Culture and Immanence: Why Are the Arabs Not Free Revisited

Should Moustapha Safouan’s controversial thesis in Why Are the Arabs Not Free? be discarded following the Arab Spring? Safouan, son to a famous Egyptian communist, and trained by none other than Jacques Lacan, was an Egyptian psychoanalyst who’s 40 year side-project was to pen a series of essays calling for reform in Arab political culture. His thesis is simple. Arab rulers have refused to give the people writing in their mother tongue and kept classical Arabic as an elite language, and this separation has prevented an active cultural blossoming that might lead to the overthrow of the transcendent status that has traditionally been accorded to Arab rulers. Safouan frames his essays through a reading of a 16th century political tract by Étienne de La Boétie called the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. Lew Rockwell summarizes La Boétie’s political philosophy as follows:

“The great mystery of politics was obedience to rulers. Why in the world do people agree to be looted and otherwise oppressed by government overlords? It is not just fear, Boétie explains in “The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude,” for our consent is required. And that consent can be non-violently withdrawn.”

Safouan’s overarching idea is that when the people can create books, poems, letters, and plays in their own language, i.e. when the people develop an autonomous culture they are able to develop a new relation to the transcendent power of the sovereign. In the case of the Arab world, this includes the dictator. In Safouan’s home country of Egypt, the retaining of classical Arabic in the hands of the elites has created a wedge that separates the common folk, which not only exacerbates class divisions and poverty, but also presents a certain lack of collective political mobilization, but this is unclear. In other words, what seems to be lacking in Safouan’s analysis is a certain logic of change. Instead, we find Safouan dedicating the body of the text to an analysis of how Europe developed a break from Greek and Latin, and a steady, albeit grueling, revolutionary process to give “the people” grammar and language in their mother tongue.

In the Hollywood blockbuster, The Book of Eli, the post-apocalyptic society faces rampant anarchy and the only way in which order might be retained is through the transcendent source of “The Book” to set the One of political life. Safoun’s idea of how society is naturally structured is similar. The task, for Safouan, is to dethrone the power of the One from its transcendental lawgiver status, by bringing it back into relation with the Hegelian master-slave dialectic, and bringing the monarch to the same level of sovereignty as the people. In Islamic history, it was the Ottomans who put the Mufti in the hands of temporal power and created an administrative apparatus. Yet the monarch, in the context of Islamic culture, remains outside of master slave relations; he is a third term that commands absolute submission.

“It is the fact of putting the One in the place of the transcendent lawgiver, or considering him as its representative, that makes a wolf out of a man” (92).

Yet monarchs can only maintain authority as long as their rule is held as an object of faith and not an object of thought in an Islamic state. It is false to talk of any duality of powers between temporal and divine in an Islamic setting, because there is no command in the Qur’an to follow those in office, or even in political control. In fact, there is nothing the Qur’an concerning the principle of government. It was Muwawiya who set the banks into God’s hands, and ushered in what Safouan refers to as “the fraud of the Islamic state”. As expected, Safouan argues that a reform of itjihad that is able to separate religion into a sphere that is completely allegorical and not literal is what is required. This radical secular position can occur for Safouan through a new relation to the concept of faith.

“Faith is judged according to the heart’s purity as it manifests itself in ‘interpretation’ and not in conformity to a truth that such and such an authority mendaciously claims to share with God.” (89).


Since 9/11, the west has been fixated on the need for a reforming “Martin Luther of Islam”, even though this call has been both confused and condescending. Safouan’s thesis offers a fresh perspective on reform. While not negating Islam, he seeks to develop a culture running along side it. Many Arab intellectuals have argued that Safouan’s privileging of classical Arabic as an elite and esoteric language is exaggerated, pointing to examples such as Egyptian poet Adonis’ great work “The Book”, a tract about challenging monarchial power. But for Safouan, even Adonis’ translations into classical Arabic have failed to expose the nuance of the language and have ended up contributing to a confinement of the thinking process (65).

To live out his ideas, Safouan had translated Othello into Egyptian Arabic to show that as a language, Arabic has all of the elements that enable it to be a language for the dissemination and the production of creative literature. Safouan’s thesis, when reflected onto the European historical experience makes a great deal of sense. Just imagine if Latin remained the language of literature and learning. A further entrenchment of class war would most definitely ensue.

For Europe, the introduction of literature to the people started with the emergence of guilds. This entirely new class of budding merchants enabled a rivalry of power with the monarch. The corporation, which preceded and ultimately led to the creation of the university system is what ultimately challenged the transcendent lawgiver status of the monarch. Medieval European philosophers were divided over whether divine authority should be based on the spiritual or the temporal, but they agreed that it must be based on one celestial authority (18). When sovereignty was linked to the office that the King occupies, the people were born. The process of Nicholas of Cusa used Aristotle’s theory of government to argue that as long as the ruler was able to accept the people’s part as included into the common will of the people. The ruler thus can no longer stand as a father in relation to the people (21).

In addition to these systemic changes, it was Martin Luther’s translation of the Holy Scripture from Latin into German that resulted in the most potent development of freedom. By extension, the role of an Arab/Islamic Martin Luther is to do the same for Arabic. Martin Luther’s translation resulted in the gradual development of a grammatical German that was accessible to the people, and we might add gave birth to great figures of thought such as Goethe, Hölderlin and Nietzsche, who would not have come to fruition had this translation not taken place.

In order for “the people” to emerge, as we learn from Europe, the ruler can no longer stand as a father in relation to the people. Here we run up against the Arab Spring’s achievement and a series of challenges to Safouan’s thesis. Even though La Boétie’s position on liberty is universal regardless of the extent of oppression the ruler imposes, the people will always demand, “liberty or death!” Safouan’s argument, at the same time should not simply be read as one the Arabs are incapable of overthrowing the transcendent status of the lawgiver (dictator) but that there must occur a shift from the transcendent status of the monarch to one of immanence. The figure who achieves this in the west is of course Spinoza, whom Kant referred to as “the Christ of philosophy” – by naturalizing the transcendent realm; Spinoza brought finitude into a new relation towards power. The immanent status of the Lawgiver (dictator) becomes sovereign and simultaneously “the people” develop a level of sovereignty as a result. The duty for the intellectual in Safouan’s universe is to allow the people to use their own language and to make their own language, not merely to speak truth to power. Political change, for Safouan, is contingent a priori on the invention of a culture that is distinct from the elite’s hegemony, and this is a process which has been ongoing, and it is one that will, despite Safouan’s argument divert in unique ways from how Europe developed a culture of the people.

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