A Culture of Haters
By Khaled Ahmed
Oct 25 2013
Pakistan needs to revive its cultural roots, reach out to others.
Pluralist societies fear military invasion from ideological/religious societies. Ideological/religious societies fear cultural invasion from pluralist societies.
The great Pakistani leader of the masses and educationist, Hafiz Saeed, recently complained from the Madrasa Qadisiya on old Lake Road in Lahore that “Pakistani culture was being changed” in the name of education. He was probably angered by a local English-medium school’s attempt to teach comparative religion to its senior classes. The “scandal” was, of course, unveiled by a TV anchor.
After the TV discussion, the state took action, confiscating all the textbooks informing high school children about Islam along with other great religions of the world, including Hinduism. The school backed off, fearing terrorist attacks, and the dust has settled over yet another effort to inform Pakistani culture with other global belief systems.
On August 4, a website called Pakistan News Pakistan Views had one Sajjad Shaukat voicing, once again, the fear of India’s “cultural penetration” of Pakistan. He went through the tiresome catalogue of smears that this paranoia justifies: India is moulding “the behaviour pattern of a country’s people on the basis of a handful of elements in Pakistan”. The target was Indian films and plays used for this “penetration”. The default status quo assumed by this plaint is the condition of war.
Of course, “psychological warfare” was mentioned. It is on this ground that the state already disallows Indian news channels and at times pulls channels like BBC, CNN and National Geographic off the air. The question is: why is the Pakistani citizen attracted to Indian entertainment? The next question is, why do people want entertainment? Why can’t they always be busy doing serious ideological things? Why do people living under an ideology want more entertainment than the ideological state can afford to give them? Why do such culture-related elements as Pakistani singers, actors, cricketers and cricket commentators survive by going to India?
And no one in Pakistan asks why Pakistani culture doesn’t threaten India.
Hatred of culture can get dangerous. Low-intensity bombs were set off outside theatres in Lahore in January 2009, and educational institutions were threatened with violence unless they banned coeducation. This was the rise of dormant ideological elements, encouraged by Taliban attacks on the tombs of great mystical poets, which embody the country’s cultural icons. Pakistani culture draws much entertainment from its song-and-dance-filled mystical tradition.
People in Pakistan have been forced to look for entertainment on their own because the concept of entertainment cannot be discussed without attracting a restrictive maximalism from the clergy. As a modern state, Pakistan is prevented from discussing culture because of its pre-modern ideology and the new standards of piety being established by Talibanisation.
Pakistan is reaching out to India for a number of political and economic reasons, but one subliminal intent it will not spell out officially is culture. When governments in Islamabad announce their policy of normalising relations with India, one unspoken reason is the thought of retrieving the “soft image” that Pakistan has lost because of the conflict between religion and culture raging in the country.
Pakistan is unable to talk about culture because its constitution is mum about it. The constitution of Bangladesh, in its Article 23, requires the state to “adopt measures to conserve the cultural traditions and heritage of the people, and so to foster and improve the national language, literature and the arts that all sections of the people are afforded the opportunity to contribute towards and to participate in the enrichment of the national culture”. Compared to that, Pakistan’s constitution has only a vague article devoted to regional languages and nothing more.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Pakistan has leaned secretly on India to relieve the wasteland produced by the madrasa and the Taliban. Under the Islamising General Zia, people “stole” Indian culture through the dish antenna. Under the liberalising Musharraf, they absorbed the entertainment of Indian film culture through cable TV. Subject to irreducible military instincts, Musharraf tried to draw back from too much contact with India, but the trend was irreversible.
Culture is another name for tolerance among potentially violent identities. Pakistan killed culture to face India more effectively in the battlefield. Now, it is being asked to survive economically by getting it back from India. Much of it we have done surreptitiously. As a nuclear power, we have to be more agile intellectually to benefit from India’s rise as a regional and world economy. But the stakeholders in the state of Pakistan are divided, and one section of them is not reading the signals the state is sending out to them.
It is always difficult to define culture. People insist on its aesthetic aspects, but much of what they do in the name of culture is simple entertainment. The sophisticated man wants to separate aesthetic pleasure from vulgar entertainment, and that is where the people get a raw deal. People do a lot of things to lessen the burden of living in a difficult environment, and much of this “defensive” routine of pleasure-seeking becomes creative and assumes the title of culture.
India is not the only cultural threat to Pakistan. We are also targeted by American culture through globalisation. (Why doesn’t India feel threatened by this global assault?) Every Pakistani seems to agree that Western media is tendentious. It is supposed to be anti-Muslim. It is not only India that we fear culturally, it is also the world itself, as it is subject to America’s “imperial” culture. But, quite clearly, the threat from the culture of India is deemed more dangerous than the threat from American culture. Why?
There is a history of “foreign onslaughts” in Pakistan. They are opposed to each other and their absorption is under false pretences. Islamisation was begun in Pakistan in real earnest by General Zia, who debated national identity (tashakhus). The debate implied that the earlier Islamisation had been perfunctory and therefore not equal to the founding fathers’ pledge to make Pakistan a truly Islamic state.
The first target of this wave of Islamisation was Pakistani culture. On close examination, Pakistani culture was found to be mixed up with non-Islamic elements of the subcontinent. Religious seminaries were opened all over the country with seed money on offer. And textbooks were rewritten, with tougher Islamic content. Result: painting exhibitions were attacked in Lahore.
Islam became more and more prescriptive and hard with jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir. It started being termed Talibanisation in the late 1990s. The state was affected by it, as were the big cities. But, as if in reaction, cable TV was nothing but Indian film and drama. This was the people’s defensive response to this invasion called Talibanisation. It was an unspoken reliance on culture to offset the hardness of a more stringent and intrusive religion.
Pakistan will survive by reviving its cultural roots and by reaching out to other cultures. This is what has happened in history. Modern economy says states need peace to achieve growth targets, and peace can’t be sustained without culture, which is another name for tolerance and coexistence.
Khaled Ahmed is a consulting editor with ‘Newsweek Pakistan’ email@example.com