Beirut: George Tarabishi, an icon of liberal thought and Arab secularism, died in Paris on March 16.
A prolific writer and translator, Tarabishi left his mark on an entire generation of Arab scholars, creating a spark of never-ending controversy from the early 1980s until his death.
Depending on who one talks to in the Arab world, George Tarabishi is either a legend or a sinful heretic.
Raised as a devout Christian in the old alleys of Aleppo in northern Syria, he parted ways with Christianity at the age of 14, frowning at how punishment and sin were being taught at state-run schools in Syria in the 1950s.
He found his way into an Islamic classroom to learn more about fellow Muslims, and clashed with the turbaned cleric who said that Christians were enemies of Islam.
Right there and then Tarabishi decided to distance himself from religion altogether, flirting with Marxism and Arab nationalism, briefly joining the secular Baath Party before it seized power in 1963.
His critical views of authoritarianism and one-party rule led to his arrest, with other Christian Baathists from the Houran province of southern Syria.
In jail, Tarabishi got into a heated debate about honour killings — saying that it was a crime that ought to be eradicated.
This put him at odds end with his fellow inmates, who dismissed him as a “fake Arab.”
This third turning point in his career prompted him to reason that the problem was the Arab mind and its legacy that have plagued it for centuries.
The Syrian icon’s scholarly career can be divided into two distinct phases.
The first experience was with Western ideologies like Marxism, with a complete break from Arabic culture, which he described in an interview with the London-based Al Hayat newspaper as belonging to “old yellow books.”
This is when he devoted his efforts to translating the classics of Hegel, Freud, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvioir.
The Six Day War of 1967 had a profound effect on his thought, when entire Arab cities were occupied by Israel (including East Jerusalem, Sinai, the West Bank, and the Syrian Golan).
Clearly, modernity was incompatible with the current state of affairs in the Arab world, lurking beneath layers of backwardness and corruption.
The collective Arab defeat was a decisive factor in his awareness, and so was the proliferation of extremism and violence in the name of religion.
Tarabishi declared that a renaissance was needed, and this is when he rediscovered Arabic thought, defending Islam from hereon as a culture and civilisation, within his views of so-called “Islamic Secularism.”
Tarabishi’s most remembered work is the classic encyclopedia “Critique of Critique of Arab Reason” or Nakd Nakd Al Akl Al Arabi: Nazarikyat Al Akl in Arabic, considered one of the finest Arabic philosophical works of the 20th century.
It was wrote in response to the seminal work of Moroccan intellectual Mohammad Abdel Al Jabri “Critique of Arab Reason.”
Tarabishi first read it on a plane from Damascus to Paris in 1984.
After writing an initial positive critique in Al Wehda Magazine, Tarabishi says: “The journey of admiration of Al Jabri didn’t continue for long; for quickly I felt that this thinker has introduced the correct title but missed his shot. In other words, he didn’t perform the process of criticism ... he confiscated the process, which we waited for long.”
“The mind — any mind — is incapacitated when deprived of his critical thinking and reason.
“The Arab mind is a treasure, he argued, even if it invests in the accumulation of Greek, Roman, Islamic, Sufi, and secular thought in addition to the brilliance of the Arabic language.”
The West, he added, only reached its current state of modernity after much self-criticism.
The Arab world will only rise from its ashes when proper criticism is applied to its heritage, religion, and culture.
Secularism was much needed in Europe, he argued, emerging as a remedy to Protestant-Catholic sectarianism, it was equally needed in the Arab World to overcome sectarianism and pave the way for a democratic future.
Born and raised in Aleppo in the Syrian North, Tarabishi studied Arabic at the Syrian University, obtaining an MA in Education.
Between 1963 and 1964 he was director of Damascus Radio and for thirteen years, editor of the reputed Journal of Arabic Studies.
He moved to France after outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 and remained a resident of Paris until his death in 2016.
Among his published works are ‘Woman Against Her Sex: A Critique of Nawal Al Saadawi’ (1988), Slaughter of Heritage in Contemporary Arab Culture (1989), and the two-volume Heretical Thought, published between 2006 and 2008. In 2010 he published “From the Quran’s Islam to Modern Islam” (Beirut, Dar Al Saki). Apart from a four articles penned in the past six years, Tarabishi chose to remain silent since the outbreak of war in his country in mid-March 2011.
He recently commented, “My situation is like that of my country; I am completely paralysed and cannot write.”
He named five stages of his career and then quickly added a sixth, “the stage of silence; the stage of Syrian pain.”
George Kadar, a prominent Syrian author and advocate of Arab secularism, commented on Tarabishi’s death saying: “I will not say farewell; because generations are awaiting an appointment with his works and great translations. He will remain forever present among us.”