Azmi Bishara (born Nazareth, 22 July 1956) is a Palestinian intellectual, and political writer. He holds a PhD in philosophy, and he is currently the General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies and a member of its Executive Board. A prominent researcher and writer, Bishara has published numerous books and academic papers on political thought, social theory, and philosophy, in addition to several literary works. Bishara received the Ibn Rushd Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2002 and the Global Exchange Human Rights Award in 2003.
Bishara is particularly known for his research on civil society, nationalism theory, what he refers to as "the Arab question", religion and secularism, his work in renewing Arab thought, and his analysis of society and the state in Israel. He has also conducted prolific research into the Israeli war on Lebanon and the aggression towards Gaza during the Arab revolutions in 2011 and 2012, as well as in the theorization of the democratic transformation and citizenship rights. He uses philosophy and an analytical approach to the social sciences, dealing with concepts such as freedom, justice, religion, mythology, secularism, state, nationalism, nation, civil society and others.
Bishara’s political career began as the founder of the National Committee for Arab Secondary Students and he was elected its president at the First Arab Secondary Students' Conference on April 6, 1974. He also became a prominent leader of the Arab student movement in Israeli universities. He was elected to the Knesset for the first time in 1996 and succeeded in four consecutive parliamentary elections. He remained a member of parliament until he resigned in 2007 and left the country in exile. Bishara is one of the most prominent anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli policy critics. He was the first to label Israel an apartheid state and argue for "a state for all its citizens" rather than a "Jewish state". He recieved the Ibn Rushd Prize for Free Thought in 2002 and the Human Rights Award from Global Exchange in 2003.Bishara currently lives in Qatar after his departure from Palestine in 2007. He currently manages the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, which he founded in 2010, and chairs the Board of Trustees of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. He announced his retirement from direct political activity at the beginning of 2017 in order to commit to full-time research, writing and intellectual production. Bishara received much vitriol from the Arab regimes and state media, which charged him with playing an important role during the Arab Spring and of standing in the ranks of the Arab peoples against their regimes.
Through his books and lectures, Azmi Bishara discusses the development of the concept of civil society by reviewing the history of Western political thought, and the social developments that are related to differentiation within society and between society and the state. He seeks to dismantle the popular understanding of this concept in the Arab cultural and political milieu, who have taken it a ready-made concept outside of its European context.
In his book Civil Society: A Critical Study, Bishara discusses the idea of civil society and the historical conditions for its emergence, notably the separation of civil society from the state, as well as concepts of the nation, nationalism, citizenship and democracy. The book is primarily a theoretical work in which the author attempts to retrace the history of Western political thought in the context of the social shifts that have accompanied and affected its evolution. In addition, the book offers a critical deconstruction of the concept of civil society, after it had become widespread and over-used in daily writings, causing it to lose its explanatory value and critical effect, making it synonymous with the concept of the national society. Dr. Bishara lists the functions of civil society, which necessarily lead to democracy, arguing that civil society has a history that is linked to politics, the economy, and the evolution of the notions of society and state in the face of both "organic communities" and the tools of coercion employed by the state to establish and maintain its dominance. The author reaches the conclusion that civil society is an intellectual and historical process leading to full-fledged citizenship and genuine democracy.
Azmi Bishara focuses on the idea of Arab nationalism as a cultural identity opposed to sectarianism, but only after being linked to democracy and citizenship. It must develop into the concept of the citizen-based nation even if the nation is formed from a single nationality. Bishara does not support all forms of nationalism, but only the type based on citizenship, thus contributing to the concept of nationalism in general and Arab nationalism in particular. According to Bishara, nationalism is "not ideological but the politicization of belonging to a collective cultural identity that builds an imagined society." He believes that nationalism is not specific to a group, party or race. It differs from ethnicity in its political dimension that aspires to sovereignty. But in the case of achieving sovereignty it becomes an identity to which the individual freely belongs.
Zionism poses one of Azmi Bishara’s main intellectual concerns, and his analysis of Zionism has been widely cited as a fervent opponent of the ideology. He has stood up to the Judaization of educational curricula in the Palestinian homeland, as well as attempts by Israeli governments to integrate Arabs into Israeli society. The fight against Zionism was one of the main motivations behind his candidacy for the Israeli Knesset, as well as his candidacy for the post of prime minister, where he aimed to challenge the Zionist nature of Israel and the Israelization of the Arabs within the occupied territory.
In his reference book From the Jewishness of the state to Sharon Bishara analyzed the structure of Jewish "democracy" and the double levelled contradiction of Israeli democracy. The first level is that Israeli democracy confuses concepts that are incompatible with the structure of democratic theory, such as religion and nationalism. There is a second level to this contradiction, according to Bishara, regarding the Jewishness of the state. Israel is not, because of its insistence on its Jewishness, a state for all its citizens.
Secularism and Religion
In his book Religion and Secularism in a Historical Context, Azmi Bishara presents his theory on secularism and secularization, after offering a critique of older theories. This work was inspired by Bishara’s research into potential obstacles to democracy. He proposes an alternative formula for dealing with dichotomies such as religion and secularism. He sees that the research problem is not religion (as a religion in itself), but "patterns of religiosity." He outlines the difference between religion and religiosity, arguing that religion is a natural and complex development in the experience of the sacred, i.e. the emotions inspired by beauty and awe of secrets and fear of nature, but the experience of the sacred alone does not distinguish religious experience. Religion in this sense is not the sacred experience alone, but is, above all, a group of people with a common faith and a religious institution and worship and rituals. To deal with the difference between religion and patterns of religiosity, Bishara notes the commonalities and divergences between religion and myth, religion and magic and religion and ethics.
