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Chapter Eight: Dialectic of the Cultural Universe

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Chapter Eight: Dialectic of the Cultural Universe

The cultural universe is not an inert world. Rather, it has both a life and history if its own. This life and history can be interpreted according to Hegelian thought in the sense there is a becoming of the world of philosophy and a philosophical becoming of the world. It can also be interpreted in the light of the Marxist principle according to which any change in the infrastructure determines the changes that would occur in the superstructure.

Here, we raise the problem from a pragmatic point of view. In general, the characteristics of action, both at the individual and collective levels, depend upon the internal relations between the parameters of the cultural world: the objects, the human beings and the ideas. To each historical stage of society, there is a corresponding internal dialectic that determines at every moment the involvement of these three categories in its activities. In other words, to every instant corresponds a particular relationship between the objects, human beings and ideas integrated in the weft of action. Such am instant is but a matter of normality in the course of that dialectic. Yet, there are instants which generate a more exclusive relationship in which one of the parameters is preponderant when the society's activity is centered either on the objects, on the people, or on the ideas in a more particular manner.

Hence, there is a certain imbalance that marks this particular moment of the historical development of a society. That is, it marks an abnormal phase in the dialectics of the society's cultural universe. Such imbalance reflects some excess, and any excess is a kind of despotism to the detriment of social activities.

The demarcations between the different phases of imbalance are far from being very clear. The phenomenon of interference does not allow for any peremptory decision pinpointing the moment in which a society moves from one type of excess to another. But, the present Muslim society is a field of research that provides the sociologist interested in such issues with valuable data. The significance of such data is not solely of a clinical order.

Muslim intellectuals analyzing the social pathology of Muslim countries should not diagnose the latter's maladies with the spirit of merely knowing things or make others know them as they are. They should rather do so with the hope that the few conclusions they draw from their studies and reflections would find their way to those who have in their hands the therapeutic means in those countries, namely their political and cultural leaders.

One hundred years ago, Muslim society realized that the cycle of its civilization had reached its end. Today, it is again at the pre-civilization stage. It has been attempting for almost one century to reset itself in motion. However, its "take-off' seems to be taking place with difficulty in comparison to a "contemporary" society such as Japan or to a society whose take-off started at a much later time such as Popular China. Its difficulties have been interpreted in two different ways. According to the supporters of the colonialist thesis, Islam is the factor of the delayed take-off, whereas it is colonialism according to the nationalist thesis. Both interpretations suffer from a fundamental defect whose origin is a matter of great ambiguity. By pinning all the problems on Islam, the first group would like us to forget that colonialism is responsible for a great portion of the present chaos in the Muslim world. In contrast, by pinning everything on colonialism, the second group would have us forget their demagoguery, which has increased the acuteness of the problem, instead of alleviating it.

While the former overlooks the historical reality by ignoring the role of Islam as one of the most magnificent civilizations of mankind, the latter ignores or pretends to ignore that the most backward countries are precisely those, which have not experienced the colonial challenge such as Yemen. The problem, therefore, should be handled without any unnecessary prejudices, especially on behalf of the Muslim who tries to understand the sociological roots of the present chaos in the Muslim world.

In the next chapter, we shall see that every society has to face some trends towards imbalance. This is something that necessarily accompanies any historical development. At present, Muslim society suffers more particularally from such trends because its "renaissance" has not been planned or thought out in a manner that takes account of the agents of dissipation and obstruction. Its intellectuals have failed to develop any system of analytic and critical thought except in the sense of an apologetics meant to praise and exalt the values of Islam. Its political leaders have no belief in the necessity of such a system to control the course of affairs in their countries.

Thus, for one century now, its historical action has been evolving outside the criteria of efficacy. That action has been carried out in a chaotic state of ideas. As a result, it has come up against many difficulties and has been entrapped in a waste of time and means as well as in deviations resulting from the incoherence and chaos of ideas and the despotism of either objects or human beings.

We have thus far dealt with the first aspect of the problem, that is, the incoherence of the world of ideas to which we will return in the next two chapters, for it is the keystone of this study. We shall now devote the remaining part of this chapter more particularly to the other two aspects of the problem in the present stage in which the Muslim world faces the despotism of objects at various levels.

1. The psychological and moral level: when the cultural universe is centered on the objects, the "object" stands on the top of the scale of values and the qualitative judgments are stealthily converted into quantitative judgments without their authors having any doubt about their sliding into chosisme[1] that is, the evaluation of everything with the scale of objects. Thus, an official would measure his rank in the administrative hierarchy by the number of machines he has whether he utilizes them or not. In this connection, I have counted in only one office of a high-ranking official four telephones in front of him and five air-conditioners around him. In the same Arab capital, a young intellectual, the son of a personality of high moral prestige, used to greet me but he has now stopped doing so since the day he saw me getting off the train from the third class!

Chosisme thus leads to very frequent typical lapses, especially in the field of political literature. A motion of support for a given country would include the phrase "the government and its people" where the possessive has "its" people rather than the people having "their" government. The possessor has become possessed. Yet, this lapse is only a symptom of the reversal of values.

2. The social level: dealing with the quantitative aspects of the problems will lead us to formulate the solutions in terms of quantities, thus neglecting their qualitative aspects. The administrative officers of a "revolutionary" body equipped their headquarters with so many fantastic desks, which they did not know where to put. I saw a considerable number of them piled up on one another in a courtyard. Luckily for them it is not a rainy country. However, the sun can also damage the wood for it was really a mountain of desks! Similarly, in a hospital, a decision was made to equip its park with new cars. I then saw a large number of new cars standing on their tires. It was explained to me that they had been there for two years!

