Elaph Web-site Interview with Tarek Heggy.
Conducted by Sabry Khalil.
Posted by Elaph on 5th April, 2004
I would like to start with an overview of your background and upbringing, your professional life, your cultural formation, the people who have influenced you, and the factors behind your impressive store of knowledge and culture and your proficiency in both classical Arabic and the English language?
I was born into the Egyptian upper-middle class, in 1950, in the hometown of both my parents, Port Said . Both my father and my mother were lucky enough to be highly educated, intellectual people who had been widely exposed to Western culture and civilization. My father was a well-known petroleum engineer in one of the well-known international oil companies in California in the Forties of the last century, while my mother was an avid reader of world literature. It was thanks to her that in the 1960's I moved quickly and smoothly from reading children's books to savoring the delights of the works of Tewfik Al Hakim and Naguib Mahfouz, and through her that I came later on to love the works of Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Hemmingway and Arthur Miller.
I studied Law followed by Advanced Modern Management in the International Management Institute of Geneva University. I held a number of teaching posts in Law schools outside Egypt from 1971-1979, after which I joined what was the largest Petroleum Company in 1979. This company invested extensively on my training which eventually qualified me to be chosen as a CEO to the company when I was still in my mid-thirties (even though I was Egyptian, with an academic background outside the field of applied sciences, and twenty years younger than my European assistants). I remained in this post for almost ten years, during which I took charge of investments and projects worth billions of dollars.
My thirst for knowledge and intense love of reading have been part of me for as long as I can remember; throughout forty-odd years I have read more than twenty-five thousand books in diverse fields of human knowledge, social sciences and the humanities (i.e. unrelated to applied sciences). I can humbly claim to have read most of the classics of human creativity in the fields of social science and the humanities. I was a fervent admirer of Abbas Al Akkad when I was young; today, while I still admire his character, willpower and determination, his views are light years away from mine. I now find myself closer to the beliefs of Taha Hussein, Salama Moussa, Aly Abdel Razik, Ahmed Loutfy Al Sayed and Hussein Fawzi than to those of Al Akkad.
On a personal level, my father's insistence on nothing less than perfection imbued me with the same quality, leading me to adopt the following slogan when I headed the distinguished petroleum organization: “Excellence is our minimum objective”. My father also instilled in me the principle that “great men” never, ever flatter anyone, or compromise their beliefs, or in any way write or say that which they do not believe in. I refuse to be referred to as a “businessman”, for that is not a correct description; I maintain that people like MacNamara and George Schutlz were great leaders and not “businessmen”, and it is to this class that I belong: I would classify myself as a “professional manager”. As for my accumulation of culture, I owe it to the fact that I have never let a day go by without reading since I was ten years old, and have in fact developed the art of speed reading (which I was trained on), in addition to my ability to carry on reading tirelessly for four or five hours daily. My proficiency in more than a language is largely due to the fact that my father instilled in me a love of these languages from an early age; he also taught me that lectures should be ad-libbed (improvised) and never read out from a written page. Added to this is my passionate love for both Arabic and English poetry, which has enabled me to perfect the two languages at a poet's, rather than a reader's, standard; it would be difficult for me indeed, knowing thousands of poems in both languages by heart, to use other than the most literary, precise and refined terms.
Finally, I would like to point out that I am the product of my family conditions (all of which were favorable to the utmost degree); the circumstances which shaped my acquisition of knowledge; and finally my fortunate experience in being taken on by a giant petroleum organization who believed in me enough to make a huge investment in my training – an opportunity rarely awarded to people from Third World countries. There is, however, a fourth factor that has made me what I am, and that is the fact that I am 100% a son of Port Said : both my parents and their families are from this city, a city that is different from any other Egyptian city in many respects. There is not one feddan of cultivated land in Port Said , meaning that the attributes that characterize the progeny of Egyptian villages are either totally absent or negligible in the inhabitants of this city. Furthermore, until 1961 there were no “civil servants” in Port Said , only merchants (whether on a large, medium or small scale). Therefore, they had none of the characteristics of the typical Egyptian peasant, nor were they bound to the government for their livelihood. They were the offspring of the Suez Canal community and of openness to the outside world, and were unhindered by the innate Egyptian fear of the government and its representatives. Nor could they be “socialists”, for they were born into a world where free enterprise was the rule. Add to that the fact that Port Said was a stronghold of supporters of the Wafd party (99% Wafdist) until 1952, yet another factor that shaped me.
On the occasion of the worldwide concern with women's issues this month, let me ask where you stand with regard to women's issues in the Arab world?