The second volume discusses secularism theory and examines the evolution of secular thought in Europe, from the term’s beginnings within religious thought to secularism as a separate ideology. This development was followed by the development of rationality and the scientific approach to nature and society on the one hand, and the development of thinking on the other.
He discusses secularization theories, which are sociological, introducing his vision of secularization as a process of continuous differentiation between elements of the sacred and secular in thought and society, between religion and politics, private space and public space. He concludes that the longing for the sacred is inseparable from humans, and remains pervasive in all human activities, such as art, literature and other activities, as well as in non-religious ideologies. But terminology of religion and its ritual practices continued to be secularized in the sanctification of secular values, such as the state, the people, the homeland, the party, etc. Finally, Bishara examines the models of secularization of politics and the state applied in Europe (France, Germany, Poland, Britain), the United States and others, showing the relationship between secularism (one that is hardline anti-religion, and another that is soft and tolerant towards religious practices) and the type of democracy in each country. He criticized trying to impose or import a particular model as the only possible secular model and presents his own model of secularization theory at the end of the book.
Sect and Sectarianism
Azmi Bishara also conducted interdisciplinary research into the issue of sectarianism, culminating in the book Sect, Sectarianism and Imagined Sects. Bishara believes that Western sociological theories do not help the researcher in this field at the Arab level. The book both develops a theory on sects and sectarianism, and undertakes a sociological-historical study on the emergence of sects. In the book, Bishara tackles the transformation of social sectarianism into political sectarianism, based on a theoretical framework that intersects with social theories, socio-historical analysis, and the comparison of Arab and international models. The book is distinguished by its development of the concept of sectarianism based on new definitions of "sect" and "sectarianism" and its development of the concept of "imagined sects," through the study of these phenomena and their development within the historical Arabic-Islamic context, distinct from other concepts used to study the evolution of religious groups in the Western context. He challenges the idea that sects or denominations produce sectarianism, seeking to prove that in the modern era, the opposite is true. That is to say, sectarianism produces the sect, or rather, an “imaginary sect”. He therefore devotes his research effort to writing a book that defines a concept of the religious community as a “local community” distinct from the followers of a certain religion. In his opinion, it is an imagined group that is not a self-contained social entity such as the local community or group, but rather one reproduced by political sectarianism – “the imaginary community.”
Azmi Bishara was born on July 22, 1956, in the city of Nazareth in the Galilee region of northern Palestine. After the 1948 Nakba, Nazareth became an administrative and cultural center for the Arabs of Israel. Azmi Bishara grew up in a Christian family from the village of Tarshiha in the Upper Galilee, who raised him in the western quarter of Nazareth close to the villages that were displaced in 1948.
Academic and Professional Career
Between 1974 and 1977, Bishara studied at the University of Haifa and then at Al Quds University until 1980. Azmi Bishara then left Palestine to complete his doctoral studies at Humboldt University in Berlin in East Germany, graduating in 1986 with a doctorate in philosophy. His thesis was titled " The Hegelian Unity of the Logical and Historical in the Methodology of the Capital of Karl Marx”.
After returning from Germany in 1986, Bishara worked at Birzeit University where he served as a professor of philosophy and cultural studies. He remained in that post for 10 years until 1996, when he ran for the Knesset. In the same period, and most prominently in 1990, Azmi Bishara worked as a researcher and a research coordinator at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, which deals with the fields of philosophy, society and culture. Bishara remained a member of the Knesset until his resignation in 2007. He left Palestine after being prosecuted by Israel under the charge of aiding Hezbollah against Israel in the 2006 Lebanon war.
Bishara helped establish academic institutions and cultural centers aimed at preserving Arab identity under the Israeli occupation between 1994 and 2007. Among these institutions are the Arab Culture Association in Nazareth, the Mada Al Carmel Center for Applied Social Research, and Muwatin: The Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy.
After moving to Qatar, Azmi Bishara was a member of the Board of Trustees for the Arab Foundation for Democracy, founded in Doha, Qatar in 2007, which aims to promote democracy as a culture and way of life. He also held Gamal Abdel Nasser's chair at the Center for Arab Unity Studies between 2007 and 2009. In 2010 he established the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies as an independent Arab research institution for social sciences, regional history and geostrategic issues. The Center recently launched the Doha Historical Dictionary of the Arabic language and the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies was established in 2014 as an independent academic institution for education and research. It offers master's programs at the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences and the Faculty of Public Administration and Development Economics. The Institute began its first academic year in October 2015.
Not only did Bishara establish several research and cultural centers centered on the Arab world, but he also founded and established a number of media institutions to spread these ideas and culture that he believes in, including the establishment of the London based Al-Araby Al-Jadeed (The New Arab) newspaper in March 2014, in Arabic and English with correspondents in a number of Arab capitals. He also founded the London-based Al Araby Television Network.