Beirut – European Totalitarianism in the Mirrors of Contemporary Arab Thought

(Orient-Institut, October 1, 2010)

This conference aims at exploring the perception of European totalitarianism, both in its Fascist and Stalinist varieties, by contemporary Arab thinkers and movements from the 1920s to the 1950s. Please download the program here.

The conference takes place from October 6 to 8 in Monroe Hotel, Ain Mreisseh, Beirut. It is supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG).

The conference agenda is accomplished by a discussion on Thursday evening, October 7, under the title “No Totalitarianism in Lebanon!?” (see here) in which the participants talk about supposedly “totalitarian” features in Lebanese politics and about their personal experiences with them.

The Historical Background
The rapid rise of communist and fascist movements in Europeafter World War I constituted a main watershed in European history. The intellectual and political impact of these “antagonistic twins” and their fundamental challenge to liberal thought, however, was not restricted to Europe alone. It radiated also to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In North Africa and the Middle East, intellectuals and policy-makers were partly fascinated and partly alarmed by what they saw emerge in Europe.  Their assessment of the new phenomena and of what they might mean for the Arab world led some of them to reshape their own political agendas, alliances, and visions of society at home.

The Methodological Concept
Using the controversial concept of “totalitarianism” in the conference title is not meant to blur the differences between fascist and communist movements, but addresses a common aspect that is still relevant in the Middle East until today: the fascination for a strong state that abolishes the boundaries between governmental powers, society and the individual and suspends societal and individual autonomy in the name of a superior idea. The concept’s focus on the elimination of institutional boundaries between State, Society, and the Individual has often been accused to overstress the similarities between fascism and communism and to obliterate the manifest differences between them. Yet, we consider it a fruitful heuristic tool to discuss the ideological frames of state-society relations in the age of globalization.

The Research Questions
Although there is a lot of scattered evidence about the impact of European totalitarianism on contemporary Arab intellectuals, politicians, and movements, little effort has been spent to study the empirical material with the help of reception theory and the concept of totaliarianism in a comprehensive, systematic, and comparative perspective.

Western historical research about the impact of European totalitarianism(s) on Arab intellectuals and movements has mainly focused on Palestine and Iraq during World War II, especially on the links between the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amīn al-Ḥusaynī, and the short-lived Rashīd ‘Alī al-Ghaylānī government with Nazi Germany. Much less is known, e.g., about the intellectual and political impact of Italian and Spanish fascism in North Africa; about the decisive ‘seduction period’ of the 1920s and 1930s, the perception of the Stalinist show trials of the late 1930s, the end and aftermath of World War II (breakdown of Fascism, expansion of Soviet communism, foundation of Israel), and the impact of the de-Stalinization period of the mid-1950s; about critical approaches towards fascism and Stalinism in the Arab world; about intellectual and political links between the perception of Communism and Fascism; and, above all, on the patterns, motives, and regional varieties of perceiving, “translating”, evaluating, endorsing, imitating, rejecting, or simply ignoring the perceived phenomena of European totalitarianism in different segments of the Arab public from the 1920s to the 1950s.

More documentation here