Missing Our Liberal Renaissance

These thoughts have been wandering in my mind for some time, and have only recently, within the context of a conversation, found a way to congeal into something articulate. Actually, articulate is not the right word, but let’s go with that for now.

The other day, a fairly socially liberal colleague told me, out of the blue, how surprised he was at the girls he’s noticed at a certain club called Eight(?). For someone liberal to comment on the clothes young girls wear at these clubs (or lack thereof) peeked my interest. He noted something I found particularly interesting and that I’ve talked about here before, and I think many people feel the same way. He said that having traveled to many places in the world, he had never seen anything similar to what was on display in Amman lately.

This opens the pandora’s box of just how bad we are at imitating western social ideals.

This opens the pandora’s box of how we’ve taken only the “bad stuff” and left the “good stuff” from the western world.

This opens the pandora’s box about sexual revolution in Amman.

This opens the pandora’s box of morality and social degradation in Amman.

This opens the pandora’s box where the left becomes more liberal, and thus the right becomes more conservative, and so on and so forth until our society is torn at the seams.

This opens so many pandora boxes, and every little debate and idiosyncratic arguments you can think of when it comes to social analysis. Everyone’s favorite conversation these days. And to think, this anthology of cliche debates, which although valid, has become increasingly redundant and boring these days, and it all possibly started with the wardrobe choice of a simple 21 year old western Ammani girl who wanted to go clubbing one night.

And boy is this post timely. With Valentines Day coming up and the western side of town being painted red with commercialized plastic hearts, my cynical nature is inclined to write something about such absurdities in our developing of an underdeveloped neo-liberal culture.

But I won’t.

I promise.

This post isn’t about any of those cliches. It isn’t a rant about western Amman or westernization or anything of that sort. It’s really about liberalism. It’s about how we define it, socially.

I’ve studied and continue to study the political sciences so my definitions of liberalism may invoke hints of Thomas Hobbes or John Locke and his treatsies. Maybe even some Smith, Kant or Hume. They are to liberalism what Shakespeare is to English literature: architects.

Conservatism always seems to have been defined by values. Religious, cultural, social, traditional; values. But to be liberal is an interesting thing, because technically, in our new social understanding of the word, it has simply come to mean, the opposite of conservative.

To define oneself or to define another as being liberal is pretty unique. Because it invokes a sensibility of how we define liberalism. To those looking to separate social, political and economic liberalism as entities unto themselves, should take a look at the classic literature, not to mention history, once again. They are all entwined.

When I speak of liberalism in the context of this narrative, in the context of the above issues, in the context of Jordan and perhaps the Arab world, I am not talking about a specific ideology that can be labeled as strictly “political” or “economic” or “social”.

I am speaking of an environment. I am speaking of a realm of liberalism; an on-going history of liberalism that inspired great thinkers, artists, politicians, philosophers, poets, writers. They developed an industry of ideas and free-thought. They argued with each other. They disagreed. They fought. They grappled with issues. And they inspired.

And from that, a renaissance was born.

And I feel we, in the Arab world, sort of missed that phase.

At least if we are to first define as what’s currently taking place as the emergence of a neo-liberal, wealthy strata of society.

I’ll give you an example:

Many of us who are in their 20’s and possibly culture vultures, have probably heard about these ancient coffee shops and diwans they used to have in downtown Amman, where some of the country’s greatest intellectuals, writers, poets, politicians, economists, mingled in a humble atmosphere, drinking Turkish coffee and debating. Maybe it was only for a brief moment in our history, not just Jordan’s but the modern Arab world in general. But that sort of liberal atmosphere does not exist any longer. It’s only described to us, as 20-something year olds, in books and lengthy narratives in the daily papers sometimes. Perhaps its even become part of the oral history passed down to us by our parents.

And I wish sometimes we were able to define liberalism that way. To say “so and so is very liberal” and mean that this is a person who is part of a renaissance, rather than a person who wears skimpy clothes and goes bar-hopping on a Thursday night.

I imagine an Amman where diwans, coffee shops and art galleries were the venues of liberalism, rather than bars and clubs. And that we labeled them with words like “cool” and “hip”. And that we lined up outside these places, eager to get in and listen to a respected local thinker or poet or philosopher, give a lecture or a passionate speech from the heart. Where great writers that shape the world are born. Our Tolstoys and Humes. The resurrection of Ibn Sina.

I sometimes imagine an Amman where great thinkers walk to a coffee shop in the balad to engage in the great debate. Where someone stands up to recite poetry. Where someone develops a theory; develops a book. Where ideas collide in this crucible of forward and universal thinking that build intellectual capacity. And on the tables that border the sidewalk, painters would, as Shakespeare might put it, behold the swelling scene.

