Far from enlightenment

July 02, 2013


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.