Ismail Serageldin


Arab Culture and Freedom of Expression

 12/07/2009 | Alexandria, Egypt

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear Colleagues,
Welcome to your library, the Library of Alexandria: an institution that desires to be the meeting place of intellectuals and an open platform for scholarly debate; an institution that believes firmly that societies are constructed by the creativity of their people, and that cultures are shaped by their dialogues and wealth of creativity.
At the outset, I must acknowledge a dear colleague and a great intellectual, Professor Gaber Asfour, whose presence is very much felt despite his physical absence. Dr. Asfour has been prevented by health reasons from attending today even though he played a pivotal role in organizing this meeting. May God grant him the best of health.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Our meeting today comes at a time when the word “democracy” has become a slogan that is advocated everywhere; but it also comes at a time when freedom of expression still needs the protection of everyone who believes that all other freedoms become meaningless in its absence.
-         For without freedom of expression, there is neither meaning for the search for truth nor any use for arriving at it;
-         Without freedom of expression, there is no transparency, and no accountability;
-         Without freedom of expression, the contrarian  voice cannot be heard, and no innovation can be achieved;
-         Without freedom of expression, there is no scientific research, and no useful discoveries;
-         Without freedom of expression, knowledge will not be created, and societies will not advance.
In Arab societies, however, we have passed through a period of stagnation which has contributed to the creation of an ailing cultural legacy that reveres the past and rejects anything new. On the other hand, all living cultures interact with the new and promote innovation while simultaneously safeguarding tradition. Thus, they becomes revitalized and animated, and contribute to the creation of the future of their societies; for not every new fad is evil and certainly not every old thing is obsolete.
It is strange that lately we are witnessing disturbing cultural changes. Today, we find regimes that formerly used to deny the rights of intellectuals and creative artists, impose severe censorship on their productions, and enforce their views on what people should and shouldn’t see, hear or read; we see these regimes relaxing and permitting a much wider margin of freedom than before. We witness these governments allowing a degree of freedom that our grandparents practiced but that our fathers would not have ever dreamed of. And yet, we find society itself shaken by trends that reject all that is new, narrowing the scope of what is acceptable, combating anything foreign, and discarding everything that goes against their own narrow view of society and history.
This social order enforces a new type of siege on creative writers, intellectuals and scholars, rendering the general context of our societies more conservative towards freedom of creativity, art and literature regardless of the position of the state or the official censor. As such, we need to confront these trends and stand up strongly, and clearly, for the diverse forms of freedom of expression.
This meeting allows us to hear first hand testimonies of those who, in their attempt to express themselves and their ideas, have fought against these trends or those who have suffered at the hands of equally vicious older leanings.
Today, I take part in this collective effort, because I belong to those who believe in the role of culture in society, and because I would like to be viewed as one who follows in the wake of the pioneers who have given much to our societies in the past; those Taha Hussein describes by saying:
They did not think except of one thing; disseminating culture as culture. They wanted nothing except for the Arab peoples to read and benefit – to have this reading invite them to get more from culture and aspire to an elevated rational life that is more fruitful than the one we live in.
I stand before you today at the start of this meeting to emphasize this vision, with a conviction that my words I must be candid and brutally frank, as I give my testimony, at this moment, about my personal vision of the issues within our Arab culture that stand athwart  the cultural tenets of the age we live in with all its aspirations and challenges; its accomplishments and failures. In so doing, I will revisit themes that I consider it my duty to bring up in all intellectual and scholarly platforms, the most recent of which was Beirut Arab University. For I, like all who adhere to the values of rationality and pluralism and all those who are dedicated to liberty must reiterate these fundamental themes again and again.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Although we are now relatively used to self criticism, or even self flagelation oftentimes, we still need to review our intellectual strategy; the strategy that should lead to common action, action that would take us towards the future, on a path already sketched out by our great pioneers. However, I regret that we still do not have the collective will or the necessary awareness to follow our pioneering intellectual leaders, and build upon their achievements.
Perhaps due to my many contacts with many cultures and my observations of the changes and transformations they undergo, as well as the huge differences between human cultures,  and many travels, all allow me to witness the fundamental differences between what occupies people’s minds in the east and the west, the north and the south, and permits me prompted by a strong sense of belonging to state the facts forcefully, without fear or favor, and to note shortcomings without seeking justifications for these conditions. I say this because I am a son of this Arab nation who is proud of his heritage, but does not venerate it, and tries to be faithful to it by transcending and surpassing it; one who sees no structural obstacles that stand between us and the rapid advance of our civilization by promoting the freedom for creative cultural expression.
As you know, culture is not measured by the sum of the knowledge, literature, arts and antiquities that a nation possesses, nor is it measured by its historical achievements in science and technology as much as it is measured by the power that a society possesses from all this to unleach the creative energy of its citizens, and empower them to face up to the natural and human challenges of today and tomorrow.
The difference between diverse cultures is embodied in the extent and liveliness of this energy. There are rigid and fossilized cultures that are closer to death than they are to life, and there are cultures that remain youthful, aspiring, creative and capable of constant renewal, no matter how old they are.  But what are the signs of this liveliness, and what is our share of this in Arab culture?