I imagine people passing by and pointing them out as “crazy communists” or bohemians wanting to destroy all that is wholesome in our society.

I imagine this renaissance and think about how we define liberalism today. What it means to call someone ‘liberal’ or to be witness to a scene that is defined as a ‘liberal’ act.

Author’s Note: Based on the comments and emails received so far I feel the need to clarify one point that may have been misunderstood. I am not defining liberalism in Jordan as what a girl wears (or doesn’t), as this is just an example of how we – in the collective sense of the word – have come to define liberalism or a liberal act. That is, the eternal misconception of being liberal. There are various other examples that include atheists, elitists, intellectuals, free-traders and even people who listen to techno music: all of whom are labeled as liberals in Jordan.


  • ” sometimes imagine an Amman where great thinkers walk to a coffee shop in the balad to engage in the great debate. Where someone stands up to recite poetry. Where someone develops a theory; develops a book. Where ideas collide in this crucible of forward and universal thinking that build intellectual capacity. And on the tables that border the sidewalk, painters would, as Shakespeare might put it, behold the swelling scene.”

    يا نسيم ،نعم كلنا نريد أن نتخيل عمان مدينه مفتوحه وتتستقبل الرائ والرأئ الاخر،مفتوحه للكل الشعب من المدرس والمفكر والعبقري والكاتب والمدون والمهندس Ùˆ العلاامه والطبيب والسائق ومصفف الشعر والعتال والقهوجي والسمان والعامل الكادح وبائع البليله والترمس والخباز والنجار وحتي الاغنياء مصاصين الدماء وكل انسان يحمل دماغ يريد الخير والضمير الي شعبنا،،ولكن في المقابل يا نسيم ØŒ انت وانا علي يقين ماذا سوف يحصل عندما 5 أشخاص يريدون الاجتماع والتحدث عن مشاكل البلد،أنا لست متفائل الي ما سيحصل الي الاردن … بلمناسبه ليش حدفت تعليقي من قائمه المعلقين؟؟

  • Ù† ماذا سوف يحصل عندما 5 أشخاص يريدون الاجتماع والتحدث عن مشاكل البلد،

    I agree with you here. I think there need to foundations, but I also think people can lay them themselves despite the circumstances. In other words, if people can force ideologies into a one direction then they can force it into another and with that, the dominoes begin to fall.

    (I closed the comment section for that post as i did with the habash post a week ago. I think people, despite their viewpoints, have difficulty in respecting the dead. So its better to avoid the conflict in this instance. But if you have any further queries email me, as to not digress this topic)

  • We are limited, everything around us limits us, rules set by others and rules set by us, rules we enforce on ourselves to feel secure, while other rules make us less secure from the inside…
    I feel that some of us in jordan are bounded by our dreams and aspirations, maybe this sounds odd, but sometimes it is true;the poor just want to feed their kids and keep them warm,the student bounds him/herself with his/her study and grades, if you are a businessman you bound yourself with money matters, if you are a sheikh you bound your self to relegion, etc…

    And the term liberal in our part of the world is synonmuos with heretic.

  • For those great thinkers to exist (seen arguing in cafes developing great thoughts), the right conditions must exist.

    Part of the problem also is that many of the great treaties exist and have framed our thinking in such a way that it is very difficult to break out of that frame of mind.

    I think economics plays a large part in whether those people are able to hang out and pursue knowledge for the sake of pursing knowledge. Many of those traditional cafe thinkers have moved to universities and research institutes where they can be paid to think and research and write. Or maybe some of them have moved online?

    That, and politically, it is very dangerous to challenge the status quo.

    Cultural renaissance I think is just over the horizon. Especially as Jordan sheds a certain identity (Bedouin) and attempts to adopt a new identity (Western). Many cases in history provide ideas on how it will turn out. Few of them good.

    The greatest challenge is determining what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ in a sense that works in todays world. This paradigm, in my opinion needs to be challenged.

  • I consider myself a liberal, in the sense that I believe in the freedom of opinion and choice. I didn’t realise it had something to do with clubbing or bar-hopping. Maybe we don’t have intellectuals discussing important matters in ancient coffeeshops anymore, but it doesnt mean we dont have thinkers anymore. This blog, or any other, is the proof of that: people coming together to discuss subjects that inspire, have a potential of changing society. Thats liberalism.

  • People are going to hate me for saying this, but I offer it as an honest insight for your consideration:

    I see three decisive times in the history of Islam that convince me that Islamic society in general is resistant to genuine creativity or liberalism–understood as the pursuit of liberty.

