Where Shall We Begin
Dr. Ali Shariati
At his time, Bacon was an enlightened parson. In his era and society,
science was but abstract ideas and analysis, justification, and
substantiation of religious texts and clerical postulations. Under such
circumstances, by liberating science, reason, and the masses from the
restriction (of the church), Bacon served humanity greatly. If Bacon
were alive today, however, he would have to say almost the opposite of
what he said then (if he wished to be considered an enlightened
individual). In contemporary Europe, those who follow Bacon's footsteps
and say that science should focus solely on economic and material
production and that human potential should be used to promote
consumerism and generate more power are not enlightened at all. Although
they propagate and exercise Baconian philosophy, they are at best
scientists in the service of the status quo. The reason is that times
have changed, needs are different and contemporary problems and crises
are such that any savior in Europe today must begin from a different
angle and take a different approach.
Third World countries, and particularly Islamic societies, have witnessed mistakes and deviations committed by the so-called enlightened thinkers. An unfortunate development, which I call the history of "confusing the issues" (awadi gereftanha) constitutes the story of the fundamental errors committed by the educated Muslims as well as those of other Eastern societies, Like a scientist who imports medicine to his country, these people believed that enlightenment could be imported to their home while they themselves played the role of enlightened persons. The tragic result was that the Eastern and Islamic societies were deprived of their best minds, individuals who could help their countries to recover from their backwardness. For years the feelings. consciences and thoughts of our people were directed by the so-called "enlightened," who delivered the wrong messages while thinking they were showing the path to salvation. Following their incorrect diagnoses, struggles and strivings, opportunities were lost, and people's potentials were wasted. The end result was hopelessness, desperation, hatred, evasion of responsibility, isolation, mysticism, and various games of existentialism. This continued until it was gradually replaced by another wrong direction, inappropriate objective or mistaken diagnosis. The cycle repeated itself with the result that the people wasted their talents gathering around these social prophets.
Take the example of Peter the Great. He studied in the Nether- lands and then returned to Moscow to work for the welfare of his people. He was enlightened, but in the wrong way. Russia was a backward country, which had continuously suffered defeat by her neighbors. For example, Iran had defeated that country many times. Peter the Great asked himself why the Netherlands should rule the world and the oceans but Russia be so backward. After long contemplation, he saw the root cause in the beard! When he took over the government he ordered everyone to shave because, he argued, the reason Danish people are advanced is that they shave every day. The Russians began to look like the Danes but no fundamental change occurred. The beards were gone but that did not take the Russians even one step forward.
Another example goes back to my high school years in the city of Mashhad; we had a teacher who thought of himself as an enlightened social philosopher. He taught us drawings. He used to argue that the only solution to our problems lies in drawing. He believed that drawing could show us the difficulties of our society as well as their solutions. To demonstrate his point, he would provide special models. His themes dealt with encouraging co-education in Iran. He thought that the cause of backwardness in Asia lay in lack of co-education, and he pointed to European school system for proof. Moreover, he said that Iran should encourage mixed schools, clubs, and organizations where men and women would interact freely. It appeared that he was projecting his failure in his love life on the society as a whole.
Even today there are thinkers and authors who try to convince parents and youngsters that the cause of the misery in Islamic societies lies in sexual restrictions. If these barriers are removed and men and women interact freely? They argue, Eastern societies will be free from all miseries. Note how deep the tragedy is and how the attentions of the young generation is directed to this. While parents resist and the young generation insists on this issue, the society is afflicted with sexual wars. Parents consider sexual freedom the root of all misery, while their sons and daughters see it as the cause of salvation, progress, civilization, independence and freedom It is assumed that these "achievements" strike serious blows to colonial- ism! In reality the war of sexual freedom, which suddenly has assumed paramount importance in Africa, Asia, and especially in the Islamic societies, is a sham to prevent the occurrence of the war that ought to be taking place, the anti-colonialist war. This war of sexual freedom is waged in order to prevent the waging of a struggle, which would be dangerous to the powers that be in the world. Sexual freedom is used as a substitute for the other kinds of freedom by diverting the attention of the young generation and discouraging them from thinking about and pursuing economic or political free- dom.
Sexual freedom is indeed freedom of the "bottom" in place of the freedom of the "top" (head). In African and Asian countries, this kind of freedom has been achieved, but social problems remain unresolved. The effect is felt in the cosmetics industry where, from 1955 to 1965, cosmetic consumption increased five hundred fold. But why? The answer lies in the fact that after a youngster goes to schooled reads books, enhances her knowledge, and acquires a degree of social and human awareness and an understanding of the responsibilities of contemporary man-and just at the time when human ideals begin to blossom in her mind her intellectual development is stopped find her ideals are all directed toward the "bottom" only. Her energy is wasted in delivering talks on or writing articles about sexual freedom. A group who also has only sex to worry about then emerges in the other side of the issue to oppose her. The result is that the society may waste ten or even twenty years.
