“The Arab world’s passage from progressive secularism to conservative religiosity in the last fifty years is illuminated by the work of Egypt’s greatest writer.”
Tarek Osman in openDemocracy.net:
The death on 30 August 2006 of the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz – the sole Arab writer to receive the Nobel prize in literature – was marked around the world, and by many of those unable to read a word of his work in its original language. This universal moment, however, was primarily an Egyptian and Arab one, and for more even than the loss of a great writer. For Naguib Mahfouz’s death is also a symbol of the demise of Arab liberalism. It is a century’s story, and the “Dostoyevsky of Cairo” was the one whose books embodied it.
A century ago, the west was not worryingly eyeing the Arab world, with a fear of suicide-bombers and plane hijackers. It was colonising the Arab world – for a number of reasons: the strategic location, the Suez canal, securing trade routes, access to the Indian subcontinent, protection of minorities, exploitation of economic resources, building empires, civilising the savage Saracens.
In resisting the colonists, the Arabs were broadly divided into two camps: the rejectionists and the integrationists.
The rejectionists were predominately Islamists and Salafis: the group that saw the Arab world’s humiliation and defeat as a consequence of its abandonment of the righteous path prescribed in the Qu’ran and the Prophet Mohammed’s sunna.
The integrationists, on the other side of the intellectual spectrum, saw the Arabs’ defeat as a consequence of their lagging behind in all aspects of modern thinking; they saw a dire need for the integration of western modernity into the traditional Arabic/Islamic culture. As one notable integrationist – Taha Hussein, the legendary Egyptian education minister in the early 20th century – put it: “it’s the enlightenment”.