    The first is the sunna or pattern of the Prophet. I cannot discus this in detail because my comment would probably be censored by the government. Suffice to say that he gathered ALL power into his own hands: military, judicial, religious, legislative–you name it. If this is the pattern of the perfect man (al insaan al kaamil) then it isunderstandable that future generations of Muslims would govern under the same pattern.

    The second occasion was the defeat of the Mutazilites by the Asharis. The Mutazilites, you may recall, were quite rationalistic, and they treated the Quran accordingly, as an historical document that was created at a certain time in a certain place. This very reason-centered form of Islam was suppressed of course and the doctrine of the increate nature of the Quran triumphed. Muslims end up in the unenviable position of decrying Christianity for saying that the Son is eternal with the Father and calling them mushrikiin, while Muslims must affirm that the Quran is eternal with Allah, but that they are somehow not mushrikiin. Christianity at least has a nuanced theology of the incarnation and Trinity to discuss the question. Islam does not.

    The third occasion is the adoption of al Ghazalis Incoherence of the Philosophers (tahafut al falasifa). I won’t go into detail, but Islamic orthodoxy became resistant to philosophical enquiry and criticism.

    The probable objections are: But what about the scientific brilliance of medieval Islam? I have an answer to that. Or this one: the miserable state of Islam is due to European colonialism. Rubbish, look at Hong Kong, or India, or the USA even, all former colonies, but they seem to be doing fairly well. But look at the former colonies that are Muslim: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh–these are the ones that have really failed to develop.

    I hope that here people will really consider these claims I am making. I am not an angry or bitter person. I am not an Islamophobe. I am a person who loves wisdom and loves the Middle East and the people that live here.

  • I like to play a game with myself. As I browse the titles of the latest blogs through Qwaider Planet RSS, I like to try to guess who wrote an article just from the title.

    I’ve been doing this for over 6 months, and this is the first time I got it right. I just saw (Missing Our Liberal Renaissance), and thought, this has Nas written all over it !

  • It was already clear to me what the word liberal meant before I read this post, and I don’t think the 21 year old woman (why girl?) you mentioned was trying to be a liberal when she dresses a certain way.

    I still don’t understand the term “neo-liberal” although I’ve been called that several times in the past few months. Although I got the impression from the context that the person using that term intended it to mean (satan incarnate)! What does it mean to you ?

  • Brilliant post!

    Like many comments, I feel the need to affirm that wearing skimpy clothes has nothing to do with liberalism; any girl who wears revealing clothes but is ‘inspired’ by looking pretty and finding an ‘appropriate’ husband is solidly conservative to me because she is simply adopting passed down expectations of her role as a woman. There is nothing liberal about that.

    At the same time, I have met numerous women in conservative areas of Jordan (such as Ma’an and Al Dleil in Zarqa) who are veiled, but they have pioneered projects in their community – with barely any resources – that are thoroughly liberal.

    That is why I have to disagree with ramsey above; a liberal renaissance has nothing to do with economics. If it did, then my well-off friends would by buying books and newspapers instead of clothes and cigarettes. They would have chosen to study in universities abroad instead of getting a fancy car in Amman. Unfortunately they chose the latter.

    Social and cultural change has to come from within, and it needs energy and people who are ready to dedicate their time and effort. This is especially the case with liberalism; if Arab liberals are not careful to adopt a genuine local liberalism from within, then they will always be accused of ‘importing’ Western ideas.

    And to abu dauod, (you seem to be a Karen Armstrong reader too! hehehhe) I would like to offer a different way of looking at the same event: instead of looking at the defeat of the Mu3tazalah, consider instead that they DID exist. What I am trying to say is, we must not forget that during the abbassid era more scientific inventions were recorded per century than any other time in ancient history (the Greek inventions were spread out over many centuries). During the abassid era we had the largest library in the world, and Arabic was the language of global intellectualism for over 6 entire centuries! During the mu3tazalah rein in the abassid era, more books were produced in Arabic than any other language … today Greece alone produces more books than the 22 Arab countries combined.

    Yes the traditionalists did take over, and the Mu3tazalah and failasufs have been defeated, but we can not blame Islam for that, just conservative muslims who are resistant to change. Islam under the mu3tazala and the Abbasids marks the SINGLE incident in human history were science and religion were seen to be harmonious. Now that is something to be proud of … and rejuvenating such an approach would be the most culturally effective means of defining a form of ‘Arab liberalism’ ….

