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Jan 18, 2005 12:52 pm

Building a Civil Society

So much justly negative criticism has been made of the neoconservative"nation-building" project that some kernels of truth about the need for social change in the Middle East might get drowned out by the loud public debate. Katherine Zoepf, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, focuses on one aspect of that need in her recent article about Syria,"Building a Civil Society Book by Book." Zoepf focuses on the work of one young publisher, Ammar Abdulhamid, who has set out"to translate the works of Western political philosophy into Arabic."

Abdulhamid is"a 38-year-old American-educated historian and novelist," the founder of"DarEmar, a nonprofit publishing house dedicated to making canonical works of Western philosophy, social science, and literature available in Arabic. His goal, he says, is to print books that will foster 'debate on a broad range of issues pertaining to civil society and democratization.'" Zoepf writes:

In most of the world, it has been a couple of centuries since publishing a new edition of John Locke could be considered risky or incendiary. But this is Syria, a Baathist dictatorship with tightly controlled news media and a stagnant publishing industry. Mr. Abdulhamid knows he must be careful. His tiny publishing venture, which is seeking support from foundations and other Western donors, just released its first books this fall. It is being watched hopefully by intellectuals within Syria, although some observers wonder whether ordinary Syrians will be interested in the sometimes esoteric writings of long-dead Western philosophers.

Abdulhamid studied at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point in the early 1990s, and wondered why"so few of the books that are considered cornerstones of the European enlightenment" remain unavailable in Arabic. He mentions such works as The Federalist Papers, as well as the works of Descartes, Hume, Kant, Erasmus, Spinoza, and Locke. Abdulhamid blames"low literacy rates and repressive censorship laws" for keeping"the number of foreign books that find their way into Arabic translation very low." Moroever, there is no"accumulated tradition of Arab scholarship" that is directed outside the Arab world or experience. Abdulhamid argues that this is a major obstacle to the creation in places like Iraq of a Middle Eastern"beacon of freedom":"You're talking about democracy and modernity and bringing all these good things to the Arab world. But we just don't have the basic intellectual foundations," he says.

Zoepf's article focuses on Abdulhamid's efforts to commission"fresh, accessible translations of Western philosophers into Arabic ... making the books available cheaply, accompanied by critical and interpretive essays." But, in Syria, for example, the so-called"Damascus Spring" that flourished briefly after Bashar al-Assad took office in 2000, was ended with the arrest of"pro-democracy" organizers shortly thereafter. And the fact remains that"Syrian newspapers and magazines are monitored by the state, and all books must be vetted by a government panel before publication."

It is no coincidence that"free thought" is having such difficulty getting started in Syria. The Syrian constitution is nationalist-socialist, after all:

The Constitution's economic principles not only set forth a planned socialist economy that should take into account"economic complementarity in the Arab homeland" but also recognize three categories of property. The three kinds are property of the people, including all natural resources, public domains, nationalized enterprises, and establishments created by the state; collective property, such as assets owned by popular and professional organizations; and private property. The Constitution states that the social function of private property shall be subordinated, under law, to the national economy and public interests.

Such subordination effectively destroys the meaning of"private property." Murray Rothbard once pointed out that when government owns or controls printing shops and publishing, there can be no free press. As he writes in For a New Liberty,"since the government must allocate scarce newsprint in some way, the right to a free press of, say, minorities or 'subversive' antisocialists will get short shrift. ... The human right to a free press depends upon the human right of private property in newsprint. ... [T]he human right of a free press is the property right to buy materials and then print leaflets or books and to sell them to those who are willing to buy."

That's why the movement away from authoritarianism in Syria or other such regimes in the Middle East must be simultaneously a movement toward liberalization politically and economically. Striking upon important points of liberal sensibility, my colleague Richard Ebeling has stressed:

In civil society there is no longer a single focal point in the social order, as in the politicized society in which the state designs, directs and imposes an agenda to which all must conform and within which all are confined. Rather, in civil society there are as many focal points as individuals, who all design, shape and direct their own lives, guided by their own interests, ideals and passions.

Mr. Abdulhamid, in his own small way, is attempting just that kind of shift in focal point. Perhaps his published translations of John Locke will be just a beginning; perhaps he might consider translating the works of Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Murray Rothbard, and Ayn Rand too.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

I can't argue with any of that--so I won't!

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

I don't have anything to add, but just wanted to acknowledge having read and pondered this stuff--very interesting.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

This is not quite on topic (i.e., Arabic translations of classical liberal texts), but I recently located an unauthorized Farsi translation of Ayn Rand's "The Virtue of Selfishness," translated in Tehran in the 1990s. There's a copy at Princeton University's Firestone Library Annex A. This isn't as bizarre as it perhaps sounds, since Rand's egoism actually has some resonance with themes in Persian and Urdu Sufi thought.

