Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Political Islam vs Modernity

Tarek Heggy
Bear witness for us, O pen / That we shall not sleep / That we shall not dither between ‘yes’ and ‘no’
(Amal Dunqul)[1]
It is my view that whether political Islam is defined as a religious theocratic movement or a political movement in the modern sense of political movements, the currents of political Islam have a position concerning the type of value system which contemporary intellectuals in advanced societies recognise as constituting the foundations of a culture of progress and modernity.
So a conversation must needs be held between some of these value systems and the mentality and behaviour of exponents of currents of political Islam. This is what I shall attempt to do in an essay such as this, which aims to place political Islam side by side with a number of values associated with modernity and progress.
The conception of the modern state: modern Islamists are unable to understand or accept or even admire the modern state system, which is the product or the result of centuries of political, cultural, social and economic struggle over the course of human progress. When the Prophet took ill (during the last days of his life) he tasked his close companion Abu Bakr al-Siddīq with deputising for him in leading the prayer. When the Prophet passed away shortly afterwards, a large number of Muslims considered that this entrusting of the leadership of the prayer constituted an indication from the Prophet that Abu Bakr was to be his preferred successor. And this is what in fact took place in the aftermath of the problems associated with the Saqīfa compact (saqīfat banī sāʽda)[2]. From the very first day Abu Bakr became “the Prophet’s ‘deputy’” or successor.
Al-Māwardī’s Al-Ahkām al-Sultāniyya: simplistic views on governance
It is this historical model that dominates the Islamists’ thinking. This model (necessarily a simplistic one in step with the simplicity of a time of experimentation) prevails still over the mindset of most Islamists, in whom the interweaving of ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ is a thoroughgoing one. Some decades later attempts were made to philosophise and theorise this experiment in a number of books known today as works on al-Ahkām al-Sultāniyya (‘Rulings on Governance’), such as al-Māwardī’s al-Ahkām al-Sultāniyya. Even though the specifics of such rulings do no more than reflect the condition and level of evolution in man’s political thinking over a period of five centuries starting from the seventh century A.D., specifics which are simplistic and in many instances downright primitive and silly, the mindset of contemporary exponents of Islamism still retains an admiration for them as something presenting a comprehensive alternative to the system of the modern state!
Pluralism: there is little doubt that the culture of more progressive societies, and their general intellectual climate, are founded upon the premise that ‘pluralism’ constitutes one of the most important markers of human existence in its most advanced stage, and indeed that it is one of the prerequisites of human progress. There can be no progress for peoples who do not believe in pluralism or who fail to construct their culture and general climate upon the acceptance of what pluralism achieves. Just as Marxism presented a nemesis for pluralism when all of its social, cultural, economic and political systems were founded upon the dismissal of everyone and everything that opposed the basic foundations of Marxism, political Islam can do nought else but lead to this same dismissal – for all the Islamists’ declarations of belief in pluralism. This is because the Islamist is dominated by the thought that he is 100 per cent in the right – after all, how can this not be the case given that God himself enters with him into all epistemological, cultural, economic, political, legal and constitutional arenas? And scientific arenas too: where is the Islamist, for example, who accepts the theory of evolution?
Charles Darwin: father of a theory where Islamists fear to tread
Otherness (or the acceptance of the other): this is the product of the debate on pluralism. If life (for those who believe in pluralism) is founded upon a broad pluralism in various spheres of living, organisation, thinking and principles, the first thing it demands of modern man is to accept the other (in all that other’s various forms). But if the Islamist – who believes that God stands at his side and that he is the closest to truth in all manner of arenas – maintains any belief in accepting the other, his acceptance is a relatively moderate (or at times microscopic) one. He may tell us that he believes in the rights of woman, but he will then tell us that women are qualified to work in ‘most’ but not ‘all’ posts! And he will tell us, unequivocally, that a woman (and even a non-Muslim) cannot become a head of state! He will also tell us, in his own words, that he believes in religious freedom, but he will lay down for others what it is that they may believe in! For the Islamists in Egypt (writing now in the year 2012) are saying that a man has a right to be a Muslim or a Jew or a Christian but he does not have the right to be a Buddhist or a Baha’i. In the same way Islamists cannot agree that freedom of religion means that a Muslim can leave Islam.
