Culture... and the Momentum for Reform

Culture … and the Momentum for Reform

  • The World Decade of Cultural Development has passed without achieving any cultural impact, as seen in today's widespread cultural confusion.
  • For broader and more effective participation, culture should not be the exclusive property of a limited elite.
  • Any reform taken out of its human i.e. cultural context is soulless and short-lived.

Though the campaign for reform in out Arab world today is gaming considerable momentum at both official and popular levels and is mainly called for by intellectuals, the role of culture in this effort, which is mostly healthy, is insignificant. That leads us to revise the concept of culture and attempt to determine its position in people's and nations' lives in order to raise awareness of its importance in the desirable reform movement.

In spite of the multitude of calls for reform sincere and otherwise nobody denies that such a drive is justifiable. We are living in a fast-moving world, and we Arabs in general seem in some instances to be lagging behind, and in others immobile, even moving backwards.

This gloomy picture in the eyes of all Arabs is the reason behind the current cries. The total or almost total absence of discussion of an issue which we deem essential in any reform process, namely cultural reform, is very strange. The recommendations of the many Arab forums which span all but the entire Arab world are too modest as far as the issue of culture is concerned. In a well-known document of the reform forums, talk about cultural reform came at the bottom, whereas political reform, as usual, was at the top. At the media level, culture seems to be the concern of nobody. This is understandable; people's priority is what benefits their daily life, with economics in today's world. It is therefore only logical that calls for reform first stress the political and economic, then the social aspects, depending on the points of view of the reform priorities. Does culture deserve to be at such an inferior level on the reform scale?

Behind, around and in front of us

Underestimating the value of culture in human development does not apply to Arab reformists alone. A number of international advocates for reform under the general heading "development" have failed to promote the position of culture in human affairs reform in a famous world endeavour in recent decades. In January 1988 the former Secretary-General of the United Nations Javier Perez de Cuellar and the former Director-General of UNESCO Frederico Mayor jointly launched the World Decade of Cultural Development (1988 1997). De Cuellar said development efforts failed because the importance of the human element, the complex mixture of relationships, beliefs, values and motives which lies at the heart of culture, was not rightly valued in many development projects, and reviewing this "miserable" situation required reviewing the process of development itself.

The passing of the Decade without making any profound impact on real world cultural development, as seen and felt in today's widespread cultural confusion, which is reflected not only in the negative effects of the attempt to stereotype the world as a negative aspect of "globalization", but also in the fact that not real effort was made to allow cultural development, particularly in the developing and underdeveloping countries. Previous international failure and current Arab negligence require that we redefine culture and its role in any attempt to enhance human development.

True, we all feel that culture, as Claude Strauss put it, is behind, around and in front of us, i.e. it is the vital medium for the movement of humans-past, present and future. However, we haven't made this feeling something tangible either for the elite or the general public. That may be the reason behind the Decade's failure and Arab reformists' downplaying of the cultural dimension. We may be in a pressing need to attempt to redefine culture. It is common belief that culture means the appreciation and production of arts and literature, in addition to political analyses and some humanities and applied sciences. But culture is definitely not limited to that as the Arab elite who possess all that did not make any general progress, either in earlier Arab experiments, which were only experiments in spite of the greatness of their pioneers, or at present, where there is a great number of the intellectual elite. Therefore, culture should not be the realm of the elite alone. This makes us closes to the concept of culture which increases the momentum for any social, economic or political advancement, to be called reform or development, which, if taken out of its human, cultural context, becomes soulless and is deemed to failure.

From philosophy to life

One approach to culture defines it as development of the mental faculties through training on available skills with the resulting abilities. In a slightly broader sense, it is what an educated person acquires through the development of his critical taste and appreciation, which reflects positively on his judgments. Furthermore, in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, culture in German, and in American literature for comparison purposes, is defined as a synonym of 'civilization' as it has two senses: first, subjective: the mind's culture; second, objective: the overall social conditions, intellectual, artistic, scientific and technical achievements and common types of thinking and values, i.e. every-thing practised in social life and acquired through adaptation and learning.

As an extension of this expanded meaning of culture, some ethnologists argue that there are essential links between university culture and popular cultural forms, where the main ingredient of culture is the difference between the civilized cultural and the natural states, i.e. between the acquired and the innate. Whereas the innate characteristics are passed on from one generation to another, according to the laws of heredity, we believe that culture spreads among people through social contact, i.e. learning the models offered by society. This is the concept of culture in twentieth-century literature which centres round the main meanings through the ages. To affirm this, the American philosopher John Dewey defines culture as the result of interaction between man and his environment. Accordingly, our planet, on which almost ten thousand distinct groups live in about 200 countries, is a large medium of creative cultural diversity which should not be reduced to the culture of a limited elite adopted during the Renaissance, which restricted culture to its literary and artistic aspect. This is still the dominant concept to a great extent, as approaches to cultural reform focus on promoting literature and arts. This is Ok, but a nation's package of culture, with all its popular, inherited and acquired components, must also enjoy such a sponsorship, otherwise, cultural development and all forms of development in which the cultural factor in the broader sense of culture, plays an effective, progressive role, are doomed to failure.

The word "culture" in Arabic thaqafa means skills and understanding acquisition. Accordingly, in its general framework, culture is all that is acquired through learning and training with the resulting perfection, accuracy and beauty.

