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Far from enlightenment

Published Jul 02, 2013 08:02am


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THE recent attacks in Quetta, Peshawar and elsewhere reflect the growing culture of violence and militancy in Pakistan. Why is Pakistani culture notable for the lack of a zero-tolerance approach towards extremism, militancy and violence against innocent people? How can a cultural change be brought about which can promote enlightenment and coexistence?

Over the past 30 years or so, it is possible to discern a significant transformation in Pakistani culture: the values of tolerance, moderation and coexistence have diminished, providing enormous space for aggression.

One can blame the Afghan war for the permeation of the gun culture, drug trafficking, etc, but if analysed more deeply, one can see that the absence of a culture of reasoning and critical thinking has promoted extremism and radicalisation in Pakistani society. Further, the analysis raises questions about the role of state actors that are responsible for ensuring basic security for people.

The absence of a culture of enlightenment can be termed a major reason why this country has become a hub of violence. And Pakistan is not alone: in terms of the absence of a culture of enlightenment, the situation is more or less similar in many post-colonial states, particularly in Muslim countries.

According to the New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, enlightenment means “an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries marked by the celebration of the power of human reason, a keen interest in science, the promotion of religious toleration and the desire to construct governments free of tyranny.”

Cultural enlightenment, which became a part of the European/Western civilisation, caused far-reaching structural changes in the way of life and thinking of people who were once behind in the realm of scientific knowledge and reasoning. As a philosophical movement unleashed primarily in parts of Western Europe, enlightenment challenged centuries of stagnation, orthodox thinking and a conservative way of life.

Based on the contributions of leading philosophers such as Jacques Jean Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Baron de Montesquieu, John Locke and David Hume, the intellectual discourse known as enlightenment focused on reasoning and rationality, doubt, the quest for knowledge, free-thinking, tolerance, secular principles, innovation and research, humanism, and the promotion of art and culture.

The Renaissance, geographical discoveries, scientific innovations, exploration and reformation gave an impetus to the culture of enlightenment, which played a leading role in shaping the European/Western cultural discourse.

No such activity was going on in the Muslim world at the time, though. Large sections of Muslim territories later came under the colonial and imperial tutelage of major European powers and remained devoid of the knowledge process.

While repeated wars in Europe culminating in the Second World War challenged cultural enlightenment, centuries of philosophical work, discoveries and scientific innovations in the West strengthened the culture of reasoning, secularism, democracy and individualism. Cultural enlightenment became a symbol of change in the West which denied space to violence and strengthened the rule of law, notwithstanding the recent emergence of neo-nazis and anti-immigration groups in different parts of Europe.

If Pakistan is known as a country with high numbers of suicide attacks and other acts of violence, it is because there are major fault lines in Pakistani culture that provide space to extremist, militant and violent groups.

In order to curb extremism, Pakistanis will have to change the culture which provides space to groups that propagate hate and violence against those who do not conform to their way of life. The culture of intolerance needs to be replaced with the culture of enlightenment where reasoning, rationality, coexistence, humanism and peace will shape societal values.

The process of cultural enlightenment in Pakistan can only be initiated when a parochial mindset is transformed and a broadminded approach becomes the dominant way of thinking and of discourse. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s cultural paradigm is devoid of a pragmatic, rational and democratic thought process which can effectively challenge those who promote the culture of intolerance. Furthermore, the country’s feudal/tribal culture, along with religious fanaticism, is responsible for societal retrogression.

Two examples can be cited to prove the acceptability of people who take the law into their own hands, propagate hate on religious grounds and create a culture of fear. First, Mumtaz Qadri, who was officially responsible for protecting the then governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, killed him in January 2011 in Islamabad at a public place. He not only confessed to the killing in a court of law but got a lot of support from the legal community and others for an act which should have been condemned. Recently, a Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf member of the National Assembly demanded on the floor of the house that Qadri be “honourably” exonerated.

Second, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi have taken responsibility for countless suicide attacks and other acts of terror in different parts of Pakistan but there has been no strong condemnation by religious parties.

The only way Pakistan and its future generations can hope to save their country from degeneration is by promoting a culture of enlightenment by investing in the provision of quality education, encouraging innovation, scientific research, human development and preventing the use of religion for political or personal benefit.