By his nature he must extend the ‘absolute’ beyond the realm of the private and personal onto the realm of public affairs
Relativism: out of the womb of faith in pluralism issues faith in otherness (the acceptance of the other). And out of the womb of either comes ‘relativism’. By this I mean that in the culture and climate of a more progressive society the concept of the relative nature of opinions, rulings, theories and interpretations is widely shared. The Islamist may say, in his own words, that he believes in relativism, yet a discussion with him on the subject of women, non-Muslims, the theory of evolution or opposing viewpoints will always go to prove that the Islamist cannot welcome relativism. For by his nature he must extend the ‘absolute’ beyond the realm of the private and personal onto the realm of public affairs. Consequently he alone – as opposed to anyone else on the face of the planet today – is the one who, in his ideology, possesses ‘permanent solutions’ that may not be changed to face up to problems which by their very nature are changeable. If you were to say to him that these solutions are the product of specific times and places he will become angry and simply reject this logic! For a number of weeks now (writing in August 2012) the former General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mahdi Akef declared that anyone who disagrees with the conceptions of the Muslim Brotherhood is ‘stupid and ignorant’. Words such as these encapsulate the Islamists’ view and opinion concerning any alternative perception.
The Rights of Man: the Rights of Man, including the right to think and the right to express his views, alongside other rights, are the product of mankind’s struggle conducted over long periods. The problem the Islamist has with the Rights of Man is that he can only accept their presentation as something which he believes to be the will of God! If we were to say to him that it is a human right to be a Buddhist or a Baha’i, he will reject this and say that the Rights of Man in this respect are limited to the three Abrahamic faiths. If we were to say to him that it is a woman's right to dress as she pleases he would refuse this on the basis of his morals which he also sees as expressing the will of God! And if we were to say to him that it is a Muslim’s right to become a Jew or a Christian he will once again employ his (absolutist!) morals to refuse this human right. Thus for the Islamist there is an upper ceiling or a number of upper ceilings to the Rights of Man, ceilings which in his conception are also the will of God!
Marie Curie: winner of two Nobel prizes but less than the worth of an uneducated man
Womankind: women as such, the fear of them and the desire which they inspire, and at the same time the wish to place her in a cage and keep her under constant supervision, these are some of the most conspicuous Islamist standpoints vis-à-vis womankind. There is no doubt that the Islamist sees the woman as a lesser being (albeit only marginally!) than the man. He even makes use of what nature has imposed on women in order to establish that she is religiously inferior (that the onset of a woman’s monthly period places her in the eyes of the Islamist on a lower religious footing than that of a man). Most Islamists are preoccupied – to the point of hysterical delirium – with women. The result of their delirium (much as with the case of the Haredi Jews) is that she becomes in their conception the source and the cause of most sins! The Islamist – generally – sees that this dangerous source of sinfulness must be hedged about with restrictions. Despite an Islamic society like Saudi Arabia surrounding the woman with unprecedented levels of restrictions, this society has been and is still witnessing the greatest degree of chaos in sexual relations.
There is no doubt that the Islamist sees the woman as a lesser being
Instead of concerning himself with punishing the man (the wolf), the entire focus of the Islamist is fixed on imprisoning ‘the victim’ under observation in a cage. As I always say: instead of keeping the flies off, we choose to lock up the honey in cupboards! In the light of such a mentality the Rights of Woman have the lowest ceilings imposed upon them. Anyone can put this to the test by asking any Islamist to take another look at such things as the following: the testimony of a woman in court or elsewhere as being worth half the testimony of a man (in a Saudi court of law the testimony of a woman such as Madame Curie who has won two Nobel Prizes in science would be worth half the testimony of a man who has barely finished primary school!) Alternatively you will not find an Islamist who is prepared to take another look at the inheritance of a woman being half that of the man ... or whether a woman is qualified to occupy the office of head of state ...  or whether he would agree to a woman being in a position to licence marriage or divorce, or have custody of her sons and daughters, and so on.
Qutb: his work unquestioned by Islamist leaders
