Scarcity Theory in a World of Choices

10 April 2010 | The National Newspaper

Living on either end of two extremes seems to characterize the times we live in. In the area of thought, global outlook, and culture, it’s as if we have defied the ever-present world of advertisement over-saturation and competitive product markets; it’s as if we have no “choices” and have succumbed to a philosophy of scarcity.

There are others, who bravely venture into the gray area of ambiguity between polar opposites. Without cartography or compass, the voices from the no-man’s land echo as either a faint and indiscernible pidgin English, or the howling of Jack Kerouac. Such is the nature of our post-modern condition. No depth, no center, nothing is certain; everything is periphery and surface. It may be that curiosity killed the cat, but radical skepticism killed the soul leaving the world to pragmatism that fashioned people into automatons with no more intrinsic value than that of a “time-change part”.

The two extremes I speak of, with regard to the discourse on “Islam in the world”, are that of the “Medieval Outlook” vs. “Liberal Arab Thought”. Engagement – involvement – with the world of culture and the ideas that inform it is comprised of three elements: Assumptions, conversance, and language.

The first is the global assumptions that operate in the minds of the mainstream public square. These assumptions tend, as a default, to be informed by liberal humanism. This would include a list of concepts including freedom of speech, democracy, liberty, equality, human rights, and multi-culturalism, along with a host of others that, when taken to their logical extreme, will include items that can be detrimental to human wellbeing as well as excluding one’s that secure it.

As a paradigm, liberal humanism can enforce its own style of tyrannies that undermine the very principles it set out to promote. Look how laissez-faire capitalism coupled with unregulated marketing contributes to the new crisis of child obesity, the obliteration of rainforests, or a generation of latch-key children.

The second element is an awareness and conversance with these operating assumptions that inform the thinking of people in the global public square. And the third element of engagement is a contemporary and relevant language; one that makes sense to the listener. A language that demonstrates where one stands vis-à-vis real and prescient issues and illustrates one’s consciousness of the factors that affect peoples’ daily lives.

Notice that element one, “global assumptions”, stands alone and separate from element two, which is merely the understanding and awareness of them. There is no implication of acquiescence here. Now, there are four approaches to treating with these three elements of global cultural engagement.

(1) The first, having mastered elements two and three, “language” and “conversance”, is to adopt element one, “global assumptions” in toto. This is the Liberal Arab Thought approach.

(2) The third approach, lacking any semblance of “conversance” or relevant “language”, resists every aspect of element one, with no coherent reasoning behind the resistance. This is the “Medieval Outlook” approach.

(3) A third approach shared by members of both camps, is to also lack elements two and three, only to wholeheartedly patronize element one complete with confetti, party favors, and circus clowns.

The Medieval Outlook is not without its merits though; it is the safest of the three. Because, although it operates in an archaic language and according to pre-modern assumptions about the world, it remains grounded in authentic foundations of identity and maintains its links to original and organic human nature.

(4) I would like however to offer a fourth option; one that speaks in a language that is clear, recognizable, and conversant with the assumptions that inform or express life in the world with all of its terrible beauty and exhilarating tragedy. An approach that is, at the same time, grounded in the roots and foundations of original Islamic culture. Engaging its wealth of intellectual history – through its doctrines, methodologies, and spiritual aims – with the lived reality of the public square. In this way it can offer robust and healthy alternative prescriptions for the real human concerns and needs that have been the drivers of the solutions that have up to now, been the only ones on offer.

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