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No Picnic: The Dynamics of Culture in the Contemporary Arab World
Journal Article

Published By

Le Monde Diplomatique

August 2010

An Abstract

All too frequently, students of democracy and democratization view the politics they analyze exclusively through the prism of constitutions, elections, and political actors. In the case of the Middle East, this involves worn out questions of religious fundamentalism, neo-colonialism, entrenched autocracy, the politics of oil and Israel, etc. While all of these are indeed relevant to understanding the perseverance of authoritarian political structures, it is equally crucial to understand the dynamics of culture, and the ways in which forms of cultural expression are developing, and are channeled and managed. In his recent  analysis of the region, Hicham Ben Abdallah points out that, while legal and political authorities certainly define the contours of what is permissible or not, it is the shared system of collective beliefs which in turn shapes the law and politics, and it is in the realm of culture that these shared beliefs are produced and consumed.  The wearing of veil, for example, is not mandated by any legislation outside of Saudi Arabia and Iran, and yet it a growing practice throughout the region, part of an increasingly powerful salafist ideological norm that is at least as powerful as any law.

Contrary to the hastily-borrowed western-paradigm of an inexorable development of secularism leading to an inevitable development of democracy, Ben Abdallah demonstrates the proliferation of cultural practices in which result societies, and individuals, learn to live in a complex mix of parallel and conflicting ideological tendencies -- with the increasing Islamicization of everyday ideology developing alongside the proliferation of de-facto secular forms of cultural production, even as both negotiate for breathing room under the aegis of an authoritarian state. 

He finds any prospects for democratization complicated by parallel tacit alliances.  On the one hand, a modus vivendi between the state and fundamentalists, in which the latter is permitted to Islamicize society, and is sometimes allowed a carefully-delimited participation in state structures, under the condition they restrain from attempting radically to reform the state. On the other hand  intellectuals and artists refrain from frontal assaults on autocratic state structures, subtly limiting their militancy to non-controversial causes, while seeking the state's protection from extremism; their aim is to maintain some protected space of quasi-secular liberalism in the present, which they hope portends the promise of democracy to come.

For its part, the state is learning how to manage and take advantage of a segmented cultural scene by posing as the restraining force against extreme enforcement of the salafist norm, and by channeling forms of modernist cultural expression into established systems  of institutional and patronage rewards (for "high" culture) and into a commercialized process of "festivalization" (for popular culture) that ends up as a celebration of an abstract, de politicized "Arab" identity.

Ben Abdallah refers us to the deep history of Islam, which protected and developed divergent cultural and intellectual influences as the patrimony of mankind. He suggests a new paradigm of cultural and intellectual discourse, inspired by this history while also understanding the necessity for political democratization and cultural modernism. We must, he argues, be unafraid to face the challenges in the tension between the growing influence of a salafist norm and the widespread embrace of new, implicitly secular, cultural practices throughout the Arab world.

Version in English at Le Monde Diplomatique, "The Arab World's Cultural Challenge"

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