Theorizing the Statist Threat to Intellectuals’ Autonomy: How the State Features in Clerics' Arab Spring Politics

Muhammad Amasha, Yale University

Explaining intellectuals’ political stances has been a central debate in the sociology of intellectuals. While some emphasize ideals as the major cause of intellectuals’ actions, many others insist that material and ideal interests are central to the explanation. Though the state’s role is implied in some of the interest-based accounts, the state is not addressed as an important actor that intellectuals consider before they act. Even works that lament the death of public intellectuals generally refer to the proletarianization of intellectuals who are increasingly self-censored to avoid job loss, not state repression. The state, per se, features in studies of the cultural fields in authoritarian states. My paper contributes to this literature by providing a theorization for the statist threat to the autonomy of cultural fields on two dimensions: threat imminence and threat types. I propose that state imminence is not just about how repressive one state is, compared to another. The same state can pose different degrees of threat imminence based on the securitization of certain identities and intellectual traditions. Furthermore, while we generally think of the statist threat as a security threat (job loss, arrest, torture, or killing), I shed light on one more type of statist threat, the legitimacy threat: threats to one’s moral authority as an intellectual by revealing private moral contradictions. This theorization is empirically grounded in a five-year in-depth study of the politics of Muslim religious scholars (ulama) during the Arab Spring, where I use process tracing and comparative methods to qualitatively analyze chronologically ordered, systematically collected primary sources (news reports, official statements, memoirs, and interviews).

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 Presented in Session 152. Revolutionary Outcomes and Intellectual Commitments