Ben Abdallah on culture in the contemporary Arab World

Aug. 16, 2010, 12:29 p.m.

Hicham Ben Abdallah of Standford University has published an article in Le Monde Diplomatique, No Picnic: The Dynamics of Culture in the Contemporary Arab World.  Abdallah explores contemporary culture in the Middle East and argues that the artistic and intellectual classes' inability to challenge Islamist norms is detrimental to hopes of democratic development.  Abdallah acknowledges the ways in which Arab mass culture has diversified and liberalized through new forms of media such as satellite and the internet.  But while secular expression does exist, he argues, it is usually presented in a way that is viewed as a diversion from societal norms.

What is important for the salafists, as for the regimes, is that mass profane cultural consumption is lived by social subjects as a distraction—something that is understood as not entirely respectable, and which has no implications for a project of social or political change. What is important is that one shows respect for the salafist norm, even if one does not practice it. Indeed, the regular, inevitable, personal trivial transgressions of the norm, with accompanying frissons of slightly shameful pleasure (understood as diversionary, unserious "entertainments”) only reinforce the social respectability and importance of the public norm itself.

Abdallah goes on to discuss the gradual increased strength of Islamic culture and how regional autocrats have dealt with the threat.  Governments have quietly placated Islamist movements by giving them increased control over cultural affairs in exchange for not challenging their actual power.  Autocrats then use this growing religious influence to sell themselves to secular intellectuals as their only defense against an Islamist state.  Internet culture and international brain-drain, he continues, lead to an isolation of the region's intellectuals and artists.  All of this has led to a phenomenon where even secular artists do not challenge the religious or state establishments.

Artists and intellectuals do not, as they once did (and still do, in places like Iran and Turkey), form an avant-garde within a movement spearheading social and political as well as cultural changes. They become, rather, a kind of "court" faction, working in spaces protected and tolerated by the state or by powerful and wealthy patrons, both international and indigenous. The figure of the artist with a contestatory message, like Sonallah Ibrahim or Nas El Ghiouan in a previous generation, has largely disappeared. For example, the avant-garde Egyptian painter, Farouk Hosni, is presently minister of culture under President Mubarak. In Syria, in 2008, Hannane Kessab Hassan, translator of often licentious Jean Genêt, was chosen by the Prime Minister of Syria to direct the UNESCO sponsored program on “Damascus, Arab Capital of Culture.” Artists like Wael Chawqi (featured in the Alexandria Biennial) and Hala al-Koussy (winner of the Abraaj Capital Prize from the Gulf), however modern their ideas on culture and society, are not engaged in political contestation.

This separation, he argues, creates separate sub-cultures, which reinforce themselves but do not allow for confrontation.  To truly change this, Abdallah believes secular culture must be more forthcoming in challenging religious and state establishments, and not be content to exists in a separate sphere of life.

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