It has been almost 35 years since the publication of Hisham Sharabi’s book “Neopatriarchy: A Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society.” The fact that the book remains highly relevant decades after its first release is a sobering reminder of how much remains to be done. Sharabi, who passed away in 2005, was a Palestinian activist and professor of history at Georgetown University in Washington DC, and is one of the most important Arab intellectuals of the 20thcentury. “Neopatriarchy” remains his most abiding and ambitious work.

Deeply disillusioned with the state of play in the Arab World, Sharabi begins the book by asking, “What is the cause of this abject helplessness, this hopeless disunity, this global collapse? Is it just Zionism, colonialism, imperialism? Or is it something else, something at the heart of the society, some invisible disease eating at the center?” (1988:viii). Although, like the (in)famous orientalist Bernard Lewis, Sharabi begins with the question, “What went wrong in the Arab World?” unlike Lewis and his orientalist ilk, Sharabi combines an intimate insider’s point of view with a rigorous analytical lens. It is a work of great urgency and fury, at once full of despair and hope.

Arab society remains stuck in a liminal space that is neither fully traditional nor fully modern, but neopatriarchal.

The core proposition of the book is that Arab society remains stuck in a liminal space that is neither fully traditional nor fully modern, but neopatriarchal. A fundamental feature of neopatriarchal society is the dominance of the paternal archetype: where even in the garb of a modern nation-state, all relations remain subsumed under a patriarchal logic of dominance and hierarchy that renders dialogue and consensus impossible.

Neopatriarchy finds its origins in the colonial experience. Colonialism transmuted traditional Arab patriarchy by introducing a form of capitalism in the Arab World that was distorted and dependent, and which in time, would give rise to the petty bourgeoisie. This hybrid class is neither properly working-class nor authentically bourgeoisie; it is neither completely rural nor properly urban; it has neither shaken off the shackles of religion and tradition nor is it capable of fully rejecting modernity. It is a class of contradictions and schizophrenic tendencies.

Book Cover

Book Cover

The petty bourgeoisie overwhelmed most Arab cities as rural exodus and demographic explosion began in earnest in the 1940s. Following independence, this hybrid class became the dominant social class in the Arab World. It grabbed political power in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Algeria, not through popular mobilization but through coups and violence.

Although speaking the language of revolution, the reactionary roots of this class meant that they were unable to generate neither capitalist development nor bring about true social revolutions. Instead, they produced a tyrannical state that dominated all oppositional social forces through repression. Instead of pluralism, the paternal figure returned in the guise of the great leader, aided by the quintessential petty bourgeoisie’s creation: the mukhabarat (secret police), which to a large degree has come to define Arab states.

The petty bourgeoisie and external capitalism are key factors of neopatriarchy, but they are not enough to grasp its fundamental character. Sharabi also emphasizes historical legacy. He argues that the pure despotism of the Ottoman period is fundamental in understanding the development of Arab neopatriarchy and that the Arab state is a new and distorted form of sultanic state-formation. Here, Sharabi’s analysis falters a bit, for power in the Ottoman period was a good deal more decentralized and diffused than even the most dysfunctional of contemporary Arab states.

The petty bourgeoisie and external capitalism are key factors of neopatriarchy.

The Ottoman sultans ruled by delegating power to various mediating local and religious forces, while the modern Arab state allows for no such mediation and attempts to erase all forms of independent power. As Sharabi himself maintains, the fundamental characteristic of the neopatriarchal state is that it seeks to break down the old bonds of extended family, clan, and religious organizations, even as it is unable to replace them with anything else.

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Sharabi traces the origins of the reactionary character of much of Arab intellectual life to the fact that most of the prominent figures of the 19th century movement of the so-called Arab Awakening, or Arab Enlightenment, were graduates from missionary schools. These schools taught Western ideas and science but were idealist and conformist rather than creative and critical, emphasizing rote learning rather than innovation. This passive approach to knowledge came to be reproduced in the Arab schools and universities following independence.

Hisham Sharabi

Hisham Sharabi

Sharabi finds another reason for the stifled intellectual climate of the Arab world in the Arabic language itself. He argues that the fact that what is essentially a traditional, classical language is used as the primary means of education and academic communication hampers critical thinking. The gap between a living, spoken language and the archaic, written language comes to reinforce learning without understanding for school children. Classical Arabic, even in its Modern Standard form, harkens back to a pre-scientific mode of being, emphasizing rote-learning, incantations, and the magic of catchwords, rather than rationality and scientific thinking.

While generally disparaging of contemporary Arab scholars, Sharabi also expresses a great deal of admiration for thinkers such as Sadiq al-Azm and Muhammed Arkoun. But he is also concerned that they are too enmeshed in post-modern Western discourse, too removed from the Arab World, too deconstructive rather than generative, too abstract without providing practical grounds for actions. While Sharabi is himself partly influenced by post-modern thinkers, he is also wary of the potential influence of their anti-theoretical skepticism on the Arab World, arguing that it may lead to political apathy.

For a book that is a few decades old, “Neopatriarchy” has aged remarkably well.

For a book that is a few decades old, “Neopatriarchy” has aged remarkably well. However, some parts feel dated. The notion that the Ottoman period was one of steep decline remains a holdover from Arab nationalism narratives and has long since been disproven. Equally, Sharabi’s recurrent reference to Japan as a successful example of non-Western adaption to modernity ignores that such success created its own murderous neopatriarchal regime.

Furthermore, there is something missing in Sharabi’s descriptions of the Arab state. For even in its most dysfunctional, neopatriarchal, and violent form, the modern Arab state embodies genuine popular aspirations. It is because the promise of modernity and development still resonates that the state remains the locus of both anger and desire for so many frustrated youths across the Arab world.

Where Sharabi’s conceptual apparatus really shines and remains relevant is in its ability to go beyond the stale secular-Islamist divide that still plagues so much writing on the Arab world. According to Sharabi, the rise of Islamism in the 1970s represents a split within the petty bourgeoisie class; between those that took power in the name of modernity and the many that felt left behind. Unlike the secular pseudo-revolutions that followed independence, the Islamist movements are genuine mass movements with widespread support among the disenfranchised petty bourgeoisie. Yet the Islamists, too, remain stuck firmly in a neopatriarchal mode, and as such are unable to offer any genuine solutions.

Sharabi remained throughout his life committed to positive change.

Despite the severity of the critique leveled against Arab society, Sharabi remained throughout his life committed to positive change. The book advocates for new forms of theorizing that lead to and allow for concrete action, while emphasizing particular non-violent forms of protest in the name of human and political rights.

The most radical potential, Sharabi suggests, can be found in the women’s movement: only such movement can spearhead true democratic transformation. What Sharabi’s book hits home, again and again, is that unless and until the Arab world comes to terms with its patriarchal baggage – whether in old or new guises – it will be unable to truly extricate itself from its morass of deterioration and decline.