I am amongst those Arab thinkers who call for the absolute inevitability of enhancing the status of women in our societies, and my objective is nothing less than complete equality between men and women. As for the current status of women in the Arab world, I can only say that it is disgraceful, and is the inevitable outcome of reactionary forces coupled with primitive, tribal mindsets marked by isolation from the sources of human creativity. Matters are further exacerbated by the acute lack of self-confidence that marks all men in male-dominated cultures. It is my belief that most political systems are actually afraid of these reactionary forces, whereas it is their duty to stand firm against them with legislation that can enable us to move women's issues to the twenty-first century with its civilized achievements in this domain. We should also stop resorting to the clergy and questioning them about issues that are really not their concern at all. It is deplorable that small countries like Tunisia have taken positive steps in the right direction, whilst others in the region (notably Kuwait ) remain shackled by a pitifully meager, impoverished intellectual environment. I would like to add here what I have said countless times before: a mindset that is unable to comprehend the right, the benefits and indeed the inevitability of total equality between women and men is a mindset incapable of comprehending the rules and mechanisms of progress. I believe that one of my most important contributions in this domain is that, owing to my in-depth study of Islamic jurisprudence, I can always prove that what clerics pronounce as "God-given" or "sacred" invariably turns out be the work of theologians who have themselves admitted that they are merely proposing their own interpretation of religion, not religious ordinances. I was also able to prove in my writings that what is put forth as the verdict of religion on women's issues is nothing but a reflection of the viewpoint of men of negligible intellect and of their own social, economic and cultural backgrounds.
In your opinion, what is the reason behind the absence of the critical mind?
The reasons for the absence of the critical mind in our region today can be traced to the prevailing political tyranny and despotism, and to the fact that top positions, in many cases, are concentrated in the hands of a few incompetent individuals whose intellectual capacities and management skills are mediocre at best. Add to this the insidious proliferation of a reactionary, nomadic, tribal religious culture that pertains more to the Middle Ages than to the twenty-first century. All of these factors can only result in a lack of rationality, meager participation and the prevalence of negativity and of constants and fixed ideas that cannot stand up to the objective criticism that is the cornerstone of reform, progress and true development. Tyranny invariably halts social mobility, resulting in a general state of incompetence that in turn leads to a decline in standards at all levels. Invariably, rational thinking takes a back seat.
Eight centuries ago, Ibn Rushd (Averoess) attempted to revive the role of the mind and emphasize the value of rational thinking, only to be attacked by the Arab community, and ironically, welcomed by France , where he proved instrumental in the defeat of theocracy. It is no wonder that we are regressing so swiftly when a newspaper of wide circulation publishes a weekly article written by an individual with a mind spewed straight from the womb of the Middle Ages whose writings constitute a veritable demolition force against the values of humanity, civilization and progress. This living fossil speaks of a glorious era that is nothing but the product of his over-active imagination; an era that was in fact characterized by excessive bloodshed and wholesale slaughter (which was the prevailing state of affairs all over the world during that period of history).
"The Other" in Arab heritage is traditionally seen as an enemy, hell, the infidel who must be eradicated; while a minority of people in our region see this Other as a savior from the sorry state of affairs in which the Arab world finds itself today. How do you see the Other, and the role of this Other in an Arab renaissance?
Actually, the Other is neither devil nor angel, however the tribal mindset can only see the Other as an enemy who wishes to destroy us and whom we must accordingly fight with the word…and the sword. This is to be expected given the nature of the cultural climate in which such thoughts flourish: a harsh desert climate where tribal values and isolation rule, and danger is seen to lurk behind every sand dune. What we should be doing is engage in a constructive interchange of ideas and discussions, that can only benefit both sides and further the cause of progress and of humanity at large– bearing in mind that the tribal mindset cannot even grasp the meaning of "humanity" in its dealings with the outside world. The Other played a valuable role in our lives during the past two centuries in sundry fields, including the press, the theatre, literature, translation, and thought; and I may safely say that Egypt in particular enjoyed a positive and productive fusion with the Other that bequeathed a heritage of countless works of beauty, refinement and cultural merit. Conversely, isolation has spawned only a decline in aesthetic values – indeed, an ugliness – that is only too obvious. It is my hope that the minorities in Arab countries will serve as a catalyst for the dissemination of progress, civilization, and refinement, steering us onwards towards the modern age, rather than backwards to the Dark Ages as some would have it.
With the "Wahabi petrodollar" and the "Baathi petrodollar" a "petro-thinking" phenomenon has come into being, where culture is now being manipulated to serve the cause of reactionary thinking. How can we extricate ourselves from this crisis?
The answer to this question would require a whole book or more, for it is linked to the biggest flaw in the mindset of most Muslims today. I discussed this subject in a lecture I gave at Oxford University on October 16th, 2002 , entitled "The Future of the Muslim Mind", and for a detailed answer to your question I would refer you to the transcript of this lecture available on my website at www.heggy.org/future.htm. Meanwhile, I will answer your question in brief here and tell you that the Muslim mind has been subjected to a number of different schools of thought, some of them rationally conservative (like Abi Hanifa and others), and others excessively rigid in nature, including the line of thought embraced by Ibn Taymeya and Ibn Quaym Al- Juzeya and on to the Najdi preacher Mohamed Ibn Abdel Wahab to whom we owe the Wahabi creed that showcases the geo-political characteristics of the Najd community rather than anything else; and by this I mean the characteristics of the mindset of scattered nomadic tribes living in isolation amongst the sand dunes of the desert of Najd; a historical and geographical environment that by its very nature can only spew forth the worst kind of bigoted, tribal mindset where overt violence in both thought and behavior is the norm. If we are to speak of the arts, this environment brought forth only poetry – the art of speech – but nothing of music, painting, sculpture, epics or any form of creativity; it is an environment that could only give rise to the rigid, harsh, inhumane and reactionary views of the Wahabi creed. This reactionary wave would have remained of no significance to the Muslim world were it not for the surge of unprecedented petroleum-induced wealth and politics that enabled the Wahabi model to impose its barbaric interpretation of Islam and to infiltrate into Islamic institutions, helped by the concurrent decline in the standards of many moderate Islamic societies as a result of a general state of incompetence. This disastrous combination of Wahabi ideology and petrodollars managed to viciously invade the worlds of education and culture, leaving its ugly, dark imprint on the minds of countless communities. This applies, though to a lesser extent, on Baathist thought: during the reign of the former dictator Saddam Hussein, when the Baathis emulated the Wahabi line of thought and managed to buy themselves a place in many influential quarters, though to a much lesser extent than the nomadic Wahabis and their petrodollars. Meanwhile, the free world committed the unspeakable crime of remaining silent before the onslaught of the Wahabi and Baathis petrodollars, a silence which facilitated and exacerbated the horrendous damage done. The Western "awakening", when it did happen, was political rather than cultural or ideological. A proper cultural awakening on the part of the West is yet to occur.