The rule of law in its modern conception: the Islamist is of the firm conviction that submission to positivist constitutional and legal rules (that is those that have been set down by Man) is a grievous sin. It is a sin on the religious level, and a sin on the social level too in that the Islamist believes deep down that mortals are not qualified to shape a constitutional and legal system governed by mortals. Ever since Egypt in 1883 transferred to a modern positivist legal system, Islamists remained critical of the existence of a legal system set down by mortals. When the writings of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) became the most important literature in political Islam (many of them taken from the Indo-Pakistani Islamist Abū al-Aʽlā al-Mawdūdī whose writings are some of the most important causes of wars between Pakistan and India) the philosophy of the Islamists vis-à-vis positivist laws has been the following: God alone is cognizant of Man’s failings and consequently their non-qualification to fashion laws governing relations between men in all its various forms. This is the core of the theory of al-hākimiyya[3] that all Islamists hold to, even if they differ on the period of time required to apply this theory. One of the most important by-products of this theory of al-hākimiyya, and which is the essence of the Islamist mindset, is that man should not lay down rules governing relations between men but instead observe the rules established by God and not mankind. Even now no leader of any current of political Islam undertakes to review the concept of al-hākimiyyapresented by Sayyid Qutb in his famous work Milestones on the Way (which is considered to be a regurgitation of earlier ideas propounded by Abū al-Aʽlā al-Mawdūdī).
Usama bin Ladin: object of Islamist admiration and appreciation
Thus the Islamist is faced with a continuing difficulty vis-à-vis all positivist, legal, constitutional foundations. Even if a great legal scholar such as Dr al-Sanhouri – the author of the 1984 Egyptian Civil Code – says that he sees nothing in all of the regulations and materials of this code derived from French civil law that contradicts the principles of Islamic Sharīʻa, nevertheless this counts for nothing among the currents of political Islam. The Islamist continues to believe that his primary political mission is to apply a comprehensive legal system derived from Islamic Sharīʻa, that is – in his view – the laws that express the will of God.
Violence: it is clear that the leadership of most currents of political Islam refuse to describe suicide operations undertaken by many Islamists against non-combatant individuals as terrorist operations. There is no doubt that most of these leaders do not consider someone such as Usama bin Ladin to be a terrorist. Indeed most of them have, and still do, look upon Usama bin Ladin brimming with appreciation and admiration for him.
When an Islamist candidate (ʽAbd al-Munʽim Abū al-Futūh) for the post of president of the Republic of Egypt was asked a few months ago whether he considered Usama bin Ladin a terrorist or not, he replied “America is terrorist”. The truth is that the Islamist cannot condemn ‘violence’ against civilians in all its shapes and forms. Nothing demonstrates this more than the failure of contemporary man to agree on a universally accepted definition of terrorism. Islamists are of one in maintaining that it is their right – and indeed their duty – to distance themselves from any agreement on how to define terrorism before such time that they have fully attained to power. The present writer claims that no less than half the sons and daughters in societies such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Yemen would reject someone like Usama bin Ladin being described as a terrorist.
Not a single fanatic upon the surface of the Earth is the product of a balanced intellectual formation
A balanced intellectual formation: I have always believed, and still do, that not a single fanatic upon the surface of the Earth is the product of a balanced intellectual formation. None of the various fruits of human inventiveness in all or most of the spheres of intellectual and cultural creativity have ever found their way in a balanced, measured form into the mentality of the Haredi Jew or the fundamentalist Muslim. Or to put it another way, if any of the fruits of human inventiveness initiated by the ancient Greek and Roman civilisation, or the fruits of the Renaissance and the period following the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution, or the most important products of human creativity over the last three centuries (which are the richest centuries in human history) should make their entry into a man’s mental composition, then that man simply cannot be a fundamentalist or a fanatic. I was fortunate enough to be granted the opportunity to see up close what it is that a Haredi Jew or a Salafist Muslim, or the militant Muslim followers of the Hanbali school or those who admire the fatwas of Hanbali faqihs and proselytizers like Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Qayyim and Muhammad ʽAbd al-Wahhāb (among whom feature all the clerics of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and all the lands of Sunni Islam) do for reading material. I got to know up close that the bulk of these folk have never read, and still do not read, anything beyond the literature of their specific religious denomination.