The writer is professor of International Relations at the University of Karachi.


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Comments (32) Closed

BRR Jul 02, 2013 10:26am

Reading the Quran is considered education enough by many muslim families. Questioning anything in the Quran can be called blasphemy and result in death. How does one counter such beliefs? Where is the room for reason?

Nony Jul 02, 2013 10:44am

That depends upon the willingness of state actors and political parties. Unfortunately, the propaganda machinery of those who want to turn Pakistan into a one sect religious state has been more effective compared to those political parties which represent liberal thought and democracy. As a result the majority of population has accepted the fact that religion is the magnetic and driving force for Pakistan, which has historically proved wrong. The political parties have worked least on creating awareness of liberalism, enlightenment and secularism. These terms are still considered as some foreign conspiracy against Pakistan. On the contrary, the religious groups successfully keep propagating their hatred based narrow ideologies. Which has created in the population a sense of detachment from their own culture of tolerance, Sufism, history and diversity.

kk Jul 02, 2013 11:42am

All these so called jehadise groups were created by our state actors...It is their unwillingness which has created the mess...How come our 7lac army cant fight few thousand terrorists,who do not posses helicopters,tanks,missiles.If our soldiers cant fight them how come they will guard us against strong enemy...rationality demands that it is better to disband it than investing huge amount...

yogaish okan Jul 02, 2013 12:57pm

sadly, but i have to say there is no comments from any one......

zahid hussain Jul 02, 2013 12:58pm

Why don't you say injustices and absence of law enforcement turned the country in to current morass.One can see culprits of mass killing normally come out of jail within few years.

gary Jul 02, 2013 01:21pm

''The absence of a culture of enlightenment can be termed a major reason why this country has become a hub of violence. And Pakistan is not alone: in terms of the absence of a culture of enlightenment, the situation is more or less similar in many post-colonial states, particularly in Muslim countries.''

True, but nowhere this violence is as bad as in Pakistan.

s Jul 02, 2013 04:01pm

Reforming education system can help people internalize the core values of democracy: repect for diversity, tolerance, equality. It is one important channel through which we can mitigate extremist tendencies in our society.

Rupak Jul 02, 2013 04:14pm

Truth is that before Islam came to the region, cultural enlightenment was the norm. Ancient western thinkers used to come to India to learn acquire wisdom. Then came Islam and India's dark age began.

Sumant Jul 02, 2013 06:21pm

Excellent attempt at self understanding by the writer. Unfortunately the Enlightenment that began in Europe was based on numerous movements including the Renaissance and the Protestant revolt as well as the Reformation that preceded it and opened up the necessary space. Pakistan does not need inspiration from a source so distant and far rather it needs to revisit and retell the accomplishments of Akbar Kabir and the numerous Sufi Pirs and Babas that presumably dot the land. The space necessary for tolerance requires that religious dogma be held at arms length.

Worldcitizen Jul 02, 2013 06:52pm

Very valuable assessment and depiction of the mindset that is plaguing most of the Muslim countries.

Anoop Jul 02, 2013 08:18pm

So basically everything else is wrong in Pakistan - culture, education, poverty - except of course the ideology for the cause of which militants are actually taking other people's lives.

Not one article exploring if ideology is itself the cause, considering many different regions around the world, which follow the same ideology are too locked in the same difficulties as Pakistan, say Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, etc.?

A Ahmed Jul 02, 2013 10:22pm

@Rupak: Nonsense. Rupak seems to be displaying his own cultural bias and prejudice here. When the Europeans were in the dark ages, it was Muslim society that was innovating. It was Muslim society that was rediscovering lost knowledge of the Greeks and Romans. Its thanks to the crusades, and the cultural exchange between the Muslim world and Europe that resulted, that Europeans finally began to awaken. This is well documented fact.

As far as India is concerned, there was no dearth of arts and philosophy under Muslim rule. Literature, art, architecture, music, all thrived under Muslim rule in India. Muslims didnt take away from India, they added to it. The very reason Muslim armies we're able to conquer India however, was because Indian society had been split into hostile and loosely organized states. Hardly the hallmark of an advanced civilization.

pathanoo Jul 02, 2013 11:23pm

BRAVO, Ammonis. You have the courage to tell the unpalatable truth. Excellent article, fact based.