    Apologies for the long post :p

  • ” see three decisive times in the history of Islam that convince me that Islamic society in general is resistant to genuine creativity or liberalism–understood as the pursuit of liberty.”
    I ,myself As atheist ,anarchist and leftist abu daoud,,did you ever heard of those scholars thinker scientist

    ,such as ibn Sena, the greatest doctors of his time ibn Khaldoun,plitical scientist who changed the theory of political science ,Al Khwarizmi father of logarithms and mathematician.
    your statement not only lack empirical statement but hate and ignorance ,I looked at your blog and it seems you are bend in hatting Islam because your lack of eduction on Islamic renaissance of the world,and you are not trained scholar to examine christianity let alone Islam.

  • Salaam ‘Alaikum

    Heresy is not the answer to the problems of the Arab world, and it’s a sad old excuse from the 20’s to blame “Islam” for the failure of the Arab nations (just as it is a sad old excuse to blame the colonialists). It’s funny to me that some of the most innovative, successful Muslims I know, careerwise, thoughtwise, are Western-born Muslims who adhere to a traditional, Ash’ari or Maturidi school of ‘aqida. I’m talking filmmakers, poets, scientists, doctors, computer programmers, teachers, writers, designers, business people, and so forth. If we don’t have the same types of people present here, then perhaps the problem isn’t with so-called “traditional” Islam, but something else. I wonder if, then, it might have as much or more to do with the *culture* than the form that one’s faith takes. I frankly do not believe the talk that Middle Eastern society and culture today is so informed and formed by Islam. Upon observation, I do not believe it much at all. I think it’s simply used as a scapegoat for the failure to address real problems, or as a means of comfort when one wants to withdraw from real challenges. People wrap themselves up in “Islam huwwal hal” and in the preaching and finger wagging instead of getting down to business.

  • I couldn’t just not to comment on this blog!!
    I’ve read all the comments and it seems to me that we have a really serious bunch of intellectuals and thinkers here and to look at it these differenr minds that come from different places still were able to find each other and debate about a lot of things.
    Nas i think that every community and nation has to undergo certain internal social events and changes that at the end would give birth to a healthy progressive society, I mean our nation didnt have a chance to devolop itself again in a healthy way especially during the ottaman empire and the 20th century you can consider it our medieval times and i really believe in this!!
    So NAS our Renaissance is still to come and i believe it is coming, but if you check the history of all nations, iis the intellectuals who lead the people you can’t expect the poor and the uneducated to lead the changes not because they’re not capable but because of their situation!!
    but our intellectuals are still hiding and lingering in their solitude and blaming their luck to be born in these times!!
    And nas i really respect your writing and i think you’re real smart and talented guy but i think if you write in arabic you can reach to lots of other people !!
    At the end it is our language and it is suffering as everything in our society!!

  • Hello Um Zaid and Deena, thanks for the comments.

    Specifically to Al Mashkalgi: I am wondering here whose comments are filled with hate and ignorance. You do not like my blog, fair enough. To accuse me of hate though is to move into dangerous territory. I have it on good authority that how we judge others will determine how God will judge us some day. If we form judgments hastily and with a desire to condemn, God will do the same thing with us.

    Do you honestly think I know about the mutazilite controversy and al ghazali and not know the figures you mentioned?

    May God give you peace and charity in your heart and mind–I discern that they are not presently there.

  • I kind of agree with Deena a but i will not get into the whole liberalism debate, as it is 9:00 and I have checked in my brain yesterday night and will not get it back till tomorrow morning. I just don’t like the way we always tend to put moral or social degradation in the same category as skimpy clothing. I think these young women who dress in this manner are experimenting with their sexuality, their identities as women, they are learning how to bargain. Which are all values that are very modern to our society, but is in no way imported. Women, at this side of the world have always known how to use their assets as women. We lost this knowledge somehow along the way, and now these young girls have the setup and the luxury to try and explore this knowledge again. What I am saying is that this might not be as bad as it seems from a first glance… A lot of these girls grow up and learn how to carry themselves with elegance and dignity. A lot of them are actually smart intelligent women who are simply exploring and testing the ground.