Shakespeare, Voltaire and Descartes: fruits of human creativity proscribed by Saudi clerics
Indeed, I might add that I have heard the warnings issued by dozens of prominent clerics in Saudi Arabia against reading what I would call the fruits of human creativity – from Homer to Dante, from Shakespeare and Racine to Voltaire and Jean Jacques Rousseau and Diderot, from Descartes to Kant, from Victor Hugo to Albert Camus – and I know intimately their rejectionist position on symphonic music, the figurative arts and the theatre. Perhaps the following anecdotes demonstrate the tragedy we are writing about here: in August 2012 the Chinese astronauts returned to their launch base and a picture was published of a female Chinese astronaut exiting the spaceship aided by one of her colleagues. A Salafist internet website ran the photograph with a commentary that did not address the various aspects of brilliant achievement represented by the picture. Instead the commentary focused on the ‘degeneracy’ represented by the image of a female astronaut with her colleague supporting her arm to help her exit the spaceship! A few years ago a fire broke out in a girls’ school in Saudi Arabia; many of the girl students attempted to leave the burning building but were turned back by the school’s firemen with the result that they burned to death – since they were not wearing their veils at the time they were attempting to escape incineration.
No doubt Machiavelli would have considered them even more Machiavellian than himself
Humanity: the literature, culture and thinking of the Islamists are based upon the division of the world (and of its peoples) into two – the first called the Abode of Islam, the second named the Abode of War. This division prevails still over the Islamists’ mindset, which in light of the authority of this literature has difficulty in understanding, digesting, embracing and accepting the modern concept of humanity and the influence it has had on breaking down the barriers and frontiers between cultures and societies. I have no doubt that Islamists look upon the other (who necessarily belongs to the Abode of War) as an enemy in one form or another – an enemy constantly held to be responsible for all of their problems, starting from colonialism and including everything that has happened up to the present day. Two years ago ‘Abd al-Munʽim Abū al-Futūh, a famous leading light in the Muslim Brotherhood who entered the electoral race for the Egyptian presidency in May 2012, issued a book in which he stated that all the problems of contemporary Islamic societies were caused by colonialism. Mr Abū al-Futūh did not explain to us why it is that the Europeans embarked on colonising us instead of us colonising the Europeans! Similarly Mr Abū al-Futūh did not tell us why most regions of the Arabian Peninsula have remained deeply backward for a century despite the fact that they were never colonised!
Mahdi Akef: anyone who disagrees with the Muslim Brotherhood is ‘stupid and ignorant'
Taqiyya (concealment): Taqiyya is a Shiʽite concept that seeps into the political practices of contemporary Islamist groups be they Shiʽite or Sunni. The concept of taqiyya means that at such time as the Islamists on the ground constitute the weaker power, they have the right to proclaim in public precisely the opposite of what they hold in secret. This manifested itself clearly in the behaviour of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after the fall of the former president Husni Mubarak. The positions they adopted were often contradictory to that which they had previously declared even just a few months earlier.
I can see no possibility of any agreement between political Islam and the values of progress and modernity
The danger oftaqiyya comes to the fore whenever Islamists make declarations, in their meetings with representatives of cultures that despise mendacity, on such matters as their repudiation of violence and their respect for the rights of women or their respect for non-Muslims. To make such declarations as these – which fly in the face of what their minds actually think and intend – is religiously permitted for them for as long as they have yet to attain to the phase of total empowerment. I have no doubt that had Niccolò Machiavelli himself heard from some Muslims of the concept of taqiyya he would have agreed with them and considered them even more Machiavellian than himself.
In short, after 40 years of studying political Islam and studying its literature and writings – including university theses on the Islamic system of hadd punishments – I can see no possibility of there being any agreement between political Islam and the values of progress and modernity. At the same time I believe that the pragmatic practice of politics (in the light of contemporary constitutions and laws) may permit developments that may render Islamist political parties similar to Christian parties in Europe. But I am speaking here of a possible, and by no means certain, trajectory, and I am talking of a long journey – which up to now I see no tangible evidence of having been started!