First: We have inherited from our periods of stagnation a one-dimensional view of controversial issues, becoming in the process fanatics for our opinions and interests, accusing others of being at fault and going as far as calling them traitors at times and heretics at others, without any true recognition of the necessity of detailed analysis to distinguish the multi-faceted nature of complex realities. We choose heroes, without acknowledging their feet of clay, and without looking to the differences in the abilities of public figures, and the value of appropriating the best and strongest qualities in each. We tend to reduce this wealth of multiple perspectives to binary oppositions, polar opposites, and establish between these constructed dickotomies a forced opposition like: tradition and modernity; public and private interest; individual ambition and the renaissance of the nation. There is no opposition between these aspects; indeed, it is their dialectics that create the motion of humans and their societies.
Second: This fanatic adherence to a one-dimensional view leads to shallowness and superficiality, lack of in-depth analysis, and a failure to develop knowledge of others’ motives and perceptions. Furthermore, it indicates a poverty of intellect and transforms into an instinctive aggressive behavior which entails loss of the ability for dialogue and tolerance. This intransigent attitude rejects the concept of the right to differ and even negates the possibility of error, which is so necessary to liberate the innovators and to preserves their right to dry and tail.
Third: It was the Arabs and Muslims who held the torch of science and knowledge over one thousand years ago when they rebelled against the inherited Aristotelian text and laid the foundations of the modern scientific method which was based on experimentation and measurement. This was six centuries before the appearance of Galileo who was forced to retract by the Inquisition in Europe while science in the Arab-Islamic world thrived at the hands of such giants as Ibn Al Haytham.
Here, we must recall Ibn Al Haytham’s words:
We start by observing reality …we try to select solid (unchanging) observations that are not affected by how we perceive (measure) them. We then proceed by increasing our research and measurement, subjecting premises to criticism, and being cautious in drawing conclusions . . . In all we do, our purpose should be balanced not arbitrary , the search for the truth, not support of opinions.
Fourth: The environment for science and knowledge that was created throughout the Muslim World in the Middle Ages was one of tolerance and openness. Let us recall how Abu El A’laa El Maa’ry, a contemporary of Ibn Al Haytham and a blind poet who resided in the village of Maa’rat Al No’man, gave vent to his thoughts, doubts and reflections, uttering what would be considered, in his time, excess and blasphemy, and yet still remained a recognized authority on language, a giant of literature and a reference in philosophy to this very day. Indeed, if we recall some of his daring statements, we will realize the extent of his freedom and the extent of the tolerance of the milieu that embraced and valued him in spite of the differences he had with it.
Fifth: This open and tolerant milieu not only allows for creativity in art and literature but also accepts the expression of doubt and disbelief of those, like Abu El A’laa El Maa’ry, who expressed their thoughts and bared their hearts in their journey from doubt to faith. Such a society has no reason to fear cultural invasion; no fear of abandoning cultural heritage, and certainly no dread of embracing what is new and strange as the words of Ibn Al Nafis of the thirteenth-century indicate:
When hearing something unusual, do not preemptively reject it, for that would be folly. Indeed, horrible things may be true, and familiar and praised things may prove to be lies. Truth is truth unto itself, not because (many) people say it is.
I hope that it will not be understood from these quotes that I am one who venerates the past and denies its mistakes; I only cite these examples to remind ourselves of the essence of the spirit of openness and tolerance that is not alien to our culture, but rather inherent in it. I must admit, though, that the excessive praise of our traditional cultural heritage, without true understanding of its components, has led us to imagine, more often than not, that preserving the past and revering it, is how we can build the future; a most destructive and false delusion indeed. True, it was necessary at times - to gain confidence in our national character and to avoid being crushed by the “Other” especially in colonial periods – to get support from this past and draw from it our power of resistance and self confidence. However, after transcending this phase, we would be doing ourselves the worst harm by indulging in ancestral worship rather than just respect. On this I quote Ibn Al Nafis in support of innovation and innovators:
Assuming equal talent and diligence, the contributions of those come later will exceed their predecessors.
We cannot turn our backs on the course of history and falsely imagine that we are islands living alone on this planet and thus get caught in localism and regionalism, and trying to re-invent the wheel with regard to nations and culture. Suffice to look around us and see how others confronted their challenges for us to take from them, to learn and understand their achievements and build on them.
Sixth: This is also related to another disorder, and that is the departure from the contemporary scientific culture which has become the real yardstick for the vigor of cultures.  In ancient times, philosophy was the pinnacle of knowledge, representing the fundamentals of thought and steering the civil and military direction of peoples. Today, science is the spearhead that determines the course of knowledge and civilization. Thus, the supremacy of scientific thinking and culture has become the guarantor of knowledge and progress, and there is no way we can contribute to the formation of contemporary civilization except by joining this scientific race with all our material and human resources on all levels, both individual and collective.
In this context, what needs to be emphasized is the necessity of educating girls and empowering women to participate in all aspects of life, for there is no progress in societies that do not do justice to women and recognize their pivotal, creative role.
A mother is like a school. If she is well- nurtured, a better nation will be born.
