Hisham Sharabi, Neopatriarchy: A Theory of Distorted Values in Arab Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.)
Failure on a theoretical and practical level has forced the Arab left to reconsider classical Marxism. This new work by Hisham Sharabi is a theoretical contribution to this reconsideration, taking the theory of Samir Amin as its point of departure. Why in matters of development has the Arab world lagged behind many other parts of the periphery, such as Latin America? Sharabi locates the answer in the cultural system of neopatriarchy in the Arab world. His arguments and conclusions will be new even to Middle East specialists, as Middle Eastern studies has yet to integrate seriously the study of culture, language and gender into political economy. To the extent that this is now beginning to happen, it still reflects Western cultural politics more than it does those of the Arab world. We still do not have writers widely read in the commentary literature on Marxism, structuralism and feminism in the Middle East.
Amin viewed the failed transition to capitalist modernity in economic terms. He once drew the political conclusion that the Arab world needed to de-link from the world system. Later he indicated that this would not be feasible, but without suggesting how the left should understand where the Arab world is heading.
Sharabi terms the systems resulting from this failed transition neopatriarchy. His analysis, originally published in Arabic, locates neopatriarchy both on the manifest level of political economy and on the latent level of language, custom and religion. The book’s originality lies in its integration of these other discourses into Marxism.
Classical Arabic, a medieval language, is an uncertain medium for communicating modern critical thought, in Sharabi’s view. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, modern Arab regimes have insisted that the classical language be the only recognized vehicle for communication. They have blocked the formal use of colloquial Arabic, which remains too undeveloped for systematic thought. At the same time, leaders honor family customs left over from the feudal period. Citing Arab feminist writers Fatima Mernissi and Nawal Saadawi, Sharabi argues that the major consequences of maintaining traditional culture and language is the stunting of the development of a mature Arab female personality. The form it takes in the Arab world, by combining with the language and culture of the region, usually means that women can rarely realize the equality with men proclaimed in constitutions and political documents. Modern politicians — Saddam Hussain of Iraq and the late Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt come to mind — promote a father-centered lingo of traditional familialism. Generalized in the society, patriarchal familialism combines with periphery capital to oppress women and in the process retard the development of rule by law.
Sharabi finds the rising political influence of new religious fundamentalists to be a logical consequence of the
unrootedness of any real modern secular culture, itself a consequence of neopatriarchy. When the Arab states experience setbacks, the superficial modern rhetoric of socialism and mobilization rapidly gives way to a scary passivity. An activist such as Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian Islamist martyr, poses the alternative of following God&rsquos way or man’s. Since man’s has failed, one need no longer struggle with hard choices of politics or culture. Sharabi, though, does not put the Arab world in the same situation as Iran before 1979; the Arab Islamist movements, he contends, are much less coherent than the Iranian one.
What sort of politics is possible for progressives in the present context of neopatriarchy? Sharabi argues that Arab progressives must accept the futility of capturing the state. In the Arab world, he argues, Marxism would become a tool of despotism. Preparatory phases are necessary for real social change. Sharabi concentrates on the role intellectuals can play: they should seek fundamental human rights and rule by (secular) law, both for purposes of individual survival and general resocialization. The social base for such change, he believes, lies in the pan-Arabist professional community and trade union movement — organizations which have been playing an important role over the past decade.
Sharabi grounds his writing in a part of contemporary Arab intellectual life that we in the United States rarely see. His chief inspiration is the Lebanese literary critic and poet, Adonis, a founder of the modernist school and one of the most famous living Arab writers.
While one might ask a writer in the Arab context to explain how his conclusions fit conditions in different Arab countries, or to expand on the role of everyday struggle, the issue in this country will be to monitor how the American power structure uses this book. Will the political right appropriate it to attack the Arab world? Will political economy partisans write it off for not following a familiar line of analysis? Will post-structuralists recognize a book concerned with subjectivity, sexuality and personality formation in a Third World context? A book written for the Arab world cannot be designed to parry every thrust here. It will likely serve as a litmus test of intellectual attitudes here about the Arab world.