Our intellectuals are mostly slaves to the petrodollar or the sycophants of rulers and toadies of the powers that be. What is your interpretation of this tragic state of affairs, and what is the reason for the downfall of so many of our intellectuals?
Once again, the answer to this question would require hundreds of pages; however, let me summarize my point of view as I put it forth in my lecture at London University on October 14th, 2003. I stated, and maintain, that I very much doubt where there is actually a class of intelligentsia in the Arabic-speaking world in the general sense of the word. Ever since the Nineteen-Fifties, most Arab governments have carefully cultivated what I term "the official intellectual". This person may be an excellent reader and researcher, but is in most cases no more than a civil servant with none of the independence that is crucial to the creation of a class of free-thinking and effective intelligentsia that is not subservient to the ruling regime and does not revolve around the orbit of governments and systems as is the case in most Arab countries. Let me cite an example: the Syrian and Libyan presidents are human beings – and I am not here to pass judgment on them. I simply ask: how can Assad and Kaddafi belong to the race of human beings when neither the Syrian nor the Libyan media have ever published one single word of criticism against either of them at any time or on any occasion? This criticism could be – indeed, should be – respectful and civilized, certainly, but no criticism at all?! Are they above common human error? Or rather, is it that the intelligentsia in our societies is so-called in name only, and our intellectuals can better be described as employees in the service of an employer? I repeat that I am not judging the characters of Assad or Kaddafi at this point in time, but am simply furnishing the undeniable proof that our "intelligentsia" has all the characteristics of a civil servant rather than those of the true, free intellectual. Some have been lured by Wahabi petrodollars; others by Baathist petrodollars; while the majority has fallen prey to the Law of Attraction of public office. If further proof be needed that the Arab world is practically devoid of free intellectuals, suffice it to say that most of our "intellectuals" voice identical opinions on most subjects, a phenomenon that has nothing to do with culture and can only be described as inhuman.
Enlightened thinkers are our greatest hope. But is there still hope? And what can be done?
Enlightened thought suffered two great setbacks in our history: the first was the victory of the school of copying in the tenth-thirteenth century A.D. over the school of rationality, exemplified by the followers of Aristotle under the brilliant Averoess. The defeat of this school ended centuries of relatively enlightened thought and paved the way for centuries of stagnation, rigidity and stupor. The second disaster was the defeat of the Egyptian school of enlightenment personified by Ahmed Loutfy Al Sayed, Salama Moussa, Taha Hussein, Aly Abdel Razek and Al Akkad (before the withdrawal that accompanied his dismissal from the Wafd). The latest members of this school were Louis Awad, Hussein Fawzi and Zaki Naguib Mahmoud. Egypt in the Nineteen-Twenties was a beacon of culture, a veritable pearl of the Mediterranean that had truly reaped the fruits of the Renaissance. However, the spread of Fascism in the Thirties and the defeat of the Egyptian Liberals led to the fall of the modern school of enlightenment in Egypt before the reactionary and Fascist forces. Nevertheless, I believe that a third school of enlightenment has begun to appear on the scene today and will flourish in the future, even if present-day enlightened thinkers do not live to see this during their lifetime. It is my firm conviction that the battle of progress with reactionary forces can only end in the victory of the former, though as I say, we may not witness this in our lifetimes.
Who is responsible for the backwardness of Arab countries, the tyrannical systems, the people, the West, or the religious heritage that impedes progress?
