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The Future: Should We Wait For It? or Create it?

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ByTarek Heggy

The idea for this article took shape while I was watching a panel discussion between two distinguished Egyptian intellectuals over the agreement reached in Nairobi last month between the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), led by John Garang, and the Khartoum government. The debate was a study in contrasts, an exchange between two men belonging to different stages of historical development. One came across as a throwback to a bygone era, his cultural terms of reference and political discourse locked in the mind-set which held sway in the region up to the nineteen sixties, while the other, despite being an octogenarian, spoke the language of the age and displayed a sound grasp of the profound changes which have swept the world over the last thirty years. Going beyond the static confines of the question put to him by his interlocutor, who asked him whether the Nairobi agreement was 'good or bad' for Egypt, the latter launched into an elaborate reply which can be summarized as follows: 

'The answer depends on us. If we continue to look upon Sudan as an Egyptian invention' if we continue to talk of Sudan as though it were a part of Egypt like it was in the days of Mohamed Ali and his sons' if we continue to warn that any encroachment on the sources of the Nile waters will be met with dire consequences'that kind of static, backward-looking thinking will inevitably lead to a situation in which the agreement will be harmful for us. On the other hand, if we place matters in their proper perspective and deal with the issue in accordance with the realities of the age' if we can establish a healthy and constructive dialogue based on mutual respect with all the concerned parties' if we work to forge common interests with those parties in the context of the new realities and not on the basis of antiquated slogans, then the Nairobi agreement can be beneficial for Egypt.'

Apparently not realizing that his question had been answered, the first panelist continued to press his interlocutor for a reply. As I looked on in consternation, it occurred to me that what we were seeing here was more than a simple misunderstanding, that it was in fact indicative of a much deeper problem, a kind of intellectual inertia that has come to characterize the thought processes of many among us, public figures and private individuals alike. The problem manifests itself in a tendency to indulge in what I call static thinking, where the terms of reference are not present-day realities but cliches and slogans which, though obsolete, continue to be regarded by many as the ultimate truth, as constants carved in stone. Actually, the word 'constants' is meaningless in the rapidly changing landscape of today's world, even when used in reference to what makes up our cultural specificity. For what is specific to our culture, or to any culture for that matter, includes not only positive but also negative features, all of which are amenable to change. In other words, they are variables, not constants. But instead of placing our faith in the only real constants in our world, which are science, strategic interests and humanity, we choose to wallow in nostalgia, clinging to pan-nationalism and narrow parochialism as though they were immutable truths.

The greatest proof that our thinking is inward-looking, past-oriented and out of step with the times lies in the fact that the outside world finds our slogans totally incomprehensible and is consequently not interested in reading what our writers and intellectuals have to say. Of course, this does not apply to the works of our creative writers, who do have an audience transcending the language barrier. Nor does it apply to a certain political writer, whose works have an appreciative audience in the outside world, not because his readers necessarily agree with what he says but because of the high quality of his writing. By and large, however, we have dug ourselves into a cave, cut off from the rest of humanity thanks to a static mind-set that ignores the realities of our time and the new balances of power. We have managed to isolate ourselves even from such staunch former allies as India, China the countries of Eastern Europe and Russia, which have distanced themselves from our position on many issues. The reason is that these countries have evolved with the times and adapted themselves to the requirements of the age, while we remain locked in a fantasy world of our own making, speaking a language that is incomprehensible to all but the initiated, a world in which anachronistic slogans are still widely regarded as sacrosanct, immutable constants. This has resulted not only in our growing isolation from the outside world and in alienating our former allies, but in a disastrous internal situation marked by a pattern of lost opportunities and a climate inimical to democracy and development.

Proceeding as it does from so-called constants while ignoring the givens of contemporary reality, this closed system feeds our propensity for dealing with challenges in a static, fatalistic manner. Such a passive approach is natural in cultures which believe the future is a kind of mythical being that already exists in its final shape, regardless of anything they do today. A very different approach is found in societies whose citizens in general, and whose elites in particular, believe they can play an effective role in shaping the future. These societies do not believe in an abstract, absolute being called the Future; rather, they believe that, as the famous exponent of existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, put it: 'There is no such thing called the future; the future is what we make it today.' The absence of effective participation encourages a deterministic perception of the future as preordained and inevitable, which in turn encourages the belief that this mythical being is shaped by others to serve their own interests. From there, it is one easy step to subscribe wholeheartedly to the conspiracy theory! 

It is true that the history of humanity, of life itself, is one of bloody conflict and ferocious struggle. But it is also true that the engine of history is driven by people who believe that their actions can affect the course of events, people who see themselves as active participants in shaping the future, not by those who sit on the sidelines and wait passively for whatever life decides to throw at them. The former strive to create a future whose features conform as closely as possible to their ideal vision of what that future should be; the latter wait for a future that can only be disappointing because it is the creation of others. The tendency to believe that no human agency can affect the shape of things to come is natural in societies like ours, where destiny, not human will, is seen as playing the leading role in determining the present and the future. This feature is more salient in our culture than it is in any other. Of course, every culture believes in destiny to one degree or another. The real issue is the hold that belief has over the lives of the majority of people within a society. In some societies, people sit and wait passively for whatever fate has in store for them, on the grounds that they can do nothing to change what is written in the stars. In others, people believe they have a say in determining their lot, on the grounds that the future is still in the making and what they do in the present can affect its ultimate shape.

