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20 December 2010

Intellectuals Building Nations

Arnold Toynbee, writing on the rise and fall of civilisation, puts forward his theory of ‘challenge and response’. According to his theory, each civilisation faces a number of challenges and crises during its growth and rise. Its survival depends on the responses to these challenges.

As long as a society is able to respond actively to its problems, it survives changing its structure by adopting new traditions and values. If a society fails to respond, it slowly and gradually decays and loses its vitality. Those responsible for responding to the challenges are intellectuals. It is their responsibility to create a new consciousness and create new ideas to guide society to adjust according to the need of the time.

If intellectuals of society fail to play this role, society would lose its strength and dissipate. The role of intellectuals becomes vital when a society is in a state of decadence as chaos and anarchy break it into pieces. We have many examples in history when a group of intellectuals came forward and, by their thought provoking and innovative ideas, gave a new life to their society.

This happened in the case of the Renaissance. Intellectuals such as Desiderius Erasmus, Thomas Moore, Patriarch, Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michel Angelo, and a lot of others who stimulated European society to get rid of the medieval practices and traditions. As a result of their efforts, European society transformed into a new and energetic entity.

Then we have the example of Germany. German intellectuals were shocked after Germany’s defeat by Napoleon. The question before them was how to recover from the defeat and revive the pride of the nation. They realised that the weakness of Germany was that it was divided into a number of states and lacked unity.

Therefore, the intellectuals undertook the task of uniting the German people on the basis of language. They developed the language as a tool to integrate people and create in them historical consciousness. The Grimm brothers collected German folktales and songs and writers and philosophers contributed to make the language rich. It created the linguistic nationalism which subsequently resulted in the unification of Germany in 1772 under Bismarck.

This pattern was followed by Arab intellectuals in the 1960s to create a sense of Arab nationalism among the people. Lebanon’s Christian intellectuals played an important role in making Arabic language a tool to integrate all Arabs without any discrimination on the basis of religion. Bassam Tibi, Syrian born German professor, in his book The Arab Nationalism documented the whole movement of nationalism and highlighted the role of al-Husri who worked hard to mobilise the intellectuals to contribute to this movement.

This linguistic nationalism was above religious beliefs. Philip K. Hitti’s book History of the Arabs and recently Albert Hourani’s book History of the Arab People are the best examples of this movement. Unfortunately, this secular concept of nationalism failed in view of the political changes in the Middle East which reshaped it through religious extremism.

Another example is that of the Chinese intellectuals who responded to the challenges in the mid-19th century when China was forced by European powers to sign humiliating treaties one after another allotting them not only its territory but granting trade concessions which rendered it powerless. Under these circumstances, the question before the intellectuals was how to get back the lost national pride.

Some scholars believed that the only way to survive was to adopt European traditions and political system. Some argued in favour of reviving Confucius’ teachings in their pure form. Later on, some intellectuals were fascinated by Marxism and the Russian Revolution in 1917. These different solutions were experimented with and finally socialist ideology succeeded in changing the history of China.

Pakistan, since its inception is passing through turmoil. Military interventions have interrupted its political system. Politicians have failed to govern the country efficiently. Economic problems and financial corruption are causing an imbalance between the rich and poor and increasing poverty, which is resulting in social and cultural backwardness. Religious extremists and sectarian conflicts are disturbing communal harmony.

How are the intellectuals of Pakistan responding to these challenges? Not effectively. The only voice of dissidence is from a few individuals. Some poets have stimulated the emotions of their readers by radical poetry. But its impact is always short lived. Political and social consciousness is the result of political, philosophical and historical writings which are composed in prose.

For thought provoking and radical ideas, intellectuas are required who, without any compromise with the state and the ruling classes, side with the people and create in them a sprit of resistance against the system. Pakistani society so far lacks such honest intellectuals.