The Path to Nahda conference
On Thursday, December 20, 2018, the Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD) hosted its annual board meeting, on the theme of “The Path to Renaissance: the Possible and the Imaginary.” Convened and moderated by ARDD board member Dr. Zeid Eyadat, this plenary addressed key questions and challenges to the promotion of a Renaissance in Arab societies – from intellectual, cultural, social, and economic levels. Each invited speaker offered nuanced perspectives on how to further cultivate Arab Renaissance on these multiple metrics.
Dr. Magda Senoussi, the former head of the UN Women’s Empowerment Section in Libya, and ARDD board member, emphasized the centrality of women’s empowerment in the advancement of Arab Renaissance. Relying assiduously on her background in international and humanitarian development, Dr. Al-Sanussi went as far as argue that to advance a Renaissance vision in Arab societies will prove outright impossible without the upliftment and involvement of the region’s women, both from the perspective of economic development, as well as conflict resolution.
Similarly, Professor Dr. Ali Oumlil, a prominent Moroccan philosopher and former diplomat, and ARDD board member, grounded his discussion of the Renaissance in the language of history, specifically to the 19th century underpinnings of the historical Arab Renaissance (al-Nahda). Relying on figures like the famed legist Raf’aa al-Tahtawi, Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi, and others, Oumlil tried to extract the core issues at stake in the Arab Renaissance’s underpinnings – and what those underpinnings could stand to teach us presently, as we attempt to revive Renaissance thinking.
Early Renaissance thinkers, facing the imminent threat of colonial rule, pushed back by articulating a vision of society that offered pushback against the arbitrary exercise of authority – which by extension necessitated reforms in the education system, in women’s rights, and in democratic governance and the proliferation of a public sphere. In the same vein, in light of the demands marshaled by the Arab Spring protests – freedom, dignity, justice, and human rights – Oumlil maintained that current attempts to revive the Nahda must be procedural, engaging modernity in the Arab world through a robust economy that is both globally competitive as well as just in redistribution; a fundamental rehauling of the education system, predicated on the promotion of citizenship, and on coexistence; and a promotion of pluralism, which would in turn transcend the region’s current skirmishes with sectarianism and tribalism, which will be undergirded by a robust conception of citizenship.
Following these observations, Dr. Hassan Nafaa, a distinguished Professor of Political Science at Cairo University, and a former Secretary General of the Arab Thought Forum, went further to diagnose the challenges to a true Arab Renaissance as institutional on the one hand – namely, a lack of true democratic governance – and individualized on the other hand – namely, a function of recalcitrant political and intellectual elites. Regarding the former, Dr. Nafaa diagnosed the problem as one of rampant institutional corruption among Arab rulers; with the exception perhaps of Tunisia, Arab rulers lack any proper accountability to their people, and their tyranny naturally gives rise to corruption of resources, and a stifling of human development. Arab societies must remedy their social contract with their citizens, but decidedly not through mimicking straitjacketed Western models; through an organic cultural and intellectual idiom and framework, Arab societies must properly cultivate a vibrant civil society, an independent judiciary, and a firm separation of powers. Regarding the latter, Dr. Nafaa critiqued the multiple overlapping intellectual and political trends among Arab elites, from liberals, to nationalists, to Islamists, and otherwise; these currents are often in reactionary conflict with one another, and perhaps a key reason for the failure of the Arab Spring stems from their inability to properly coexist toward a common goal (progress of Arab societies).
The path to Renaissance, then, will require a systematic overhauling of Arab society at an infrastructural level. But equally critical, it will require that Arab thinkers, activists, and civil society leaders reevaluate their approach to more properly service a revival of Renaissance thinking, and allow that thinking to permeate into the institutions they build and the projects they service.