A Talk With the Dean of Arab Liberalism

How Hazem Saghieh shook off the extremism of his youth to become a leading intellectual champion of secular democracy

A Talk With the Dean of Arab Liberalism
The Lebanese writer Hazem Saghieh speaks to New Lines in Beirut. (Myriam Boulos)

Editor’s note: Since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, and the subsequent bloodshed in Gaza and elsewhere, the veteran Lebanese intellectual Hazem Saghieh has been a prominent voice offering an independent and critical perspective in numerous articles in the Arabic press, questioning much of the consensus and received wisdom on all sides.

Writing in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper on Oct. 15, for example, he said, “Nothing can excuse what the Israelis have done and are doing in Gaza,” which he described as “cruel and continuous collective punishment.” At the same time, he wrote, Hamas’ so-called “Al-Aqsa Deluge” attack was the worst possible way to combat Israel, lamenting that so many had “enthusiastically celebrated an operation we ought to have condemned with our reason, conscience and sense of responsibility, indeed in line with our own self-interest.” The outcome, he concluded, was shaping up to be worse for Palestine than the Arab defeats in the wars of 1948 and 1967 combined.

In an earlier column in the same paper on Oct. 11, he described the Hamas attack as a “poisoned gift” from Iran, which, when the dust finally settles, will benefit only Tehran and its regional allies, much like Hezbollah’s war with Israel in Lebanon in 2006.

And, in his latest article, published Oct. 25, Saghieh recalled some of the many occasions over the decades when potential opportunities for a political settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict were sabotaged — by both Arabs and Israelis, as well as Iran — urging an end to militarism and “a return to politics.” Those “who do this,” he wrote, “are alone the ones with hands clean of the blood of Gaza’s children.”

Below is an in-depth profile of Saghieh, based on an interview with him in Beirut in March 2023. The profile was first published in the Summer 2023 issue of New Lines’ print edition.

What if contemporary Arab political thought has, for decades, been premised on a fundamental denial of reality?

What if the many and various attempts to unify the Arab world — from Egypt’s merger with Syria in 1958 to Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait in 1990 — have served only to further exacerbate its deep divisions?

What if the problem with the states created by European colonialists after World War I was not that they were too small — fragmenting the once-united masses, the better to conquer them — but that they were too large, imposing a false uniformity on diverse ethnic and sectarian communities that would not otherwise have regarded one another as compatriots?

What if the most popular Arab singer of the past century, the Egyptian superstar Umm Kulthum, was in fact an “apparatus” of a “totalitarian state”?

These are only a brief sample of the questions posed over the years by one of the Arab world’s most controversial — and consequential — intellectuals, the Lebanese writer Hazem Saghieh. They are the kind of thought experiments that have seen Saghieh praised by admirers as a courageous and prescient truth-teller and lambasted by critics as a “problematic” heretic, if not worse.

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