Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Is there such a thing as a Gulf public intellectual?

At the Fikr 10 conference in Dubai this morning I had an extensive pre-panel conversation with Dr Fayez Al Shehri, a Saudi writer and researcher on new media (tweets as @Fayez_Alshehri) who told me: "There's no such thing as a public intellectual in the Gulf, only 'Public Intellectual works in progress' or in Arabic مشروع مثقف." Dr Fayez remarked that in the region as soon as a public intellectual makes a name for himself or herself then they are immediately either called in to be absorbed by the regime or sidelined and silenced.

I am particularly interested in this issue having written about the intimidation that public intellectuals in the Gulf face in The National in December 2010. Here's a link to the full article. In it I argued that Gulf intellectuals must be honoured rather than being persecuted.

The value to society of these lawyers, scholars, columnists and professors stems from the fact that they have an independent critical thinking process. Independent public intellectuals provide a much needed critique of society as well as of government plans and expenditures. Public intellectuals reflect the conscience of society and should not be regarded as a threat, but as part and parcel of the community.

I use the example of the late Arab American intellectual giant Edward Said and ask at the very end of the article: "Finally, Gulf leaders should ponder the following: was Edward Said a threat or an asset?"

I must say that I can think of very few truly independent public intellectuals that are free to write and express themselves as they wish in the Arab Gulf States. Every Gulf state has intimidated through publishing bans and have gone as far as detaining public intellectuals who veer off the acceptable track. Recently, Saudi Arabia's Arab News paper published a courageous Op Ed by attorney Dr. Khalid Alnowaiser in which he argued against the introduction of a draconian new "Anti-Terrorism Law" that will most likely also be used to silence critics of government policies. Dr Alnowaiser illustrated the dilemma that Gulf public intellectuals face: how to publish a critical article inside a Gulf country without stepping on the feet of the official in question. Simple answer is to flatter the organisation that this individual heads, in the case of Saudi anti-terror efforts, the person in question is new Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz. Dr Al Nowaiser says: "Our government has succeeded particularly due to the wonderful efforts of the Ministry of Interior..". The Saudi Interior Ministry can perhaps be described with a variety of "safe" adjectives such as efficient, relentless and uncompromising, I would probably avoid using the word "wonderful" to describe it.

In response to my tweet: "As @kalnowaiser illustrates in this brave article, criticism in Gulf Op Eds must be tempered by flattery" the prominent Emirati columnist Mishaal Al Gergawi tweeted: "We all learned that lesson at some point, some harder than others." I am sure many Gulf intellectuals can relate to that.

Which brings me back to Fayez Al Shehri's point: There's no such thing as a "Gulf Public Intellectual" only "Public Intellectual works in progress"


Anonymous said...

I think there's more to it than a government's intervention, at least here in Qatar. We're a community where a person's words and actions are broadcast by word of mouth. Do something to shake (or even nudge) the norm and you're automatically an outcast. While a few are willing to take the risk, it becomes more difficult because your family deals with the consequences by sheer association.

Our current concern with image (of a person, family, society) and how it falsely translates to the outside world that we’re on the “right path” plays a large part in the lack of public intellectuals. Most believe that questioning anything shows imperfection, and we’re a society that generally frowns on such behavior.

While a government could open the doors for public intellectuals, the community might still execute. At the same time, I’m fully aware that a community wouldn’t be able to do so without the support of its government. We are in need of a change in that mindset. I wish I had an answer as to how.

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