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Mission of a Free Thinker
Part 1

Dr. Ali Shariati


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Question: Assuming we are the real free-thinkers, what must our relationship be with the society? What route should we choose?

Answer: I think before we talk about the relationship between free-thinkers and people, we must first start with the free-thinker himself. That is, we must understand the free-thinking in its true sense. Can we be sure that we can let our hair down with the free-thinkers of our society and share with them what we have?

I believe we have not yet reached the second stage (the relationship between free-thinkers and people). But assuming that we have, when we get together with the masses, do we know how to talk to them? What have we got to share with them? What message have we for them? This is a difficult problem indeed. Should we, considering the fact that our society is a religious one, reject the opinions and the thoughts of the masses? Must we dictate to the masses? If so, are we not strengthening and making the masses the more determined in their religious stupor? If we denied their thoughts, have we not become estranged from them and relegated them into the lap of the reactionaries who are fighting us? We notice that in both cases the problem has remained unsolved. On the other hand, we arc essentially still feeding upon the European intellectuals' thoughts of the last couple of centuries. To what extent can such thoughts, designs, and ideas illuminate our atmosphere as well as our responsibilities?

First, the European intellectual is dealing with a worker who has gone through three centuries of the Middle Ages and two centuries of Renaissance. Second, this worker lives in an atmosphere not dominated by a religious spirit. Third, he has reached the industrial proletariat stage. Fourth, he lives in a well-developed industrial bourgeois system in which the relationships are of an industrial type, and finally, the worker has attained a higher stage of growth, and self-consciousness. More important, the European intellectual listeners (the industrial proletariat), have formed a layer a distinct and independent class in society which has developed a special cultures concession, and form in the foundation of the Western European economy. Now suppose as a free-thinker, (who wants to imitate the ideas of the 19th century intellectuals). I try to speak to an Iranian worker who does not have any of the characteristics of the 19th century intellectual listener. I live in a society in which the bourgeoisie, except in big cities, is in its nascent stage The comprador bourgeoisie is a middle-man, not a bourgeoisie of the genuine producing system. Apart from this we still do not have a workers' class in our society. What we have are just groups.

There are groups of workers in the most primitive as well as corrupt societies. For instance, in Saudi Arabia (where there are industrial resources and western production), about 500-2000 workers live in the top echelon, but the country as a whole lacks the workers' foundation; it has a tribal, agricultural, or feudalistic base.

Further, we are not living in the 19th century. When we compare the characteristics of our societies in Asia and Africa with a European society we notice that we are living in the thirteenth century. Therefore, we must first discover in what century we live, and then understand our own ideas and teach them. To use 19th century ideas on a 13th century society not only leaves us hanging in the air, but it is also useless when we are unable to find any listener the same things that our free-thinkers are faced with now.

Our free-thinkers are living in the 13th century but their words, thoughts, and ideas are borrowed from the Western European intellectuals of the 19th and 20th Centuries. And as such, they cannot find any listener. Our listeners are "classic" bourgeoisie who have nothing in common with the European bourgeoisie. Our bazaars bourgeoisie is 100 % religious, while the European one is 100 % non-religious. The European bourgeoisie is so progressive that it created the French revolution while ours just huddle in the bazaars a base for seeking tradition.

From our masses' point of view, the average citizenry is a villager. They are our listeners and you cannot talk to them the same way. John Moore talked to the British workers in 1864. And so, it is a mistake to think that we are living in the 19th or 20th century, as well as it is a mistake to follow the European intellectuals of these two centuries as our models. Therefore, we must first throw the 10th century European "contents" out of our heads and for the first time discover our own century.

There are nations in the world now which are living in a pre-historic stage, namely, they have not entered the historic period yet. Therefore, to be in the 20th century is different than living in it. Accordingly, we must first discover our own century, and then learn from identical free-thinkers of Europe who are sympathetic to our ideas of our centuries. We are now living in the 13th or 14th centuries (the end of the Middle Ages, or the onset of the modern age). In Europe, these were the periods of transition from feudalism and traditional religion to a bourgeoisie which signifies an open world-vision, revolutionary bourgeoisie, and protest against religion. At the present we have all these conditions in our society. However, we have to find out what Europe did in the 13th and 14th centuries. And what were the reasons that European free-thinkers played their role so well that they changed the frozen and the stagnant Middle Ages to a new Europe?

The basic factors that helped to bring about the new civilization in Europe were economical and intellectual in nature. Economically feudalism changed to bourgeoisie. In place of the reactionary and lowly aristocrats, bourgeoisie emerged. This was due to East-West relations, the crusaders, the discovery of America and Australia, mercantilism, and the exploitation of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and even North America. Intellectually, the change was from Catholicism to Protestantism. The 14th century free-thinker did not negate religion, he transformed his inclination from the hereafter to this world; from tendency towards spirit, nature, ethics, and ascetism to work and effort; from sufism to objection and from self-centeredness to society-centeredness. In short, the same powerful cultural and religious resources which lay dormant in the heart of Europe were changed to moving, emerging, creative, and constructive forces by the free-thinkers.

