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When Daesh is Defeated: Who Will Fill the Intellectual Vacuum in the Arab World?

Back in the Middle East for a few months, I find myself astounded by the absence of the strong voices of Arab intellectuals.

The region that has given rise to the likes of Michel Aflaq, George Habash, Rached al-Ghannouchi, Edward Said and numerous others has marginalized its intellectuals.

Arab visionaries have either been coopted by the exuberant funds allocated to sectarian propaganda, been silenced by fear of retribution, or are simply unable to articulate a collective vision that transcends their sects, religions or whatever political tribe they belong to.

This void created by the absence of Arab intellectuals (reduced to talking heads with few original ideas, and engaged in useless TV ‘debates’) has been filled by extremist voices tirelessly advocating a genocidal future for everyone.

It is no secret that Arabs and Muslims are by far the greatest victims of extremism.

Strange as this may sound, religious scholars seem more united in countering the voices that hijacked religion to promote their dark political agendas.

Yet despite repeated initiatives, cries of Muslim scholars who represent majority of Muslims worldwide have garnered little media attention.

For example, in June 2016, nearly 100,000 Muslim clerics in Bangladesh signed a religious decree (Fatwa) condemning the militant group, Daesh.

Such Fatwas are quite common, and many thousands of Arab Muslim scholars have done the same.

Although hardly popular among Muslims in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the rest of the world, somehow Daesh came to define Islam and all Muslims in the eyes of the West.

The debate in Western media and among academics remains futile, yet pervasive – while the Islamophobes are eager to reduce Islam to Daesh, others insist on conspiracy theories regarding the origins of the group.

Much time is wasted in this demoralizing discussion.

The roots of extremism cannot be found in a religion that is credited with uplifting Europe from its Dark Ages to an era of rational philosophy and the ascendency of science.

Thanks to Muslim scientists during the Islamic Golden Age, Alchemy, mathematics, philosophy, physics and even agricultural methods were passed from the Arabs – Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Persian scholars – to medieval Europe beginning as early as the 12th Century and lasting for hundreds of years.

The developed Arab Muslim city states in Al-Andalus, Spain, was a major gate through which Muslim knowledge gushed into western Europe, affecting a continent then sustained by endless wars and superstitions.

Fortunes had indeed turned with the fall of Granada in 1492. Massacres of Arabs and Jews in Spain ensued, extending for hundreds of years. It was then that many Jews sought a safe haven in the Arab world, continuing a period of relatively peaceful co-existence that remained in place until the mid-20th Century.

While times had changed, the essence of Islam as a religion remained intact.

In the hands of scholars and intellectuals, Islam influenced much of the world. In the hands of Daesh ‘scholars’, Islam has become exploited, offering bloody fatwas and humiliating and enslaving women.

Islam has certainly not changed, but the ‘intellectual’ has.

Most of the answers we continue to seek about Daesh often yields little meaning simply because the questions are situated in American-Western priorities.

We insist on discussing Daesh as a question of Western security, and refuse to contextualize the emergence of Daesh in US-Western interventions in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen.

It seems that extremists (whether Daesh, al-Qaeda or others) are almost always linked to Western military ‘areas of operations’ in the Middle East. Extremism thrives in places in which strong central powers are lacking or have no political legitimacy and popular support, leaving the door wide-open for foreign interventionists.

Yemen had no strong central power for many years, neither did Somalia, nor recently, Libya and Mali. It was no surprise that these places are dual victims of extremists and interventionists.

Foreign interventionists often cite ‘fighting extremism’ to further justify their meddling in other countries’ affairs, thus empowering extremists, who use interventions to acquire more recruits, funds and self-validation.

It is a vicious cycle that has occupied the Middle East since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

That relationship – between foreign interventions, ensued chaos, and extremism – is often missing in Western media discourses.

But here in the Arab world the challenge is somewhat different.

In recent years, the ‘marketplace of ideas’ has shrunk to the point that what remains is an alternative marketplace in which the ‘intellectual’ is bought and sold for a negotiable price.

It is quite common that an editor of a newspaper can use his publication to serve as a mouthpiece for a Middle Eastern party, before he changes his loyalty to other competing parties.

It all depends on who pays more.

Many once-promising intellectuals are now victims too, acting as mere mouthpieces.

There were times in which Arab intellectuals fought to articulate a unique narrative – a combination of nationalist, socialist and Islamic ideologies that had tremendous impact on the Arab individual and collective.

Even if the offshoots were sometimes populist movements centered around an individual, or a ruling party, the Arab intellectual movement that emerged during the anticolonial and postcolonial struggles remained relevant, vibrant and massively consequential.

The setback following the upheaval of the 2011 revolts, uprisings and civil wars, has led to massive polarization. Many Arab intellectuals fled to the West, were imprisoned or opted to remain silent.

Pseudo-intellectuals, however, were readily co-opted, selling their allegiances to the highest bidder.

This intellectual vacuum allowed the likes of Daesh, al-Qaeda and others to fill the space with their agendas.

True, their agendas are dark and horrific, yet they are rational outcomes at a time when Arab societies subsist in despair, when foreign interventions are afoot, and when no homegrown intellectual movement is available to offer Arab nations a roadmap towards a future free from tyranny and foreign occupation.

Even when Daesh is defeated on the ground, its ideology will not disappear; it will simply mutate, for Daesh is itself a mutation of various other extremist ideologies.

Neither the Westernized Arab intellectual, nor the co-opted local one is capable of filling the empty space at the moment, leaving room for more chaos that can only by filled by opportunistic extremism.

This is not a discussion that can be instigated by Western universities or state-sponsored Arab media for these platforms will impose a self-serving narrative doomed to prejudice the outcomes.

It is fundamentally an Arab discussion that must be generated by free Arab thinkers – Muslim and Christians alike. It is the birth of that movement that will begin to imagine an alternative future for the region.

Seemingly wishful thinking? I think not. Without such intellectual renaissance, the Arabs will remain hostage to two choices: to remain lackeys to Western powers or hostage to self-serving regimes.

And both options are not options at all.

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Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, UCSB.

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