What is “Contemporary Arab Political Thought?”

A Journey to Explore “Contemporary Arab Political Thought”
Reported by Shamo Thar


Professor Yasmeen Daifallah, a faculty member in the College of Humanities and Fine Arts at UMass Amherst, addressed a recent Tuesday Dialogue at CIE.


She specializes in modern and contemporary Arab political thought, and postcolonial theory.  Dr. Daifallah offered an frank accounting of her journey leading up to her dissertation and her current field of study. She is the author of many books, including “Turath as Critique: Hassan Hanafi’s Critique of the Modern Arab Subject.”

She began by talking about her personal struggles as she moved through the stages of her academic career.  Born and raised in Abu Dhabi with an Arabic up-bringing, she learned English and Western ideologies at a young age. Her education through high school was very scientific, and she was initially interested in Economics and becoming an economist.


A few great teachers influenced her choice to study political science. A young professor at U.C. Berkeley said to her: “politics is more for you.” She was convinced. After four years, she met a political theorist, and later she discovered that he was a very famous figure in the field. Dr. Daifallah wanted to understand “What makes us who we are? Why do people come together? How do people act in a context where political and legal order are suspended?” For a long time she floundered seeking to define a topic for her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley.  Her mentor from Egypt came to U.C. Berkeley as a visiting scholar in the midst of her struggle to select a topic to study.  The mentor suggested that she concentrated on Contemporary Arab Thought.


“What is Arab Thought? Is there an Arabic Thinking?” This was Dr. Yasmeen Daifallah’s first reaction after talking with her Mentor. She started digging into how others have written about Contemporary Arab Thought. Many questions led to the issue of identity formation. Who is an Arab? What makes Arab? How is that entity formed, historically, and sociologically? She started exploring these ideas using sources from the library, and from the internet. One prominent name surfaced from her search - this person was known intellectually in Arabic world, and had written four volumes on the Critique of Arab Reason.  Finally her dissertation became an examination of the work of three twentieth century Arab thinkers and their thoughts on questions of political subjectivity and consciousness in political theory.


Daifallah’s journey to “contemporary Arab political thought” was self-educational, exploratory, and adventurous.  Her sharing of that journey provided the students in CIE an honest account of the challenges faced by many as they struggle to define their topic for a dissertation and subsequent career.