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close this bookThe Self and the Other: Sustainability and Self-Empowerment (WB, 1996, 76 p.)
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View the documentEmergence of the Individual in the South

Emergence of the Individual in the South

Bahgat Elnadi and Adel Rifaat, Le Courrier de l'UNESCO (The UNESCO Courier)

In their commentary Elnadi and Rifaat elaborated on the views expressed in their video "The South Slope of Liberty" and in the book on which it was based.

The conditions under which the modern individual emerged in the Europe of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment differ fundamentally from the conditions of his or her emergence in European colonies. In Europe individuality meant liberty, progress, and initiative. In the colonized countries it meant alienation, the loss of familiar frames of reference, and bewildering solitude. The birth of individual self-awareness in the South was felt as a series of shocks inflicted by the colonizer. It forced more and more people to tear themselves away from their traditional community and accept their individuality before they had a chance to come to terms with it intellectually. They had to begin thinking in a manner alien to their culture.

This process gathered strength in the cities. There the dislocation of community life coincided with the introduction of such modern social structures as the state bureaucracy and professions. In them a growing number of people found new intellectual landmarks and new economic incentives centered on the concept of the individual taking responsibility for his or her own actions.

The notion of individual self-determination crystallized before the notion of national self-determination - Bahgat Elnadi and Adel Rifaat

This transformation could not have taken place without exposure to the school system. Before the introduction of modern educational institutions by colonial powers the schools had been religious, and the forms of education had been traditional. The new schools gradually weakened the prestige of the older ones and discredited their teachings. They constituted the capillary system through which a new mental discipline was introduced. Slowly but surely it separated the circuits of rational intelligence from those of faith, and it gave the initial impetus to an experimental, critical approach to reality, thus providing scope for individual consciousness and subjective feelings.

But this new awareness confronted the omnipotence of colonial authority and intensified the sense of fragility of the emerging individuals. Colonial authority aroused their secret admiration and humiliated them at the same time. Although it opened up new horizons for them, it simultaneously shattered their innermost impulses. It offered them access to modern rationalism but, by doing so, forced them to betray truths that were still essential to them. Colonial authority introduced the tools of change into their world, but their status was one of subjugation.

However, these individuals were being drawn together through communication networks that began to take shape in urban society. Separate parts of town opened up to one another. Cafes, clubs, and associations blossomed. Books and journals began to circulate; so did ideas. Discussions could cross the frontiers of tribe, family, and craft. General priorities emerged. Public opinion was born.

The collective entity that emerged was more than the sum of all the emerging individual entities. It was a superego that sublimated individual feelings of impotence. It was the point of refuge for individuals who sought to create new points of reference around themselves through which they could identify with one another and could also gain recognition from the colonizer.

The process of asserting one's individuality followed a paradoxical course. This individuality could grow only in the subterranean, protective depths of the sense of belonging to a larger self-a would-be nation-that at times almost stifled each person's individual impulses. Nevertheless, this sense of belonging continued to protect the fragile membrane of uncertain personal desires from external aggression.

The destiny of the modern individual was first played out within the secret destiny of the embryonic nation. The notion of individual self-determination crystallized before the notion of national self-determination. The next stage was a tentative search for an arena of identification, a symbolic rallying ground, in which the familiar landmarks of community and religion still existed but also made room for a secular language, or political message, by means of which the collective voice could be projected outward and could be heard by the colonizer.

Before colonization social allegiance referred to ethnic identity and religious identity. Colonization brought the superimposition of a third level, national identity, which escaped slowly from the grip of the first two, using the secularization of political life as leverage.

The essential conditions necessary for the crystallization of national identity included the following: a living language that lent itself to the new formulations required by modernity; a literary, artistic, philosophical, scientific, and technical heritage in which the familiar collective landmarks were rooted that could survive outside the religious world; a viable ethical code; and a shared memory of past events-mythic or historic-on the basis of which political discourse would create a rich temporal fabric.

But even if these factors existed, a situation had to develop in which they could be combined into a coherent discourse. This role was played by national liberation movements. After World War Il these movements developed where they were most effective politically: within the states carved out by colonialism. In the newly independent countries the state was the repository of the national spirit because society was too inconsistent and too fragile to assume responsibility for its own destiny. There was a partial break with the religious and traditional world of the past, and there was a certain receptivity to the notions of modernity and universality. Initially the state was the exclusive beneficiary of these phenomena.

The state had to subdue the chaotic forces surging through society and express at least some of society's multiple truths. It had to remain above society in order to arbitrate its conflicts, yet penetrate it to establish a lasting legitimacy. It had to take into account the forces of inertia and conservatism that persisted within the religious and traditional communities. In addition the state had to promote the development of a middle class that would reinforce its hold on society and open the country to the modern world.

In such an unstable situation a country usually needed a strong father figure that would be the embodiment of the nation's common interest. His voice would resound deeply within the popular consciousness and, by surmounting people's personal feelings of powerlessness, make it possible for each individual to find himself or herself in communion with others.