Seventh: A sensitive issue that we ought to face firmly and finally is the imposition of religion upon matters that are unrelated to it, and the involvement of religious figures in the matters of how we live our lives. Everywhere we witness outbursts,  of random Fatwas and the veneration of professional and volunteer preachers.
One of the great advantages of Islam is its definite concern with matters of life, and its belief in resorting to human experience to manage such matters. Since the famous incident of palm tree pollination and the Prophet’s (PBUH) words: “You are better versed in your worldly affairs”, we have had the freedom to manage our societies without seeking divine guidance, simply taking into consideration the good of the people, using our intellect, guided by  historical experience, and the development of scientific knowledge. We have been free to legislate, to serve the public good based on our understanding of our traditions, while remaining open   to the new, recognizing modern developments and their requirements.
It is my view that we should not invoke or involve religion in matters where judgment is not for theologians but specialists. For such matters are not concerned with what is religiously permitted or prohibited (Halal or Haram) but rather with what is right or wrong and in the interest of the common good; all of which can change in keeping with time, place and circumstances.
For example, if we decide to set the speed limit for the Cairo-Alexandria road as one-hundred kilometers, this does not imply that 110 Km speed would be religiously prohibited and 90 km permitted. Such decisions are based on the type of road, the technology of transportation and road accidents’ statistics; all of which are matters for specialists and not for theologians.
This phenomenon of directing every matter, great or small, religious or worldly, to religious scholars for an opinion and a Fatwa is truly surprising. It suspends the use of one’s mind, and seeks to transfer the responsibility of the decision – whatever decision – to the originator of the Fatwa. On the other hand, we have learned from our great intellectuals, like Abbas Mahmoud El Akkad, that “applying the mind is an Islamic duty” and that using your mental faculties is an obligation for all Muslims.
Another facet of this disturbing phenomenon is involving religion in the evaluation of works of art. This appears in the fierce social censorship of a conservative, bigoted few as to what society ought to read, hear or see, simply because they cannot tolerate a view other than theirs, and refuse diversity and its cultural richness within a society. We do not support the impounding of ideas, not only because this is against freedom, but also because it gives credit and publicity to works that do not merit either.
To organize our societies I say:
With regard to religion and government, after human culture has created the democratic system -- which in fact emphasizes the Islamic concept: “Their affairs are a matter for their mutual consultation” I truly say, it is mandatory in our contemporary, multi-featured societies, to emphasize the concept of citizenship and equality of all citizens before the law: men and women; Muslims and non-Muslims.
I say, religion has no business with scientific matters. Science develops within the ethical context of the values of science. However, the deployments of technological applications of scientific principles, in all societies, still need moral values – religious and philosophical – to guide them.
It is time we preserve our religion by adhering to its spirit of openness; by adopting its ethics of tolerance, and by liberating ourselves from the literal interpretations of some of its theologians. We must use our rationality and intellect  in the management of our communal affairs so that we become stronger and more advanced.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The malaise of Arab culture leads many to despair. However, when we observe the paths of other cultures in continents old and new; in the east and in the west, we realize that we are not alone in facing these problems. Others have preceded us in overcoming the obstacles to scientific and epistemological development. Great nations have managed to harness their traditions, guide their culture towards openness and diversity, and adopt the eagerness for innovation as a necessity for the culture of knowledge. They have adhered to the methodological development of natural sciences and humanities without discrimination; questioned cultural tradition, even criticized it at times, depended on evidence and kept the general interest at the forefront of their decision-making; holding on to the moral values of the age of science while preserving the spiritual core of traditional culture. All this, in my view, will guarantee the establishment of knowledge-based societies that will permeate our collective consciousness and will.
By default, the intellectual should take a critical stand towards his society. His role is not to create dogma or to inculcate ideologies but to question them. Intellectuals represent innovation in society while, simultaneously, preserving its identity. Thus, the intellectual must innovate and also preserve tradition to ensure a return to the roots on one hand, and openness to the new on the other. Innovation and safeguarding cultural heritage become the role of the intellectual in every society; for pursuing the new without preserving heritage will lead to a state of loss, while remaining entrenched in the past and rejecting the new will be surrendering to a slow suicide.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let us re-establish the scientific traditions, the openness to the new, and the genuine commitment learning and knowledge that we have witnessed in the texts of Arab scholars which I cited, while simultaneously, remaining in step with the  the nature of the times we are living in.
Society cannot strongly move towards science and knowledge without a keen interest in the future, hence the interest in youth: the driving force for times to come. The enormous potential of youth must be fully realized to ensure that access of Arab society and culture step into tomorrow’s world, free from all the maladies we have mentioned earlier.
Perhaps this also formulates our call for the future where we must:
·        Allow youth to take a leading role in creating the future of Arab societies,
·        Open up to pluralism and interaction with international trends,
·        Join the global knowledge revolution.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Our Arab culture will, without a doubt, be rejuvenated and can advance swiftly by the intellect of its people, shedding off archaic shackles that some wish to impose upon it, thus realizing Abul Quasim Al Shaby’s words:
If the people one day decide to seek life, fate must respond
Night must clear, and the shackles must break
Thank You

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