Review: The Illusion of Progress in the Arab World by Galal Amin (UAC Press, 2006)

Galal Amin’s sympathetic reading of Marx while his defense of an almost Burkean approach to Western liberal modernity will be hard on most of his “Western” audience, but in a crucial sense that proves his point. Both colonial and post-colonial understandings of “progress” have had a hard time engaging with the Arab world in specific and post-colonial cultures in general. Amin’s critique starts off like a traditional defense of a “moderate” Arab or Egyptian nationalism and a strong suspicion of the outside–an outside he admits was embraced by his father even if it was completely rejected by his grandfather. It is clear as you read that this is not Amin’s modus operandi as his questioning on liberal modernity and it’s Euro-American imposition does not entitle an outright rejection of the Western: Indeed, he describes his mother’s sympathy for a Australian women who married into his family as near ideal model. Amin has a personalizing touch and his questions can betray a humanism is not hostile to what, after modernity, we call the religious and the secular, yet they are probing about the trade-offs involved in “progress” and wonders if it applies even to “the West” much less to the societies in the “developing world” with strongly developed local cultures and traditions.

Amin is his most sardonic and almost scathing when writing about the United Nations Human Development Report as applied to the “Arab World” and methodically challenges its key assumptions and even its matrixes for both flourishing and basic development. At times the questioning seems mostly defensive and maybe reactive, but as the chapters go on, Amin expands it out and explores larger questions around the picture of development, reform, and progress. In the end, Amin moves from this very specific report to discussions about recent history and even literature: his literary engagement with Aldous Huxley being very productive and where, primarily, one gets a feeling of the positive program Amin may have beyond mere questioning of a liberal rejection of local tradition.

In the beginning, he does come off as more angry (or more precisely annoyed) than analytical, but this shifts through the work. While not entirely rigorous–he does rely heavily on extrapolation from (next) recent history–he does get more developed and less strident in his questioning. It should noted, however, that aside from hinting at a possible “multiple modernities” that could have been (but wasn’t due to colonialism and Western teleology), he does not give much of a positive program but “think about the trade-offs.” He does critique capitalism fairly seriously though in a way that would make Euro-American conservatives generally uncomfortable with the rest of his skepticism around modernity. His chapter on terrorism is interesting, but really needed furtherer development and could have been a quite engaging book in its own right. Overall I think this is a valuable read particularly for those who cannot imagine political spectrums outside of the US “progressive/conservative” dichotomy.

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