All four of the factors you have mentioned have contributed to the state if affairs we are witnessing today. Arab political systems are mostly characterized by ineptitude, incompetence, the ready excuse of postponing reform "until the Arab-Israeli conflict is resolved", the appointment of unqualified people to key positions, the inability to comprehend or assimilate the changes that have occurred in the modern world, and the adherence to the outmoded thoughts and beliefs of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. The responsibility of these political systems for the current sorry state of affairs cannot be denied. The people of these countries are also to blame, for the majority either remain silent or join movements that are more akin to a bad historical movie than pertaining to the present age. These people make no move towards constructive participation in shaping their present or their future. Likewise, the West and in particular the United States of America, has taken a peculiar stance towards the Cold War; namely, that anyone who fights communism is an ally, even if these are backward reactionaries who perpetrate countless crimes against their own people. The relationship of the United States with the governments of the so-called Banana Republics in South America is an example that was repeated countless times during the years of the Cold War (1945-1991). Finally, the reactionary religious culture that has spread for reasons I have mentioned earlier on has largely contributed to the degeneration we are witnessing today. Clerics in Saudi Arabia during the mid-Sixties claimed that Islam was capitalism and that socialism was a sin… At the same time, Egyptian clerics were saying that Islam meant socialism, and would endlessly cite the 'socialism' of Omar Ibn El Khattab and Abi Zir Al Ghaffari! This only proved that the whole question of issuing religious edicts or "fatwas" was, to quote Beiram Al Tunsy (the poet and songwriter) more akin to "fatta" (a popular Egyptian dish of rice, bread and meat). To conclude, it is my belief that all the above factors have contributed to the degeneration that we are currently witnessing, and that any reform has to simultaneously comprise all of these elements.
The 'society of knowledge' is an inspiring term that has come to be heard everywhere. Where do we stand from such a society and how can we hope to become part of it?
A society where knowledge prevails is the direct product of an environment of freedom and democracy. There is no way such a society can come into being under autocratic rule, nor can it exist in an environment where there is no distinction between religion and the state. The separation of religion and state in no way denies the importance of religion, it simply recognizes that religion is just that: religion, and that there is no way that clerics should take part in directing matters in society, for if they did, it would be impossible for knowledge to flourish, as most religious men raise formidable barriers to freedom of thought, which of course precludes the possibility of a society of knowledge existing.
How do you see the dilemma of reform in Egypt ?
I greatly fear the consequences of any reform that would be brought about in a revolutionary manner; the outcome in such a case would definitely be disastrous. It is my hope that the Egyptian government itself will embark upon a process of reform and participate in bringing it to fruit. The position of the Egyptian government in this respect is much more favorable than that of a number of other Arab governments; and even if it stands to lose some of its authority in the process it will not be a devastating loss, unlike a certain Arab country whose autocratic system still embraces ideologies that have no place in today's world, as was the case in Iraq a few years ago. The same may be said for a number of patriarchal systems that would have to make considerable sacrifices in the case of a genuine reform. Egyptians should concentrate on issues related to reform rather than on "who proposed what", bearing in mind that for reform to succeed it has to be brought about by those who truly believe in it, not those on whom it is imposed.
Magdi Khalil and a number of Egyptian and Western liberals believe that you have a proposal for an Egyptian renaissance, and a formula, "prescription" as it were, for real progress to take place. It is said that you and a number of other individuals have actually drawn up a project for extricating Egypt from its current predicament. What have you done towards the actual implementation of reform as you see it?
My writings in both Arabic and English, and the hundreds of lectures I have given constitute a comprehensive project for renaissance and progress. I am capable of writing, lecturing, and appearing on television to publicize this proposal in a fair and objective manner that does not involve any personal criticism of individuals, and I am making every effort to persuade all parties concerned of the benefit to Egypt , the region, the West, the USA , and even Israel , of adopting such a proposal. However, I do not possess – nor do I wish to possess – any other means of exerting pressure. I may be qualified to think, write, lecture and enter into discussions with those whose leanings are towards modernity and progress, but I do not have the necessary qualifications for engaging in political work with the general public. My situation here may be likened to that of Ahmed Loutfy Al Sayed, who failed in the parliamentary elections of 1924 because one of his opponents read out to the public the introduction to a book of his which included the translation of one of the famous works of Aristotle (!). It is for this reason that I have refused and continue to refuse many offers, including lately the chairmanship of the New Call society (the core of the Egyptian liberal movement), simply because it would entail extensive dealings with the public and –as Taha Hussein said – I was made not to influence people, but to influence those who influence people. All I want is to write, lecture and think.
Some people criticize your reticence in announcing your proposal for political reform. Why don't you publicize your progressive political opinions in a stronger manner?
