The crisis of Arab culture: Where are the intellectuals?

Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi
Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi
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The political and social regression in the Arab world has exposed the shameful failure of Arab intellectuals to provide leadership and guidance for their fellow citizens.

Intellectual elites are leaders of change. They guide public opinion and enlighten members of society about their rights and duties. These are the responsibilities they have to advance their societies.

Intellectuals create a crisis when they turn into promoters of ideas out of pure self-interest. It is under these circumstances that they become dependent on the dominant power or most popular idea.As such, they are a danger to the state because they may mislead decision-makers. Some actually compete with others in a frantic race to gain acknowledgement and material benefits.

The crisis of Arab culture is the crisis of intellectuals. If intellectuals, a nation’s conscience, produce analyses and judgments based on their personal agendas, how can real change take place? Culture then becomes just a cover for opportunists who carry no noble message for true transformation.

Different voices in our culture are at risk of severe and often debilitating criticism. In societies like ours, condition learning is the norm. We memorize our lessons by heart without attempting to contradict or question our educators’ views. When all opinions are pointed in one direction, our collective minds tend to comply with the popular opinion or listen to the loudest voices.

Principles, not personal agendas, are what advanced nations have used to thrive on. Enlightened thinkers fought for principles they believed in. Today the Arab world pays the price for this failure.

Mohammed Fahad Al Harthi

Some are so afraid of diversity that they may raise suspicions about correct standpoints. This modus operandi was at the heart of the witch-hunts launched by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s who branded anyone opposed to the U.S. government as disloyal and a communist.McCarthyism is simply cultural terrorism against intellectuals. It’s the practice of publicizing accusations of political disloyalty or subversion with a total disregard for evidence.

The deeper problem arises when freedom of speech and pluralism are threatened by intellectuals themselves, people in power, and those who consider themselves educated.

Feelings, not facts

A writer once pointed out that some writers under certain circumstances try to predict the direction of the state and then build their analysis in that direction. The reaction to an objective analysis in these conditions would be a campaign against it, which would be intensified with forms of ideological hysteria, national pride or crass emotionalism.

Power doesn’t necessarily belong to the state but with large sections of the public, resulting in many people falling over themselves to win this support. In his book, The Crowd Psychology, Gustave Le Bon says audiences often seek to have their emotions triggered and not their minds provoked by cerebral writers.

This means that methodological values will lose in a contest with the thrills of the moment. The reaction of the Arab audience to the Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef proves that Arabs are emotional.

Youssef became a star when he attacked the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule, but the moment he criticized and mocked the government, his audience turned on him labeling him a traitor. Despite what we may think of Youssef’s direction, the writer or intellectual will lose if he bets on his popularity in society. He will lose himself first and then his audience.

Principles, not personal agendas, are what advanced nations have used to thrive on. Enlightened thinkers fought for principles they believed in. Today the Arab world pays the price for this failure.

This article was first published in Arab News on Jan 12. 2014.


Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi is currently the editor-in-chief of Arab News and Sayidaty. A prominent journalist who worked with Asharq Al-Awsat in London and Arab News in KSA, al-Harthi later moved on to establish al-Eqtisadiah newspaper in KSA, in which he rose to the position of editorial manager. He was appointed editor-in-chief for Arajol magazine in 1997. He won the Gulf Excellence award in 1992.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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