  • I don’t really have a very clear cut understanding of the history of Islam but I got something from what Abu Daoud was saying, he’s right Islam is a bit “resistant to liberalsm” however I will have to disagree about Islam not being capable of embracing liberalism since liberalism is something that can change the identity of a culture and the traditions that surround it it is only understandable that a culture that is so strongly founded upon it’s religion (please correct me if I exaggerate) would have some resistance to a “Liberal Renaissance”? I can also see why it is something that’s causing some uproar but I think all countries experience this resistance to liberalism I mean from my own personal experience living in a country that is half and half you see that society in the USA definitely has resisted liberalism, I mean it was only a few years back (around 2000) when I was in 5th grade the teachers at my schools had a rule that forbade us to have PDA (public displays of affection)it got really bad too it pretty much “outlawed” hugging holding hands et cetera even with a same-sex platonic amie. All this to stop the “bad eggs”(ha-ha) from kissing each other in the hall It was a bit absurd because how many ten year olds do you know that actually care about the whole kissing thing anyway, go figure but still society in the usa resists a certain aspects of liberalism even now. I guess the usa is pretty liberal comparatively but but then again it varies(to an extent) per state in america up here ina alska i think we are generally more conservative than places like new York etc, and lord knows there are alot southern Baptists here too who think girls or boys who wear “skimpy” clothes are gonna rot in H*ll. America, being a younger country, has not had alot of time for a “liberal renaissance” to run it’s course and that’s why we still have a bit of resistance I think that Islam like any other society undergoing such a change just needs a bit of time right? I mean you can’t just pour the cool sweet syrup of liberalism all over a scolding hot Islam Pancake, you gotta let her cool down first and then you can enjoy the non-mushy tasting liberal society.

    Oh, and Abu Daoud could you maybe hook me up with a clearer layout of “three decisive times in the history of Islam” business? I would like to learn more about the details of it if you please.

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  • Abu Dauod,,,Spar me your “blessing” and “prayer” I told you Iam an atheist ,anarchist and leftest that don’t believe in the idea of your god or their god, and Iam not here to come to the rescue of muslims,but when I suspect biased and agitation in any body’s writing I will inject my ideas and opinion your are not only biased and ignorant but want to convert Muslim to Christianity and in your fantasy thinking ,you think that people will come in herds to adopt christianity ,but I have bad news for you mr Abo Dauod, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world right now and would not be able to off set the balance…..

  • Hani Obaid,,,,No you are not neoliberal, but a”Normaliser”مطبع بلعربي الفصيح او منبطح للاستعمار ,if you know what I mean…and by the way,Hani,you did not answer my question on Kilany’s blog,why you ran away??????

  • Mashkalgy: I will spare you the religious speech. Islam is growing faster, which is bad for you as an atheist and murtadd. I also do believe in religious freedom and as a Christian welcome Muslims to embrace Christianity if they desire to do so. I also believe that Christians have the right to leave Christianity and embrace Islam if they want to, though such a decision is a bad one, in my opinion.

    Jessica: Good questions. I’ll start at the beginning and refer you to a hadiith about the Prophet of Islam, read it all at this Muslim website:

    Islam Q and A

    Regarding the mu’tazilite controversy, Wikipedia is a good place to start.

    Same with Al Ghazali and if you are feeling like really getting into the fray you can download his seminal “Incoherence of the Philosophers” in Arabic or English at alghazali.org.

  • Jessica,
    Muslim/Arab prosperous reign fell about the time America was discovered.. So I do not think from anthropology point of view that the two cultures have same struggles and constraints at the moment.

    Abo Daoud,
    The Abbasid Caliph “Al-Mamun” had a genuine enlightment based on science and free thought, as head of state he had the full capacity to empower his views and thats when real development was achieved. True secular thinking, nothing over rules the other. I totally agree with you, Al-Ghazali stream was a start to downfall. But would disagree to mark Islam as resistant to lebralism, its the control of religous thinking over public affairs. Christian and Jewish history have alot similar incidents.

    Leftists are marked with free thought and not opressive.

    I believe that main streem culture is just kidnapping the seen, corrections are rendered to economic development.

  • Abu Daud,,,,,Ah ah, “murtadd” from what, how and from which, you sound like Muslim fundamentalist,if you ask me .

  • To abu daoud: Wikipedia is never a good source of information because it depends on the personal integrity of its contributors, and anyone can contribute, whether they know about the subject or not.

    To Jessica: Please note that while ‘liberalism’ may have been a foreign ideology in American culture to which the latter had to adapt (as you describe it), it is not a foreign concept to Islam. In fact, secular liberalism as you know it today is the brainchild of the Muslim scholar Ibn Rushd, known in the West as Averroes. He is recently to be featured in a series by The Independent (a liberal UK newspaper) as one of the greatest thinkers of all time. His book is a great place to start. In ‘The incoherence of the incoherence’ he replies to Al-Gazzali’s arguments (mentioned above) point by point, and concludes that secularism, philosophy and Islam are not only compatible but integral (so no need to cool off a hot pancake there!)

    It is worth noting that Islam is the ONLY religion to have adopted a liberal renaissance from within. The European renaissance only happened after a drift between the state and the church.

Your Two Piasters: