Why do we write?
More than ever, we are in need of sanity, reason, informed consciousness, civilised debates and critical thinking.
This year marks the fifth anniversary of the extraordinary privilege that Al Jazeera has given me to have this forum from which I speak to a global audience I could neither expect nor even imagine in the course of my life as an obscure scholar.
In addition to the gratitude I feel, there is a more fundamental question of why it is that people like me write? What is it we actually achieve by such writing? Are we not really just preaching to the converted and adding our voice to an echo chamber full of our own cohorts as a choir?
The answer is a resounding No! The fact is that we in this world live on an edge, on a precipice, a crossroads upon which we can turn one way or another. We write because the world is in need of critical intelligence to make the right decisions.
From the environmental catastrophes we face – and still there are powerful people in denial about these – to the murderous flames of war, famine, disease, and acts of violence threatening the entire globe, we write to find our way through this valley of death and destruction.
Massive state machinery
We write against a massive state machinery of dis- and misinformation, propaganda and fabricated history. As the cases of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning clearly indicate, vital information and critical thinking are quintessential to our future as free human beings.
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States that are supposed to represent us now rule over us with varying degrees of secrecy and tyranny. We write to say no to systemic abuse of power by the powerful.
We write because the world is in dire needs of a narrative adjustment - and because we are deeply entrenched in a battlefield between vicious ignorance and enlightened liberation.
We write because the world is in dire needs of a narrative adjustment – and because we are deeply entrenched in a battlefield between vicious ignorance and enlightened liberation.
We write because a false narrative of Sunni Arabs versus Shia Iranians, manufactured by the aggressive machinations of ruling regimes in the region and a hapless media around the world, now threatens to rip the entire Muslim world asunder.
You may rightly object to how a person, or a group of people, or a political position or an ideology could arrogantly presume to be more enlightened than others. The fact is we are not – and that element of doubtful humility and willingness to learn from adversarial circumstances and correct course is what distinguishes one path from the other.
The simple rule of thumb is that the less people know about something the more certain they are about the little they know. The more they know the more nuanced, balanced, humble, fair, provisional, and critical would be their judgment.
Today a global ignorance of Islam, of the inner dynamics of the Arab and Muslim world, and a sustained and deliberately falsifying campaign of ignorance and disinformation is the conditio sine qua non of both Islamist terror and the war on terror that seeks to confront but ends up exacerbating it.
Today Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his gang of Islamists and Richard Dawkins and his fraternity club of New Atheists are the dominant discourse of Islamism and atheism, and between these two ignorant barbarians (one fully bearded and the other clean shaven) the fate of our humanity hangs in balance and depends on a more balanced, more informed, more caring, and more competent thrust of knowledge we need consistently, systematically, and boldly to put forward.
Ignorance and apathy
We therefore write to help change the nature of vital knowledge production on which depends the very survival of our planet, the very sanity with which we are to live on this Earth.
A combination of ignorance and apathy has befallen the world, in the midst of which there are courageous people in four corners of the world who rise up and resist the rule of tyranny here, the dominance of ignorance, racism, and xenophobia there, cruel barbarity of mercenary gangs here, vicious warmongering of states there, corporate greed pulling the world to the edge of self-destruction at one end causing massive rallies against austerity measures around the planet.
We write because we are at a critical moment in the history of the most powerful countries around the world, countries whose decisions have grave consequences for the world at large.
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In the aftermath of the Civil Rights and Antiwar movement in the United States and Europe in the 1960s, a crucial streak of critical thinking emerged that categorically challenged both the academic world and the intelligence communities in these countries.
Under traumatic moments such as the events of 9/11, we have witnessed a sudden surge of recalcitrant, retrograde, racist, misogynist, and violently homophobic and xenophobic sentiments...
But under traumatic moments such as the events of 9/11, we have witnessed a sudden surge of recalcitrant, retrograde, racist, misogynist, and violently homophobic and xenophobic sentiments today, most evident but not limited to the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in the US, and in the rise of the far-right European racists such as Marine Le Pen in France and the Pegida in Germany.
Muslims are not exempt from this need for critical thinking. They too are trapped into a corner by their own ignorant, corrupt, tyrannical, and retrograde leaders. They are forced to choose between an alien “secularism”, that is at odds with itself, and a passive or militant Islamism, neither of which they can identify with. We write because Muslims too need critical discourse to revitalise their own intellectual legacies in a vastly changing world.
A wave of revolutionary uprising swept from one end of the Arab and Muslim world to the other and a vicious counterrevolutionary mobilisation has sought to derail and crush it, in the process helping to create a monstrosity called ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Today it is as if those revolutions did not happen at all and ignorant and confused “researchers” are busy producing nonsensical gibberish that against all the historical and political evidence proposes the selfsame monstrosity as a “a revolution” worthy of learned discussions, anthropological “fieldwork”, and delusional theorisation.
We write because otherwise a rising ignorant discourse adds to a malicious tyranny and combines with deliberate disinformation categorically to alter our reading of reality and plunge us ever deeper into war, violence, and despair.
Today the world is a critical battlefield of ideas. The ignorant and vested interest of climate-change deniers have pushed the planet to the edge of self-destruction. Corporate greed is poised to alter the very definition of what it means to be a human being.
Millions of human beings roam the globe as refugees and migrants in search of a decent life, facing racism and xenophobia by some, welcoming and open arms by others. Even more millions of human beings are no longer able to put up with ungodly austerity measures imposed on them by banks and regulators.
Ethnic nationalism, religious sectarianism, rampant racism, and vicious xenophobia combine to make neighbours suspicious of their neighbours. Ever-thicker walls of belated colonial apartheid and fictitious civilisational divides are being raised around Palestine, around Europe, around the US.
We write because we are more than ever in need of sanity, reason, informed consciousness, civilised debates, critical thinking, all geared with humility and tolerance towards securing the public good, the common space, the shared destiny of all creatures of this earth to survive with decency, with hope, with unwavering resolution to make the lives of our children safer and thriving on this precious planet.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.