The Arab world’s critical thinking dilemma

In the Arab world, critical thinking has become a reactionary path to stagnation instead of being the engine for change.
Sunday 14/01/2018
A Saudi man chats with a robot on the sidelines of the Future Investment Initiatives conference in Riyadh, last October

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Western mind, initiator of today’s intellectual and scientific revolution, had decided to take it easy and stay away from critical thinking.

Any researcher will tell you that we would be living in a differ­ent world — a dark and shattered world, perhaps a continuation of the Middle Ages. Without a critical sense of observation and questioning, the world would have stagnated to a suffocating degree.

Today, the world is on an ex­press train to the future. There is a profusion of technical innova­tions and milestones. There are affordable generic medications available around the world, which could cure most diseases. Bumper crops are filling bellies and an abundance of texts, imag­es and television shows compete for people’s minds.

Leaps in physics and biotech­nical research have pushed the boundaries of progress beyond limits never imagined by the best philosophers. Anti-depression drugs can change for the better the lives of millions of people. Cell phones have made it possible for billions to communicate with each other like never before. Just imagine: How many times is the word “hello” uttered around the world each day?

The problem with today’s mind-blowing progress is that it can easily backfire. Before considering how that happened in the Arab world, look at what is happening in the West. Tweet­ing, a by-product of technological progress, allowed totally unpre­dictable and egocentric personali­ties such as US President Donald Trump to emerge and dominate. The best British daily newspa­pers, famous for their ground­breaking reporting, are helpless against the tide of false news sweeping across social media.

In Britain, false rumours and claims have, in an instant, swept aside years of efforts by politicians, intellectuals, media people, economists and business leaders to build a stronger Europe with Britain in it. In Germany, the government and civil society are to be praised for their steadfast opposition to campaigns against foreigners mounted by xeno­phobic groups and individuals. The problem, however, is that these worthy efforts are more the result of a collective wish to expiate historical sins rather than of a collective awareness of the importance of new blood for any society.

Modernist critical thinking was at the basis of modern Western civilisation and, by extension, of modern world civilisation. This same thinking is bewildered and helpless against populism and populist thinking. But not to fear: Western modernist thought will eventually overcome the popu­list reaction because it knows the chaotic consequences of the absence of critical thinking.

In the Arab world, the situa­tion is completely different. We Arabs were quickly overtaken by progress and modernism. In Europe, for example, the avail­ability of more food did not result in a population boom, but more available food led to a population explosion in the Arab world that has consumed most resources. Cairo’s sewage system is strained beyond capacity and so are class­rooms and streets.

In the domain of population control, rationality took a leave of absence and Arab governments surrendered to the metaphysical elucubrations of the clergy. So parents took liberties giving birth to one daughter after another un­til a male progeny arrived, then his brother and his brother.

Look at how technology is dealt with. The digital revolu­tion gave birth to a critical mass for rebellion. Arab intellectuals, whose main task should have been deconstructing the ensu­ing chaos, found nothing better to do than to opportunistically ride the waves of chaos. Some discarded critical thinking tools and became permanent political commentators in online discus­sion forums or in racist sectar­ian and religious sites that have mushroomed in the area.

Before overthrowing the politicians, computer technol­ogy exposed the hypocrisy of so-called intellectuals. They are more inclined to criticise than to critique, to insult than to discuss. The previously much-praised critical thinking in the Arab world not only failed to raise consciousness, it failed miserably to be present during the crucial turning points of our history. Instead of being at the heart of modernist discourse, it has been used to justify conflicts built on age-old facts and fictions.

In the Arab world, critical thinking has become another term for a dangerous dilemma. It has become a reactionary path to stagnation instead of being the engine for change.