Prior to 1967, the Arab world had been attempting to make strides towards a modern society, in their own project for modernity. Many societies in the Arab world were becoming increasingly secular and capitalist, hoping to emulate the supposedly modern West. It appeared to many that modernity, as they saw it, was just within grasp, and with a few tweaks the Arab world could be on par with Western ideals. But, “at the very moment that Arab patriarchal society appeared objectively ready for political change, it suffered a severe setback”; the humiliating defeat in the 1967 Six Day War, which created a widespread atmosphere of dejection and it was under these conditions that a “political reversal occurred” (Sharabi 159). This malaise gave rise to an increase in the influence and power wielded by Islam and Islamism, a relatively swift move back to traditionalism and away from secularism, and modernity (Note 1). Did this ensuing rise in Islamism mean the project for modernity, which so many had dedicated their lives to, was a failure? Was the dream of modernity to be written off as exactly that – just a dream? According to Hisham Sharabi, yes.
In his 1988 book Neopatriarchy, Sharabi offers a social critique, seeking to create a “framework from which to understand” the varied factors which have created the failure of modernity in Arab society, and have resulted in the “paralysing trauma engulfing the Arab world”, trauma which is still active today (Sharabi, ii; viii).
However, the conditions of this shift towards Islamism are the same conditions which ensured modernisation would fail and rather than being an antithesis to the other, both modernity and Islamism are actors within the broader dominant force of neopatriarchy.
This neopatriarchy, argues Sharabi, is what perpetuates the “unravelling of the larger Arab society” (Sharabi vii). Sharabi’s analysis makes founded, thought provoking commentary, ultimately illustrating that whether it be secularism or Islamism, both structures serve to reinforce the existing system of patriarchy. Despite his criticism, Saharbi ends his social critique with a note of hope, suggesting that an “inevitable victory” over neopatriarchy will occur (Sharabi 155).
But before we get to talk about hope, let us move backwards to the Arab world in the aftermath 1967. The supposed progress the Nahda (and other movements) had made towards modernity since Napoleon had opened the Arab world up to Europe seemed to have been in vain, what with the defeat in the Six Day War. The ramifications of this defeat were widespread, especially on the psychological level, with some even arguing that the trauma from this defeat is still active in the psyche of the region today (Melhelm).
Neopatriarchy rises from this air of malaise and defeat, which is widespread across both the Arab world and intellectualism. From this state of being, a new wave of intellectuals arose, markedly different to the ones who came before them.
Thinkers such as Taha Hussein and Mohammad Abduh, had belonged to traditions that were generally ones of hope, optimism and which believed in the success of their efforts. Of course there were the pessimists, but mostly there was hope. Many of the post-’67 thinkers serve as a contrast to this optimism, belonging to an overarching ideology of Arab self-critique. They saw the shortcomings where their predecessors had seen successes.
Sharabi’s key contributions include the coining and defining of the term neopatriarchy, critically analysing the failings of the generations before him. Additionally in outlining the “problematics”1 of Arab society, Sharabi created strict parameters against which to assess Arab society, successfully contributing to the framework he aimed to create (Sharabi 10). This three pronged approach can be applied ubiquitously, and I would argue is a very important contribution to the tradition of self critique and general studies of the region. You can, for example, use it as a guideline for the assessment of cultural productions from the region.
However, despite his contributions, I found the comparisons to Japan were grossly unfair, distasteful and not all that different to the way in which intellectuals of the vehemently criticised Nahda regime had used Europe as a standard to humiliate the Arab world against. For the purpose of relevancy, I’ll keep my criticism short. There are two primary reasons I found this to be distasteful. First of all, Japan was a colonial power in its own region and did not suffer the same “cultural imperialism” as the Arab world had to contend with, and unmesh itself from (Sharabi 76). Second of all, in the modern day, Japan’s society is stagnating (The Economist, 2023). Japan also seems to exist as a neopatriarchy as well. With time it has made the intention of his comparison to appear somewhat futile. I do understand that Sharabi was trying to illustrate that authentic modernisation exists, but I found it to be a lazy comparison. I also didn’t appreciate that the ‘Arab society’ he refers to was never properly outlined. Manfred Sing’s article which criticised self-critics for self-orientalising is relevant to Sharabi’s book, though overall I ultimately found it was still a well written piece (Sing 149).
In the book, Sharabi states that modernity has to be viewed as a “mode of being” and should “help both the individual and the society realise their greatest potential” (Sharabi x; xi). If you compare modern cars of the 1950s to modern cars of the 2020s, there’s very little in common with them, other than the fact they represented a marked shift to their predecessor and bettered themselves.
Or, in the words of Sharabi, “in its basic dimension modernity is a transitional process involving a movement from one mode of knowledge or paradigmatic structure to another radically different, a break with traditional (mythical) ways of understanding in favour of new (scientific) modes of thought” (Sharabi 10). Sharabi then breaks the idea of modernity down into three elements (Note 2), which help to contribute to his framework of understanding, ultimately outlining that there isn’t an empirical way to measure the modernity of a space; it isn’t a “culture or a style of life”18, nor will tangible things like independence guarantee it (Sharabi 21; x). “The Nahda [amongst other groups] failed to grasp the true nature of modernity” and therefore the Arab project for modernity before 1967 was doomed to fail from the get go (Sharabi 6). Through this definition, Sharabi also sets Islam (mythic / tradition) and modernity (new / scientific) against each other, and he refutes this point again, suggesting that Islamism could only be kept at bay because ‘modern’ modes were succeeding, but that the failure of modern modes would enable Islamism to rise (Sharabi 10; 89).
