Reading Voltaire in Damascus?

By Nile GreenMarch 23, 2020

Reading Voltaire in Damascus?

Enlightenment on the Eve of Revolution by Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab

IN RECENT YEARS, few historical movements have been as contested as the Enlightenment. One way out of the cycle of claims and counterclaims that the Enlightenment waved the banner of universalism or Eurocentrism is to ask whether there was only one Enlightenment or several, and in separate or connected iterations. In Enlightenment on the Eve of Revolution: The Egyptian and Syrian Debates, Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab helps us consider this constructive question by following the Arabic calls for tanwir (enlightenment), made — in the face of state persecution and religious extremism — by courageous thinkers from Damascus and Cairo.

Kassab begins by describing the shared Syrian-Egyptian scene of the early 1990s in which these debates about tanwir took shape. She evokes an “Arab fin-de-siècle mood” of deep helplessness amid what commentators repeatedly described as al-kharab al-shamil (the general ruin) of their societies through state corruption, violence, and censorship. As entrenched and despotic leaders of supposed liberation movements failed to live up to their promises, widespread disenchantment brought the recognition that political and economic problems could no longer be blamed on external enemies. This zeitgeist nurtured a cultural crisis in which a wide range of thinkers, both secular and Islamist, debated the internal sources of the hopeless situation in which their fellow citizens were trapped.

A key concept in these debates was the tanwir that various intellectuals invoked in their attempts to identify an escape route from modern Arab history. In books, journals, and occasionally newspapers, they probed a series of foundational questions: What is enlightenment? Where did it come from? How does it relate to religion? What is its relation to the state? And, most pressingly of all, how does enlightenment help the individual citizen? Over the course of four demanding but rewarding chapters, Kassab follows the ensuing discussions through Egypt and Syria during the vicennium covering the decades before and after the turn of the millennium, culminating in 2011 with the mass protests of the Arab Spring.

Rather than being a discussion of Voltaire in Arabic, the past luminaries presented as the pioneers of tanwir belonged to the 19th-century Arab modernist movement known as the nahda (renaissance). The enlightenment that was contemplated in Damascus and Cairo was not, then, identical with the European Enlightenment. But since the nahda’s leading lights absorbed many ideas from both the United Kingdom and France, their legacy could not be wholly separated from Europe either. Consequently, the question of indigeneity repeatedly came up in these debates on enlightenment, especially with the Islamists, for whom Islamic authenticity was the touchstone of intellectual legitimacy. Yet as Kassab argues, the discussions of tanwir that took place at the end of the 20th century were not primarily historical. Instead, they focused on the contemporaneous and concrete calls for an applied and practical enlightenment that could serve as a remedy for present-day political maladies.

Through effective sketches of the Syrian and Egyptian contexts, Kassab explains the key differences that shaped the trajectory of the parallel debates in these two distinct environments. In Egypt, where the rising number of Islamist terrorist attacks in the 1990s turned from targeting government officials to tourists, then secular intellectuals (such as the novelist and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz [1911–2006]), the tanwir debate focused on the threat of Islamism. In Syria, by contrast, the Islamists had been ruthlessly crushed by the Hafez al-Assad government back in the 1980s, leaving discussions to focus on the tyrannical state — albeit, by necessity, indirectly, given the perils of all-pervading censorship. Despite these differences, Kassab argues that both Egyptian and Syrian intellectuals shared a common concern with “enlightenment” as a vehicle for what she calls “political humanism.” She defines this term as “the free and public practice of reason in view of producing knowledge that enlightens people about the realities they find themselves in and nurtures their yearning for a dignified and free existence.”

In Egypt, the call for tanwir was inseparable from the power struggle between the government and the Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood organization. Secular intellectuals found themselves caught between Scylla and Charybdis. Having been fostered since the 19th century by modernizing yet increasingly corrupt state institutions, such secularists were loath to denounce the government for fear of empowering the Islamists, whose violent wing was already targeting their most prominent members and campaigning against novelists who they deemed to have been in breach of Muslim decency. While anti-Islamist Egyptian thinkers founded organizations such as Jam’iyyat al-Tanwir (Society for Enlightenment) in 1992, the Hosni Mubarak government echoed their rallying cry by funding conferences and promoting anniversaries of various Arab forerunners of enlightenment. The result, as Kassab explains, was “the paradox of strongly defending freedom, critical thought, and democracy while giving unconditional support to the absolutist state against the Islamist-terrorist peril.” The Islamists responded by mocking this collusion as tanwir hukumi (governmental enlightenment) and proposing in its place their own form of tanwir islami (Islamic enlightenment).

