Posts Tagged ‘Muhammad Ayish’

The West – Right or Wrong?

December 17, 2008


Comment at end

17th December, 2008

I found the article below interesting and so have copied it in its entirety, including the comments thus far (midday, 17th December). It begs a few questions, not least of which is that – “do the intellectuals of the east have the world all right?’ Not to mention the fact that many “so-called” intellectuals in Britain (and probably America are already on board the “west has it all wrong” argument. I’ll be more interested in the below when I notice non-westerners saying that perhaps the West has some valid points. And, come the day when the West and its followers use international terrorism as a force of argument. Oh, and when the non-west stands up as one against its own rogue elements and extremists. I could go on.

Intellectuals of the West have our world all wrong

Muhammad Ayish

  • Last Updated: December 14. 2008 8:08PM UAE / December 14. 2008 4:08PM GMT

Last week I was invited by Kingston University, just outside London, to speak about the emerging Arab communications scene and its implications for society and the state in this region. During my stay in London I also had the chance, thanks to my friend Naomi Sakr of the University of Westminster, to attend sessions of two other conferences: one at the School of Oriental and African Studies on the study of the Arab world in western universities, the other at Westminster on Islamism, democratisation and Arab intellectuals.

The three events offered me fresh, first-hand exposure to such leading Arab and western scholars as Roger Owen of Harvard University, Beshara Doumani of the University of California, Berkeley, and Amr Hamzawy of the Carnegie Endowment. While discussions arising from the three meetings were highly stimulating, I became rather alarmed that postcolonial western intellectual views of the Arab world continue to hold sway at academic institutions in this early part of the 21st century. On a wide range of issues such as democracy, women’s rights, freedom of expression and religion, western intellectuals retain what we in the Middle East would view as an ethnocentric vision of universal absolutism, while we ourselves promote a culture-specific relativism that lends itself to both Arab-Islamic identity and global realities.

It is natural, and may even be healthy, to have this pluralism at the Arab-western academic level; but the role of intellectuals should go beyond merely identifying and describing long-entrenched dichotomies into creating new common ground for synthesising different views into truly universal visions with which communities on both sides can identify. One reason for this is that the products of these discussions rarely remain within the confines of bookshelves and classrooms, but trickle down into policy-making on future relations between the Arab world and the West.

Western-based academic discourse on the Arab world is dominated by images of a region with enigmatic geographical and cultural identities that defy human understanding. This part of the world is framed in social sciences and humanities as a bastion of religious fanaticism, the oppression of women and political despotism. And when it comes to this region, you have no choice but to be with it or against it. Post 9/11 political intellectual debates have perpetuated and even fostered those images, with much blame laid on the ugly face of politics on both sides of the divide. Shockingly, some voices even use this systematic stereotyping of the Arab world to rationalise a global war waged by the “Powers That Be” to subdue the region’s perceived “evil spirit”.

The existence of this uncompromising political view of the Arab world is understandable. But when it spills on to intellectual turf, there is reason to worry. Unlike politicians, intellectuals are normally idealised for their innocent pursuits, tolerant accommodation and ceaseless search for new visions of peaceful human coexistence. Arab and western intellectuals should be bridges of cultural rapprochement and intellectual dialogue, not forces for estrangement and division.

The danger of a false and romanticised western view of the Arab world was first identified in 1978 by the postcolonial philosopher Edward Said in his influential and controversial book Orientalism. Two years later, in the US political magazine The Nation, he wrote: “Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Muslim life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.” I find his argument most insightful.

It is true that in western universities the quality of intellectual debate on the Arab world is far higher than that taking place within the region itself. Proven conceptual and methodological tools as well as more liberal political traditions in the West have always furnished innovative perspectives on the workings of contemporary Arabian societies that Arab scholars often find insightful. But Arab intellectuals based in the region, though they may be more constrained by social and political inhibitions, still possess an edge: they are products of the very region that westerners are trying to analyse, and so are better able to understand the cultural realities and to prescribe the best of recipes for their woes.

To address this dilemma, I believe that new traditions, evolved by Arab and western intellectuals in concert and drawing on their combined perceptions of the region’s cultural and social development, are bound to generate a more cohesive and culturally relevant discourse about the Arab world.

Muhammad Ayish is a professor of communications at the University of Sharjah

COMMENTS to the above:

Added: 12/15/08 10:21:00 PM

The author mentions a few “Western intellectuals” I’ve never heard of, but does not address any specific analyses or arguments to which he objects. The rest of the piece is a paen to Edward Said, whose Orientalism was similarly very light on specifics. Stereotyping “Western intellectuals” accomplishes little, beyond perhaps consolidating vague feelings of victimization. There are, no doubt, intellectuals who fit the mode described, but the author provides zero evidence. Without evidence, the author’s claims have no weight.