The translator translated "Virtue of Selfishness" as "Fazilat-e-Khudparasti." I don't know Farsi except insofar as it resembles Urdu, but the title strikes me as misleading: in Urdu, "khudparasti" would mean "self-worship," which is not what Rand had in mind by "selfishness." I would have thought that a better translation would have been "khudi," which means "selfishness" in precisely the sense that Rand meant.

A couple of years ago, my friend Anurag Wadera got me acquainted with the Punjabi (Indian) poet Amrita Pritam, who has translated bits of The Fountainhead into Punjabi. The "translations" are actually just excerpts of the novel quoted in an essay of Pritam's on romantic love; she draws on Rand to comment on and agree with her. Unfortunately, I've forgotten the exact reference.

I haven't heard much about Rand's political writings being translated into any South Asian or Middle Eastern language, but I suspect that (Atlas Shrugged aside) it would have limited appeal, if only because what she says is so Americo-centric. Would also be tougher to get past the censors.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Of course it's possible. Turkey is a majority Muslim country, and they've had an essentially secular regime (give or take) since Ataturk. The North African countries may be authoritarian, but many of them are politically on the secular side (Morocco, Tunisia). The Gulf Arab countries are moving toward secularism (think UAE). Pakistan was at one time (under Bhutto) secular, and three of its major political parties (PPP, MQM, and PML-Q) are secular. (Corrupt and authoritarian--but secular.)
If you put aside the lunatic "freedom fighters," Kashmiri politics is essentially secular. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism is a relatively recent phenomenon. There's no reason to act as though it were a permanent feature of the landscape.

Islamic theology may not allow for a religion-state distinction, but the distinction is not entirely "Western" in origin. There has been a de facto distinction between religion and state since the Ummayyad dynasty in Islamic history and a stronger one under the Abbasid dynasty. All of the major achievements of the "Islamic" world took place under regimes that observed a rough de facto distinction between religion and state.

Gay rights may take a while, but secularism is not an alien concept.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

On secularism: exactly.

On gay rights, I'm just not sure. It's interesting that in one of his novels (I don't remember which one) the Egyptian novelist Neguib Mahfouz has one of his characters engage in an adulterous gay affair. His wife grudgingly puts up with it and there is a certain degree of scandal, but there's no suggestion that it is a legal issue. (Some of the scandal comes from the fact that he's committing adultery.) Caveats: the novel depicts Cairo several decades ago, and I don't even know what stock we can put in a fictional depiction. So I'm back to my confession of ignorance.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 1/20/2005

Irfan, I think you put your finger on something very important both here and in the other thread on Rand, where you talk about her "Americo-centric" thrust. If genuine freedom is to have any future, it will only be because it finds a way to be relevant to given cultural and historical conditions---as it has in the past.

Unfortunately, the secular separation (de facto or de jure) of religion and state is not something that the fanatical Islamic fundamentalists seek. But if it is possible to affect that kind of separation, as you suggest, within an Islamic context, then it is also possible for Islamic-dominated countries to start thinking and generating a distinct form of liberal politics.

Classical liberals, for eons, have been speaking of the universality of their creed. But universality does not mean that only one "model" is acceptable; if the West is waiting for that one "model" to be accepted, followed, and practiced, that day may never come. It is not a paradox to say that the success of a universal political principle, such as freedom, depends greatly on its adaptability to contexts that exist in a particular time and place. Bringing "Western" liberal thought into engagement with the Islamic world is a necessary step, therefore, but it's only a first step.

Kenneth R Gregg - 1/20/2005

Oh yes,
Dean Ahmad's "Islam and the Discovery of Freedom" (Amana Publications, 1997) is an update of Rose Wilder Lane's libertarian classic, "Discovery of Freedom," with annotations by Dean Ahmad of the Minaret of Freedom. It's quite a good read, and I found Ahmad's comments strengthen some of the exagerations by Lane. I don't believe that it is available in arabic, but is a book that I would heartily recommend be translated into arabic (which Dean has probably considered).

Lane felt a strong connection (which may have been familial--Bob LeFevre once mentioned to me that he believed her predecessors were closet moslems) to the moslem world and had a second home in Albania. She truly loved living there.

Just a thought.
Just Ken

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 1/19/2005

Just wanted to thank everybody for the comments here, which I've read with much interest.

