Manufacturing ignorance


The Enlightenment was among the turning points in the history of thought that emancipated the mind from theological reason, teleology and the repetitive nature of knowledge. This is not to deny that there were dissenters to this movement. Instead, the purpose is to show the drastic changes in the sociology of knowledge production and reception.

Since the Enlightenment, the questioning of received knowledge and dominant ideas has become a hallmark of intellectuals. It is the Enlightenment project that has provided the intellectual basis for modernity.

Despite its achievements, the ideas of the Enlightenment were questioned after the experiences of colonialism and the two world wars in the 20th century. Theodore Adorno and Horkheimer in their book ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ criticised the Enlightenment for subduing humans and exploiting nature. Owing to the perils of modernity, postmodernists have rejected it as a metanarrative and instead favoured local narratives. Though there are ideological debates surrounding modernity and postmodernity, the essential élan of the philosophical tradition of questioning has remained alive even today.

Postmodernity favouring local narratives has enabled voices from the margins to represent themselves. Emerging voices from the margins should be welcomed. However, essentialist and uncritical local narratives should be put under a critical lens to avoid the recurrence of the oppressive aspects of traditions.

In the context of Pakistan, the metanarrative of the state is questioned by ethnic and linguistic groups. They justifiably accuse the state of suppressing regional voices and identities to maintain the monolithic identity that it espouses. Due to their experience of the state and its treatment of cultural groups, ethnic nationalists have embarked upon creating counter-narratives based on their distinct identities.

One of the processes involved in defining nationalism is to invent literary traditions, cultural icons, political activism and intellectuals. What is missing in these local narrative is a critique of the premises of their own nationalist narrative and culture.

Nationalism is essentially the love of one’s people who are believed to be part of one community. Chauvinism emerges when people excessively love their own fraternity at the expense of critical reasoning. This leads many to adopt exaggerated views of themselves, and creates otherness. As a result, people become prone to an irrational romance about their history, literature and intellectuals and abhor the valuable intellectual traditions of others. The ethno-nationalist narratives in Pakistan tend to jettison the broader horizon of the history of ideas and try to create a narrow horizon where they have their own sun, luminaries and galaxy of cultural icons and thinkers who, they think, outshine other entities on the intellectual horizon.

A common tendency among intellectuals who favour regional nationalism is to compare the literary figures of their cultural group with figures that are projected by the state as national symbols. They see these figures only through the state’s lens.

When it comes to comparisons, Dr Allama Iqbal stands as a supreme figure who defines not only the ideological foundation of the state, but also provides the foundation for the literary tradition of Pakistan. There is some justification in the negative reception of Iqbal because the state has used him to create a narrative at the expense of people from various cultural backgrounds. By doing so, the state has not only suppressed local identities but has also done a disservice to Allama Iqbal.

Ethno-nationalists in Pakistan fail to appreciate the merits of Iqbal’s work that lie beyond the state’s narrative. I had the opportunity to discuss this with an intellectual who favours literary figures of his mother language. Citing a poet-cum-writer of his language, he said Iqbal was smaller in stature than the poet of his language. In order to compare, we need a common ground. If that ground is not available, comparing becomes incommensurable. The ethno-nationalists have unconsciously imbibed the Iqbal of the state and failed to develop an independent reading of Iqbal. As a result, they have become captives of the very narrative that they claim to be victims of.

Despite his intellectual contribution, Iqbal still cannot be counted among the country’s philosophers because his approach was scholastic and not philosophical in the strictest sense. Our religious scholars also commit the same mistake when they claim that Iqbal was the greatest philosopher of the modern age. By equating a local poet with a smaller horizon with Iqbal is an act of inflated nationalism that fails to recognise its own stature in the world of ideas.

In the context of Gilgit-Baltistan, there is a tendency to declare local literary figures as intellectuals of international and universal stature. I remember a calendar from 2000 in which two prominent figures from the same valley in Gilgit-Baltistan were declared as the great scholars of the second millennium.

The problem with narrow sentimental nationalism is that people stop engaging their minds with the world of ideas. It is only when we realise the ignorance within us that we can situate ourselves within the world of ideas. Authentic thinking cannot remain confined to the space from where it emanates. Though it takes shape in a particular space, it becomes universal to engage with existential, intellectual and social issues in other contexts.

A common confusion in Pakistan – and South Asia in general – is the failure to differentiate between the literary and philosophical mind. For a literary figure, we use term adeeb and we refer to a philosopher or an intellectual as danishwar. Since both terms have been conflated, we use them interchangeably. This is not to say that an adeeb cannot be a danishwar. Not every adeeb is a danishwar. But in our case, he is the omniscient sage, intellectual, scholar and philosopher.

In the case of Pakistan, the literati have become intellectuals. That is why we see our literati dominating TV shows, newspapers and the book market. A danishwar or intellectual has become a rare breed in Pakistan. Various factors have contributed to this.

First, our socio-cultural mindset is inclined towards poetry. A beautiful piece of poetry elicits spontaneous appreciation at mushairas. However, a lecture or discussion on a serious philosophical issue lulls our audience to sleep. This shows our tendency to avoid anything that engages the mind in the excruciating process of thinking.

Second, the state has also derived its ideological foundation from poet-philosophers and tried to shape people’s minds in a poetic mould. As a result, we have an excess of sentiments and a poverty of thought. When the government was establishing the Pakistan Academy of Letters, Josh Malihabadi proposed that it should be named the Academy of Letters and Thought. But the government decided against including ‘thought’ in the academy’s name. As a result, thought disappeared while letters remained intact.

Now we have a literati which lacks the capacity of thought. This is reflected in our intellectual landscape where the literati-cum-scholars inform us about every aspect of our self and society and intelligentsia are loathed. The same applies ethno-nationalists create a narrow intellectual tradition by shunning their minds of great ideas. By doing so, they keep their own brethren in ignorance and contribute to the formation of a myopic worldview that fears everything that is exogenous to their region – whether it is race or language.

This the reason why regional nationalists fail to emancipate their people’s minds from exploitative traditions. No ethnic group or culture can survive by relying on a mind that is developed in the cocoon of an inward mindset. To survive in the world of increased connectivity, it is indispensable to create a cosmopolitan virtue among people. If this isn’t done, ethno-nationalists will become victims of an eternal recurrence of the old self, society and mindset.

Courtesy The News Newspaper and the writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit. Email: