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Studies 18 June, 2013

On the Intellectual and Revolution

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Azmi Bishara

General Director and Member of the Board of Directors of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. Dr. Bishara is a researcher and writer with numerous books and publications on political thought, social theory and philosophy, as well as some literary works. He taught philosophy and cultural studies at Birzeit University from 1986 to 1996, and was involved in the establishment of research centers in Palestine including the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy (Muwatin) and the Mada al-Carmel Center for Applied Social Research. In 2007 he was forced to go into exile after being prosecuted by Israel. In 2002 he won the Ibn Rushd Prize for Freedom of Thought, and in 2003 the Global Exchange Human Rights Award. He received his doctorate in philosophy in 1986 at Humboldt University in Berlin, having previously completed his master’s degree there in 1984.

Dr. Bishara has published hundreds of papers and studies in academic journals in various languages. His best-known publications include: On the Arab Question: An Introduction to an Arab Democratic Manifesto; Civil Society: A Critical Study; Religion and Secularity in Historical Context (two parts in three volumes); On Revolution and Revolutionary Potential; Is There a Coptic Issue in Egypt?; To be an Arab in our Times; The Army and Politics: Theoretical Problems and Arab Models; Essay on Freedom; Sect, Sectarianism and Imagined Sects; What is Salafism?; and The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Daesh): A General Framework and Critical Contribution to Understanding the Phenomenon. Some of these books have become seminal works in their field.

He also produced a series of three books documenting the Arab revolutions that broke out in 2011: The Glorious Tunisian Revolution; Syria: The Painful Road to Freedom; and Egypt’s Revolution (two volumes). These books deal with the causes and stages of the revolutions in Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt. These books are a rich contribution to the field of contemporary history thanks to their combination of documentation and narration of the day-to-day details of these revolutions and sharp analysis making connections between the social, economic and political backgrounds of each individual revolution.

This essay is not an attempt to provide a comprehensive historical or sociological treatment of the subject of intellectuals and their role in revolution; rather, it is a conceptual contribution that aims to produce knowledge through critique and the differentiation of key terms-linguistically, conceptually, and historically. In so doing, Bishara examines terms such as "the intellectual," "the intelligentsia," "the organic intellectual," and, finally, "the public intellectual". For the latter, emphasis is placed on public intellectuals' ability to go beyond their specializations and engage directly with the public on issues concerning state and society.

This paper distinguishes between intellectuals and those who work in a field that mainly relies on their intellectual ability; between academics, whose sole focus is their field, and social actors who take an interest in several fields but are not specialized in a specific one. A conceptual distinction is then drawn between the intellectual and the rest of society. Through this endeavor, the author clarifies what he considers to be the main attribute of an intellectual-the ability to take stances based on epistemological grounds and value judgments at the same time.

Finally, the paper concludes that two types of intellectuals are scarce in the Arab revolutions: the "revolutionary intellectual," who maintains a critical distance not only from the regime, but also from the revolution, and the "conservative intellectual," who argues for the preservation of the regime due to the potential for change that exists within it, and the wisdom embedded in the state and its traditions. For Bishara, the role of the revolutionary intellectual does not end with the outbreak of a revolution, but, in fact, takes on greater complexity and significance once the need to propose post-revolutionary alternatives arises.

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