Arab Modernities: Islamism, Nationalism, and Liberalism in the Post-Colonial Arab World

Reviewed by Abdullah M.

Jaafar Aksikas, Arab Modernities: Islamism, Nationalism, and Liberalism in the Post-Colonial Arab World

Jaafar Aksikas’s book represents an important contribution to cultural studies. It offers a full-length assessment and critique of the works of three Moroccan intellectual activists as representative of three different Arab ideologies or projects of modernity and modernization in the postcolonial Arab world,1 namely, liberalism (Abdallah Laroui), nationalism (Mohammed Abdel Al-Jabri), and Islamism (Abdessalam Yassine). Aksikas offers a much-needed alternative to the failed Arab ideologies. His study is made all the more timely by the Arab Spring.2 The alternative it offers is that of Marxist socialism, which, as Aksikas puts it, “guarantees the full participation of all citizens in the political and social process” (137).

Aksikas makes it clear that ideologies and ideas cannot be understood outside their historical context. His dual aim, as stated in the Introduction, is to show how and why dominant Arab ideologies failed to achieve any true modernity, and to renew interest in Marxism as a theoretical tool for critiquing the complicity of these ideologies with capitalism and colonialism and for developing an emancipatory project of modernity in the Arab world.

Aksikas identifies four historical phases that modern Arab societies have passed through: “Colonial liberalism; Post-colonial liberalism; Nationalist state capitalism or Nasserism; and Contemporary Islamism” (13f). Then, he traces the socio-economic, political, and cultural forces – from colonialism to the present day – that have shaped Arab ideologies of liberalism, nationalism, and Islamism, all of which appeared to be anti-colonial and anti-imperial. Aksikas explains and contextualizes how all these ideologies/projects failed to achieve “true social development and change” partly because they evolved “on the periphery of the world capitalist system” and “represented the interests of only one social class or another,” excluding other segments of the society (31).

For Abdallah Laroui, writes Aksikas, “there cannot be modernity without liberalism, without ‘a system based on private property, free initiative, on the generalization of the logic of competition in all levels of society’” (57). Laroui’s project of liberalism failed, according to Aksikas, for several reasons. First, Laroui never went beyond ideas and ideologies; his critique of the Arab world’s social ills is limited to an ideological critique of Arab-Islamic tradition and religion, neglecting socio-economic and political forces. Second, Laroui’s project is an extension of liberal capitalism that not only ignores and excludes the masses but also exacerbates class divisions and inequality. Third, Laroui proposes that intellectual elites are the agents of social change, ignoring the fact that real social change requires the erosion of bourgeois ideology and the development of a mass consciousness.

Aksikas then turns to Mohammed Abdel Al-Jabri, for whom Arab modernity requires understanding medieval Islamic philosophy while practicing and applying rationalism. Aksikas traces and contextualizes Al-Jabri’s critique of the referential systems – the modern Western system in the case of liberals and the traditional theological system in the case of religious thinkers – that inform Arab ideologies. Aksikas explains how Al-Jabri’s project of modernity, which lies in philosophical renaissance of medieval Islamic tradition, failed to achieve real modernity because philosophy alone cannot lead to real social change and liberation, and Al-Jabri did not explain “how we can move from rationalism in philosophy to rationalism in reality” (71).

As a third alternative, Aksikas focuses on Islamism, in the person of Abdessalam Yassine. Aksikas finds several reasons for its failure to achieve true modernity. First, it reduces “everything to a mere religious, ideological struggle, a struggle between Islam on the one hand, and secularism, and otherness … on the other” (106). Second, it reduces culture to a set of fixed, stereotypical practices, echoing orientalist discourse. Moreover, Aksikas rightly points out that Yassine’s project lacks details about the nature of the Islamic political system he envisions and about the kind of alternative socio-economic system it would provide. Finally, Aksikas demonstrates how Yassine’s project has the seeds of failure when it addresses issues of minorities and women in the Arab world.

In his concluding chapter, Aksikas argues that the works of Marx and Marxists offer an effective alternative to the ahistorical, failed Arab ideologies and projects of modernity represented in liberalism, nationalism, and Islamism. He explains that Marxism offers two complementary political projects to overcome the contradictions and failures of modern capitalist society. First is the project of radicalizing democracy, with its guarantee of full citizen participation. Second is socialist revolution, paving the way for an egalitarian society which will enhance democratic political liberties and human rights.

As a critical interrogation of ideologies of modernity, this study has taken on added importance with the onset of the Arab Spring. First, it exposes the failure of ideologies and projects that led to social marginalization of the Arab masses and to state oppression, economic deprivation, deep class divisions, and uneven geographical development. The Arab Spring is partly a response to those failures. Another point of strength lies in Aksikas’s emphasis on the historical context of socio-economic and political ideologies. Understanding that context can help post-Arab Spring societies to avoid the earlier failures. Finally, this study gives new insights about the relevance of Marx and Marxist theoretical tools to resolving the contradictions of the Arab ideologies and to developing an emancipatory project of radical democracy, paving the way for socialist revolution.

This study is not without flaws. For example, it lacks a clear vision of how to move from radical democracy to socialist revolution. Aksikas says little about the nature and character of the socialist state he is seeking for the Arab world. How can one guarantee that it will not become another form of totalitarian rule? Furthermore, while Aksikas rightly points out that Marxism is viewed in most Arab and Muslim countries as an atheistic, immoral philosophy, he has little advice on how to overcome such hostility. It is hard to imagine establishing a non-oppressive socialist state without popular acceptance and support of its ideology. Finally, Aksikas does not fully address the political weakness of the Arab left that would be shown in its failure to make much headway against Islamists in the wake of the Arab Spring.

But this does not diminish the value of Aksikas’s study as an analysis of the failure of liberalism, nationalism, and Islamism in the postcolonial Arab World. The book remains a timely political intervention, in its call for a Marxist project of modernity, dedicated to “freedom, justice, and to the rational, humane, tolerant view of humanity” (127).

Abdullah M. Al-Dagamseh Indiana University of Pennsylvania


1. The prefix post in postcolonialism is problematic as it suggests a “historical rupture” that rehearses “the Enlightenment trope of sequential, ‘linear’ progress” and “runs the risk of obscuring the continuities and discontinuities of colonial and imperial power.” Anne McClintock, “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term ‘Post-Colonialism,’” Social Text, no. 31/32 (1992), 85. Aksikas never explains the implications of the term “postcolonialism” or “postcolonial Arab World” which he uses throughout his book. See also Masao Miyoshi, “A Borderless World? From Colonialism to Transnationalism and the Decline of the Nation-State,” Critical Inquiry, 19.4 (Summer 1993).

2. Arab Spring supports Aksikas’s analysis of the failed Arab projects  and of the need for alternatives as most young Arabs, especially the less privileged and the economically oppressed and marginalized, rebelled against the dominant Arab projects of modernity, which are sponsored by global hegemonic powers and institutions, and against their oppression manufactured by their oppressive regimes which perpetuate dictatorship, social marginalization and exclusion,  human rights violations, corruption, unemployment, extreme poverty, uneven geographical development, social and economic injustice, unequal economic globalization and deep class divisions.