What Is Enlightenment? Continuity or Rupture in the Wake of the Arab Uprisings

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Mohammed D. Cherkaoui Enlightenment Arab Muslim Islam

What Is Enlightenment? Continuity or Rupture in the Wake of the Arab Uprisings. Mohammed D. Cherkaoui, ed. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2016.


Among the three projects of modernity in conflict with each other – capitalist democracy, communism-socialism, and extremist nationalism – only the first survived into the twenty-first century. Capitalist democracy is today the unrivaled form of modernity in the world and the United States is the leading protagonist of its current version, neoliberal global finance capitalism, populist rumblings notwithstanding. The majority of the roughly 200 nations assembled in the United Nations are officially committed to the four principal pillars of this modernity project – science, technology, capitalism, and democracy – even if some nations resist neoliberalism, pay only lip service to democracy, or are derailed by endemic corruption.

This commitment has puzzled observers. Critical theorists, still intent on subverting the capitalist democratic modernity project in the name of socialism, are beginning to realize that it would be patronizing to decry the aspirations toward modernity in the emerging middle classes of the former colonies. The watershed event for this realization was the Arab Spring of 2011 in which the protagonists – young, urban, tech savvy, underemployed and jobless, secular and believing, male and female, middle class Arabs – demonstrated for “bread, freedom, and social justice” (`ish, hurriyya, wa-‘l-`adala al-ijtim`iyya) without any undertones of Marxism, socialism, or nationalism. Hamid Dabashi, for example, expressly embraced the Arab Spring of 2011 as the end of “postcoloniality,”[1] concluding that the Middle East would now embark on an autonomous path toward “cosmopolitan worldliness, to which Islam is integral but not definitive.”[2] What was once an alien Western modernity which small numbers of religious scholars, intellectuals, professionals, and politicians either rejected or adapted to with varying degrees of enthusiasm has become sufficiently generic to sustain entire middle classes.

The authors of the book under review – mostly political or social scientists with a specialization in the field of conflict resolution – also regard the Arab Spring of 2011 as an epochal event. The editor, Professor Cherkaoui, even wonders in a somewhat fanciful flight of mind whether 2011 might mark the beginning of an “Arab Axial Age” similar to that of 800-200 BCE (ch. 13).[3] For the contributors of the book, the middle class character of the protests – workers and Islamists joined the demonstrations only once they were in progress – is also (as in the case of Hamid Dabashi mentioned above) the central point of departure for their analyses. The contributors are, of course, painfully aware that the Arab Spring did not translate into an easy transition from authoritarianism and crony capitalism to democracy, job creation, and religious tolerance. The only country that made it so far, even if haltingly, to a democratic-Islamic constitution and more or less cohesive coalition governments, is Tunisia. But even there, the democratic order remains fragile in the face of Islamist terrorism and a dismal economic situation.

The book does a good job in providing answers to the two main questions it raises: Why and in which ways the Arab Spring was a middle class phenomenon, and why and in which ways the pre-2011 traditions (authoritarianism and Islamism) reasserted themselves so forcefully, not to say violently, in the MENA countries after the uprisings of 2011. Most chapters, however, do not develop answers to these questions in a very systematic way. The five chapters authored by the editor, Professor Cherkaoui, tend to be rambling, without developing their arguments in a sustained fashion. By contrast, two chapters (by Professors Brian Calfano and John Entelis, respectively) are tightly argued and empirically well-supported studies. But they focus narrowly on the deficiencies of the educational systems of the Maghrib countries which in their judgment impede the democratization process.[4]

Two further chapters (by professors Solon Simmons and Richard Rubenstein, respectively) offer well developed and closely argued theoretical approaches to the power dynamics of the Arab Spring and the following years which have obstructed the democratization process. Simmons sketches the outlines of a “Circle of Power Theory,” according to which “in the wake of the scientific revolution in the 16th century” Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers offered critiques of the abuse of power (p. 259). Thomas Hobbes critiqued the abuse of “Organized Violence,” John Locke the abuse of the “Powers of State and Political System” (sic), Karl Marx the abuse of “Economic Bargaining Power,” and Frantz Fanon the abuse of “Social Representations and Identities” (that is, abuse through racism) (p. 258). Rubenstein identifies Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno as the authors “of the most powerful critique of the Enlightenment produced in the West” (p. 279), in whose view “the Enlightenment’s ideal of individuality” was dialectically perverted “by reason-driven thinking” (p. 291) into the creation of mass society with its indistinguishable, anonymous individuals. By liberating themselves from the (allegedly irrational) myths of metaphysics and religion, the Enlightenment thinkers constructed the new myth of scientism defined by “calculability and utility” (ibid.). Accordingly, today a power dynamic exists in which privileged elites govern mass societies according to the rules of instrumental reason, cost-benefit analysis, rational choice, or the market’s invisible hand.

