Fouad Zakariyya, 1927-2010

Fouad Zakariyya, a leading Egyptian philosopher and sophisticated critic of Islamist thought, passed away on Thursday after a long illness. Born in Port Said, he earned his doctorate in philosophy at Cairo's Ain Shams University in 1956, as the four-year-old Nasser regime took a sharp turn into nationalist populism. His career took him away from Egypt, to Kuwait University, for much of his life. 

While I am not very familiar with Zakariyya's political involvement as a man of the left (Hossam perhaps can fill in), as a scholar he was a leading advocate for secularism in the Arab world. He saw secularism as a historical necessity for the Arab world, the only possible path to advancement, but was not anti-religious. At the core of his argument was that Islam was too pervasive in the public sphere, and should become a private matter. He was painfully of the way religion was manipulated by both the state and religious groups, whether by Azharites or movements like the Society of Muslim Brothers. He was also scathing about Sadat's embrace of these groups, and accused him of giving them the false expectation that Egypt would turn into an Islamic state — indeed, by the late 1970s many Islamists were already disappointed with Sadat's duplicity and would turn radical, eventually assassinating him.

To make his case, Zakariyya became a leading deconstructionist of the intellectual production of Islamists, and engaged in passionate debates with Islamist thinkers such as Hassan Hanafi, notably over the latter's critique of the European origins of secularism. Not only did Zakariyya not see the European influence on modern secularism as a problem, but he argued that secularism had been an integral part of Islamic culture since its early days, and called for the revival of the secularist tradition in Muslim thinkers like the Mutazallites and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). Without secularism, he argued, the Arab world would not catch up with modernity — and to do so, Arab intellectuals must treat standard Islamic history critically rather than with traditional deference.

Zakariyya leaves behind an oeuvre crowned by Myth and Reality in the Contemporary Islamist Movement, as far as I know the only book of his translated into English, which is one of the best books on Islamism I have read. I particularly appreciated his critique of groups like the Muslim Brothers, which he sees as authoritarian, closed to new ideas, and as promoting groupthink. He was unfortunately vindicated by the arrival of the Muslim Brothers to power in Sudan, where the Numeiri regime enacted the most retrograde policies in the name of Islam. He was also critical of the Islamism of the Gulf elites, which he saw devoid of social justice, and saw the combination of these elites and oil wealth as the "tribalization of Islam." These local elites, he wrote, allied with the US to maintain power, but gave Westerners political hegemony over the Middle East in exchange. Most of the book, though, engages with the ideas of Islamists, their internal contradictions, and the vagueness of terms such as shura to denote democracy.

Zakariyya also took positions that, among some Arab intellectuals at least, were controversial. He defended Kuwait when it was invaded by Saddam Hussein, a position many saw as pro-imperialist. In 2004, he wrote that the Iraqi insurgency was no national resistance movement, but a bunch of violent ex-Baathists thugs. 

At a time when, against all odds, there is the inkling of a revival of secularist thought in the region, it's sad to think that most of Zakariyya's adult life was marked by an Islamic revivalism that, at times, has been terribly destructive. I am curious what Asa'ad AbuKhalil made of him — AbuKhalil shares Zakariyya's critical take on Islamism (read for instance his The Incoherence of Islamic Fundamentalism [PDF] article) but probably not his politics.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.