A Businessman's Reflections On Culture

by Hasan Ismaik
  • Publisher – Elaph
  • Release Date – Jan 31, 2021

I have repeatedly noticed that whenever a disagreement arises between my colleagues and I, especially if our opinions, ideas, and decisions differed on any business-related matter, they usually hint, and sometimes explicitly state, that I am an intellectual who is an intruder to the world of finance, business, and economics, and consider my intellectual orientation an explicit proof of that. While my intellectual friends, as well as the team that works with me in the think tanks that I head, believe that I am a businessman who is an intruder to the world of culture.

In fact, I can happily declare that I accept both opinions, as I believe that the identity of an individual cannot be limited to profession and work because humans are multi-faceted beings in their interactions with their surroundings, whether in the realm of business, culture, sports, and even art.

Whenever I am asked about the meaning of culture or what an intellectual does, a verse of a poem by Antarah al-Absi pops into my head:

“A hard, direct, and swift stab my arm to him gave,

With a re-smithied, re-straightened, re-sharpened glaive.”

He describes a perfectly made spear that hits the target directly with precision and power. Therefore, it is no wonder that the Banu Thaqif (which means spearman), an ancient Arab tribe that lived in Taif and was comparable to Quraysh in power and civilization, was called by such name because of their ingenuity, hard work, noble qualities and their valor in defending themselves. Even when they were at war with the Muslims, some companions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) asked him to supplicate against them. But he said: “O Allah! Guide Thaqif.”

If the Arabic etymology of the word culture is strange and unusual, the English one is no less bizarre. The word culture is derived from the Latin word colere, meaning taking care of land and growth, or farming and care. This is clearly links culture and agriculture. Certainly, the meaning becomes more splendid if one adds its Arabic origin with the Latin one to mean “strength and hitting the target with care, growth and increase.”

In general, defining the concept of the term intellectual has been a problematic issue. Therefore, it was addressed by many studies and defined by many thinkers, writers and philosophers without reaching a comprehensive and final definition. Antonio Gramsci’s definition of intellectual may be one of the most important ones of this puzzling term: “Every person who has a certain vision of the environment in which he lives or is active.”

Distinguishing between the traditional intellectual and the organic intellectual, Gramsci defined the traditional intellectual as one who lives in an ivory tower thinking he is superior to all people while the organic intellectual one lives the concerns of his time and is related to the causes of his nation. In his view, the latter is the true intellectual.

On the other hand, Zaki Naguib Mahmoud defines an intellectual as: “The person who has ideas in his mind, whether created by him or by others, and believes that these ideas are worthy of being implemented in people's lives. Therefore, he dedicates efforts to achieving this hope.” On his part, Haider Ibrahim considers the intellectual to be “that person who has knowledge, in addition to work and practice. And, according to the acquired culture, an intellectual is an educated person or a specialist, and has a social or political cause that he works to achieve according to his own vision of the world.”

In short, the term intellectual is not limited to a person with knowledge, skill, and creativity; such a person should also have an active, practical role in his society that contributes to building human civilization. This is what Sartre explained: the intellectual is not responsible only for himself, but also for all people. His primary role is the conscious struggle against everything harmful to people, through his vision, criticism, and courage in conveying the truth. This courage sometimes makes him bear what others cannot bear, especially in societies that have a greater need for intellectuals who disagree with the popular opinionand confront the prevailing authority of all kinds to bring about the changes they aspire to or to face the changes that threaten the society’s culture and awareness.

This idea of confrontation is aimed to face what is known as cultural hegemony, the phenomenon that aims to replace local or national cultures with a dominant model of thinking to prevail and for certain human values to spread.. The term found its way into politics after World War II, influenced by the ideas of Gramsci, who opposed fascism and described its ability to dominate Italian society while Marxist revolutionaries, who advocated the principles of social justice, failed to push the victims of fascism to revolt against it.

Locally, it cannot be denied that Arab culture is currently experiencing an unhealthy and unproductive transitional phase in the absence of the role of the intellectual in society and Arab culture ministries that lack cultural development policies. This does not hold culture ministries alone responsible because it is first and foremost a result of the absence of planning by governments that do not prioritize culture. This is evident by the fact that Arab culture ministries are allocated small budgets compared to other ministries.

It has become necessary to replace the fragile structures of government cultural institutions with strong and firm ones that directly support cultural associations and events, finance individual or group cultural projects, contribute to theater and film production, activate theaters, and support fine arts, music, sports, dance, book publishers, and everything that falls within the framework of culture, up to the media and the internet, which has become a highly important cultural source, especially after it played an effective role in spreading norms, customs, community cultures and news in all fields, thus exceeding the traditional tools that prevailed in the past.

Whether I was a businessman who is interested in culture or an intellectual who works in business — and they are the same for me — I realized from my acquaintance with both that the necessity of culture matches, and sometimes exceeds, the necessity of economy in any country. This is proved by the transitional period that European societies witnessed around the mid-15th century when Europe succeeded in moving from agricultural to industrial age within around 300 years, while China failed to do so. The reason for this is that the economic and social freedom in Europe contributed to opening the way for intellectual activities, social movements, and religious reform, all of which paved the way for the Industrial Revolution, and thus cultural development made a strong and direct contribution to European economic growth.

In contrast, none of these conditions were available in China. Therefore, its economy at that time was depressed and weak, just as most of our Arab countries are today, which, in addition to the absence of cultural development, witnessed the outbreak of wars, the fall of some regimes, and the spread of crime and terrorism, leading to chaos and economic collapse, which in turn negatively affected the shape of civilization and culture in the region.

Thus, there is no escape from this mutual influence between culture and other aspects of society and people. This was explained by the American thinker Alvin Toffler when he said, “Countries that have a culture will prosper economically sooner or later, and an economically prosperous country will witness a rapid development in culture.” That is, countries that have a good and stable economy make the foundation for building a positively influential cultural base and reduce negative social phenomena, such as poverty and financial and administrative corruption. There are many pieces of evidence in history that nations would not rise and people would not advance except through the intellectual elite who address all the problems of society, undertake the task of looking for new ideas and solutions, and take part in setting the country's future plans.

Finally, Edward Said succinctly diagnosed the situation of the Arabs by noting, “The problem of the Arabs is that they do not participate in the making of civilization, but only watch it.” Is it not time for Arab intellectuals to give up their role as spectators and assume responsibility regardless of the obstacles?

Hasan Ismaik