[1] This essay on Islamism is dedicated to Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) the founder of the concept of criminal atavism, a theory that I came to study in depth during the 1970s - Tarek Heggy.
[3] See Glossary.

Friday, August 17, 2012

قلت لمجلة ألمانية أجريت معي حوارا صحفيا منذ أيام أن الوضع السياسي الراهن فى مصر وإن كان محزنا ومشبعا بمناخ ماضوي لا علاقة له بالتقدم والتحضر والحداثة ، إلا أنه "وضع طبيعي" ، فهذه الحالة الراهنة تعكس واقعنا الثقافي والفكري والتعليمي . فالحكام الجدد هم أقرب للمتوسط العام للمصريين المعاصريين ، من شخص مثل محمد البرادعي . وهذا الواقع (الثقافي والفكري والتعليمي) هو ما أملي علي منذ فبراير 2011 الإكتفاء ب
دور المفكر الذى يحاول التأثير فى الناس ، دون الإنغماس فى العمل السياسي . ولنكن صرحاء ، فحتي حسني مبارك بجهله وسطحيته لم يكن أدني من المتوسط الثقافي والفكري والتعليمي للشعب المصري . لقد انهار التعليم فى مصر خلال السنوات الستين الماضية وانهارت معه المستويات الثقافية والفكرية وانهار الذوق العام وتسللت لعقول المصريين ثقافة دينية مغرقة فى التأخر والتعصب والظلامية ... وبالتالي ، فليس من الغريب او العجيب ان يكون الخطاب السياسي والخطاب الديني ومستوي الحوار بمثل التدني والإنهيار الحاليين . ورغم سوداوية الحالة وصعوبة مواجهة ظلمات مناخ مصر الثقافي وحالتها الفكرية المعاصرة، فإنني أعرف شيئا واحدا ، هو أن عليً وعلي أمثالي (وهم غير قليلين) ان نواصل جهود التنوير والتأثير فى الناس ، حتى لو بدت فائدة ذلك محدودة ، فمن مجمل التغييرات الكمية تحدث التغييرات الكيفية او النوعية . وعلينا أن نحارب اليأس وألا نتوقف عن محاولة التأثير فى أي عدد (ولو قليل) من الناس بهدف إقناعهم ان الدين شأن شخصي ، أما تطوير مجتمعنا فلا يمكن ان يتحقق إلا بأداتين لا ثالث لهما : (1) العلم الحديث ، و (2) تقنيات علوم الإدارة الحدبثة وتنمية الموارد البشرية. وان نحاول اقناع من حولنا بأنه لا دين ولا هوية للعلم ولتقنيات الإدارة وعلوم الموارد البشرية الحديثة .... وعندما سألني الصحفي الألماني الذى أجري الحوار معي : ومن أين تجيء بهذه الجرعة من الإيجابية والأمل ؟ قلت : من مسيرة حياتي ! فنظرا لأنني صنعت مسيرة حياتي بيدي وبإرادتي ، فإنني كنت ولا أزال أؤمن بقدرة أي إنسان على تحقيق المراد وبلوغ الغايات ، بشرط توفر إرادة حديدية وعزم صخري وقدرة على التعلم.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Alexander Solzenitsyn

Alexander Solzhenitsyn. 
by Tarek Heggy. 

Written in 1981.

The life of the Nobel laureate, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, from the day he was born in 1918 until he was deported from the Soviet Union in 1974, epitomizes the brutal oppression visited by the Soviet Union on its citizens.  In this model communist society, which serves as a shining example of the successful implementation of the dictatorship of the proletariat to all the others, fundamental freedoms are conspicuously absent and human rights violations the order of the day.

Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11, 1918 at Kislovodsk.  Six years later, his father was killed in an accident, and his mother moved with him to Rostov-on-the-Don, where she worked as a typist.  Life was hard in the early days of Stalin's rule, especially for a young widow and her orphaned son.  Young Alexander was an outstanding student from primary school and up to Rostov university, where his genius in mathematics and physics won him a scholarship for graduate studies. Throughout those years, Solzhenitsyn remained true to his love for culture in general and literature in particular, and took a correspondence course in literature at the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History.  He obtained his diploma from the Institute in 1941, one year following his appointment as teacher of mathematics at a secondary school in Rostov.

During those years, he tried to publish his novels and short stories in the literary review, Znamya, but they were all rejected by the editor.  When Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union began, Solzhenitsyn joined the Red Army as an artillery officer on October 18, 1941, and fought at the battles of  Kursk and Konigsberg (later Kaliningrad).  His heroism earned him several promotions, and by 1945 he was a captain with two decorations for bravery in defense of his country: the Order of the Patriotic War, Class II, and the Order of the Red Star.

In July 1945, he was suddenly arrested by the secret police, the NKVD, and charged with making derogatory remarks about Stalin in private correspondence with a friend and in his personal diary.  He was detained without trial in the Lubyanka prison in Moscow pending further investigation of his case by the secret police, then sentenced by a special tribunal of the NKVD to eight years hard labour as a traitor to Leninist socialism and to the socialist society.  Solzhenitsyn served his sentence in a number of Soviet prisons, but instead of releasing him when his term was up in 1953,  the secret police arbitrarily decided to exile him to Kok Tern in the Dzhambul region of Kazakhstan, where he remained until 1956.  During his exile, it was discovered that he had cancer and he was sent to a hospital in Tashkent to undergo treatment.