I've been buried in preparation of the final page proofs for the Spring issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, so you'll excuse my tardiness. I'm sure I'll have more to say on this whole subject soon enough.

Jason Pappas - 1/19/2005

The question remain but in a different form. When an Islamic country becomes secular is it still Islamic or Islamic in name only? How essential is the alignment of government and Islam? Can Islam proper be a mere personal religion?

William Marina - 1/19/2005

Several comments on the above comments;
On Jefferson & other Founders on Slavery see, N. Weyl & W. Marina, American Statesmen on Slavery & the Negro (1971). Madison & Monroe chose to free their Blacks upon their own demise, Jefferson did not, but he talked alot.
The Enlightenment drew on a number of Asian sources, not only Ibn Khaldun, but especially the Chinese writings brought back by the Jesuits.
As HG Creel noted many years ago, Jefferson's ideas on Education were much influenced by those of Confucius.
The Enlightenment thinkers were fighting Feudalism & Monarchy; they only later, as in Voltaire's case, came to realize the evils of bureaucracy, what Tocquevilleeven later called, "the Chinese System."
I suspect on Rome, Empire & Republics, the greatest influence on our Founders was Montesquieiu's, Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline.
Bill Marina

Aeon J. Skoble - 1/19/2005

"I realize that it is common for most libertarians to look at Jefferson as the creator of the polestar of liberty"
Um, certainly not among academic libertarians. I think we all know that the philosophical part of the Declaration comes straight out of Locke. OTOH, Jefferson still gets big props for (a) eloquent expression and summary of Lockean principles for a mass audience and (b) being a major player in the Independence movement, risking his life to help the revolution. Could he have had more moral courage in trying to free his slaves? Undoubetdly. But let's not ignore the fact that he tried to. The first draft of the Declaration had an anti-slavery clause, which the Southern delegates caused to be removed. He came to see slavery as a moral evil, but found himself unable to free them. That's lame, but it doesn't make him Simon Legree.

Kenneth R Gregg - 1/18/2005


It seems to me that I recall C.F. Volney's "Les Ruines; ou, Méditation sur les révolutions des empires" (usually translated as "Ruins of Empires",1791) was translated into Arabic. It may have been his "Voyage en Syrie et en Égypte" ("Travels in Syria and Egypt", 1787) or one of his works on Arabic that I recall.

Volney is a fascinating multi-lingual, world-traveling writer, and his radical libertarian "Ruins of Empires" certainly reflects a greater world-view than his American friend, Jefferson.

In a visit with Jefferson at Monticello in 1796, they "went to see the slaves plant peas. Their bodies dirt brown rather than black, their dirty rags, their miserable hideous half-nakedness, the haggard figures, this secretive anxious air, the hateful timorous looks, altogether seized me with an initial sentiment of terror and sadness that I ought to hide my face from. Their indolence in turning up the ground with the hoe was extreme. The master took a whip to frighten them, and soon ensued a comic scene. Placed in the middle of the gang, he agitated, he grumbled, he menaced, and turned far and wide (on all sides) turning around. Now, as he turned his face, one by one, the blacks changed attitude: those whom he looked at directly worked the best, those whom he half-saw worked least, and those he didn't see at all, cased working altogether; and if he made an about-face, the hoe was raised to view, but otherwise slept behind his back." (in Jean Gaulmier's "Volney. un grand témoin de la révolution et de l'empire" Paris: Hauchette, 1959. p. 21)

I realize that it is common for most libertarians to look at Jefferson as the creator of the polestar of liberty, but he was a flawed character who often could not see what was right in front of him, even at his own residence. I tend to look at him as a middle of the road leader of his own movement, with many far more libertarian than he, and many less so. I like the more hard-core.

Just a thought.
Just Ken

M.D. Fulwiler - 1/18/2005

Thanks for your comments, Irfan. I suppose the key here is "de facto" seperation of church and state. After all, England has an "official" state religion, but de facto freedom of religion and government secularism.

And my understanding about homosexuality in Islamic countries is that, while it is officially always prohibited and the official penalties are not nice, generally the laws require such a high standard of proof (more than one witness and stuff like that) that any active homosexuals are unlikely to get into legal trouble with a certain amount of discretion.

M.D. Fulwiler - 1/18/2005

Is it really possible to have what we would call a truly "civil society" in a majority Islamic country? Western concepts like seperation of church and state and gay rights just don't seem like they will ever be popular in Iraq or Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, bad as a place like Saudi Arabia is, Islamic law does generally put ~some~ significant limitations on the state. The Saudi theocracy is limited to doing "Allah's will" and has much more limited power than, say, Stalin's government.