In 2017, Moroccan thinker Abdallah Laroui received the “Arab Cultural Personality” award by the Sheikh Zayed book foundation in recognition for having “established a well-founded thought movement and cultural momentum spanning the entire Arab world” over several decades. His first essay, L’idéologie Arabe contemporaine, was released a month before the 1967 Arab defeat, an event that altered the course of Arab thought. He has since written over twenty books addressing various aspects of Arab thought and modernity, ensuring he was among a few North African voices to be known and read across the Arab world and among French-speaking audiences.
Laroui’s recognition on the Arab stage comes at a time when Arab intellectual history is reappraising the intellectual projects of thinkers from its peripheries. Simultaneously, we are rediscovering the fascinating episodes of radical Moroccan culture during the 1960s and 1970s, as they were displayed in cultural journals such as Lamalif, Aqlam, or Anfas. This revived interest has also underlined the “absence of Arab intellectuals” in 2011, with observers lamenting that they did not “roar” truth to power, and have failed their public responsibility. However, as Suzanne Elizabeth Kassab reminded us recently, 1967 and 2011 may have had similar echoes, but they represent reactions to two different historical contexts and we must take care not to project nostalgic expectations on present-day Arab intellectuals.
Since 2011, it appears that Laroui has made a remarkable return to the front stage, after a quiet couple of decades since his retirement from the University of Rabat in 2000. The “absent father” of the Moroccan intelligentsia, has intervened at regular junctures of the Moroccan debate on culture, society, and politics. I see in his modes of intervention a different way to conceive of intellectual commitment, one that is less romantic and revolutionary, and more reformist and based on measured expectations for the intellectual’s ability to influence change at the national level. As we carry out a recalibration of our expectations toward Arab intellectuals, I point to another hopeful development that has occurred alongside his return to the front scene: the development of a new audience of younger Moroccans, mediated by the virtual space, who see in Laroui’s figure an opportunity to question the long-neglected histories of the 1960s and 1970s.
A Measured Return: Past and Present of Laroui’s Intellectual Project
Talk of the Moroccan “exception” to the 2011 Arab revolutions formed the background to a new publication, the bilingual monthly magazine Zamane devoted to Moroccan history and its impact on the day’s burning questions. Unsurprisingly, in April 2012, after the dust had settled and the chants quieted down, Abdallah Laroui gave his first interview on this historic event to this publication. The great historian retired in 2000 was not in the habit of making political statements or judgments in the heat of the moment.
He did seem like the most equipped figure to decipher the significance of 2011 in the Moroccan longue durée: one could draw on his claim in L’Histoire du Maghreb (1970) where he attributed the region’s technological delay to successive foreign invasions rather than inherent cultural delay, or in al-‘arab wa-l-fikr al-tarikhi (1973) where he identified the process of re-traditionalization of Moroccan society and called on Arab thinkers to adopt revolutionary historicism.
There were hopes that the romanticism of the 2011 revolutionary atmosphere would reactivate Laroui’s more radical ideas from the 1970s. The interview was conducted by two respected and left-leaning historians, Mostafa Bouaziz and Maati Monjib, yet the interviewers appeared to be abrupt and too keen. They covered too many topics and sought to adjudicate the past while pressing him to offer a visionary commentary on the present. As his answers became short and impatient, it is easy to imagine his regret for having accepted to come out of his silence to perform. Laroui made several statements that dispel the idea of revolutionary romanticism and how “the youth of the 20-February [movement] did not write the new constitution, which will be the only document future historians will study.” The crowd, he continued, will be forgotten by history, like other crowds in past revolutions—this was not a claim that any self-respected leftist would ever make. Instead, he was interested in the reformist state. He even walked back “the idea of the Maghreb,” the title of his seminal 1970 book, as an “elite concern” while he set himself firmly in the national framework. Regardless, the interview sparked a genuine media buzz and scanned copies of the magazine were widely shared online—leading to Zamane’s editor in chief Youssef Chmirou, to complain that this was hurting his young publication over lost revenue.
Undeterred by this first outing, Laroui continued to intervene in public debates on his own terms while showing a different approach to the intellectual’s role, as a liberal reformist and a pragmatist rather than a romantic revolutionary. A year later, under the Islamist PJD government and in the midst of a national debate on the crisis of national education, telecommunication businessman Nourredine Ayouch led the charge against Arabization. He called for the adoption of darija, spoken Moroccan Arabic, as the teaching language, rather than fusha, modern standard Arabic alongside French and foreign languages. Laroui reached out to the television channel 2M to intervene on this matter. The producers of the television programme Mubasharatan Maakum were happy enough to oblige and scheduled a debate between the two on 27 November 2013.
