on Sadik al-Azm, emeritus professor of modern European philosophy at Damascus University. To mark the occasion, the Institute has organized a workshop on “Orientalism and Conspiracy,” and I’ve been added to the program.

In my student days at Princeton, the late Charles Issawi used to teach Sadik al-Azm’s works in a course on contemporary Arabic texts. That’s where I first encountered al-Azm’s famous self-critique of the Arabs, written after the 1967 war. In later years, al-Azm and I met and talked at conferences here and there, and I came to appreciate him not only as a rigorous thinker but as good company. So I’m glad to have been included at this event in his honor. Al-Azm, it might be recalled, wrote a very influential critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism, entitled “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse,” and this probably explains the choice of the subject for the workshop.

This isn’t the place to summarize al-Azm’s thought, and particularly his criticism of the ways the purveyors of Islam have come to obfuscate the Arab condition. Unfortunately there is no one book in English that brings together his writings, and some of his best work has appeared in obscure journals. This interview conveys very much the flavor of his unorthodox thought, as well as details of his intellectual autobiography. But I especially recommend an essay he did for the Boston Review, which has this precise summation of the Arab-Muslim predicament:

We continue to imagine ourselves as conquerors, history-makers, pace-setters, pioneers, and leaders of world-historic proportions. In the marrow of our bones, we still perceive ourselves as the subjects of history, not its objects, as its agents and not its victims. We have never acknowledged, let alone reconciled ourselves to, the marginality and passivity of our position in modern times. In fact, deep in our collective soul, we find it intolerable that our supposedly great nation must stand helplessly on the margins not only of modern history in general but even of our local and particular histories….

When this unexamined, unexorcised, highly potent, and deep-seated self-image collides with the all-too-evident everyday actualities of Arab-Muslim impotence, frustration, and insignificance, especially in international relations, a host of problems emerge: massive inferiority complexes, huge compensatory delusions, wild adventurism, political recklessness, desperate violence, and, lately, large-scale terrorism….

The contrast between image and reality “has truly made the modern Arabs into the Hamlet of our times, doomed to unrelieved tragedy, forever hesitating, procrastinating, and wavering between the old and the new…while the conquering Fortinbrases of the world inherit the new century.” The vast discrepency also explains why al-Azm finds the notion of a clash of civilizations “fanciful.”

Islam is simply too weak to sustain in earnest any challenge to an obviously triumphant West. In fact, contemporary Islam does not even form a “civilization” in the active, enactive, and effective senses of the term. It may be said to form a civilization only in the historical, traditional, passive, reactive, and folkloric senses.

Recently al-Azm has put forth a bold, secular blueprint for Iraq. Muslims, he said, must explicitly retract Shari’a law regarding non-Muslims, and “abolish once and for all the archaic Islamic penal code.” They must renounce the concept of awra, by which women are deemed “something to be ashamed of, to be hidden and covered like a scandal.” Shiites must retract everything connected with the notion of rule by the jurisprudent. Sunnis must apologize to Shiites for “the unspeakable crime of the murder of the Prophet’s grandson Husayn in the Karbala massacre,” and Shiites should absolve and forgive Sunnis. It’s a bold plan, and perhaps the only way out which doesn’t mean that anyone will take it.

Al-Azm received the Erasmus Prize last year, which is the European Union’s highest cultural award. (He shared it with Fatema Mernissi and Abdolkarim Soroush.) On the occasion of Hamburg’s act of recognition, I am privileged to be counted among his assembled admirers.