I wrote this article after re-reading two books I had first read thirty years ago, when I was in my early twenties. One, entitled 'The Incoherence of the Philosophers', is by Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, known as Algazel in mediaeval Europe; the other, entitled 'The Incoherence of the Incoherence', is by Ibn Rushd, or Averroes, as he is known in the West, the most outstanding Arab philosopher of his time. The books represent a bitter conflict between the representatives of two schools: Al-Ghazali was the proponent of tradition and orthodoxy, Ibn Rushd believed in the primacy of reason. The conflict waged ten centuries ago ended in the victory of the former over the latter, with disastrous consequences for our societies today. That is why we have become spectators rather than participants on the stage of life, looking on as others act in the drama unfolding before our eyes. Like all audiences, our role is limited to applauding or booing the actors or, occasionally, to adding new jokes to our already impressive repertoire.

While we turned our backs on Ibn Rushd, Western Europe adopted his defense of Aristotelian philosophy at a time Europe was the arena for a similar conflict between reason and tradition. But while the school of reason prevailed in Europe, we followed the teachings of Al-Ghazali, elevating him to the rank of Hujjat al-Islam (proof of Islam). In fact, the man who deserves that title is Ibn Rushd, whose enlightened approach shines through in one of his most famous works, Fasl al-maqal, in which he calls philosophy the companion and foster-sister of the Shari'ah. Readers interested in Ibn Rushd's influence on thirteenth century Europe are referred to the chapter entitled 'Ibn Rushd and the Enlightenment' in Dr. Murad Wahba's book, 'The Holders of Absolute Truth' (1999, pp. 105 to 110).

Our fatalistic approach to the future is even more at odds with the times if viewed from the perspective of modern management, the newest member of the group of social sciences and, since its introduction as an independent discipline in the second half of the twentieth century, arguably the most important one of all. The word 'impossible' does not exist in the lexicon of modern management science, which assumes that, as long as we have a vision of our future goal, as long as we lay down the strategies, plans, programmes and policies that will serve as our bridge towards that future and, finally, as long as we make optimal use of available resources, particularly human resources, we are sure to reach our goal. But such an outlook needs a cultural climate that is not dominated by a fatalistic acceptance of the vicissitudes of fortune, a climate in which people recognize that the shape of their future will be determined largely by their actions in the here and now. It also requires a climate in which citizens are encouraged to participate actively in all spheres of life, as well as one in which a healthy process of social mobility allows the best elements in society, the men and women who are equipped to help it achieve its desired goals, to rise to the top of the societal pyramid.

How such a climate can be achieved is a subject beyond the limitations of one article or even an entire book. In writing this article, I hoped only to draw attention to the magnitude and complexity of the problem we are facing. The question of society's ability to shed its fatalistic attitude in favour of a more affirmative approach as a precondition for rising to the challenges of the present and the future is related to many other issues, such as people's understanding of religion and the prevailing religious culture, the cultural formation of religious leaders, educational programmes and curricula, general freedoms and the degree to which democratic values have taken root in society. It is also related to the general cultural climate as well as to one of the most important issues in any society, namely, the status of women. As a general rule, civic participation in societies which marginalize the role of half their citizens tends to be poor. In fact, I believe the status of women in any society is a pivotal issue in its cultural formation and intellectual development. Until we reach a stage in which the notion of complete equality between the sexes takes hold in society, and until the necessary mechanisms to translate that notion into practical measures are put in place, we are doomed to remain hostage to our fatalistic mind-set, allowing destiny to rule our lives while we sit on the sidelines waiting for whatever tomorrow may bring instead of playing an active role in shaping the future. 

The reader is entitled to ask what the common denominator is between the various issues addressed by this article. The answer to that question lies in the account I gave at the beginning of the article about the debate over the Nairobi agreement, which encapsulates two different attitudes towards the event: one static, which proceeds from the assumption that we are helpless onlookers with no choice but to wait for the future to unfold as it will; the other dynamic, which assumes that we can and, indeed, must, have a say in determining its ultimate shape. In other words, the common denominator between all the issues raised in the article is our mind-set and the passive way we deal with external challenges, present and future. Our thinking has to become more forceful, dynamic and imaginative if we are to rise to the many challenges facing us. The greater the degree of our involvement in and awareness of the realities of the age, the more we liberate ourselves from obsolete slogans, the better our prospects of confronting these challenges successfully. This applies in all cases, not only in respect of the Nairobi agreement, which is just an example used to illustrate the fundamental message of this article. What we need to realize before it is too late is that our static mind-set can only lead to greater loss, while a dynamic approach based on active participation can do just the opposite.

In 1784, the great philosopher Immanuel Kant published a remarkable essay under the title 'An Answer To The Question: 'What is Enlightenment'?' What he had to say on the subject is worthy of contemplation in our current situation: 'A revolution may well put an end to autocratic despotism and to rapacious or power-seeking oppression, but it will never produce a true reform in ways of thinking. Instead, new prejudices, like the ones they replaced, will serve as a leash to control the great unthinking mass.'For enlightenment of this kind, all that is needed is freedom. And the freedom in question is the most innocuous form of all freedom to make public use of one's reason in all matters.' Kant believed enlightenment came from using the human mind, not human instincts, not human links with the past and not human emotions, That, I think, sums up the message this article has tried to convey.


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