Shaker al-Nabulsi

The Islamist current calls continually and in all circumstances for us not to fall victim to dazzlement at western culture, and not to imprison ourselves in the ‘Khwaja Complex.’[1] Some of the thinkers of this current note that resistance to westernization has stiffened in the Arab world as a response to the attempts of the West to market its culture there.

They ask us to give a reply to the difficult question: “How can we Arabs bring our societies to an objective attitude, one based on self-confidence, on connection with ourselves and on a sense of equality, and far removed from knee-jerk reactions?”

What makes the Arabs specialists in the Khwaja complex?

But we can ask another series of questions: What is the reason for this Khwaja complex, for this turbulent attitude to westernization? This dazzlement at the West that occurs among and clothes only the Arabs, as opposed to any other eastern people such as the Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Indians and such like, that is, those who have also drunk from western culture and western progress?

Why have the Westerners succeeded in marketing and selling this dazzlement in the Arab house alone, rather than in other houses in the eastern precinct? Why did Almighty God mark out the Arab nation for this dazzlement specialism, and complicate it with this Khwaja complex, as opposed to any other nations on the earth who have drawn from European culture what they found useful and omitted what was superfluous to needs, and took from western progress that which they considered appropriate, leaving aside what was not right for them? And did the West actually target the Arab nation (as opposed to any other nation that took from it or contributed to it and cross-fertilized with it) to spread its culture among it, or actually expend such continuous effort so that it becomes dazzled by it? And how is it that an ignoramus can be dazzled in any case by any artistic, cultural or scientific influence without his first being aware of and au fait with its dazzling influences?

Is our dazzlement with the West the dazzlement of ignoramuses or that of educated men?

Fascination is the basis of science and of knowledge of things; so are we at the level required in science and knowledge actually to experience this great fascination with the West, as the Islamist intellectual current says we are? Is our dazzlement with the West the dazzlement of ignoramuses or that of educated men? If dazzlement at the West is the property of educated men, then there is our solution right there, since we are not educated men at all; and if it is as ignoramuses (as I believe it is) then what is the use of the West trying to employ all the modern tools of imperialism to bedazzle us, as the Islamists make out?

The way I see it, we are actually the least among eastern peoples to be influenced by western culture, but the most to take the outer shell of western culture and ignore its roots. We are not bedazzled by this culture so much as other eastern nations are, since bedazzlement by something depends on the level of greatness or smallness vis-à-vis the target culture, and on the comprehension and consciousness of it. Western thought can only influence Arab thought according to how much Arab thought is capable of comprehending the former. But the level of the Arab thinker is akin to a student who has yet to finish preparatory school and has found himself placed in a top western university for the purpose of deriving instruction from it. Is he going to be able to prosper in these universities? We can therefore see that the defect does not come from the ‘imported’ thoughts, as some see it, but from defects in the inability of the Arab soil to provide conditions for the Nahda, for modern culture. And are we really ready for democracy, or secularism or globalization or any other aspect of modern culture?

A rupture with the 'Other' or a rupture within ourselves?

The Islamist current calls for us not to have recourse to the West and its cultural achievements but rather to build up our culture from within. They say: “We must be very careful about borrowing from foreign examples and cultural products and always taking as a starting point for our internal cultural makeup the search for enlightenment from foreign experience.” They say this despite the clear internal contradictions and the patent falsification that this involves. It is, in other words, the same call made at the end of the 10th century for a cultural rupture with the West, a call which has been dominating the Arab world for more than ten centuries, ever since the end of the reign of Caliph al-Ma’mun.

But actually such a call does not mean an external cultural and civilizational rupture with the ‘Other’ so much as a deeply internal rupture with ourselves, with our own heritage. This is because we only know ourselves via that ‘Other’; for what we know of our culture and history deriving from the works of Orientalists – sincere or otherwise – is many times more than what we know from ourselves and our own scholars. The ‘Other’ knows about us much more than we know about him.

"The study of Western society is almost non-existent in the Arab world"

On this, Ghassan Salama writes: “What is really intriguing is the laughableness of Arab Occidentalism compared to western Orientalism. The study of western society and thought among Arabs and the epistemological principles and values for science that the West embraces is almost non-existent in the Arab world”. Similarly the Islamist current considers that the level of contact made between Islam and the West (in the teeth of opposition from Muslims) in the 19th and 20th centuries is “a unique experiment between western thought and Arab society.” And it thus encourages this contact on the grounds of ‘openness’ and to dispel the accusation of “excessive warning against foreign models and cultural products” which it had called for only just before. But this is not so that we can understand ourselves in a better, deeper, more intellectual way; rather it is so that we can launch raids on western culture (and we are a nation of raiders) and aim our shafts of criticism against it, and isolate out its points of strength and weakness.

We should note that this current [of thought] is making the assumption that the Arab nation possesses the ability to make that isolation, what we may term ‘cultural fiqh’, or the ability to make these discernments. All this in view of the fact that we are not concerned by weaknesses in this culture – if they exist – so much as concerned about its strengths, for which we wish our nation to be equal to: that is, the power of science and the strength of the intellect. As for strength of faith, well, we have enough of that in stock to supply all mankind, or even more.

 


[1] Cultural inferiority vis-à-vis the Westerner. From the Egyptian colloquial term khwāja (‘European’ - from the Turkish hoca ’man of distinction, ‘teacher, ‘master’). (Ed.)