Another example is related to the Persian alphabet. During the peak of the Iranian political struggle in Iran, 1941-1953, a group of intellectuals propagated the following: "O people of Asia, O Muslims, O Iranians, and O you who feel backward, decadent, miserable, hungry, and sick, beware that first you have to understand the root cause of your misery!" But what did they consider to be the root cause? The answer was the Persian alphabet! Their main objection was that the spelling of certain words is confusing and time consuming. Is our time so precisely allocated that spending a little time in writing could bring such disastrous results? I am not saying that the Persian alphabet is flawless. What I am saying is that to consider the flaws in the alphabet as the root of our misery and backwardness would be like attributing the illiteracy of our population to the potholes in the streets. This does not mean that potholes should be tolerated, but it means that our intellectuals have wasted their energies on the wrong subjects and "confused the issues." Besides, suppose we did change our alphabet, then we might become another Turkey. Is Turkey in a better condition than we are? Are we too far behind Turkey? And, supposing we are! Is it because of our alphabet? In short, if the alphabets were the cause of backwardness, Japan and China should be the most backward countries in the world.
Someone even suggested that, if it is not the root of all our problems, our alphabet is at least the root cause of illiteracy in Iran. I argue that illiteracy is caused by those who have a vested interest in keeping the people illiterate. There are languages with more than a thousand characters but that has not been an obstacle in the way of literacy. Take the example of Islamic history during the third through the ninth centuries when Islam ruled over Spain. Illiteracy was uprooted altogether. Thus, those who blame the complexity of an alphabet for their misery are trying to divert the attention of the people from the real cause, i.e., those who benefit from illiteracy.
Another example was the problem of "bookburning," an issue which afflicted our society for some time. There were intellectuals who used to argue that none of our miseries were caused by feudalism, external conditions or internal degeneration; rather, they were caused by the ways in which poets described their mistresses. They reasoned that our poets', particularly Hafez's, descriptions of their feelings had led our society toward nonchalance, lyrics, poetry and literature. To remedy this, these people and their followers congregated once a week and burned selected books in a ceremony accompanied with speeches, excitement and fanfare. It is not my aim to defend Iranian traditional poetry. My intention is to point out that this issue was brought to the fore as a way of setting a false direction so that the real causes of the problems in Iran would be pushed into oblivion. The best opportunities and the best talents were wasted on defending or condemning bookburning, while the real criminal lived in peace and security.
Once, someone asked my opinion about Mr. Kasravi. In my answer I told him that I have a thesis. I do not discuss the content of these people's ideas. I do not ask whether Kasravi's criticism of the sixth Shia Imam, Ja'far Sadiq, of Shi'ism, of Islam and its history and literature is valid or not. I even assume they are valid. The question is that, given the particular historical epoch in our society 1941-1949, and given the deep impact of Kasravi's works on our youth, were his words warranted and were the topics he raised of the most pressing and the most fundamental issues? Why was it that during that particular time, (after 1949), all attacks were directed against religious materials and Hafez's paramour, identifying them as the most tragic problems facing our society, but no mention was made, for example, of the Anglo-lranian Oil Company? During this relatively democratic era, what was the most pressing and fundamental issue to raise? Was it identifying Hafez as the root of all Iran's misery, or was it elaborating on the economic, political and colonial conditions which prevailed in the world? The opportunity to analyze political and economic problems does not present itself often.
A general principle may be deduced from the above discussion. In academic settings debate on scientific, philosophical, technical and even artistic issues affords the luxury of logical evaluation and revision. Everyone may express his particular opinion, but the view, which is substantiated by experimentation and stands the test of scientific laws, will prevail and be acknowledged. For theories on social issues, however, logical consistency does not suffice. The context of the argument or the thesis should be taken into account. A valid and true statement expressed at an improper time and place will be futile. Conversely, an unsubstantiated argument may be of significant consequence in a particular atmosphere. For example, during the recent struggles in Africa, the African leaders and the enlightened persons relied on much mass folklore in order to achieve their goals. They capitalized on the popular notion that if one strikes one's enemy but only injures him, the enemy's soul would get revenge and kill the person who had struck him. Naturally, to avoid the revenge of enemy souls, an African would try his best to kill the enemy. This belief certainly lacks scientific basis and is logically "false"; yet, in the African struggle against colonialism, the enlightened persons utilized it as an effective weapon. Another example is nationalism. It played a very positive role in European countries toward the end of the Middle Ages, but now it plays the opposite role in Africa. There, nationalism is like a dagger which, in the face of colonialism, chops up Black Africa, a continent which faces a common destiny and thus should be united. In contrast, towards the end of the Middle Ages, nationalism emancipated European society from the yoke of the Popes who had used Christianity to dominate Europe.