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Intellectuals and politics

Published Dec 20, 2011 05:08am


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The term ‘intellectual’ has become a fashion label – a sign of social prestige, a particular elite who claim monopoly over the discourse of a nation. The intellectual is seen as a recluse, rejecting the world due to its corruption, its flaws and its failings, they seek refuge in their models, paradigms and theories.

Doomed to a cynicism that accompanies their knowledge the intellectual slides towards an apolitical existence that seeks to only critique but never to propose – it seems therefore an intellectual knows what s/he is against but cannot quiet express what they support. Practicality is an unwanted intrusion and the reality of the grassroots is an aberration of their curious platonic ideal which is intelligible to only a few.

This sadly is the prevalent perception of the intellectual not only in Pakistan but also in the West. But the passing of the great Vaclav Havel should reignite a debate on the role of the intellectual. Havel famously wrote many works on the obligation and responsibility of intellectuals to contest for public office and to use their power within the democratic framework for genuine good. The intellectual, Havel would have us believe, has the capacity to go beyond petty self interest and seek to establish a new vision for society. The key for Havel was that this could only happen through a process of engagement, dialogue and debate.

For Havel the intellectual is intrinsically political and he set out the options available in clear terms, ‘In the realm of such politics, intellectuals should make their presence felt in one of two possible ways. They could – without finding it shameful or demeaning – accept a political office and use that position to do what they deem right, not just to hold on to power. Or, they could be the ones who hold up a mirror to those in authority, making sure that the latter serve a good cause, and that they do not begin to use fine words as a cloak for evil deeds, as happened to so many intellectuals in politics in past centuries.’

But all this talk of an enlightened politics, with wisdom being delivered from the high priests of human intellect smacks of Plato’s autocratic model of the ‘’Philosopher-King’’. Plato argued that leadership should only be open to people who could grasp the true nature of Reality, i.e. the philosophers had the greatest right to leadership.

This is a seductive model that holds great sway amongst the middle classes in Pakistan – leadership should be given to educated people who by virtue of their superior learning will have a stronger moral disposition and will be more averse to corruption and dishonesty. Instead of condemning this attitude, we should engage it.

You may hold these particular beliefs but be prepared to argue, debate and discuss in the public sphere, and this was what Havel emphasised, “a good politician should be able to explain without seeking to seduce; he should humbly look for the truth of this world without claiming to be its professional owner; and he should alert people to the good qualities in themselves, including a sense of the values and interests that transcend the personal, without taking on an air of superiority and imposing anything on his fellow humans”.

Humility is necessary for discussion, because the arrogance of self proclaimed elites who claim a monopoly over reason can create great oppression and easily leads to a tyrannical form of arbitrary rule.

Today particularly in the Muslim World, the intellectual is an endangered species. Those who speak out against tyrannical regimes whether secular or religious in nature have to pay a heavy price. Nasr Abu Zayd in Egypt was exiled and deemed an apostate by the religious radicals of that country, AbdolKarim Soroush was targeted by the military thugs of the Iranian mullahocracy, Saad Ibrahim was thrown in prison for his democratic writings in Mubarak’s Egypt and Javed Ahmed Ghamidi was forced to flee Pakistan in fear of his safety. There are countless more examples to speak about, not to mention the brave activists of the Arab Spring.

For the intellectual to speak out, tolerance and freedom have to be guaranteed and for this it is primarily the role of the judiciary to keep power in check and keep the public sphere open and accessible to all. But perhaps the greatest impediment in the Muslim World to intellectual dissent and the possibility of intellectuals engaging in politics is the culture of power. As Abdullahi An Naim, Tariq Ramadan and others mention, within Muslim majority societies there is a real problem of conceding too much authority on critical matters such as human rights to the ulema. The attitudes of traditional Islamic scholars who not only feel privileged to comment on matters of politics and law but also try and actively exclude other voices is a cultural phenomenon with deep roots.

There are those who may argue the clergy in the Muslim World wield no real political power, that the rise of Islamists in the political sphere has shifted power to lay Muslims. But even then it’s noteworthy to acknowledge that the political ideology of conservative Islamic movements like Muslim Brotherhood is formed by the conclusions of certain ulema and Islamic scholars. The clergy therefore though not immediately political active, still have a massive role in shaping and creating public discourse and political ideas.

In conjunction with the traditional circles of Islamic learning there is also the martial tradition of Army intervention in politics that has become an insurmountable road block to genuine reform. This is an institutional bias in many countries that blocks aspirations for freedom and democracy – and this can take place explicitly or under the shadows of deceit and trickery.

The question must be asked – will there ever be space for the intellectual in Pakistan? If not, then one wonders what real change will look like.


Ahmad Ali Khalid is a freelance writer and blogger based in the UK. He can be reached at

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (6) Closed

Nasah (USA) Dec 21, 2011 09:57am
There is plenty of space in Pakistan for an intellectual if only they won't kill the messenger for delivering the unpalatable message. Pakistan has to stop becoming the worst killing field for the journalist.
Yasir Jafri Dec 21, 2011 05:26pm
What is generally ignored in such discussions is the fact that Islam aims to give political solutions as it includes all aspects of society. Therefore, it should not be surprising that the clergy feels that it is responsible for being active in this regard. It is but only consequential to Islam's prevalence in any society. This is not the Church's clergy which did not have enough matter at hand to outline proper jurisprudence. It is a mistake to toss all types of clerics in the same bowl for the only reason that they are products of religion. There is every possibility that the intellectuals mentioned here might just spring up from within the clergy.
Nasah (USA) Dec 27, 2011 09:08am
Yasir says - "This is not the Church’s clergy which did not have enough matter at hand to outline proper jurisprudence." May be that deficiency turned out to be their ultimate modern salvation.
sja Dec 30, 2011 10:39am
"""The question must be asked – will there ever be space for the intellectual in Pakistan? If not, then one wonders what real change will look like.""""------- You say it right. Pakistan was dreamed of by an intellectual, it was created by an intellectual, and the intellectuality fall out of line. It now all depends of opportunity and the necessity. Some the other intellectuals found good sanctuaries in England and they think coolly in the nice English Weather and the weather in Pakistan is too hot and the temperaments always clash. You are right we should breed intellectuals in England and let them direct our destiny and or like you evaluate intellictualism in Pakistan from London and ask the difference in intellectual and political change will happen in Pakistan.
Hamza Jan 03, 2012 10:12am
Haha nice.
Hamza Jan 03, 2012 10:25am
Ultimate Modern Salvation? Meaning the final, closing and concluding phase. After 400 years, the current would be the modern. Also, the total salvation is still not, and practically cannot, be achieved in any state, religious or otherwise.