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Book Reviews

There is more to the Arab Mind than Just Islam

Georges Corm, Pensée et politique dans le monde arabe. Contextes historiques et problématiques XIXe-XXIe siècle, La Découverte, Paris, 2015

There is a fil rouge running through Georges Corm’s variegated output: whether it be concerned with Middle Eastern history, religious pluralism, East-West relations or the world economy – to name but a few of the fields in which this multifaceted Lebanese intellectual moves – his work systematically aims at deconstructing dominant media and academic narratives in order to offer counter-trend perspectives. This is also the case with Pensée et politique dans le monde arabe, which has the aim of restoring to visibility the wealth and complexity of modern and contemporary Arab culture after its abandonment in the 1970s by researchers and specialists who chose to concentrate exclusively on political Islam. Indeed, according to Corm, the academics (particularly the Western ones) would have fallen prey to Islam’s new mystique, which makes “theological-political thought” appear to be “the only one existing amongst Arabs” (p. 14) by re-proposing the orientalist schema already denounced by Edward Said, in which an advanced and secular West would be the counterpoint to a religious East tenaciously anchored to its past. Corm’s criticism is, perhaps, exaggerated; particularly if one considers that Western academia is, in reality, dominated by professedly anti-essentialist tendencies that, albeit absorbed through the study of Islam, absolve the latter almost by way of a conditioned reflex from any co-responsibility for the ideological drift from which it is currently suffering. That does not make the warning against excessively focussing on the Islamist phenomenon any less valid, however. The reason for such an obsession is evident, on the other hand: the need to understand the dazzling success, on the Middle East’s political and social scene, of movements and parties that draw on Islam. A success fostered by the constant injection of Saudi petrodollars and the connivance of a short-sighted West.



In order to correct the erroneous perspective, Corm dedicates only one out of the book’s fourteen chapters to Islamist thinking, reserving the other thirteen to the specific features of Arab thinking, the complicated economic and political context in which it developed and a very rich collection of subjects and authors. Some of these – the great protagonists of the Arab awakening, Arab liberalism and Arab nationalism, ranging from Tahtawi to Taha Hussein to Michel ‘Aflaq, for example – now occupy a place of honour in all the specialist handbooks. Others, however, are almost unknown in the West, despite the value of their reflections, and are little studied within the Arab world itself. This is true of Mohammed Jaber al-Ansari, for example, a Bahraini philosopher who denounces “the schizophrenia existing in the widely secularized behaviour of individuals… and the maintaining of the obsession with the Islamic identity as something other than western modernity” (p. 277), to cite but one of the most interesting thinkers that Corm presents. Some of the debates that have animated the Arab world’s cultural scene over the last few decades have also remained almost unknown. Such as the one between the Moroccan al-Jabri, and the Syrian Tarabichi about the Islamic heritage and the ways the Arab mind functions or the one between the Syrian, al-Azmeh, and the Egyptian al-Messiri regarding secularity.



Corm’s book seeks to demonstrate the liveliness of Arab “critical thinking” and, paradoxically, one could reproach it for not being sufficiently critical itself. Indeed, a positive opinion of the authors covered seems to prevail a priori, regardless of the great variety in their positions and ideological allegiances, simply because they all fall into the category of non-Islamist thinkers. Such a lack of balance is understandable, however, if one thinks of the nature and intention of the work which, by the author’s own admission, steers a middle course between specialist erudition and essay-writing for a wider public. In short, if Corm wanted to shed light on an aspect of Arab culture that has remained unjustifiably neglected, he has certainly achieved his aim. The book deserves to be read and the issue that it raises must be taken seriously.


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