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Enlightenment now!

Feb 26,2018 - Last updated at Feb 26,2018

The years I spent studying in Paris were a valuable learning experience in more ways than one. I stayed at halls of residence that housed many Arab graduate students, so naturally we got together and had political discussions, as students abroad tend to. This gave me valuable insights into the political thought of Arab intellectuals.

Students from one country, for instance, denounced their leader’s brutal disregard for human rights, but they defended another who was guilty of the same brutality. Their dislike of their leader turned out to be because he belonged to a different confessional group than theirs.

A group from another country supported their leader, although they concurred with virulent criticism of him, a surprising attitude since he and they belonged to different minority groups. Eventually, they explained in confidence that the two groups were united by their common fear of their country’s oppressed majority, should they gain power. Subsequent events proved that this fear was justified.

Memories of these conversations, and the reality of conflicts in Arab countries today, flooded back to me as I watched Professor Steven Pinker discuss his new book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Science, Reason, Humanism and Progress” on the BBC’s talk show HARDtalk.

The Enlightenment was partly a reaction to the religious massacres in Europe in the centuries that preceded. This carnage pushed Enlightenment thinkers, though deeply religious, to search for a secular morality to solve the problem. In due course, they redefined war as a problem to be solved through reason, not a divine punishment to be endured.

Today, extremists in the Middle East put on explosive vests and blow themselves up in houses of worship of other sects. To end this tragedy, perhaps we should start thinking of our conflicts not as a scourge inflicted upon us by the omnipotent Imperialist-Zionist conspiracies, but as problems of our making, which should be solved through reason.

Reason, according to Enlightenment thinkers, would lead to progress through science, which empowers us to understand the world and solve its problems. Reason also led them to the realisation that there is nothing uniquely virtuous about anyone’s particular tribe, race or confessional group. This was the ideological springboard for social equality and universal human rights.

The Enlightenment considered scientific exploration as the indispensable path towards progress. But the spirit of exploration also led to another realization: a commitment to exploration means that you cannot claim to have all the answers no matter what their source is.

Another valuable contribution of the Enlightenment was the social contract: the potential realisation that government is not the embodiment of the tribe, race, nation or religion, for whose edification sacrifices should be made. It is a man-made arrangement intended solely to enhance the welfare of individual citizens by regulating their affairs. Its mandate to do so, springs uniquely from the tacit approval of the people whom it governs.

From the perspective of the contemporary Arab world, this may be the most important contribution of the Enlightenment to focus on.


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