Image from Zamane (August September 2016).
As Charis Boutieri explored, there stood two different visions on Moroccan education, society and culture. Laroui offered rich and nuanced views on the role of language and historical contextualization of previous efforts to codify and reform Arabic and he contrasted with his debate adversary on the night, whose lack of substance was clear to see. From my vantage point, Laroui seemed more at ease in front of the cameras debating a current topic which he had been considering for years, rather than asked to justify his past choices or being the centre of the story. In fact, his television intervention on education reform proved a watershed moment that reconciled him with his audience, and gained more along the way.
In the months that followed, I witnessed an impressive engagement with his intellectual project on Arab modernity in Morocco punctuated by an increasing number of interviews he gave to the national press. Several cultural journals, majallat, led the engagement with his intellectual project. Wajhat al-nadhar devoted a volume to his intellectual project on modernity in the summer of 2015. Afkar did the same in 2017 with a volume titled “Abdallah Laroui: history, reform and the future”. New books appeared on the shelves, with a greater interest from publishers. The academic Khadija Sabbar released a critically acclaimed book titled “Modernity in Abdallah Laroui’s intellectual project” in 2017 with his long-time publisher markaz al-thaqqafi al-arabi.
Sometimes, this coverage turned into veneration, consistent with the long-standing search for masters and authority figures: in 2015, Zamane led with a painted portrait on their front-cover while asking “Are We Truly Nationalists?” In September 2016, there he was again, alongside the leaders of the nationalist movements, Allal al-Fassi and Abderrahim Bouabid. Finally, in 2019, he was placed at the centre of a matrix of political leaders and figures that represent the “witnesses of our time” and elevating the historian to the rank of former nationalist leaders. In addition, Laroui seemed disengaged from these conversations with the Moroccan intelligentsia in the mid-2010s, as he had been in the past, leading to continued unease over this laudatory treatment for an absent figure. It reinforced the view that Laroui refused to engage with his national peers, preferring the company of more illustrious philosophers even when they could not reply back—amidst rumours that he was devoting his attention to translating the French philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau and Montesquieu into Arabic. Finally, there remained unresolved questions over Laroui’s relationship with the metaphorical prince, especially as a former intellectual of the Moroccan left. In the 1990s and 2000s, he became known as the “Palace Intellectual.” perhaps unfairly, following his decision to join the Royal Academy and to carry out diplomatic assignments, a topic he explored and explained in his essay Le Maroc et Hassan II (1999). Was it that Laroui had not lived up to his own responsibility toward his readers and the progressive Moroccan intelligentsia? Were these expectations impossible to fulfil in the first place? In between a rock and a hard place, Laroui was a convenient target. Yet, his shift from Marxism to liberal reformism and constitutionalism had appeared in the 1980s and 1990s in books such as sunnah wa-l islah or mafhum al-dawlah, yet the representation of the Arab intellectual’s responsibility was difficult to dispel.
In the ensuing years, these questions were not addressed but they did not impede a slew of events celebrating his ideas and a growing audience. In fact, those who appeared more attuned to his evolving political stance were members of a younger audience who proved unburdened by these difficult labels. This encounter between Laroui and his new audience must be read alongside another development in the past decades, namely the renewed interest in Morocco’s recent past.
[Read Part 2 of this article here.]
 Kassab “1967 and 2011: Arab intellectual responses” NYUD Lecture Youtube.com (11 November 2015). Consulted online 25 June 2020.
 Hegasy, “Transforming Memories: Media and Historiography in the Aftermath of the Moroccan Equity and Reconciliation Commission” in The Social Life of Memory (Palgrave, 2017), 87-88.
 L’histoire du Maghreb: essai de synthèse (Maspero, 1970).
 Boutieri, “Arduous Journeys on Roads Not [Yet] Taken: Language, Neoliberal Work Skills, and the Exhausted Educational Dream” Jadaliyya (13 March 2014). See also Boutieri, “In Two Speeds (A deux vitesses): linguistic pluralism and educational anxiety in contemporary Morocco” IJMES 44.3 (2012), 443-64.
 Laroui, Muntiskiou, ta’amulāt fī tārīkh al-rūmān. ’asbāb al-nuhūḍ wa al-ʾinḥṭtāṭ. Translated from French to Arabic (Al-Markaz al-thaqāfī al-ʿarabī, 2012).