Talk

Finding our own Enlightenment

Omair Ahmad | Updated on January 31, 2020 Published on January 31, 2020

Game changers: History often ignores the humans who made certain choices under certain conditions, while the outcomes were always uncertain   -  PTI/Shahbaz Khan

As efforts to undermine democracy and protests against them rage across the world, we are driven by an obsessive need to find “solutions”. But there are no magical answers to be borrowed from elsewhere

This winter vacation I got into a heated argument with an elderly professor. I was in upstate New York — to visit my sister — it was below freezing outside. In this hipster café, we two South Asians were waving our hands all over the place as we argued about our past and future. The funny thing was our political views were hardly different, but that’s precisely why those differences were so vitally important.

The gentleman I was arguing with was a professor of Physics. He was born in India, had spent a few years in Pakistan and taught most of his life in the US. He had made it a point to try and create opportunities for both Indian and Pakistani students in his institution, and was often invited to give lectures in both countries. His wife had studied at Jamia Millia Islamia and was upset at the violence against the students on the campus. He had, over long years, dealt with ridiculous questions based on a religious understanding of science.

He told me about a lecture he had given in Pakistan, after which one of the students asked, “But what does the Quran have to say about that?” He had been completely nonplussed and recalling the incident, sighed and said, “We need our own Enlightenment.”

“Rubbish,” I replied, as I always do when such a statement is made. “The Enlightenment was a specific movement in European history against the power of the Church. We have no equivalent religious institution involved in governance in South Asia and cannot simply borrow from history something that makes little sense in our context.”

He was unprepared for the pushback, especially since we had spent the previous hour or so talking about the attacks against liberal democracy and the challenges we faced in South Asia.

“But we need a rational, factual discussion of policy,” he said.

“I agree,” I replied, “but that doesn’t mean that the European states or their colonial creations have a simple answer that we can just cut and paste. Their history is their history and ours is ours.”

“But don’t you think they did find an answer that we can learn from? People are more rational here.”

“Are they?” I asked. “Sir, I was working with think tanks in Washington DC in the run up to the Iraq War. It was a war based on illogical lies and was one of the most consequential decisions in recent history. Was it a rational decision? No people are rational, we just have better or worse institutions.” On top of all that I mentioned the slavery of African Americans, the consequences of which still run deep, as well as the cleansing of the Native Americans until they were imprisoned in reservations while the Europeans stole their land.

The argument got so heated and the hand waving so intense, that the gentleman managed to knock his cup of tea into his lap and all over his tie. There was a scramble for napkins. Luckily the tea had become cold as we had argued on unmindful of the time and there was no real damage except to our dignity.

As we sat down after the brief interruption, he said, “I understand what you are saying, but we must learn from the Europeans what they have got right.”

There was nothing I could say to this and could only reply, “I agree with that, sir, and I think the institutions of democracy are worth protecting and building. But they are not the exclusive property of one people or one moment of history. The Enlightenment was.”

We parted on good terms on that cold day, but the heat of the argument stayed with me. As efforts to undermine democracy and protests against them rage across the world, we are driven by an obsessive need to find “solutions”. The inevitable models that we come up with are based on societies that are doing well. People desperate for answers in the face of overwhelming problems are justified in trying to grasp that one thing, that one magic word, like “the Enlightenment”, to explain why there is less violence in one place versus another. But that is not a good way to understand history, nor is it a good way to search for political answers.

History is, as one wit once put it, “merely one thing after another”, but it is also a complex web of stories, where certain events led to an outcome. What it ignores is the humans that made those choices, those who made them in the context of certain conditions, while the outcomes were always uncertain. We don’t have an “answer” per se, but we can try to be an Ambedkar, a Gandhi, a Sarojini Naidu, an Abul Kalam Azad, and work towards the outcomes they desired, the ones which we would like for ourselves.

Omair Ahmad   -  BUSINESS LINE

 

Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas

@OmairTAhmad

Published on January 31, 2020
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