Kassab traces this triangular content between government officials, secular intellectuals, and Islamist theoreticians by examining the writings of the philosopher Mourad Wahba (born 1926), the literature professor Gaber Asfour (born 1944), and the Islamist scholar Muhammad Imarah (1931–2020). As each participant called on the past to support their position, the enlightenment debate became a battle over history. After the secularists sought legitimacy by claiming the venerable leaders of the 19th-century nahda, Imarah declared them falsifiers of history, guilty of writing Islam out of its central place in Egypt’s past. Rejecting the Mediterraneanist vision of the Egyptian Christian and socialist Salama Moussa (1887–1958) — a vision that tied Egypt to a pan-Mediterranean culture held in common with Europe — Imarah likewise rejected tanwir as a European import that was neither part of Islam nor needed by it. Because in being innately rational, he argued, and in harmony with science, Islam had no need of the counterreligious Enlightenment that Europeans had required to break free from Christianity with its superstitions and talk of miracles.

In the next chapter, Kassab follows these arguments into the 2000s, when both government and Islamist positions were subjected to subtle and far-reaching analyses by the sociologist Mona Abaza, the Islam scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, and the historian Sherif Younis. What their critiques held in common was the claim that the Egyptian government and the Islamists both sought to manipulate the debate as part of their power struggle. And in doing so, they silenced the emancipatory core of tanwir values. For as Younis pointed out, pro-government secularists and anti-government Islamists shared the same conception of a coercive centralized state.

Turning from Egypt to Syria, the proponents of tanwir in Damascus had different concerns from their counterparts in Cairo. Their primary target was not Islamist, but state oppression. This apparatus of censorship, imprisonment, and torture further differentiated the Syrian debate by forcing it into generalizations and circumlocutions that were unnecessary in Egypt’s more open (and often pro-government) campaign for enlightenment. Kassab guides readers through the writings of around a dozen Syrian champions of tanwir, such as the playwright Saadallah Wannous (1941–1997). What they held in common, she explains, was, firstly, the urgency of the “reconstruction of the human” from the desolation wrought by decades of totalitarianism; secondly, the importance of civil society as the site of such collective renewal; and, thirdly, the necessity of reengaging in politics to bring this about. The death of Hafez al-Assad in June 2000 provided an opportunity for the public declarations and open debates of the short-lived Damascus Spring. But under Bashar al-Assad, the political climate soon reverted to a despotic, decade-long winter of trials and torture that culminated in the mass demonstrations of March 2011.

It is at this point that Kassab’s coverage draws to a close, as signaled in the book’s title: Enlightenment on the Eve of Revolution. For unlike the many books on the Arab Spring, this is not a study of mass protests but of the ideas that emerged from the same conditions, “intellectual attempts to come to terms with this darkness, to grapple, diagnose, and propose remedies for it.” Here Kassab writes at her best by summarizing complex debates with a clarity that avoids the stultifying jargon of so much critical theory. A scrupulous work of intellectual history, in its attention to the social location of ideas, her book bears comparison with Muhammad Qasim Zaman’s Islam in Pakistan: A History (2018), which shows how liberal Islamic modernists undermined their popularity by aligning themselves with the fading moral fortunes of corrupt military dictatorships.

Yet Kassab makes a case for somewhat different conclusions, arguing that, ultimately, in Egypt and Syria alike, “the demands voiced on the streets” during the Arab Spring “were the same as those of the [proponents of] tanwir.” The intellectuals and the masses, then, were in essential accord. Based on the evidence presented, which necessarily draws on the writings of intellectuals (rather than, say, protestors’ social media posts), this conclusion isn’t empirically demonstrated. We also learn too little about the social reach of the intelligentsia and the circulation of their publications (sometimes written in exile), as well as about the comparative social reach of Islamist and pro-regime propaganda. But the claim that the advocates of tanwir were “in tune” with the protestors is, in any case, unnecessary for lending the book its great value, which lies in its precise attention to ideas that were carefully conceived over the course of decades before the hasty rush of revolution.

Complementing a clutch of recent studies of Islamist thinkers, Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab brings to light an intellectually rich corpus of Arabic critiques of both Islamism and authoritarianism that are as philosophically adept as they are sociologically shrewd. Enlightenment on the Eve of Revolution: The Egyptian and Syrian Debates is a philosopher’s testament to intellectual courage and a persuasive reminder of the universality of reason.


Nile Green holds the Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA. He also hosts the Akbar’s Chamber podcast, devoted to enriching public understanding of the Islamic world.

LARB Contributor

As Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA, Nile Green brings global history into conversation with Islamic history. He has researched and traveled in around 20 Muslim countries, including Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen. His many books include The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austens London, Global Islam: A Very Short Introduction, and How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding. Green also hosts the podcast Akbar’s Chamber: Experts Talk Islam, which is available on all major platforms.


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