Mohammed Khan

The great French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau made a profound point in his book, ‘The Social Contract,’ when he stated, ‘Man is born free, and every where he is in chains.’ This point is as pertinent today as it was then.

Writing in 18th Century Medieval Europe, Rousseau like other political philosophers reacted against the harsh political system in which power was vested in the elites and people were not allowed to have a say or to openly think. This created fertile ground for peasant rebellions only for them to be put down by the elites who monopolized violence. It was these conditions in Medieval Europe that led Rousseau to make his profound point that man enters the world free, but that he is chained into existing political structures, processes and systems that begin to define for him his thinking and view of the world.

Moving through time to this epoch, Rousseau’s point is valid in many parts of the Muslim world, with minds constructed to think within the confinements of a straight jacket and not beyond. A key factor in this was colonialism and the legacy lives on. Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s classic book Occidentosis describes this very well, in what he refers to as mental colonialism. He develops the ideas, in an Iranian context, that ‘third world’ peoples have been struck with or infected by a disease that leads them to become infatuated with the West at the expense of their own history, culture, and outlook. One can mention a number of other studies, but they all describe this same phenomena of mental colonization.

I have travelled extensively and worked in different parts of the Muslim world and the findings have been the same; there is a stark absence of decolonized minds, minds trained to critique, asses, evaluate and investigate thoughts and worldviews so that critical thinking is institutionalized and conformity is not blindly adhered to by the dictations of the elite or the media. As and when this occurs and critical minds begin to engage, the Muslim world is likely to break out of its slumber and move forward. The Arab Spring has been positive in that it has mobilized millions of people, but critical thinking over the next process in this change needs to happen. If they do not, the changes that are occurring will be similar to what the ‘enlightened despots’, such as Fredrick the Great of Prussia, and Joseph the Second of Spain introduced: ‘cosmetic changes’ that keep intact existing elite and political discourses.

The ‘Pakistan Spring’ has to learn important lessons from the experiences of the Arab Spring, where people wanted change driven by socio-economic realities but without critical discourse on the nature of the change they desired. This was a primary reason why the ‘Arab Spring’ turned cold in many places. The energy and drive one sees amongst the youth in Pakistan is positive, but minds need to be awakened beyond the moment, so that real thinking takes places over the future of Pakistan. I have interacted with the youth and what I have found is vast confusion over what they really want to see in a ‘Naya Pakistan.’ This confusion is an outcome of the elites themselves living in the shadow of colonialism, unable to generate critical thinking and discourse in society.

The Muslim World is at a critical juncture with two choices: to remain shackled, or to make a break and set up a new process of change by presenting a new intellectual philosophy for change that is consistent with the experiences that it has undergone. And with Pakistan being an organic and important agent in the Muslim world, with much to offer, with a youth that is intelligent and vibrant, I believe she can be an engine for change beyond her geographic constraints on the condition that she no longer remains in chains. She must break free to critically think and seek true knowledge, and only that will become the basis of her intellectual revival.

    The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.