MANY prominent progressive intellectuals and political activists have been warning of the ‘Arabisation’ of Pakistani culture for a number of years.

These prescient few have argued that many aspects of our daily lives, including the languages we speak and write and forms of religious practice, have been gradually transformed since the 1980s due to the direct interventions of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf kingdoms.

‘Arabisation’ not only flies in the face of the more liberal and fluid cultural practices that have prevailed in this region since antiquity, but also more damningly is the primary impetus behind the militant jihadi upsurge.

I largely agree with this perspective, although such general hypotheses necessarily oversimplify social reality.

For instance, it is simply historically untrue that a uniform ‘Pakistani’ culture ever existed that has been transformed uniformly in the era of ‘Arabisation’. Similarly, it would be folly to assume that militancy in our own society is explained only by the machinations of foreign governments.

These caveats aside, it is nevertheless important that the ‘Arabisation’ hypothesis be subjected to public debate. Governments, the media, educational institutions, and, of course, the religious establishment have always depicted Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf kingdoms as unshakeable allies that have stood by Pakistan through thick and thin.

Anything resembling criticism of our ‘Muslim brethren’ has simply not been allowed to filter into the public consciousness.

In the event, the relationship between Pakistan and the Gulf kingdoms extends beyond the states’ ideological affinity. It is impossible to uncover the truth behind Arabisation without serious interrogation of the substantial economic and social ties that have developed at a societal level over the past few decades.

It was during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s time in office that the foundations of the contemporary relationship between Pakistan and the Gulf states were laid. Geopolitical considerations were of course central to the Pakistani state’s desire to cultivate close ties with the Arab sheikhdoms.

But the Bhutto regime was also responding to a major economic imperative; millions of mostly rural working people were searching for livelihoods in the aftermath of the Green Revolution.

Some of these teeming masses had been absorbed in Pakistani cities, but industrial development within the country was simply insufficient to cope with the burgeoning supply of labour.

Meanwhile the Gulf kingdoms needed cheap labour as they sought to transform their oil wealth into tangible social and economic development.

It was thus that the Bhutto government and its Gulf counterparts agreed to set into motion a process of migration that has changed the face of both Pakistani society and those that have hosted three to four generations of Pakistani workers.

Most of the millions who have spent time in the sheikhdoms return to Pakistan after a few years. This is explained in large part by the extremely stringent conditions placed on migrant workers by the Gulf governments. Yet these relatively limited exchanges have produced major social and economic impacts.

Beyond the obvious effects of remittance incomes, migrants are typically the carriers of ‘Arabisation’ into Pakistani villages and towns upon their return.

Over time a remarkable pattern has been established whereby individuals who do well during their time in the Gulf dedicate time, effort, and most significantly, money, to the building of mosques in their ancestral abodes.

Most of these mosques are of the Salafi variety, develop organic links to madressahs of the same sectarian bent, and sometimes even import maulvis from the Gulf countries.

Alongside the emphasis on overt ritual practice (of a particularly exclusionary variety), Gulf migrants are often just as committed to conspicuous consumption.

Those who have spent time in the Arab sheikhdoms will know that there is a heavy play on ostentatious behavior in the public culture of those societies. In short oil and Salafism have produced a curious mix of puritanism and flamboyance. Pakistanis who have lived amidst this culture are necessarily influenced by it.

Having said this, it is worth bearing in mind that Pakistani workers in the Gulf countries — along with virtually all other Asian migrants — are treated as the lowest of the low by the host society. Migrants are subject to often horrific conditions of work, live in putrid accommodation, and are deprived of even the most basic labour rights.

Some time ago tens of thousands of Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia with valid visas faced the threat of deportation if they did not pay an arbitrarily imposed tax (applicable only to non-native employees of Saudi firms).

Needless to say these workers do not have liquid cash available to them and have even been denied advance salaries by their employees which would allow them to come good on the payment to the government. It would appear as if the generosity of our ‘Muslim brethren’ has run out.

In spite of these glaring injustices that speak of fundamental class and racial contradictions, successive generations of Pakistanis working in the sheikhdoms have imbibed a great deal from those societies. In doing so, they have become the agents of Arabisation in their own societies.

I believe it is essential to distinguish the direct patronage of militancy by the Saudi and other Gulf governments from the social and economic linkages that have developed through Pakistani migrants.

As ever, recognition of such sociological connections makes clear the various dimensions of ‘Arabisation’ and the kinds of challenges we face in undoing the hold of retrogressive ideas and practices in our own society.

Analysing such phenomena in all their complexity also forces us to accept that an agenda for progressive change cannot just be limited to the realm of ideology and geopolitics but must also be about the restructuring of class and other social relations.

Ignoring such structures will only guarantee that the Arabisation of society continues unrelentingly.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.



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