The authors of this collective volume are to be congratulated for having elevated themselves above present day social sciences enslaved to the scientist myth of instrumental reason. By invoking Kant and his more comprehnsively defined concept of natural-cum-ethic reason they promote him as the critic of the European Enlightenment and, therefore, as a thinker whose major writings are compatible elaborations of the Averroes-descended tradition of reason in the intellectual traditions of the MENA. In short, Kant was not the Eurocentric, which Antonio Gramsci and subsequent postcolonialists attempted to make him into and his critique is entirely adaptable to the non-Western world.[5]

Unfortunately, the authors of the book do not take into account the fact that science constantly evolves. Kant was still a Newtonian for whom nature was an autonomous, mechanical, and deterministic system. He concluded, correctly, that mind, as the source for human freedom and ethics, could not be grounded in nature. As a result of the discovery of quantum mechanics in the 1920s, however, nature can no longer be conceived as being devoid of freedom. On the subatomic level of reality matter and mind are one, and necessity and freedom are indistinguishable. Their unity disintegrates into the duality which Kant formulated as the third antinomy only with the collapse of the quantum state, or wave, into the Newtonian reality. Thus, Kant’s concept of reason has become inadequate for the analysis of reality in its full depth.

Today, reason can no longer be conceived of as mired in categorical opposites, it has to become what might be called “relational reason.”[6] The post-Arab Spring project of modernity, therefore, is best launched with the insight that freedom and determination, reason and faith, the natural and the supernatural, religion and science, and tradition and secularism are relational categories which do not exclude each other. In a more traditional vein, God and the world, time and eternity, earthly and eternal life, good and evil, damnation and salvation, as well as all the other apparent irreconcilables of life cannot but be conceptualized together.

Relational thinking flourishes best, of course, in democracies. Since the social contract-based democracy of autonomous individuals, however, is in itself still a pre-quantum ideological construct with chronic solidarity deficits,[7] some serious relational individualism-communality reasoning needs to be undertaken. Although no longer beholden to narrow contemporary social science approaches the book still has to break through to postantimonian rationality.



[1] Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism (London: Zed Books, 2012), p. 155.

[2] Ibid., p. 250.

[3] In the course of discussing the scholars who contributed to the discussion of the concept of an Axial Age, the chapter author, Mohammad Cherkaoui,  mentions the concept of  “multiple and parallel leaps in being” by Eric Vöegelin (sic), with reference to vol. V of Order and History.

[4] Unfortunately, their accounts do not include the more comprehensive data analyzed by Mansoor Moaddel & Julie de Jong, The Middle Eastern Youth and the Arab Spring: Cross-National Variation and Trends in Values. Research Report 14-828 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Population Studies Center, 2014). For an even more comprehensive data collection on the Arab youth of the Middle East see now the Arab Human Development Report 2016: Youth and the Prospects for Human Development in a Changing Reality (New York: United Nations, 2016).

[5] By misquoting the Categorical Imperative Gramsci turns the purely formal idea of universal law into a time-bound rule of 18th-century hegemonial ethics in the world: “Kant’s maxim ‘act in such a way that your conduct can become a norm for all men in similar conditions’ is less simple and obvious than it appears at first sight. What is meant by ‘similar conditions’?” See Quaderni del carcere, 4 vols. (Turin: G. Einaudi, 1975), XVI:12.

[6] Readers of this review familiar with the work of Eric Voegelin might recognize that the concept of relational reason referred to here is my rendering of his symbol of the in-between. During my visits with Voegelin in Palo Alto we frequently discussed the philosophical consequences of quantum mechanics . We politely agreed to disagree on its significance for coming to terms with modernity. As is well-known, his Munich PhDs (to whom I belong) generally embraced this modernity. On Voegelin’s own changing views on modernity see now Mark Lilla, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction (New York: New York Review, 2016), pp. 25-42. The first contemporary philosopher who engaged in a systematic discussion of the philosophical consequences of quantum mechanics not only for the West but also non-Western civilizations was F.S.C. Northrop, a student of Alfred North Whitehead. See his The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities (New York: Macmillan, 1947) and The Meeting of East and West (New York: Macmillan, 1946). For the need to reconstruct the concept of transcendence in relational thought see Graham Priest, Beyond the Limits of Thought, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002).

[7] Cherkaoui describes the Arab Spring repeatedly (e.g., pp. 8, 68, 88, 89, 104) as “non-ideological.” Since the concepts of the social contract and the autonomous individual, however, are part and parcel of Enlightenment philosophy, which was inspired by the Galileian New Science of mathematized nature and its core concept of matter made up by atoms, one has to conclude that democracy is an ideological concept: The translation of the false natural science concept of atomism into the false political philosophy concept of individuals forming states is an ideological act.


Peter von Sivers

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Peter von Sivers is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Utah. He received his doctorate at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München under the direction of Eric Voegelin. He is author of several works, the latest being (with Charles Desnoyers and George S. Stow) Patterns of World History (Oxford, 2015)