In consequence, choiseisme generates a state of entropy at the social level; that is to say, an alienation of the society's power and dissipation of its means. Quantitatism and chosisme thus result in unexpected social phenomena. At the door of an administrative office, an officer would check the visitors and even register their names. If you come back the next day, you would see the register but not the officer who controls it. Then, you would enter, for the function has gone with the functionary.

3. The intellectual level: the despotism of objects has also its characteristic symptoms. A writer who has just finished a book would not be asked how and what subject he has dealt with. Instead, he would be asked how many pages he has filled up. Sometimes, it is the author himself who would succumb to the logic of chosisme. In this connection, an Algerian intellectual once informed me that he had written a book of so many pages!

4. The political level, chosisme, i.e. the despotism of the object, still alienates the social power in many other fields especially as regards planning when a country faces underdevelopment either by means of investing foreign capital or by raising the tax rate in such a way that would paralyze every private economic activity by laying down the basis for a system of fiscal favoritism in the country. Nonetheless, at the present stage of Muslim society, there is convergence between the despotism of the object and that of the person. The despotism of the person generates its harmful effects especially at the moral and political levels.

On the moral level: when the ideal is personified, there is a twofold danger, since all the mistakes and lapses of the person are accounted for to the detriment of society which has incarnated its ideal in that person. This loss takes either the form of a rejection of the fallen ideal or that of a veritable apostasy, as it is believed to compensate the frustration by the adoption of a new ideal. In one case as in the other, we have surreptitiously and unwittingly substituted the problem of the people for that of ideas. Such a substitution has caused much harm for Islamic ideals represented by people whose qualifications do not live up to them. Anyway, who can personify ideas without jeopardizing society?

The Qur'an expressly signaled the danger of such incarnation to the conscience of the Muslims:

And Muhammad is only an apostle; all the [other] apostles have passed away before him: if then, he dies or is slain will you turn about on your heels? (Al Imran 3:144)

This warning does not imply an expectation of error or lapses in conduct, which are impossible as far as the Prophet is concerned. Rather, it is meant to signal the danger of the incarnation of ideas as such.

On the political level: one can enumerate in a single Muslim country so many disasters. Such disasters could have been avoided had some driving ideas not been alienated by means of incarnation. One of the great driving ideas that could make the colonialist machinery in Algeria tremble was born with the Algerian Popular Muslim Congress in 1936.

It was wished that it be embodied by an intellectual politician and thus it died just one month later because that intellectual was unfit to serve as a support for it. Yet, Algeria is not the only Muslim country to have paid heavily for the personified ideas.

The cult of both the "providential man" and the "unique thing" manifests itself everywhere in the present Muslim world and is sometimes at the origin of spectacular political failure. If we consider the matter in terms of the ideological struggle, we can see how colonialism could exploit this morbid trend of ours towards personifying our ideas, especially at the political level. This inclination toward incarnation often prevents us from benefiting from our failures because of tracing their causes right away back to somebody, "the nefarious man", instead of reflecting seriously upon the lessons that can be derived from them.

For example, when the breakdown of the Syrian-Egyptian union took place in 1961 thus marking a distressing failure of the idea of Arab union, I was listening to Damascus - and mainly Cairo - radio broadcasting in order to hear the explanation that was being given to that deplorable event. It was attributed to "a nefarious man", the Syrian army officer al-Kuzbari who led the coup d'etat, instead of seeking, profoundly and more usefully for the Arab people, its real causes in our cultural universe.

Indeed, it was clear that the coup would take place with or without al-Kuzbari because our cultural universe does not contain an antidote for it. On the contrary, it contains all factors favorable for such a turn of events. Thus, the "providential" or "the nefarious" man has always been unwittingly exploited to abort certain ideas. Generally speaking, it is this opposition of the idea to the idol that has guaranteed for colonialism its most brilliant successes as regards political abortions in Muslim countries by sometimes making use of our intellectuals themselves.

Most frequently, Muslim intellectuals are the least convinced people of the social value of ideas. This explains the fact that for the last thirty years, a considerable number of intellectuals in Algeria have preferred to revolve around certain idols rather than putting themselves at the service of certain ideas.

Finally, we should, in this chapter, point out another kind of despotism, that is, the despotism of ideas. It is the typical evil and disease of the elites. In a civilized society, this points to the moment in which intellectuals start losing their adaptation to social life, that is to say, the moment they no longer believe in its motivations in the caves of Saint-German or even in the lost tracks of Nepal at the bottom of the Himalayas. More so, they would use their available vital energy in erecting barricades, as happened in the days of May 1968 in Paris, without being able to clearly designate any goal for their elan.

In contrast, in an underdeveloped country, it is not the nonadaptation and the disaffection of a betrayed world of ideas that assume despotic forms, but rather adaptation itself Here, it is the ideas acquired in bookish form that generate a despotism that sometimes manifests itself in ludicrous forms. In a pharmacology course, the teacher was doing his utmost, badly rather than well, to describe a plant instead of simply stretching out his hand and picking it from the courtyard of the faculty and showing it to the students; he was looking for it in a book while it was under the window of his classroom!

[1] A French word denoting a doctrine of objectifying ideas and concepts: “thingism”

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