Al-Kawakibi: From Political Journalism to a Political Science of the "Liberal" Arab Muslim

By Sheehi, Stephen | Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Annual 2017 | Go to article overview

Al-Kawakibi: From Political Journalism to a Political Science of the "Liberal" Arab Muslim


Sheehi, Stephen, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics


In 1902, 'Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi was assassinated. After traveling to India, Zanzibar, the Arabian Peninsula, and North Africa, he was poisoned in Cairo's Cafe Istanbul in front of his friend Muhammad Rashid Rida (al-Sahmarani 12; S. Z. al-Kawakibi 181). An intimate and complex intellectual and reform network (or networks) ran between Beirut, Alexandria, and Cairo as well as other provincial capitals, and these networks were facilitated through the "Arab press" and the activism of their "editors" and "journalists." (1) Al-Kawakibi's fame and demise were a consequence of the effectiveness of these networks, networks undergirded by his life as an activist "journalist." (2) I have started this exploration of al-Kawakibi with his death because, in studying the press and the Nahda, we tend to forget the impact of writing in the everyday life of both Nahda intellectuals and their societies. The press, or al-sahafa, was al-Kawakibi's milieu and the means by which he maintained and expanded innumerable political and professional relations including those that led him to his patron Khedive Abbas II Hilmi Bey as well as longtime advocates and friends, Muhammad 'Abdu and Shaykh 'Ali Yusuf (Makhlouf 82). (3) While this article is unable to explore the political and intellectual "network" that the press established--a topic that I have touched upon elsewhere--it is important to recognize that no Nahda intellectual wrote in a vacuum and none were an aberration to their historical moment (see Sheehi, "Arabic"; Arab). Nahda intellectuals served as interlocutors of epistemological formations that undergirded modernity's material and social transformations, and the press served the platform for their writing practices that articulated paradigms of "progress and civilization" (see Sheehi, Foundations', "Toward"). The writing practice of al-Kawakibi in the Arab press (i.e., journals and imprimeries) lies in the background of this article. In this regard, journalism acted as a means and a site of stabilization for Nahda intellectuals and their social theories of modernity, subjectivities, and Nahda paradigms of social and cultural reform.

Al-Kawakibi's writing practice in Aleppo, Damascus, and Cairo falls squarely in the professional practices of his contemporaries in Beirut and Cairo, namely within the field of journalism, squarely, as we will see, within the paradigms, discourses, and epistemology of the Nahda. After working in earlier years unofficially as a "journalist," al-Kawakibi, aged twenty-two, became an "editor" himself for a bilingual Arabic-Ottoman Turkish newspaper in Aleppo. This was the start of an illustrious career as a "journalist," intellectual, attorney, bureaucrat, politician, and political activist. Indeed, these are years that scholars often overlook, jumping to his exile in Cairo. Only three years after attaining that position, he was inducted into Aleppo's many governmental commissions, committees, and societies that were concerned with education, knowledge production, and social programs. From these commissions, he entered the service of municipal courts--first as court recorder, then as the court's executive officer before passing his attorney's exam. After being appointed to a number of eminent local positions within the Ottoman legal system, including the court of commerce, he was appointed in his late thirties as ra'id baladiya of Aleppo, a post similar to a mayor, only to move to more prestigious roles up the Ottoman ladder including supervisor and inspector for commercial, merchant, and treasure offices for the wilaya (province) of Syria. After all, he came from an illustrious Aleppine family, connected to the ruling structure and merchant class of the city.

While working as a state functionary largely around issues of commerce, "journalism" served as an outlet for his political opinions and social activism. In fact, the first issue of his first journal al-Shahba' (an epithet of Aleppo) appeared only one year after his first job around 1877. …

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