The rise of populism
I do not know why intellectuals seem resentful of the rise of populists. They are not a phenomenon, after all, but merely a phase. The intellectuals gave them the floor, so they flooded it with their discourse, grabbing people’s attention and then their hearts.
Intellectuals argue that populists live between the ear and the heart and are far away from the mind. This description is perhaps true but who said that reason is the best diagnostic tool for the situation the world is going through today?
Let’s divide the world in two: a democratic camp and the rest.
In the democratic camp, reasoning and intellect have declined. There is still plenty of cultural and artistic output but the intellectual challenge of ideas is on the decline.
Previously, liberal ideas were opposed to two intellectual currents embodied by coercive powers: on the one hand, there was a strong and emerging right-wing fascist ideology and, on the other, a Marxist ideology that wanted to impose the communist system on humanity.
This intellectual rivalry was profound but it took two world wars for liberalism to overcome its rivals. Fascism was ultimately defeated by both liberalism and communism in World War II and then communism was defeated by liberalism in the Cold War.
Once communism was defeated, the liberal West relaxed intellectually, even though it continued to be challenged politically and militarily in the so-called war on terror. It’s true that the “Clash of Civilisations” is a confrontation between different social systems but we can hardly say that Islamic militancy represents an intellectual challenge to the West. For the latter, countering extremism translated into police operations at home and military actions abroad. No serious Western thinker would consider writing the liberal response to the Islamist “ideological” position.
And so this intellectual discontinuity, or intellectual vacuum, so to speak, created a void. It’s not always possible to fill people’s lives with an endless stream of entertaining series and programmes, technological innovations and festivals. To have fun in life is a basic need but in complex societies such as Western ones, someone is bound to say “OK, now what?” This dimension can have many facets, including aggression and xenophobia against foreigners, Muslims and immigrants.
Another facet is rebellion against authority and the political system that brought about the ideological vacuum. When there is no investment in ideas and intellectual activity and when the West’s intellectual product looks more like old heritage, the mind retreats and leaves space for the ear and then the heart. Crowds are driven by words and emotions and, since the West’s system is based on democracy, it is the crowds that make the difference.
When populists address the people, they target their base instincts and the latter responds by voting for them. It is difficult to rationalise this phenomenon because the West has taken for granted that liberal thinking is rational and nobody considered reformulating this thinking by using a flexible modern discourse that is suitable for the unfolding changes. In the past, Westerners went to school to acquire knowledge and become intellectually fit. Today, they get their knowledge from YouTube and social networking.
In the rest of the world, the situation was surreal. In the post-independence period, nationalism emerged as a system of government rather than an intellectual one. It did not last long and was fatally wounded in the 1967 war and then died and was buried in Baghdad in 2003.
The Islamist alternative has been with us since the day the Ottoman Army was ousted from our countries. Still, calls for establishing a caliphate or an imamate flourished in recent times and took on different hues such as those of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafism and Khomeinism, while, in reality, they are all similar in their core. They all say that the solution to our problems is right under our noses but we fail to see it.
The task of this intellectual system is to give us a road map to this solution. If in the meantime the price to pay for this solution was the total disruption of the social or political orders, it is still worth pursuing because the result is divine and it is beckoning us.
And that is what happened. It started with the Iran-Iraq war, then Arabs and Islamists thronged to fight in Afghanistan; then we had the invasion of Kuwait followed quickly by invasion of Iraq. These wars were the prelude to the all-out Arab civil wars.
Many wars are raging right now backed up by an even greater number of cold wars. The biggest winner of all the current wars is populist rhetoric armed with religion. For decades, Arab ears and hearts have been bombarded with this rhetoric, which has resulted in the eviction of Dame Reason. This leads us to the present moment.
Except for a couple of modest and impressionistic attempts, there has been no Arab intellectual response to populism, neither the populism of the Muslim Brotherhood nor the populism of the Salafists nor the populism of Khomeinism. In fact, the opposite has happened.
These currents of religious populism have attracted intellectuals who were drawn or forced into a polarised environment that could no longer tolerate any diversity. The populist conquest was overwhelming and could not tolerate opposition. Those who don’t like it are free to migrate to another place and must refrain from voicing their opinions.
In the West, like in the East, we are perplexed. Western populism is still in its infancy and we do not know whether “Trumpism” is a passing fad or an institution or whether Brexit is the beginning of the schisms or their end. Arab populism seems well established, easy to understand but in many ways also incomprehensible. In either case, it looks like this stage is going to last.