This space for Islamism was created with the failure of such “new (scientific) modes of thought.” epitomised by the defeat in 1967 (Sharabi 10). In the aftermath, Islamic fundamentalism (for the first time) “constituted a dominant” mode in the social and political world, illustrating this shift (Sharabi 136). Modernity and secularism, had failed, “thus fundamentalism, … present itself as the alternative to capitalism and socialism [which had just failed] and the only valid doctrine for Arab society” (Sharabi 146). Islam stepped into the vacuum, a vacuum which would not have existed had the project for modernity succeeded. Islamism became an “attractive alternative” for those who had witnessed the failure of modernisation, because of its grassroots appeal (Sharabi 140).
Fundamentalism had a “simple and direct articulation” which spoke to the masses whereas the project for modernity had largely been out of touch with the wider population, confined to the elite (Sharabi 140). Islamism also promised “victory [to be] inevitable” which sits in contrast with 1967 (Sharabi 140). The rise of Islamism would not have happened as swiftly had the project for modernity succeeded. In the wake of failure and frustration, fundamentalism was a perceivable “antimodernist, utopian patriarchalism … legitimate successor” that could only come about as modernity fell away (Sharabi 13).
The rise of Islamism after 1967 clearly illustrates that the Arab project for modernity had failed. This illustration is primarily made in the way the two were characterised earlier as being opposing forces, and on one level this opposition sits true. However, through my understanding of Sharabi’s book, I would argue that the Arab project for modernity and rise of Islamism are both illustrative of the success of neopatriarchy to keep itself alive. Both actors are ultimately contributing to the phenomena of “modernised patriarchy (neopatriarchy) [which] is the vehicle of patriarchal society’s continuing attempt to keep modernity at bay”, perpetuating the same cycles of distortion (Sharabi 48).
In particular, Sharabi illustrates the success of neopatriarchy using the Nahda movement which “not only failed to break down the inner relations and forms of patriarchalism, but by initiating what is called the modern awakening also provided the ground for producing a new, hybrid sort of society / culture we see before use today…. [it] only served to remodel and reorganise patriarchal structure by giving them modern forms and appearances” (Sharabi 4). The foundations for the rise of Islamism were laid, while simultaneously the Nahda helped neopatriarchy remain the dominant structural force. Similarly, the rise of Islamism is not a marked shift away from neopatriarchy but rather is “the product of the same deep rooted forces which produced the structure of neopatriarchal society” and that “it [Islamism] is as much the product of the age of imperialism as are “enlightenment” and “modernisation” (Sharabi 60; 71). All efforts within the earlier projects of modernity were reinforcing the very thing they promised to dismantle, and so too is Islamism.
The two actors, Islamism and the project for modernity, are cut from the same cloth, both representing a wider failure to seriously challenge underlying structures. I think, in accordance with Sharabi’s thesis, what is more important to notice is not whether one mode proves the futility of the other, but rather that the project for modernity and Islamism are on some level equitable symptoms of the same “invisible disease eating at the centre” (Sharabi viii). The rise of Islamism illustrates a failure to achieve modernity, but so too does the Nahda itself, the petty bourgeoisie, the “culturally schizophrenic” intellectuals and the shortcomings of classical Arab culture–all which are products of neopatriarchy, which was in part caused by “inauthentic” development (Sharabi, throughout). Through this paradigm, the book can then be used to reckon with many of the other questions surrounding the relationship between Islamism and modernity in Arab society, and broader questions about the roles of various actors in the shaping and upholding of neopatriarchy.
I think it’s interesting that Sharabi’s principles are applicable 35 years after publication. While I fully appreciate the “specificity” of the book is distinctly Arab, and the framework is for Arab society, I think the way Sharabi went about analysing root causes of the problems could offer a model for Western thought to do the same (Sharabi 15). Western modernity (which is rapidly deteriorating) could benefit from being reckoned with in a similar fashion. Not everything Sharabi says is correct, and the book is distinctly lacking in specific examples, but a lot of his pontifications are accurate, and (unfortunately) retain relevance today. Sharabi ends the book by saying that he must “fight the pessimism of the intellect, [and] must hold fast to the optimism of the will” (Sharabi 155). I think Sharabi would be saddened to see that much of the world is grappling with an inherently contradictory structure, and the phenomena of the “dramatic widening of the gulf between rich and poor” is widespread (Sharabi 60).
The women’s movement is also failing to seriously challenge the structures of neopatriarchy (Sharabi 154). Whether it be neo-patriarchy or maybe neo- feudalism or some other disease, the mode of being that was modernity has been lost on a wider scale than I think Sharabi would’ve wanted, and not just in Arab society but on a global level. Through this book, a number of assertions can be made, including the fact that the failure of modernity gave rise to Islamism, but more importantly the fact that both act to serve the same structural rot, and for real modernity to be achieved, neopatriarchy must first be dismantled.
Note 1: Sharabi seems to equate the two
Note 2: Modernity as structure, modernization as a process, and modernism as the consciousness.
AMelhem, Hisham. “The Arab World Has Never Recovered From the Loss of 1967,”.” Foreign Policy 5 (2017): 59-67. Sharabi, Hisham. “Neopatriarchy: A theory of distorted change in Arab society.” (1988): 8.
Sing, Manfred. “ARAB SELF-CRITICISM AFTER 1967 REVISITED.” The Arab Studies Journal 25.2 (2017): 144-191.