On the contrary, I think I am very clear in announcing my views on political reform; however, I am well aware that in a country like Egypt if one wishes to say what one thinks and be able to continue saying it, one has to choose one's words carefully and be pure of expression, without stooping to personal attacks or criticism. Perhaps my extreme distaste for any kind of slander lies behind this. I myself have been exposed to this, and find it futile and distasteful. It is also necessary for a thinker with a constructive and progressive reform project to continue to remain on the scene, and a clash of any kind would make this difficult, in addition to being a waste of energy. If we cite Farag Foda as an example, I appreciate the fact that he was expressing ideas he really believed in; but he was not murdered because of the nature of these ideas themselves, but rather because of his overly aggressive way of confronting his opponents. I do not mean that the latter were in any way justified; in fact those who murdered him, those who ordained his murder, and those who found satisfaction in his death can only be considered as outcasts of humanity, law, civilization and indeed religion itself. The case brings to mind the murder centuries ago of Omar Ibn Al Khattab , and of Ali Ibn Abi Taleb. Add to this that I am not a journalist, and my background in an international economic institution has left me firmly convinced that engaging in raucous arguments does not befit those with a just and logical case. Moreover, if one stoops to attacking others, one must expect to be attacked in return. I was contacted several times by Faisal Al Kassim of Al Jazira channel, who asked me to appear as a guest on his show, and had even chosen the other party in the proposed discussion. My reply was that I would in no way be dragged into the circle of ideological cacophony under any circumstances. Let me comment further on this point: before I reached the age of twenty, I had already read with immense admiration the tragedy of Socrates, who, having championed the cause of the Aristocratic philosophers, was sentenced to death following the victory of the revolutionary party. Plato, his greatest disciple, tells the story of his tragic death with unparalleled admiration and intense sensitivity: Socrates could have escaped death by poison if only he had asked the public for mercy; however, his pride and dignity forbade him to do so. As Will Durante put it, his 'crime' was that he taught people more than they had the capacity to learn, and so it was that in 399 B.C. the tragic scene so aptly described by Plato took place. Socrates, with complete dignity and composure, and without hesitation, drank a cup of hemlock to the dregs, quietly rebuking Apollodoros when the latter, unable to contain himself, burst out crying. Socrates calmly remarked: "What is this noise? I asked that women be removed from this place so that I should feel no shame. Hold your peace; be patient." Socrates died this tragic death not because he was "the best, the wisest and the most just of men" as Plato put it, but because he did not realize that he was born not to influence people, but to influence those who could influence people.
Your talk of the need for caution when entering into discussions in a rowdy environment brings to mind your comment on the words of Taha Hussein. Is there a link between the two?
In 1923, Taha Hussein wrote from Paris comparing the French and Egyptian standards of culture. He recounts how he went to a barber at the Sphinx, and tells us how this simple man was able to discuss every aspect of French politics with him: France 's relations with Germany , with Britain , its involvement with Syria and with Algeria . Taha Hussein goes on to describe the barber's comparison of the respective attitudes of the British and the French towards the colonial question, and recounts his interesting description of the French political system and its various parties. The barber was a socialist in theory; however, he had given up on socialism in practice, as had many of his countrymen. Taha Hussein describes the pleasure he derived from his conversation with this barber, and goes on to recount a similar conversation he had with a maidservant from Marseilles in 1914. He then expresses the wish that Egyptians could be as erudite as that barber from the Sphinx, while admitting that it would be a long time before most of us could hope to achieve the degree of learning and refinement exhibited by a simple man. I myself believe implicitly in every word written by this wonderful man, who is without a doubt one of the greatest intellects in our history. So how could I possibly stoop to engaging in verbal warfare with such "writers" as Ms. S.K., or N.A.? The former uses language that is so abusive that I find myself wondering how she could bring herself to publish it, while the latter, an obscure teacher in one of the colleges of Upper Egypt, has the temerity to describe a thinker who has lectured to the staff of the universities of Oxford, Harvard and Princeton as "uncultured"! I am referring to a teacher of philosophy whom I know for a fact is incapable of reading a single page of Bertrand Russel's writings in the original English; imagine then the attitude of those even less educated than him? These are people whose only means of conducting a discussion or engaging in an academic debate is mindless attack, and unfortunately this uncivilized behavior has become progressively worse over the past ten years, totally lacking in objectivity and in fact descending to hitherto unprecedented levels of offensiveness and slander. I could never expose myself or my writings to such calumny. Just look at how some of the Islamic writers have written about Mohamed Said Al Eshmawy , who is infinitely superior to any of them in intellect and in knowledge, or how Dr. Murad Wahba has been attacked by people who are unfit even to be his students. I can give you numerous further examples, like the attack on Aly Abdel Razek by Galal Kishk (imagine!), and also by Mohamed Omara; Loutfy Gomaa's criticism of Taha Hussein; the many journalists who have attacked Dr. Abdel Rahman Badawi (once again, inconceivable!). In all cases, the "attacker" could not aspire to be more than a pupil in the class of the attacked – if that. Can you imagine that a man like Loutfy Gomaa would actually dare to attack Taha Hussein, the man who translated Aristotle's works and whose knowledge of the literature and thoughts of the Greeks, Romans and French was unsurpassed? It is with a shudder of apprehension that I read what these persons have dared to write about Taha Hussein and Aly Abdel Razek, remembering the ominously true saying: Woe befall the world when ignorant people abound.
You were attacked by a Philosophy teacher at one of the universities of Upper Egypt for stating that you were influenced by both Kant and Hegel? What is your comment on this?