The father figure-Nahhas Pasha and Nasser in Egypt, Bourguiba in Tunisia, Gandhi and Nehru in India, and Sukarno in Indonesia-watched over all the situations in which the unknown stood as a threat to individual consciousness: the uncertain future, the growing anonymity of society, and the frightening diversity of the world.

The father figure thus fulfilled two essential, contradictory functions. He reproduced the nationwide structure of the grassroots community, whose members could identify with one another through the traditional chief, but he also accelerated the disintegration of the community's traditional form of expression, gradually freeing politics from the influence of religion and locating the collective destiny in historical time. His striving toward national dignity and modernization responded to new expectations. It gave individuals the collective resonance that was absent from their daily lives, soothed unexplored areas of their subjectivity, and offered greater scope to their perception of the world.

Individuals thus came to live in a strange state of double awareness. The public dimension of their lives, which was governed by the father figure and over which they had no control, was the dimension from which they drew their sense of internal security. The private dimension of their lives, however, which they were increasingly called upon to manage themselves, became a source of regular, growing anxiety and isolation.

The father figure watched over all the situations in which the unknown stood as a threat to individual consciousness: the uncertain future, the growing anonymity of society, and the frightening diversity of the world - Bahgat Elnadi and Adel Rifaat

Islamic fundamentalism appeals to people who are frustrated with the modernist stage in national development. The alternative path of human rights and democracy is at odds with the current trend - Bahgat Elnadi and Adel Rifaat

This was a period of painful growth for individuals. Their collective self-awareness in relation to others continued to deepen. Their sense of personal dignity became more acute. They began to observe society and the world with a more objective eye, yet their basic rights remained undeveloped and their political liberties were tightly controlled.

They were expected to assume responsibility for their daily lives but lacked the opportunity to assume political responsibility. They were accountable to the state but could not demand the same accountability in return. They were potential citizens, yet they were shorn of personal initiative and the capacity to influence the nation's political choices. The father figure continued to be identified with the need for national unity, and this unity was felt to be vital for protection against external threats. Individuals therefore felt uncomfortable raising the question of their fundamental liberties, as if they were not only being presumptuous but were also infringing upon a sacred rule.

But by the 1980s the affirmation of individual autonomy began to pick up speed as the models and standards of the world market permeated national markets. The influence of the father figure, or of his heirs, faltered, and the state lost its ability for ideological mobilization.

Society began to divide into two groups those who had joined the new international economic environment, successfully adapting to its cultural and psychological context, and those who were the victims of this integration and began to oppose it. For the majority of intellectuals and urban lower-middle classes the new situation was a rude awakening, bringing a terrible feeling of disillusionment and broken promises. The hybrid formulas underlying the nation-state were fast losing legitimacy and credibility. They would soon give way under the pressure of economic failures, social and ethnic inequalities that tore society apart, and the numerous grievances that the state had engendered.

The opposition movements that developed usually invoked the need to reestablish the principle of moral and political unity that the state had ceased to embody and to restore the sense of identity and integrity that society was losing. These movements soon found themselves facing a fundamental choice between two possible rallying points, the reestablishment of an order based on prenational values-religion or tradition-or the pursuit of a more radical modernity, that is, a secular democracy. But the immediate prospects were not equal for both options.

The first option, of which Islamic fundamentalism is the most striking example, aims to reestablish religious values as the source of political legitimacy and to reduce citizens to the status of believers. The current popularity of Islamic fundamentalism stems from the fact that it appeals to people who are frustrated with the modernist stage in national development. It restores the sense of brotherhood that they have lost in the face of the implacable self-centeredness of market economics, offers them a sense of authenticity as an answer to Western values, and preaches morality versus corruption. Above all this approach satisfies because it relieves them of the unbearably heavy burden of doubt and risk and of individual responsibility and solitude. In exchange it offers collective certainties sanctioned by holy writ.

The alternative path of human rights and democracy defended by a courageous intellectual elite under conditions that often border on the clandestine is at odds with the current trend. This path presupposes an intellectual, cultural, and political maturing process by which individual citizens learn to take upon themselves the risks of their personal destinies and the care of the common good.

It involves dovetailing the universal values of liberty and the rule of law with the religious and cultural hierarchies, as well as the social and economic power within each nation. It requires new solutions to the problem of linking free-enterprise economics and the need to guarantee the elementary forms of social interdependence without which no democratic consensus can survive. In short the essential difficulty with the democratic choice rests on the fact that the conditions under which it can be carried out have not yet been established on either national or international levels.

This is why it is so important for the democratic and universalist elements in both the North and the South to work together in the years ahead. They must do so to bring about the enormous changes necessary to permit the flowering of individual liberties and rights, and to counter in the North and the South the growing threat posed by the forces of collective regression and ideological intolerance.