Asif Shekh Jul 02, 2013 11:51pm

From a culture which teaches kill or convert the person of othe religion what you can expect. There will be continous fight to obey that rule otherwise you are not following true islam, it is that simple. There are different explanations but literal meaning is as said above.

Emm Jul 03, 2013 12:07am

We are very far from the road to enlightenment. Very far. But the path to it has to be unfortunately traversed with great patience, fortitude and wisdom. A frontal "secular and liberal" assault could set us years back as it will be construed as a Western onslaught, which in truth it will be. Home grown evolutionary thought is the general direction to take I believe. Slow and steady though. Understanding of human psychology will play a huge part -- an arena best left to long term thinkers.

malole Jul 03, 2013 03:48am

Too much censorship shows even your are not enlightened yourself.

Ahsen Jul 03, 2013 10:55am

Also, we need to break the old superstitions and not judge people on other's opinions or prejudices. Its a free world and we must respect each other's point of view and rise above religion,caste & creed.

Roshan Ali Shah Jul 03, 2013 11:16am

An excellent points about the decline of the culture of peace and hormoney among the Pakistani Soceity. Ecnomic disparity among the masses and internal and external political intrests are also promoting the culture of violence in the country directly or inderectly.

Danish A. Jul 03, 2013 12:24pm

@Rupak: There is little enlightenment in the strict caste system inherent in hinduism and India of pre-Islamic era. Pakistan does not need such enlightenment, but what it needs is western enlightenment. Pakistanis should revere Kant, Voltaire, and more recent philosophy of John Rawls and destroy extremism and taliban with enlightenment ideas for the betterment of the future generations. Only secularism can save Pakistan. (Please publish).

Parvez Jul 03, 2013 02:35pm

Enlightenment comes from a process of enquiry where the mind is allowed to question anything and expects to have an answer that does not defy reason. In the context of your write up the only subject that is controversial is religion and the closed mind set with which it is approached will not be altered because it is deliberate and an easy tool to sway the emotional masses. Why ?....... in order to establish an agenda to grab power, politically or by force.

Rao Jul 03, 2013 04:17pm

@Worldcitizen: There is lots of truth in your comments. Excessive addiction to religious rites, narrow interpretation, utter belief that there is nothing better etc etc. are some of the causes of the mess in Islamic world. It is not the monopoly of Muslims alone either. Lack of education in a broad sense hold back progress of other societies too.

Rao Jul 03, 2013 04:18pm

@Worldcitizen: There is lots of truth in your comments. Excessive addiction to religious rites, narrow interpretation, utter belief that there is nothing better etc etc. are some of the causes of the mess in Islamic world. It is not the monopoly of Muslims alone either. Lack of education in a broad sense hold back progress of other societies too.

Rao Jul 03, 2013 05:13pm

Moonis Ahmar Yaar : you certainly have written a thoughtful colomn here ( whereas one really woould need much more space!). i believe that even a simple articles like this should be made compulsory read for all students an high school teachers alike.

Any one who bothered to read world history through th eyes of eminent historians, would not dispute the fact, that in th early years of Islam, there was a great deal of excitement to learn from others. That mindset disappeared after the rise of conservative religious thinkers like Ghazali . Hence the downward decline of Islamic world.

So, let us not expect, sudden reversal any sooner. Have patience and a ttend to the business of providing Roti, Kapadia,Makan, and god governance and not excessive Allah's teaching.

Shankar Jul 03, 2013 07:07pm

There is a sense of hopelessness and despair amongst the moderate Muslims about what is happening to their society. Not a good omen for the Muslim society and not a good omen for humanity as a whole! Islam desperately needs a period of renaissance. Pakistan has a great opportunity and the intellectual capital to lead this renaissance movement to prevent the Muslim society from pushing the 'self-destruct' button. Why not start by identifying the huge common denominator amongst the vrious Islamic sects and procaliming that common denominator as the true Islam, the Islam that Pakistan follows, and declaring everything else as unacceptable.

bjp Jul 03, 2013 07:25pm

@Rupak: indian cultural enlightment can be judged by the cast system of the indians