The so-called “teacher” has been confused by the negative aspect in Hegel's character, namely that he has been described by his critics as an “employed thinker” committed to serving the Prussian government, and has thus formed the erroneous opinion that I should restrict my admiration to either Hegel or Kant only, but not both. In actual fact, it is possible to admire certain aspects of both their characters. My admiration for Kant's views on humanity and world peace does not conflict with my belief that the dialectic school founded by Hegel is an important part of the intellectual make-up of any thinker today. Even Karl Marx, who attacked Hegel so virulently, nevertheless espoused this method from both Hegel and Feuerbach (though he took it a step further). The said “teacher” shares this overly simplistic, ideological view with many others of inferior intellect in an age when it is impossible to be both ideological and to make sense. I wonder why a so-called teacher of philosophy should find it so strange that I can find much to appreciate in the ideas of two completely different philosophers? I admire Jean Jacques Rousseau, but follow a school that differs greatly from his, that of Voltaire. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly with Voltaire's comment that Rousseau's rejection of civilization, modernity and science was irritating nonsense, and that life in the civilized world is infinitely better than a primitive, barbaric existence. So what exactly does this “teacher” want? The standardized, uniform way of thinking that has become typical of the Arab mind and constitutes one of the greatest impediments to progress? I repeat, in spite of their intrinsic differences, I admire both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire and have read every single one of their works, and I do not see that this conflicts in any way with the fact that my sympathies are entirely with Voltaire when, in a letter to Rousseau in which he comments on Le Contrat Social (The Social Contract), he bluntly states that "no one else before you has ever tried to turn us into savages". This is the same Voltaire who soundly criticized the Swiss authorities for banning the same book, with the unforgettable words, "I do not agree with one word you have said, but I will defend your right to the free expression of your ideas to the death". And it is the same Voltaire yet again who, when Rousseau was a fugitive, invited the latter to take up residence in his home in Switzerland . So, following these precepts and indeed the same logic, would this "teacher" of philosophy wish me to refrain from admiring Hegel's dialectic because of my ardent admiration of Kant's views on permanent peace?! I recounted the story of this "teacher" in a lecture I gave at Oxford University a few months ago, and received the following comment from an eminent professor of Eastern studies: "This is typical of the Eastern character".
The systems operating in the Arab world today offer their people bitter alternatives: either to drown in the corruption that prevails today, or to face the chaos of the Islamic option or an explosive upheaval. Does the solution lie in foreign intervention? And what do you predict for Egypt ? Do you think the current corruption will continue or are we heading for a dangerous state of anarchy?
Pessimism is an emotional state that is unfounded, if I may express my opinion as a man who firmly believes in the mechanisms of modern management. As a professional manager myself, and also in my capacity as a professional reader of history, I know for certain that there is no problem without a solution. Things in Egypt are certainly not satisfactory, but other countries have suffered worse conditions and have managed to extricate themselves and to implement change and achieve development and considerable progress. I do not see why Egypt should not become a prosperous, strong country, and certainly hope that the future does not hold one of the three scenarios you have outlined (a continuation of corruption, the theocratic alternative, or an explosive upheaval). These three undesirable situations can be avoided with a fair share of self-criticism, of owning up to our shortcomings, and of being willing to introduce radical changes to our way of thinking and our systems in general. As for a process of reform that would be induced by outside pressure, I believe that the outside world can provide us with advice, and that we should listen to this advice with objectivity; however, if this does not induce a desire for change and the initiative to implement it within us, then we might as well give up any hope for reform. As for my expectations concerning Egypt, I firmly believe that the country is capable (and indeed, this is probably what will happen) of taking the first steps towards a peaceful, gentle reform that would pave the way for further, more fast-paced changes that would take us nearer to achieving our objectives.
The Arab world claims that the US war with Iraq is solely because the US wants to acquire Iraq 's petroleum. As a petroleum expert yourself, how do you see this? How true is this allegation?
I will repeat here what I said on a program broadcast by Egyptian television on Channel One, which was watched by millions of Egyptians (with Dr. Abdel Moneim Said). I said that the USA has been in Kuwait for more than ten years and does not own one barrel of Kuwait 's oil or its reserves. And even if we were to imagine, say, that the US would become the sole foreign shareholder in oil production in Iraq and that it would obtain the highest percentage possible for any foreign partner in areas where oil has actually been discovered, it would take twenty years for the US to make enough money to cover the cost of the war in Iraq. Does it make sense to think that the US would spend in two years a sum that it could not hope to recover for two decades? Every single petroleum expert worldwide knows full well that such allegations are completely illogical. However, controlling oil resources is another matter and differs from "stealing petroleum"; in this context, we may speak of the USA 's wish that Iraqi and Arab oil (and indeed that of the Central Asian countries) should remain in the hands of governments that are not enemies of the US . This is another issue altogether and differs completely from saying that " America went into Iraq to steal its oil"!
The crisis faced by Islamic societies has led Bernard Lewis to ask "What Went Wrong?" You yourself have contributed a paper on the future of the Muslim mind. What do you predict for the future of the Muslim mind?
