I do not
know why intellectuals seem resentful of the rise of populists. They are not a
phenomenon, after all, but merely a phase. The intellectuals gave them the
floor, so they flooded it with their discourse, grabbing people’s attention and
then their hearts.
argue that populists live between the ear and the heart and are far away from
the mind. This description is perhaps true but who said that reason is the best
diagnostic tool for the situation the world is going through today?
divide the world in two: a democratic camp and the rest.
democratic camp, reasoning and intellect have declined. There is still plenty
of cultural and artistic output but the intellectual challenge of ideas is on
liberal ideas were opposed to two intellectual currents embodied by coercive
powers: on the one hand, there was a strong and emerging right-wing fascist
ideology and, on the other, a Marxist ideology that wanted to impose the
communist system on humanity.
intellectual rivalry was profound but it took two world wars for liberalism to
overcome its rivals. Fascism was ultimately defeated by both liberalism and
communism in World War II and then communism was defeated by liberalism in the
was defeated, the liberal West relaxed intellectually, even though it continued
to be challenged politically and militarily in the so-called war on terror.
It’s true that the “Clash of Civilisations” is a confrontation between
different social systems but we can hardly say that Islamic militancy
represents an intellectual challenge to the West. For the latter, countering
extremism translated into police operations at home and military actions
abroad. No serious Western thinker would consider writing the liberal response
to the Islamist “ideological” position.
And so this
intellectual discontinuity, or intellectual vacuum, so to speak, created a
void. It’s not always possible to fill people’s lives with an endless stream of
entertaining series and programmes, technological innovations and festivals. To
have fun in life is a basic need but in complex societies such as Western ones,
someone is bound to say “OK, now what?” This dimension can have many facets,
including aggression and xenophobia against foreigners, Muslims and immigrants.
facet is rebellion against authority and the political system that brought
about the ideological vacuum. When there is no investment in ideas and
intellectual activity and when the West’s intellectual product looks more like
old heritage, the mind retreats and leaves space for the ear and then the
heart. Crowds are driven by words and emotions and, since the West’s system is
based on democracy, it is the crowds that make the difference.
populists address the people, they target their base instincts and the latter
responds by voting for them. It is difficult to rationalise this phenomenon
because the West has taken for granted that liberal thinking is rational and
nobody considered reformulating this thinking by using a flexible modern
discourse that is suitable for the unfolding changes. In the past, Westerners
went to school to acquire knowledge and become intellectually fit. Today, they
get their knowledge from YouTube and social networking.
In the rest
of the world, the situation was surreal. In the post-independence period,
nationalism emerged as a system of government rather than an intellectual one.
It did not last long and was fatally wounded in the 1967 war and then died and
was buried in Baghdad in 2003.
alternative has been with us since the day the Ottoman Army was ousted from our
countries. Still, calls for establishing a caliphate or an imamate flourished
in recent times and took on different hues such as those of the Muslim
Brotherhood, Salafism and Khomeinism, while, in reality, they are all similar
in their core. They all say that the solution to our problems is right under
our noses but we fail to see it.
The task of
this intellectual system is to give us a road map to this solution. If in the
meantime the price to pay for this solution was the total disruption of the
social or political orders, it is still worth pursuing because the result is
divine and it is beckoning us.
And that is
what happened. It started with the Iran-Iraq war, then Arabs and Islamists
thronged to fight in Afghanistan; then we had the invasion of Kuwait followed
quickly by invasion of Iraq. These wars were the prelude to the all-out Arab
are raging right now backed up by an even greater number of cold wars. The
biggest winner of all the current wars is populist rhetoric armed with
religion. For decades, Arab ears and hearts have been bombarded with this
rhetoric, which has resulted in the eviction of Dame Reason. This leads us to
the present moment.
a couple of modest and impressionistic attempts, there has been no Arab
intellectual response to populism, neither the populism of the Muslim
Brotherhood nor the populism of the Salafists nor the populism of Khomeinism.
In fact, the opposite has happened.
currents of religious populism have attracted intellectuals who were drawn or
forced into a polarised environment that could no longer tolerate any
diversity. The populist conquest was overwhelming and could not tolerate
opposition. Those who don’t like it are free to migrate to another place and
must refrain from voicing their opinions.
West, like in the East, we are perplexed. Western populism is still in its
infancy and we do not know whether “Trumpism” is a passing fad or an institution
or whether Brexit is the beginning of the schisms or their end. Arab populism
seems well established, easy to understand but in many ways also
incomprehensible. In either case, it looks like this stage is going to last.
El-Zobaidi is chairman of Al Arab Publishing House. He is also chairman and
publisher of The Arab Weekly and Al-Jadeed magazine.
Headline: The rise of populism
Source: The Arab Weekly