Therefore, we must depend upon this fact, rather than what Sartre, Marx, and Rousseau say. What these people say has to do with our next two centuries. We must work for the society in which we live now rather than for our own sole mental and physical satisfaction. What is important to us now are Luther's and Calvin's works, since they transformed the Catholic ethics (which had imprisoned Europe in tradition from centuries) to a moving and creative force. For instance, Max Weber discussed the relationship between capitalism to the Protestant ethic. He argued that those predominantly Catholic Countries such as Spain, France, and Italy were less progressive than England, Germany, and the United States which were predominantly Protestant. Namely Weber maintained that there was a direct relationship between Protestant ethic and capitalism.

We notice that those countries which have changed the Catholic religion from its reactionary form to a creative and protesting force have made headway. On the other hand, those countries which have kept Catholicism have remained in the condition of the Middle Ages. Geographically, Spain and historically, Italy were in a position to have been the most progressive countries in Europe. First, Spain had the brightest past in Europe and Rome was the center of Christian civilization (before Islam). Second, the Renaissance movement of the 15th and the 16th centuries originated in Italy with such great artists and thinkers as De Vinci, Michelangelo, and Galileo.
Although in the past Spain was not like Rome, from the 8th to 12th centuries she had the greatest Islamic civilization, and thereafter she played the role of transmitter of Islamic Culture to Europe. Ironically, these two vanguards of civilization are the two most backwards in Europe now. While America, England, and Germany, which were the last ones caught up with civilization, are the most advanced. In these, civilization, industry, capitalism, and material strength are explainable only in light of religious factors and religious differences. And so, at this point we reach the conclusion that the flee-thinkers of the 14th through 17th centuries found their new destiny by destroying their old faith, and transforming traditional Catholicism to a protesting, world-minded, political, and materialist Protestantism.

Such a mission is also available to the religious East which is living at the end of the Medieval period. But it is not fitting that we mimic the European flee-thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries and reject religion. In a society like Iran, whose foundation is a religious one, we must not turn ourselves into a so-called free-thinker cadre (that gathers in coffee houses, cabarets, and parties to "talk big," and show off by reciting new personalities), while our average citizens are still living in the Middle Ages, having no access to our talents, religion, ideology, and writing.

Any school which is not based upon the cultural foundations of a society looks like a good book in a library which is used only by a small group of students and professors. Even if thousands of such books are printed, they will have no effect upon the masses. The greatest danger, however, is self-separation of the free-thinker from the society's context. If a free-thinker separates himself from his society, no matter where he goes or what he does, his society will remain in everlasting corruption. For example, in the 5th and 6th centuries A.H., thinkers such as Avicenna, Ghazali (two of history's great teachers) died in a society which was wallowing in the corruption in the Seljuk and Ghaznavi periods. Why? Because these free-thinkers stayed away from the society (consequently, we would have been better off if, in place of Avicenna, Ghazali, Fakhr, and Zakaria Razi, we had one Abu Zar; all the Islamic societies would have been saved from the grips of Seljuk, Ghaznavi, and the Mongols.

In ancient Greece too, there were free-thinkers like Aristotle. But throughout Aristotle's lifetime, the Athenian people were suffering from corruption, aristocracy, and slavery. On the other hand, there was not one single philosopher in Sparta, but here people were sportsmen and brave. In Athens, hundreds of writers, philosophers and so forth could not change and organize the society, their presence and absence did not make a bit of difference.

Our problem in the East, (e.g. Iran), is that we have created a platonic garden out of our countries. For example, if you go to Tehran and visit a few cafes you will meet many free-thinkers, socialists, existentialists, and so forth. They have a super market of ideas along with their own special publications. But unfortunately, the average man in the street does not know who these "idealists" are and what they are doing,

Q: In order to be able to talk to peoples is it sufficient to know their language ?

It is quite obvious. Suppose I go to one of the villages and visit a mosque. A mullah is preaching something incomprehensible and vague. If I can take his place and talk to people so they could see the preacher's flaws and perhaps misleading statements, then I know my mission as a free-thinker. However, if I cringe in a corner and shun talking to the villager, thinking that he is stupid or because of fear or being accused by the mullah of "uncleanliness," then I would be ignorant and a fool. I must observe what the mullah does and how he deals with people. Why are people listening to him? Is it his talk that has attracted people or some other kind of tradition and heritage? If we find our answers not only can we talk to villagers more effectively and sincerely, but consequently, we can occupy the mullah's position and find a base for the free-thinker in the society. Otherwise, we are going to get nowhere by sitting and philosophizing.

Q: Can you impose yourself upon people as you are or is it enough to talk their language? For instance, if I wanted to be a free-thinker and talk to them, is it necessary to wear the same outfit as they do?

