SUMMARY:Intellectual history of the modern Middle East and North Africa directs strikingly little attention to how ideas work in practice. Scholars in this subfield have rarely made an effort to recognize let alone nuance or surmount divisions between theory and practice, all too often confining themselves to a version of the first impoverished by its neglect of the second. The origins of the problem are various, including the legacy of orientalism with its exceptionalizing narratives of the region and of Islam, the tendency to restrict the sources of “intellectual history” to a narrow and rarified corpus of treatises, and the interest in separating an ostensible Muslim liberalism or “moderate” Islam from the “radical,” “conservative,” or “fanatical.”
Our panel, “political theory, political practice,” explores alternatives to these methodological dead ends. Drawing on our research in the disciplines of history, media studies, and comparative literature, we explore intersections of theory and practice in the politics of the Maghrib, Egypt, and Iraq in the 19th and 20th centuries. Our papers discuss the extent to which political practice can determine political theory, rather than the other way around. We build on recent scholarship aiming to bypass Albert Hourani’s notion of “Arabic thought in the liberal age,” as the category of liberalism in this formulation has constrained scholarly analysis. We also draw from social history and political economy, subfields that have issued clearer challenges to the idealizing narratives of canonical intellectual histories of the modern Middle East and North Africa. These are timely reflections for 2021 with the ten-year anniversary of the 2011 revolutions, events that demonstrate the need to rethink the relationship between political thought and action.