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Who will fill the Arab world’s intellectual vacuum?

After spending a few months back in the Middle East, I find myself astounded by the absence of strong Arab intellectual voices.

The region that gave rise to the likes of Michel Aflaq, George Habash, Rached Al-Ghannouchi, Edward Said and numerous others has marginalized its intellectuals.

Arab visionaries have either been co-opted by the exuberant funds allocated to sectarian propaganda, been silenced by fear of retribution or are simply unable to articulate a collective vision that transcends their sects, religions or whatever political tribe they belong to.

This void created by the absence of Arab intellectuals (reduced to talking heads with few original ideas who are engaged in useless TV “debates”) has been filled by extremist voices tirelessly advocating a genocidal future for everyone.

It is no secret that Arabs and Muslims are by far the greatest victims of extremism.

Strange as this may sound, religious scholars seem more united in countering the voices that hijacked religion to promote their dark political agendas. 

It is no secret that Arabs and Muslims are by far the greatest victims of extremism.

— Ramzy Baroud  

Yet, despite repeated initiatives, the cries of Muslim scholars who represent the majority of Muslims worldwide have garnered little media attention.

For example, in June 2016, nearly 100,000 Muslim clerics in Bangladesh signed a religious decree (fatwa) condemning Daesh.

Such fatwas are quite common and many thousands of Arab Muslim scholars have done the same.

Although hardly popular among Muslims in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the rest of the world, somehow Daesh has come to define Islam and all Muslims in the eyes of the West.

The debate in Western media and among academics remains futile, yet pervasive — while the Islamophobes are eager to reduce Islam to Daesh, others insist on conspiracy theories regarding the origins of the group.

Much time is wasted on this demoralizing discussion.

The roots of extremism cannot be found in a religion that is credited with uplifting Europe from its Dark Ages to an era of rational philosophy and the ascendancy of science.

Thanks to Muslim scientists during the Islamic Golden Age, alchemy, mathematics, philosophy, physics and even agricultural methods were passed from Arab Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Persian scholars to medieval Europe beginning as early as the 12th century and lasting for hundreds of years. 

The developed Arab Muslim presence in Al-Andalus, Spain, was a major gate through which Muslim knowledge gushed into western Europe, positively impacting a continent then marred by endless wars and superstitions.

Fortunes had indeed turned with the fall of Granada in 1492. Massacres of Arabs and Jews in Spain ensued for hundreds of years. It was then that many Jews sought safe haven in the Arab world, continuing a period of relatively peaceful co-existence that remained in place until the mid-20th century.

While times had changed, the essence of Islam as a religion remained intact.

In the hands of scholars and intellectuals, Islam influenced much of the world. In the hands of Daesh “scholars,” Islam has become exploited, offering bloody fatwas and humiliating and enslaving women.

Islam has certainly not changed, but the “intellectual” has.

Most of the answers we continue to seek about Daesh often yield little meaning simply because the questions are situated in American-Western priorities.

We insist on discussing Daesh as a question of Western security and refuse to contextualize the emergence of Daesh in US-Western interventions in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen.

It seems that extremists (whether Daesh, Al-Qaeda or others) are almost always linked to Western military interventions in the Middle East. Extremism thrives in places in which strong central powers are lacking or have no political legitimacy and popular support, leaving the door wide-open to foreign interventionists.

Yemen had no strong central power for many years, neither did Somalia, nor recently, Libya and Mali. It was no surprise that these places are dual victims of extremists and interventionists.

Foreign interventionists often cite “fighting extremism” to further justify their meddling in other countries’ affairs, thus empowering extremists, who use interventions to acquire more recruits, funds and self-validation.

It is a vicious cycle that has occupied the Middle East since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

That relationship between foreign interventions, the resulting chaos and extremism is often missing in Western media discourse.

But here in the Arab world the challenge is somewhat different.

In recent years, the “marketplace of ideas” has shrunk to the point that what remains is an alternative marketplace in which the “intellectual” is bought and sold for a negotiable price.

It is quite common that an editor of a newspaper can use his publication to serve as a mouthpiece for a Middle Eastern party, before he changes his loyalty to other competing parties.

It all depends on who pays more.

Many once-promising intellectuals are now victims too and act as mere mouthpieces.

There were times in which Arab intellectuals fought to articulate a unique narrative — a combination of nationalist, socialist and Islamic ideologies that had tremendous impact on the Arab individual and collective.

Even if the offshoots were sometimes populist movements centered around an individual, or a ruling party, the Arab intellectual movement that emerged during the anti-colonial and post-colonial struggles remained relevant, vibrant and massively consequential. 

The setback following the upheaval of the 2011 revolts, uprisings and civil wars, has led to massive polarization. Many Arab intellectuals fled to the West, were imprisoned or opted to remain silent.

Pseudo-intellectuals, however, were readily co-opted, selling their allegiances to the highest bidder.

This intellectual vacuum allowed the likes of Daesh, Al-Qaeda and others to fill the space with their agendas.

True, their agendas are dark and horrific, yet they are rational outcomes at a time when Arab societies subsist in despair, when foreign interventions are afoot and when no homegrown intellectual movement is available to offer Arab nations a roadmap toward a future free from tyranny and foreign occupation.

Even when Daesh is defeated on the ground, its ideology will not disappear — it will simply mutate, for Daesh is itself a mutation of various other extremist ideologies.

Neither the Westernized Arab intellectual, nor the co-opted local one is capable of filling the empty space at the moment, leaving room for more chaos that can only by filled by opportunistic extremism.

This is not a discussion that can be instigated by Western universities or state-sponsored Arab media for these platforms will impose a self-serving narrative doomed to prejudice the outcomes.

It is, fundamentally, an Arab discussion that must be generated by free Arab thinkers — Muslims and Christians alike. It is the birth of that movement that will begin to imagine an alternative future for the region.

• Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com