Arab writers and journalists have mounted a massive attack on Bernard Lewis, just as they did with Fukuyama , although to deny the academic weight of Professor Bernard Lewis is humiliating only to whoever does so. However, just as I may recognize the substance of, say, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, I can differ from him in opinion. Similarly, while I firmly believe Bernard Lewis to be a brilliant scholar of Nobel prize-winning caliber, I do not agree with the views stated in his book What Went Wrong? I can distinguish between moderate Islam which was the prevailing, mainstream model and between scattered minorities who unfortunately managed to increase their pernicious influence during the past two centuries until they became the spokespersons for Islam, and succeeded in infiltrating the minds of most Muslims today. The reader might like to refer to the transcript of my lecture at Oxford University on this subject, available on my website at /future.htm. However, this does not in any way justify the vicious attack on a scholar of the substance and caliber of Bernard Lewis. It brings to mind the attacks on Dr. Abdel Rahman Badawi, a man with a store of knowledge that exceeds that of all his detractors put together. In brief: The deplorable decline in standards in most Muslim societies, i.e. the decline in political, economic, educational and media standards, has been accompanied by a simultaneous lowering in the standards of Islamic institutions and preachers, characterized by a general decline in their cultural capacities and in the religious teachings they expound Add to this the proliferation of a dark, primitive, insular and violent form of belief, spewed forth from the geopolitical environment of the arid sand dunes of the desert of Najd. It is my conviction that a successful initiative for renaissance, development and progress will not only raise political, economic and other standards, but will also impact positively on the thoughts and teachings of Islamic institutions. In this context, I would like to remind you of Taha Hussein's derisive words about clerics: "Remember that the religious men who have called themselves 'The Higher Religious Leadership' – a fabrication unknown in Islam – issued a fatwa (decree) banning the wearing of hats for Muslims". Taha Hussein cleverly and wittily showcases the mentality of those issuing inane decrees that have no relation from near or far to Islam. I would like to add that a great number of these so-called "decrees" not only reflect the culture (or rather, lack of it) of these clerics, but also their social background. I would like to mention here a question that I asked my dear friend Pope Shenouda III, Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, during one of the many literary and historical discussions we have had over the past two decades. I asked him which of his achievements was dearest to his heart. His reply was unequivocal: "The impressive rise in the standards of religious men in the Egyptian church, whether in thought, education or culture." Pope Shenouda's initiative was a cultural, intellectual and administrative achievement, unrelated to religious duties. To sum up, the decline of all standards in our society today – and I mean political, economic, cultural and educational standards – has also affected the cultural formation and religious teachings of members of Islamic institutions in Egypt . This state of affairs cannot be addressed in isolation from society: it is only if we succeed in a major development and renaissance initiative that we can hope to upgrade the standards of Islamic institutions; conversely, if standards decline, it is only to be expected that the standards of Islamic institutions will follow suit. I do not refer here to Islam, but to human beings: their culture, their mindset, and their management methods.
The well-known professor of Philosophy, Dr. Atef Al Iraqi, is of the opinion that there is no such thing as "Islamic philosophy"; likewise, Murad Wahba does not acknowledge the term "Islamic civilization", on the premise that it consists simply of copying the heritage of the Greeks and Romans through the translations of Middle Eastern Copts. A similar view is shared by Magdy Khalil, who sees that there never was an Islamic civilization or philosophy to speak of, but that the achievements belonged to the countries that the Muslims invaded, and that in fact the Arabs managed to destroy civilizations that were flourishing, just as they are in the process today of zealously demolishing the existing civilization. What is your opinion of these views?
I agree with Dr. Atef Al Iraqi that there was no such thing as an Islamic philosophy. The Muslims translated and explained Greek philosophy, but did not delve deep enough into the subject to come up with what we could term philosophical works, with the exception of Ibn Rushd (Averoess). The reason for this is that philosophical thought can only thrive in an environment where freedom prevails, which was not the case during that epoch. How can we even mention freedom when the ruler, if any writer dared oppose him on any issue related to thought or indeed any other matter, would order him soundly beaten?! This was only too evident during the crisis raised over the theory of the "creation" of the Quran, when a ruler, if he endorsed the views of the mo'tazala (the "isolated ones", i.e. who refuted the creation theory), would punish by flogging anyone who dared hold an opposing view. With regard to the issue of the non-existence of an Islamic civilization, this is not a correct statement; a fine civilization did in fact exist, however it came into being at the hands of other civilizations that had entered the fold of Islam. Al Farrabi, Ibn Sinna (Avicenne), Ibn Al Muquafa', Sebuweh , Abi Hanifa and many others were not of Arab origin. Moreover, the extent, role and influence of this civilization have been greatly exaggerated; it could never be compared to the civilization of ancient Egypt , let alone the greatest civilization of all, by which I mean the Greek civilization. I therefore agree with Mr. Magdi Khalil that most of the works of note produced from the ninth to the thirteenth century A.D. are by individuals with a non-Arab background. In general, Arab intellectual contributions are restricted to poetry; a poetry, moreover, which was subject-related (as Al Akkad described it), and with a narrow range of subjects at that; mostly confined to self, pride, the tribe, criticism of others, and rarely transcending these limitations to encompass wider, more human realms. A word of caution here: we should not be extreme in our views regarding this issue, meaning that while we do not condone the exaggeration of the extent, influence and role of this civilization, we should not dismiss it as negligible.
Do you believe in Arab unity?
The subject of Arab nationalism is a tragic one. I followed with great interest the call for Arab nationalism since its inception, and interestingly enough, it was actually begun by the Christians of Greater Syria. The cultured Christians of Syria wished citizenship to be based on the Arabic language rather than on religion, which would make them first-class citizens, whereas a citizenship based on religion would relegate them to being second-class citizens. However, throughout the next decades, the idea lost its independence and indeed lost its very essence, as it was adopted by the proponents of political Islam and from then onwards all we would hear would be the expression, "The Arab and Islamic Nation". If you ask me whether there is an Arab component in our culture my answer would be a resounding "yes"; there are cultural ties between the Arabic-speaking peoples as exemplified by names such as Taha Hussein, Nizar Kabbani, Um Kulthoum, Fairuz, Abdel Halim Hafez, Mahmoud Darwish, Al Sayyab and countless others. However, if you ask me if that means political unity, I would answer with a firm "no", for the elements that would go to make up such a unity are non-existent, whether from a political, economic or social aspect. What the Arabs should have focused on is the strong cultural ties between them, but they chose to reject the "possible" in favor of the "impossible" – as they have done in so many other areas.