Ashish Jul 03, 2013 10:44pm

@Danish A.: Ok the same rant that you've been taught by both the sword convertors, and the apologetic converted. Have you checked with your forefathers whether they approve of your thinking? There is no so called "rigid" caste system, with 100s of millions of people belonging to each. Much of this change has come through time. But India is forever evolving. Nobody is being denied their fair share due to belonging to any caste or region or color shade or religion or language etc. Often it is quite the opposite, Further, each of these differences is considered a mark of diversity, nothing else. For that matter, each person is different. If there are things that you do not approve of, you have every right to change that from within. There is simply no rigidity, or anything that is kept away from change. Time itself is a big contributor to such change. Be true to yourself. Don't blindly imitate the west, nor represent the oppressors. All differences that you have mentioned are nothing in comparison to class differences, and a poor Brahmin is not better off than a rich Kshatriya, and when someone is rich, why does he need to care for any other differences? Foolish thoughts and prejudices can be cured. Please seek help.

george Jul 04, 2013 12:42am

@Danish A.:

You ask Mr.Najam Sethi. He will tell you that the west is in romance with India. These western people come to India for enlightenment. They know most Indians are poor. But they also know Hindus are very tolerant people. They never shove their culture through other peoples'throats. Hindus are inclusive by nature. West love the Indians,you can ask any Pakistani in UK and USA.

''Indian leaders chose the path of inclusiveness to combat communal clashes. Without this wise approach, the vengeance of the Hindu who was vanquished for centuries in his own motherland could have caused immense bloodshed. Imagine a Muslim population whose places of worship are attacked and destroyed for centuries, whose holies are repeatedly insulted for generations and then they rise to freedom and power! What massacres of revenge will you expect?'' (Dawn dated 26th February,2013)

george Jul 04, 2013 12:50am

@A Ahmed:

If civilization means killing non-muslims,you Muslims are light years ahead.

S Jul 04, 2013 01:35am

@Danish A.: Indeed, recourse to secularism is the only solution for countries which are fragmented along religious lines. A secular society is tolerant and pluralistic one. Tolerance: an invaluable virtue that our nation is in desperate need of. The conditions that minorities face in Pakistan are lamentable; recently, when I joined an internship program I came across a Christian employee who uses a Muslim pseudonym because of the religious discrimination she has to face once people found about her religion. Similarly, a visitor at a reputable bank refused to take a glass of water from a peon who was Hindu. Quite a few of us would have taken Pakistan Studies at one point or another and all those history textbooks are filled with gory details about the plight of Muslims as a minority in the subcontinent. Quaid envisioned a separate state to end that persecution of Muslims, however, today, quite shamelessly; we subject minorities in Pakistan to similar violence, discrimination. It is a disgrace to what we stood for once to create this separate land.

Mustafa Jul 04, 2013 07:55am


No, before Islam came to the region, cultural enlightenment was not the norm unless you consider Indian caste system as enlightened. It was very much like India is today. Before Muslims conquered large swathes of South Asia they had primitive caste based system, very little cuisine, very little clothes, this society never made paper, only the most primitive cloth, no sugar, no tea and a rudimentary language that was even inferior to a half baked language like Urdu.

Danish A. Jul 04, 2013 10:32pm

@Ashish & @George: I do not dispute the rich indian culture, and I am born and bred western. So I can look at things objectively. I was responding to the comment that Indian culture has always been enlightened. To the contrary, no culture in history has been always enlightened, as simple as that, and India has changed over time for the better, no doubt about that one. And true many westerns seek refuge in Indian culture, but that is a very small number. On the other hand, tens if not hundred of millions of Indians and Pakistanis (I guess you can count my parents in it) have adopted or seek to adopt the western culture and the western notion of enlightenment that I was referring to. I too am fond of Indian culture but also various other cultures. I did not mean to offend you Ashish, I was merely pointing out a fact, which even you agreed with that India is changing and by no means it has always been enlightened. You are very quick to judge and throw insults, while warning against judging others, it's ok though it's only natural to be defensive of ones own heritage. Back to the topic at hand, Pakistan is neither India nor the West, it has to find its own enlightenment, and I would have it be inspired by the western thinkers that I pointed out.

AJ Jul 05, 2013 12:43am

@Mustafa: Perhaps no one told you in Pakistan - Sanskrit is considered the most scientific language and it was there 1000 years before Islam came to India.