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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