In your capacity as one of the intellectuals who defends national unity and the Egyptian identity, what do you think are the reasons for erosion of national unity and the decline of tolerance in Egyptian society?
The golden age of national unity in Egypt was during the Liberal era that followed the revolution of 1919. In a liberal environment, citizenship is based on considerations other than religion, which was the case in Egypt during that time. However, the retreat of Liberalism before the onslaught of a Fascism characterized by a reactionary understanding of religion led to a distinct weakening of the infrastructure of national unity towards the end of the Nineteen-Forties. .A glance at the declarations of the Coptic national fraternity during the first half of the Fifties reveals that they adopted the slogans and declarations of the Muslim Brotherhood and adapted them (with slight changes in the wording) to their own use. And with the general decline in standards that was crowned by the 1967 defeat, the disintegration of national unity slowly worsened. I believe that for the Egyptian mind to regain its former admirable stance in this regard, it is necessary to have the kind of vision that Saad Zaghloul possessed. Readers interested in finding out more about this issue can look up my article "Reflections on the Coptic Question" available in English on my website at http://www.heggy.org.tah022 .
Copts argue today that their current political situation is the worst ever since the establishment of modern Egypt by Mohamed Aly. How do you see this? And how can we address this predicament?
As you know, I have devoted much time and effort to the question of Copts in Egypt , and have conducted an in-depth study of the history of Christianity in Egypt , and of Christian, and in particular Coptic, theology, monasticism and its history, and Coptic art. To this end, I have perused literally hundreds of books, and in fact persuaded my nephew to choose the socio-economic history of Copts in the thirteenth century as the subject of his PhD thesis at Princeton University . I have devoted special interest to the history of the Coptic Church, particularly in modern times (from the time of Kirollos IV to the present day). I can therefore safely say that the Coptic problem is inextricably interwoven with the problems plaguing our society today. It is an undeniable fact that Copts have major problems, but these are issues related to freedom and to how society is run in Egypt , and cannot be addressed in isolation. The existence of a modern, enlightened cultural climate where freedom can prevail is what will guarantee the resolution of all the problems besetting Copts in Egypt today. Fanaticism exists on both sides, though I cannot deny that Coptic extremism has come into being as a defensive reaction. I repeat, to attempt to solve the Coptic problem in isolation from the rest of society will simply reinforce sectarianism. We do not seek to have a mandatory number of token Copts in the Ministry or the People's Assembly, but rather to do away with the impediments to progress and enlightenment and allow a society where real freedom can prevail. When this happens, the number of Copts in the Ministry and in parliament will no doubt exceed the number that would represent the percentage of Copts in Egypt , for the simple reason that the educational standards of Copts are higher than those of non-Copts, not to mention the diverse skills they have mastered over the ages. To sum up, the only solution is freedom, and freedom alone, while any attempt to create specific solutions can only exacerbate matters further.
A foreign girl asked me: what is the difference between a Christian Egyptian and a Muslim Egyptian? I would like to ask you the same question.
They were one and the same before the non-Coptic Egyptians received a hefty dose of "Arabism" during the latter half of the last century, which has set them apart from the advance of modern civilization as we know it. The existence of an Arab component in our formation is an undeniable fact; however it is only one of many other factors that make us who we are, and to focus on only one element is to create a state of imbalance in the Egyptian "formula": for there is a purely Egyptian dimension to our composition; then there is the Mediterranean dimension, the Islamic dimension, the Christian dimension…To magnify one aspect over all others is to distort the very essence of the Egyptian identity.
An American writer in the periodical Policy Review issued by Stanford University has referred to you as being primarily focused in your writings on Egypt and its internal affairs. Nevertheless, I would like to end our discussion by asking your opinion on the Arab-Israeli conflict?
My views on this conflict have been explained in a number of my writings, notably my article "The Arab-Israeli Conflict Between Reason and Hysteria", published in around ten different languages. The article may be read on my website at /tah021
. In brief, I am one of those who do not believe in a military solution to this conflict, and that accordingly negotiations are the only way to settle the issue and reach a political agreement, not one that is the outcome of a military confrontation. It is my belief that ever since the assassination of Rabin nine years ago, we have been witnessing a deterioration in the conducting of the negotiations necessary to bring about a solution. The Arabs have a record filled with wasted opportunities, beginning with Ismail Sidky's speech before the Egyptian parliament in 1947 up to Taba, January 2001. I would like to borrow Ismail Sidky's telling statement: "I hope we do not become, with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict, amongst those who forfeit the 'possible' in pursuit of the 'impossible'". I believe that postponing the political solution simply fuels fanaticism on both sides. And let me end here, for this is not my major concern: my all-consuming priority is exclusively "Egyptian".