For more than eleven years of imprisonment and exile, Solzhenitsyn underwent horrible sufferings which he movingly describes in "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich".  The novel is considered a literary masterpiece in its description of the sufferings of hundreds of thousands of detainees in the Soviet Union, although I, personally, share the opinion of the Daily Telegraph's literary critic who considers "My Testimony" by Anatoly Marchenko to be the best account of life in Russian prisons and labour camps since Dostoevsky's "House of the Dead". Solzhenitsyn uses the same setting for his  play, "The Tender Foot and the Tramp".  His outstanding novel, "Cancer Ward", recounts his experience with exile and his brush with death from cancer.  During his years of imprisonment and  exile, his family knew nothing about him.   Thinking him dead, his wife remarried but went back to him after his release (1956) and his rehabilitation (1957).

In 1956, his case was reviewed by the Military Section of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union, which issued the following ruling under No. 4N/083/56:  "On February 6, 1956, the Court examined the appeal raised by the Military Prosecutor against the decision passed by the Fifth Tribunal of the NKVD on June 7, 1945, and predicated on paragraphs 10 and 11 of article 58 of the RSFSR Criminal Code, sentencing to eight years imprisonment in correctional labour camps Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, born in 1918 in the city of Kislovodsk, holder of the highest scientific awards and commander of an artillery unit before his detention who fought in the war against the Fascist German armies and was awarded the Order of the Patriotic War, Class II, and the Order of the Red Star.  Having heard the report of comrade Konev and the statement of Colonel Terkov, Assistant Military Prosecutor, the Court rules as follows:  the charges against Solzhenitsyn which are that between 1940 and 1945 he committed acts  of anti-Soviet propaganda among his friends  and took steps aimed at forming an anti-Soviet organization are declared null and void for absence of proof of the alleged crimes...."

Throughout these years, all Solzhenitsyn’s attempts to publish his works were met with adamant refusal.  However, in November 1962, Khrushchev himself authorized publication of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", Solzhenitsyn's harrowing novel about life in a Siberian labour camp under Stalin, in the context of Khrushchev's destalinisation policy. After Khrushchev’s downfall in 1964, Solzhenitsyn again became persona non grata and was the target of violent attacks by official Soviet writers. But by then,   which is around the time the literary dissident's movement was born,  he had acquired many supporters and admirers.  The attacks continued for almost ten years, during which the author was accused of being a traitor to socialism and an agent of American imperialist powers.  He was persecuted in his private life and transferred from one place to another.  The attacks reached a crescendo when he was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature and continued unabated until he left the Soviet Union in 1974.

Those who have followed the case closely affirm that Solzhenitsyn would have been assassinated or locked up in a psychiatric institution like so many others had it not been for the support of the free world and of the European communist parties, particularly those of Italy, France and Spain, and had his case not become a cause celebre  at the centre of world public opinion. Although the case of Solzhenitsyn provoked a great political furor and much international publicity, the history of communist societies is rife with similar, albeit less sensational, cases. The moral to be  drawn from the story of Alexander Solzhenitsyn is that in communist societies, where the rule of law  is replaced by `revolutionary legitimacy', there is no room for divergent views, which are invariably branded as anti-revolutionary and imperialist.  In fact, conformity or otherwise to `revolutionary legitimacy' is determined at the sole discretion of whoever happens to be in power at any given time.  The vicissitudes of Solzhenitsyn's fortunes prove just how flexible the concept of revolutionary democracy is:

1-      At a first phase, he was a legendary hero who had fought valiantly for the socialist fatherland and had been decorated twice for bravery.
2-     At a second phase, he was accused of betraying that same fatherland and sentenced to eleven years hard labour in the Siberian labour camps.  
3-      A third phase saw an upward turn in his fortunes.  He was absolved by the Supreme Court of the crimes for which he had paid with eleven years of his life and nominated for the Lenin Prize in 1963 for "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". Solzhenitsyn’s rehabilitation did not mean that the climate of tyranny and oppression had changed, but only that his writings served the interests of the new rulers.
4-      With Khrushchev's fall, a new stage in the decline of Solzhenitsyn's official standing began.  Once again he was denounced as an agent, a traitor, an enemy of socialism and a mediocre writer.

