In the intellectual history of the Arab world, there is a remarkable dearth of literature on liberal thought. In comparison, nationalism and Islamism have attracted much more attention and molded our image of the Middle East. This essay takes a new look at liberal thought by arguing that scholars should not confine themselves to searching for an Arab “liberalism” in the form of intellectuals or organizations that describe themselves as “liberals.” It would be more fruitful to investigate the rise and decline of liberal ideas within the framework of ideologies that seem at first glance not to be liberal. Here, liberal ideas rarely develop by adopting Western liberal traditions but, rather, are the result of political struggles and experiences. Hence, liberal thought emerges from the criticism of authoritarian rule, even though some intellectuals may have advocated authoritarianism at an earlier stage. In the empirical part of this essay, I analyze four autobiographies of former radical nationalist activists from Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Although the authors still identify themselves as nationalists, they derived a more liberal outlook by reviewing their concrete political experiences.

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