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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Intellectual blockage

Ideas are an integral part of a society. They enable human beings to tackle the challenges of time and accommodate differences within a social whole. At the social level ideas and their materialisation in the form of institutions and norms help societies understand change and make new social arrangements accordingly. At different points in history, societies face situations where a problem becomes insoluble through the available conceptual assemblage of the prevalent paradigm. In philosophy this problem is called ‘aporia,’ which can be translated in simple English as impasse, obstacle or blockage.

The intellectual landscape in Pakistan has all the telltale signs of intellectual aporia. Today Pakistan is facing an existential threat because of various internal and external factors. Such a situation demands introspection in its society. However, the prevalent ideas of Islamism and secularism have failed to provide an alternative vision. In the war of ideas, the intelligentsia of both secular and religious persuasions stay in their ideological trenches and stick to their ideological guns. Therefore, no dialogue takes place between the two and discussions taking place within the respective schools of thought are monologues.

The failure of our minds to take us out of the current morass is the result of an intellectual blockage in Pakistani society. This blockage creates immense existential tension within the society. The killing of innocent people across the country is just a tip of the iceberg. The malaise within the social body can be diagnosed, and can even be cured, if the blockage in thinking is removed. Despite the gravity of the situation, the secular and religious minds are not prepared to break the boundaries of their dogmatic enclosures because they fear they will become irrelevant if the configuration of ideas is changed.

Ironically, it is the intellectual blockage that provides an opportunity to iconoclasts to break the status quo and paves the way for an alternative society. In his book Time for Revolution, Antonio Negri writes: “...after blockage, there is an epoch. And it is within this epoch that we must move and consciously construct the new temporality. The tension of the blockage is broken and reveals the force blockage held back.”

The intellectual blockage in Pakistan can be broken by every aspect of self, society and state being questioned anew. Only after the blockage is broken can we open new avenues and come up with imaginative answers. Another element contributing to the intellectual stagnation in Pakistan is the lack of radical questioning in our society. What is missing in the post-9/11 intellectual discourse in Pakistan is criticism of secularism from within. Our secular class has adopted the global vogue of religion being used as a scapegoat for everything evil on earth. Secularists uncritically accept whatever is available in the supermarket of ideas. It is important to criticise the version of religion we follow, but by solely focusing on this single factor, we miss the bigger picture: that various socio-psychological, political and economic factors intersect to form a new reality and consciousness, of which religion is a part.

For change to occur in Pakistani society, a critique of both religious and secular reason is indispensible. It is wrong to assume that secularism and religion are mutually exclusive. Rather, in the ideological battle in Pakistan, secular and religious forces derive their reason of existence from the very presence of the other force, because, in existing in the same time and space, they reinforce each other. Secularists tend to essentialise modern religious forces by attributing an immutable essence to them. However, the reality is that Islamism is as much a product of modernity as modern seculars are. On the other hand, religious ideologues wrongly equate secularism with atheism.

Although it is important for secular discourse to address the issue of religion in modern times, it should not make religion its obsession. The existing economic and political structure of the world is here to stay as a powerful factor affecting our lives today. It is social and economic transformations that are determining modern contours of religion, and not vice versa. For instance, Islam did not create cyberspace, but cyberspace has definitely created what can be described as a cyber-ummah. Religion is not strong enough to withstand the onslaught of modernity in the long run. It will eventually adopt, or co-opt into, modern systems, albeit not in their pure forms.

Second, the aporia is caused by knowledge being made subservient to the interests of power. In our media-dominated world, the discourse generated by power is internalised by people because of the media. As a result we tend to see and define everything through the vocabulary concocted by those with the power to manufacture consent. Once we imbibe this vocabulary as normative indicators in our discourse, we tend to reject alternative voices and their narratives. To overcome the intellectual crisis in Pakistan, religious and secular scholars have to heed each other in order to move beyond the self-righteous frame of mind and binary thinking.

We come to an intellectual impasse when we try to preach to the converted, and refuse to listen to the ‘infidels’. We can understand the ‘other’ and our own existential situation when we derive language from our existential experience. War on the military front can be fought with borrowed weapons, but the war of ideas can only be won through rational exchange of ideas within Pakistani society.

Aziz Ali Dad: A freelance columnist based in Islamabad. Email: azizalidad@gmail.com
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