It is not necessary to wear their type of outfit. These types of procedures or mannerisms belong to American sociologists. It is not necessary to either change my clothes or face and mimic foreigners. If I go to a mosque and explain a more appealing and logical Hossein to the masses than what the mullah does, they will listen to me more. However, as long as the mullah is dominating the villagers' mentality and I (as a free-thinker) am yakking on the peripheries, no matter how modern my yammering are, they are not worth a farthing. There is no difference between the yammering of the existentialists and those of the socialists. My job is to influence the villagers' minds.

Once I was reading an article by the Iranian movie director who made, When The Storks Fly. He said, "If a director wants to know a villager, he must become a friend to one in order to find out what he says and feels as well as what kinds of problems, ideals, and pains he has. We must learn how to talk and live with him so we can discover his style." Therefore, a free-thinker must be the director of his society; that is, he must constantly feel and be the designer of his society. Suppose a couple of us free-thinkers drop inside a coffee shop in which ordinary men chat around and drink tea. All of a sudden the shop will become dead silent everyone will stop joking, talking, and working! They will stare at us as though we are from Mars, wishing to see us out of there as soon as possible. We free-thinkers are out of context in this atmosphere, since we come to this coffee shop to speak rather than to listen. The point is, we must go in the heart of the masses not with an arrogant attitude.

Once Jalal told me, "When I was coming out of the holy shrine in Mashhad, I started to amble along with my coat hanging over my shoulder. A villager approached me and said, 'Hey, man, how much are you selling this coat for?' I said, 'My man, it is not for sale.' Jalal was very elated about the whole incident since the villager had mistaken him for one of his own kind, so much so that he wanted to buy his coat. He thought this was a remarkable achievement for a Tehrani to be mistaken for a villager. I told Jalal, "Yes, it was a great achievement but the man had a better insight than you did, since he treated you properly while you answered him badly. 'My man, it is not for sale' was not the proper response of a free-thinker, since you forced him to figure out that he had made a mistake. Thus, he reproached himself for having mistaken you for someone else. You should not have chased him away since he would have ultimately figured out that a man with a top coat on his shoulder would not say, 'My man....' since this utterance communicated to the villager that you were a stranger and you belonged to a different class!

Q: What you are proposing takes a long time to accomplish. How can we accomplish them all?

In solving social problems, we must not think of the shortest way, rather, we must think of the most correct way. The reason why most of our free-thinkers have not been able to get anywhere is because they have been waiting to discover several ways. And when they realized that they could not do much, they became desperate and resorted to writing modern poetry: for instance, "For the past eighteen years, a few times we made some catcalls in the streets. Alas! to no avail! So we became desperate. Ah! we have no right to become desperate!"

The point is we must choose the best and the most logical way that leads us to our objective. What do we want to do? If we are after superficial jobs, they have been done myriads of times, and each time disillusioned we have returned to our starting point.

A free-thinker's function is not to lead the society. This is one of the most serious mistakes that free-thinkers around the world commit. The most worthless elements for leading people are free-thinkers. In all the African and Asian uprisings you will never see free-thinkers' faces. Rather the revolutionary leaders are from among the masses and the common people. Free-thinkers have always been the worst disaster to revolutions.

In 1960, in a conference which was held in Northern Africa, it was decided that in the event that the Northern African revolution became successful and Africa free, the leadership positions (ministry of education, economics, etc) should be given to free-thinkers rather than to revolutionaries and guerillas. But who were the free-thinkers? Those who were overseas working on their doctorates while the revolutionaries were fighting in the trenches. And so, the revolutionary must leave his gun, go about his business so the engineer and the doctor (who were abroad) could lead. Unfortunately, those societies which have had successful revolutions became conservative and corrupt when intellectuals and the educated wrested the leadership from the revolutionaries. Tunis is a typical example. Therefore, the function of free-thinkers is not the political leadership of a society, rather, their sole job is to bestow awareness on the masses, that's all. lf a free-thinker earn awaken his society, the product of his mission will be heroes who can lead the free-thinkers themselves. And as long as there are no heroes, the mission of the free-thinker is not yet over. Religion, art, how to communicate with people, poetry, and theatre are all important factors with which free-thinkers can work; trying to handle more than these is useless. That is, the mission of a free-thinker is confined to returning the alienated society (by Europeans) to her real self, restoring her character and her "usurped" human sentiment and bestowing class consciousness, faith, and national history upon her. In accomplishing such a mission, the most logical way (rather than the shortest) must be chosen.

Unlike free-thinkers who expect more and sacrifice less, we must sacrifice more and expect less. I would rather see two to three generations work before they get any results. For instance, if we reach our goals within ten years, we are apt to fall behind a hundred years. We have always had a strange experience in Africa and Asia. Those countries which have reached their objectives quickly, have lost their former concessions as well. This is why I denounce all "quick" and immature revolutions.

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