What emerges from Solzhenitsyn's life and writings, especially in the period between 1967 and 1974, and from all that has been written about him in the Soviet Union and abroad is that under communist rule, art and literature are tolerated only to the extent that they serve the regime and echo its slogans, regardless of intrinsic value.  Since the October Revolution, the Soviet Union has regarded its artists and writers as foot soldiers in its war against the enemy, deploying them to trumpet the victories of the regime and attack its critics.  A look at the novels,  plays, short stories and literary articles published in the Soviet Union since 1917 will show how the functional role assigned by the political leadership to literature and art has devitalized these traditionally strong forms of expression and rendered them sterile.  It is enough to compare the works put out after 1917 by the 'approved' authors, whose names are listed in the Soviet Encyclopaedia, with those of the great pre-revolutionary Russian writers, to realize the extent of the tragedy.  That the Soviets regard authors as instruments to be used for the furtherance of the regime's interests is clear from many official statements issued by the Soviet Writers' Union and from numerous articles which have appeared in Pravda.  A statement worth quoting here is that delivered on October 5, 1967, by the editor-in-chief of Pravda, M.F. Ziemanin, at the Press House in Leningrad:  

"The Western press has recently been full of malicious fabrications, using many of our writers whose works have reached the hands of our enemies.  The camp formed by the Western press to defend Tarsis only stopped its activities when Tarsis left for the West, thereby proving that he - Tarsis - was not sound of mind.  Nowadays, Solzhenitsyn is at the centre of capitalist propaganda.  He too is psychologically unbalanced.  He is a schizophrenic, a former prisoner who was subjected to oppression, deservedly or otherwise, and is now seeking revenge against the Soviet government through his literary works.  The only topic he  seems able to write about is life in the labour  camps, it has become a kind of obsession with   him.  Solzhenitsyn's works are an attack against the Soviet regime in which he sees nothing but bitterness and cancerous growths.  He sees nothing positive in our society. By virtue of my functions, I have access to unpublished works.  One of these was Solzhenitsyn's play, "The Feast of the Victors", which deals with the persecution of those who returned from the front.  It is an example of the anti-Soviet literature for which people in the past were imprisoned.

Clearly, we cannot publish his works, that is his one wish that we cannot gratify.  However, if he were to write stories that are in keeping with the interest of society, we will publish them. Solzhenitsyn will not want for bread and butter; he is a teacher of physics, let him teach.  He likes to make public speeches and to read his works to an audience...he was given the opportunity to do so...He considers himself a literary genius."

This text clearly expresses where literature stands in the country that, in a previous age, gave humanity some of its greatest writers and composers.  Today, any literary work that does not conform strictly to  the general line of the state is considered to be anti-Soviet and serving reactionary imperialist forces.  The problem is that the general line of the state differs from one ruler to the next - Lenin to Stalin, the transition to Khrushchev, then to Brezhnev and so on and so forth.  How can talents grow and develop when they are circumscribed by the party line?  How can literature be expected to fulfill its traditional function of educating, enlightening and correcting society in such circumstances?  Literature not only holds up the mirror in which society can see itself reflected, but, as the  light which seeks out and reveals all that is negative in that society -   in the political, economic and social spheres - is a vital tool for democracy, working relentlessly in the interest of society as a whole.

Repression in socialist societies, headed by the Soviet Union, has not only emptied literature of its essence and transformed it into an organ of state, it has created a new model of morality characterized by social apathy and selfishness.  Those who think that the Soviet people are all dissidents, whether overt or covert, are mistaken.  Apart from a small group, the Soviet people have been shaped by sixty years of a repressive police state into a unique moral mould.

First of all, the ordinary Soviet citizen has a totally unrealistic picture of the outside world, created by the all-powerful communist media which, as we mentioned in our book, "Communism and Religions", is the most dangerous weapon in the hands of the communists, whether before they come to power or after.  He believes that workers in the United States, France, West Germany, Canada and Britain live lives of poverty, suffering and humiliation.  As the Russian writer Lidiya Chukovskaya puts it, a huge wall has been erected between him and the outside world.  A good example of the ability of the Soviet media to shape the minds of Soviet citizens according to the party line and in total disregard of accuracy and truth is given by Hedrick Smith in his book, "The Russians".  As the Moscow correspondent of the New York Times in the early seventies, Smith had come to know Andrei Sakharov well.  Known as  the father of the Soviet H-bomb, full member of   the Soviet Academy of Sciences at the age of thirty-two, Sakharov had donated all his savings, some 140 thousand roubles (representing the proceeds of the huge financial privileges he had received as a member of the elite club of Soviet nuclear scientists, which Sakharov says were paid  to him secretly in sealed envelopes), to a government fund for a new cancer research centre.