Chris Cahill, Chicago

Added: 12/15/08 09:53:00 PM

Professor Ayish claims to detect among Western intellectuals an “ethnocentric vision of universal absolutism” which contrasts unfavorably with his own “culture-specific relativism that lends itself to both Arab-Islamic identity and global realities.”
How could intellectuals from one culture (like Professor Ayish) ever criticize intellectuals from another culture if they were genuinely operating on the basis of a “culture-specific relativism”. This is simply incoherent.
Is not making claims about “global realities” the ultimate expression of “ethnocentric universal absolutism”? Professor Ayish is in fact not working on the basis of cultural relativism at all. He is creating a verbal smokescreen to dodge all outside criticism of those who apologise for ongoing, highly embarrassing, abuses. Dr. Ayish is an absolutist when it suits him, he is also a relativist when it suits him. When he criticizes the West, he is in possession of a universal truth, otherwise what would there be to criticise in another culture that has different moral beliefs?
When the West criticizes repression in Arab-Islamic culture, they are arrogantly ethnocentric. This is not limited to Dr Ayish. Dr. Azzi commends his argument, and adds “One wonders whether the Western intellectual mind is not manipulated by forces of power both within and at the global level”. One wonders how Dr. Azzi and his associates could have been spared such contamination. Perhaps they are uniquely in possession of “socio-political reality”, from the perspective of a “culturally specific relativism”? The “New Occidentalists” are at least as conceptually bankrupt as the “Old Orientalists”.

Michael Sugrue Ph.D, Florida

Added: 12/15/08 10:05:00 AM

I would like to commend Profssor Muhammad Ayish for his insightful and thorough analysis Intellectuals of the West have our world all wrong (Dec 14) of what can be called “the Western academic mind-set” regarding the Arab-Muslim socio-historical entity. While the number of Western scholars who show interest in our region increased recently due to political events with global implications such as 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the discourse they produced is unfortunately still relatively captive of the old orientalist cliché about the region. While their research methods and tools show rigor and precision, they, in my opinion, fail to apply such an endeavor to provide a “value-free” interpretation of other side of the fence. They almost exclude a social historical dimension in their academic argumentation about the region. One wonders whether the Western intellectual mind is not manipulated by forces of power both within and at the global level. Nonetheless, and as Prof Ayish implies, we share part of the responsibility for the way we are portrayed in the West. While our contemporary socio-political reality works against providing a balanced understanding of “how we became the way we are”,” we have not well expressed and acquired the marketing tools to engage the other on what we consider as an effort to deny the “right of difference” regarding our region. Most importantly, we failed to show that our current socio-political reality is not a reliable representation of our value system and historical- cultural heritage. Again, I would like to thank Prof. Ayish for bringing such pertinent issues to the readers’ attention here and in the West -and for his call for an honest mutual understanding among those who are supposed to be “objective-minded” academicians.
Dr. Abderramane Azzi, Sharjah


The above news outlet, ‘The National’, is Abu Dhabi based, and is clearly written for western consumption. Its editor’s name indicates that he is historically from the tradition of the “wrong” western intellectuals.

Understanding of  ‘the other’ is not the prerogative of erstwhile western intellectuals.

I understand that Abu Dhabi has a lovely year round climate for visitors, Mr Newland. Oh, and a welcoming, inclusive culture, if you are all for inherited (male only) government by family. Personally, I prefer TRUE democracy, with the occasional woman thrown in to the mix for good measure!

This is from The National’s About page.

“The role of The National is to reflect society, help that society evolve and, perhaps most importantly, promote the bedrock traditions and virtues that must be preserved even in times of change.”

Martin Newland, Editor-in-Chief

The National, a new English newspaper launched by the Abu Dhabi Media Company, will play that role – and help reinforce Abu Dhabi’s status as a global economic centre, as well as a political, cultural and social leader of the Arab world.

The newspaper will open a new segment in the UAE’s rapidly growing media market for a high-quality, must-read broadsheet. Its reporters and editors, drawn from acclaimed newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, will ensure the paper delivers a comprehensive and compelling account of the national story.

Abu Dhabi Media Company’s impressive print portfolio also includes Al Ittihad newspaper, Majed magazine, Super magazine and Zahrat Al Khaleej magazine. The company also owns and operates three satellite television channels – Abu Dhabi TV, Abu Dhabi Sports Channel and Al Emarat Channel – as well as four radio channels – Abu Dhabi Radio, Emirates FM, Sawt Al Musiqa and The Holy Koran Radio.”

UAE political system

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