By Mohammad A. Qadeer
Oct 19, 12
One wonders what goes through the minds and conscience of millions of people in Pakistan who take bribes, cheat their customers, exploit servants, put the life and safety of others at risk, adulterate food and medicines, grab land and appropriate others’ properties?
Most Pakistanis would say that they, as well as other Muslims, are morally superior, unlike those Indians, Christian, Jews and Godless westerners. From these moral roots spring the daily crop of brutality, mayhem, corruption, and violence against minorities. Consider the sorry state of our morals where even the day designated to express our love for the Prophet turns into an occasion for looting, burning and killing.
There is a common thread in all these behaviours. Our notions of right and wrong have been scrambled. Our moral clock is set at a different time and long lost social order. We are in a state of confusion about values and ethics. A crack runs through Pakistan’s national and regional cultures, which requires us to review our unchallenged assumptions about culture and society.
Pakistan’s lagging non-material culture
Culture is imprinted in human psyche to guide individuals’ thoughts and actions. It is broadly divided into material and non-material traits. Material aspects of culture are its technology, instruments of economic production, consumption and household goods. Non-material are beliefs, values, norms, laws, symbols, religion, literature, arts and folklore, and morals. For example, a car is an item of material culture but it carries with it non-material norms of driving skills, traffic rules and ethics of road behaviour. Pakistan’s traffic chaos is a symptom of its lagging non-material culture.
Socially and culturally Pakistan is not the country that it was in 1947, 1960 or in the 1970s and 80s. It is no longer a predominantly agricultural country. Almost every rural household has one or more members working, studying, and living away in cities. Despite grinding poverty for about a third of the population, materially and economically Pakistanis are three times better off now in constant per capita income than they were in 1947.
More importantly, Pakistan has become an urban country. About 36 per cent of its population lives in cities, but by the UN threshold of urban density of 1000 persons per square mile, about 60 per cent of Pakistan’s population lives in urban conditions. Furthermore, Pakistan has taken to material modernisation readily. In May 2011, Pakistan boasted 118 million mobile phone subscribers. Even videos and the TV-smashing Taliban have no hesitation in using cell phones, western medicine, FM radio stations, dollars and rockets. Similarly, motorised vehicles have transformed even in the village life where agriculture has been largely commercialised.
Urban moral order
Urban living demands collective goods such as water supply and waste disposal, universal literacy, traffic control, police and fire services. The need for these services affects our behaviour. Their defining characteristic is that many of these needs cannot be provided for some without providing for all because their effects are indivisible. Urban life is based on a social contract, i.e. everybody’s well being is connected with the welfare of all.
The moral order of urban life is different from that of agrarian and tribal societies. Urban life necessitates intricate division of labour and coordination of activities. It brings everybody in daily encounters with strangers or at least with those unrelated by blood and marital ties. It creates pressures for impersonal dealings and requires rules and mutual trust. Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century observed that tribal mores are not transferable to cities, which breed their distinct society and culture.
In times of rapid cultural change, the balance between material and non-material aspects of cultures breaks down. In Pakistan, something more is happening. Its non-material culture is not only lagging but is actively moving towards orthodox Islamic mores. Here lies the dilemma: Pakistan’s material culture is modernising and non-material culture is Islamising. The result is that the values and norms that we espouse, offer little guidance for the behaviours necessitated by our material and urban ways of living. We are in a state of moral conflict.
Islamisation in Pakistan has been a process of inventing traditions. Islamisation cultivates notions of right and wrong based on women’s segregation, religious observances, sexuality, personalised evidence, re tributary justice and demonstrable piety. Yet, urban living requires impersonal organisations, trust of others, women’s participation, and freedom of expression, individual rights, empirical logic and transparency.
The divergence between our lived culture and imagined culture is turning into a gaping chasm. Islamisation of narratives has diverted the public discourse and channelled social energies into reinforcing the imagined culture. It diverts us to moral discourses that do not conform to the lived reality of our urban livelihoods.
Pakistanis urgently need alternative narratives that may compete dialogically with the orthodox Islamic thought. But it is not just the narratives that will bring the imagined culture in line with the lived culture. There has to be social movements for tolerance, rationality, freedom to think, cultural diversity, and gender equality. It is not an easy task. It will take the form of long drawn out arguments and political struggles in streets, schools, the media and homes for the Pakistani mind. It has to begin by wresting the self-assumed ‘Fatwa’ authority from the Mullahs.
Mohammad A. Qadeer is the author of the book, ‘Pakistan- social and cultural transformations of a Muslim nation’