In 1974, Smith met a prominent Soviet medical scientist.  The conversation turned to Sakharov and the scientist, unaware that Smith knew him personally, volunteered the information that Sakharov was mentally unbalanced.  When Smith disclosed that he was personally acquainted with Sakharov, the scientist leant over to whisper in his ear: "And how was he when you met him?  Is he really mad?"

Sakharov himself had a similar experience while on holiday at a Black Sea resort.  He became friendly with a group of Soviet intellectuals, to whom he did not disclose his real identity.  For days on end they spoke to him of Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviet H-bomb who had become a raving madman.  In an interview with the Swedish radio correspondent, Olle Stenholm, Sakharov expressed the situation very well:

"I am sceptical about socialism in general.  I don't see that socialism offers      some kind of new theoretical plan, so to speak, for the better organization of society...We have the same kind of problems - that is, crime and personal alienation - that are to be found in the capitalist world.  But our society represents an extreme case with maximum restraint, maximum ideological restrictions, and so forth...Moreover, and very characteristically, we are also the most pretentious - that is, although we are not the best society we pretend that we are much more..."

The situation described by Sakharov is the natural outcome of the role assigned by the party in the Soviet Union to thought, literature and to the mass media, whose discipline to the party line can be likened to that of military troops in battle to their commander: unthinking obedience.  If we compare the role of the Soviet mass media to that of the American. which were instrumental in bringing about the downfall of the president because of the Watergate scandal, we would immediately see the difference between what the Soviets denigrate as bourgeois democracy' and their brand of revolutionary democracy.  Another small example is worth giving here.  In the United States, Western democracy has created a new profession in the field of medicine: a representative of the media who is in contact with hospitals and medical centres to track down any cases of malpractice.  Any suspicion of malpractice is followed by a thorough investigation and, if confirmed, the media launch a strong campaign with serious consequences for the person or persons responsible, including civil liability.  This system is just one of many which have emerged in various fields as positive byproducts of the democratic process and its integration in all aspects of life in Western societies. An interesting comparison here is the account of Soviet medical facilities given by Solzhenitsyn in "Cancer Ward".  Throughout the six hundred pages of the novel, we are given a bitter description of medical services in a state that boasts the best free medical care in the world.

The glaring discrepancy between reality and the image projected by the mass media is not limited to the field of medicine, but is a phenomenon that extends to all aspects of life in the Soviet Union.    In fact, it is a natural consequence of the peculiar concept of democracy prevailing in the Soviet Union, where any opinion that does not conform to the official line is regarded as seditious talk by agents in the pay of foreign enemies.  According to Sakharov, Soviet citizens have been brainwashed by the Soviet media into believing that no one on the face of the earth tells the truth for the sake of truth.  The world is divided into parties and everyone belongs to one or the other of these parties, to which he gives his full loyalty.  This belief, nurtured by the Soviet mass media, has allowed the regime to keep the intelligentsia in line and to immunize most of the Soviet people against what they hear from the Western world.  Certainly too, the State's monopoly over the job market helps it maintain its grip on people who are totally dependent on it for their livelihood.

Those who do step out of line pay a heavy price.  To cite but a few examples:  Daniel and Sinyavsky spent more than five years in prison camps for smuggling out of the Soviet Union literary works that the authorities considered slanderous to the Soviet state; the poetess Natalya Gorpanyevskaya lost her job and was committed to a mental institution because she took part in a demonstration held in Red Square to protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; the historian Anatoly Petrovesky was dismissed from his job and blacklisted because he signed a statement in support of Daniel and Sinyavsky; the members of Sakharov's immediate family were persecuted simply because of   their association with him, and so on and so forth.  All this confirms the validity of Harold Lasky's proposition that a people who relinquish their political rights in exchange for promises of economic security will soon discover that they struck a losing bargain, for there is  nothing they can do if the promises are not kept. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Upcoming television interview 26 July, 2012

You may like to watch Tarek Heggy's assessment to the current political situation at The Channel "2" of The Egyptian TV at 23.00 hrs (11 pm) Cairo time on Thursday 26th July, 2012.