The development of culture and the culture of development

Those interested in 'culture' and development notice that the two concepts have in may cases become mutually exclusive and contradictory. This many be due to the way development is viewed, which in turn reflects on the way culture is viewed. Development to some is the process of economic growth and steady rise in production and personal income, whereas development, from a different perspective adopted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in its annual reports on human development, is the process of "Supporting the freedom of those who together strive to achieve what is of value to them". There is a wide difference between the two perspectives. The former is subject to figures and financial and price indices, while the latter stresses the human dimension of development. The view of culture differs accordingly. According to the concept which stresses economic growth, culture plays a minor role, it's even nothing but a means to an end either to stimulate or control economic growth.

This narrow perspective of culture renders it just a sort of education that provides the wheel of economy with those who can drive it well. Important though this is, it remains only partly important in terms of continued drive of the wheel of economy or evaluation of itself (culture) as a human activity, or rather the top of human activity from the wider perspective of culture as an end in itself, making our existence meaningful. In this way, culture plays a dual role: it promotes economic growth through education, training, research and development and guides its approaches to avert self-destruction or at least retardation. In this way, culture becomes so broad that it determines man's relationship with nature and the environment and fosters human interaction. As an ultimate human end, culture provides efficient management of the economy, preserves the environment and human feelings, secures sustainable development in various communities, thus creating a state of healthy development worldwide, not only in economy, but also in politics, which is its most important aspect.

Essence and reform

As the above discussion suggests, culture is a huge body which contains all types of a society's intellectual and creative production in various moral and material forms, thus presenting it to the outside world and reflecting the gist of its collective memory through its heritage. It also creates a society's value system and its individuals' view of the world. Applying this expanded concept of the essence of culture to an ancient society like Arab society, makes cultural reform extremely difficult. Arab heritage embodies a period of human civilization which enlightened the world during some ages of darkness as well as spiritual experiments which were formed from the birth of the major religions, whereas the present in witnessing marked retrogression in the course of human civilization by current standards, as well as disagreements between limited enlightened opinions and influential self-inflicted arguments. However, as the book "I sues of Arab Reform" published by the Alexandria Library Arab Reform Forum maintains, the idea of reform is neither new nor impossible, as all the changes that Arab society has undergone since the beginning of its awakening are successive cycles in the project of cultural reform which seeks change of the current situation by activating the mind and defining the desirable objectives.

This view may be acceptable if we assume that the failures of previous Arab reform attempts are a cause for success in terms of investigating the weaknesses of such attempts rather than being nostalgic for them, ignoring the changes of the present. That led advocates of reform to suggest that cultural reform comes under the heading "Cultural Discourse Reform" to make it more consistent with the desirable and possible reform in the foreseeable future, covering the idea of cultural production and the set strategy, as discourse includes both the message and the parties to communication. Once again we unconsciously confine culture to a limited Arab elite who are the sender, whereas the non-elite majority are the receiver. Cultural discourse reform should include general rules which make all members of society senders and receivers, otherwise, reform is doomed to failure by self-inflicted isolation and limitation. Therefore, culture reform list of priorities is in need of revision. Let's try that on some of the suggested items among such priorities, where there is no need to lest as they are all similar.

Sorting out priorities

Recommendations of the forums and calls for reform as far as culture is concerned may be summed up as follows:

1- Advance reason and rational thinking, limiting superstitions and myths to the area of folklore, which is uncontrollable. Rationalism and knowledge should be the basis, and their presence is synonymous with the active forces of the cherished knowledge society and the key to civilized transformation and human development.

2 - Regard scientific, technological and information production as a serious alternative in today's world.

3 - Encourage cultural exchanges among nations and benefit from their successful experiments in order to foster creative cooperation in all fields, without resisting cultural diversity which asserts identify.

4 - Underline the importance of identity as far as cultural exclusivity is concerned; the Arabs have a rich heritage which requires careful investigation and analysis to turn it into living knowledge.

5 - Stress Arabic as the concept of cultural identity.

6 - Seek to eliminate cultural intimidation and cancel censorship; give due attention to the freedom of creative writers and thinkers and respect for different opinions.

7 - Offer incentives for all types of creativity and promote cultural production through the NGOs.

8 - Support research under a reasonable budget; current research budgets in most Arab countries do not exceed 1% of GNP.

9 - Underscore the importance of media discourse in view of the role it plays in stimulating or controlling cultural development attempts.

10 - Make fine culture production available to the lower classes.

I decided to limit the list of recommendation to ten to show that there is some sort of self-centredness and the difficulty of listing all such priorities. It is natural that when there are ten or more of the priorities I didn't list this means that sorting out priorities is something missing or difficult. What are the priorities of cultural reform mentioned above or otherwise? This question sounds a puzzle to me; but puzzles are often solved by very simple means. In this connection there springs to mind the puzzle which Oedipus managed to solve when he was asked a difficult question: "What first walks on four, then on two and finally on three?" The answer was simple: man; he creeps on four (hands and feet) as a baby, walks on two (feet) as a young man and walks on three (his two feet and a stick) as on old man.

A simple answer which made the monster which gave Oedipus this puzzle throw itself into the sea, thus saving the young men and women it threatened to kill. It's man, the correct answer to the difficult question about the priorities of cultural reform, or of any reform indeed. An important world cultural development document has carefully been produced giving due respect for man, any man such respect that forms what some call "the ethics of culture"; there can be no cultural reform in the absence of such ethics. But that will be the subject of a further Talk of the Month.


Sulaiman Al-Askary

Print Article