Our culture of honour

May 05, 2014

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IN Shooting an Elephant George Orwell writes about how a person loses his own freedom most of all while practising imperialism. In this story an English police officer posted in Burma is the symbol of imperial power. He receives news of an elephant on a rampage in the village. He initially sets out with a pistol, but on finding out that an Indian coolie has been trampled to death by the beast he instructs an orderly to fetch an elephant rifle. By the time he gets to the paddy fields, accompanied by two thousand locals, the elephant is calmly grazing shoots.

The officer knows that the elephant is no longer a threat and ought to be left alone. But the burden of expectation on him as the embodiment of superior power is unbearable. The locals, who both fear and hate this symbol of power, expect action. And for no good reason, other than measuring up to such transient expectation, the officer aims at the unthreatening elephant and fires multiple times. The sahib “wears a mask”, writes Orwell, “and his face grows to fit it … I had got to shoot the elephant”. Why?

Because otherwise…“the crowd would laugh at me”.

Aren’t reactions of our contemporary leaders reminiscent of imperial sahibs afraid of being laughed at? Nawaz Sharif was crowned a leader the day he announced rebelliously that he would accept dictation from no one. Successive army chiefs have reminded us that they will protect and defend the ‘honour and dignity’ of the armed forces at all costs. What are these ‘costs’ that the high command is willing to endure and why? Is such bravado meant to put the fear of God in foreign enemies (or homegrown terrorists) casting an evil eye on Pakistan?

Or is it for the consumption of fellow countrymen getting audacious enough to question whether their relationship with state institutions meant to serve them should be defined by fear? What is it that threatens khaki ‘honour’? Haven’t khakis in the past poked fun at their own chiefs who seemed too docile or took seriously the constitutional notion of civilian control of the military? Didn’t Gen Jehangir Karamat, a thorough gentleman, come to be referred to as ‘baji’ by his own? Didn’t Gen Kayani invite a nickname even less flattering?

Within the fields of sociology and anthropology ‘cultures of honour’ are contrasted with ‘cultures of law’. Richard Nissbet and Dov Cohen in Culture of Honour: Psychology of Violence in the South (where they analyse the increased tendency of citizens of southern US states to indulge in violence), argue that cultures of honour tend to emerge and entrench themselves where three conditions are met: there is scarcity of resources; benefits of violence and crime outweigh their risks; and law enforcement is non-existent, lax or corrupt.

What we have nurtured in Pakistan — within state institutions and the society — is a culture of honour that trumps a culture of law. Whether it is an adult’s right to marriage of her own choice, the right of someone accused of blasphemy to be treated in accordance with the law, the right of a suspected terrorist to be accorded due process, or the obligation of the army to abide by directives of a civilian government, the notions of honour (and vigilante action to preserve them) override unambiguous obligations dictated by the law.

There is no question that our resources are scarce, the powerful (especially those in government) get away with perverting the law with impunity, and individuals manning institutions of justice and law enforcement are often corrupt or compromised. We thus fit the description of societies where honour eclipses the law. But can such explanation for how things are also serve as a justification for why misconceived notions of honour must continue to thrive and override the law.

Cultures of honour protect hereditary privileges or criminal gangs that are above and beyond the pale of law. In Pakistan too, the culture of honour — whether employed under the garb of religion or chivalry or patriotism — is essentially a tool to preserve pelf, privilege and a sense of entitlement above others. If Pakistan is to prosper and the society is to progress, we will need to replace the prevailing culture of honour with a culture of law. But willingly surrendering pelf or privilege is never easy.

In The Art of War Sun Tzu claims: “Generals are assistants of the nation. When their assistance is complete, the country is strong. When their assistance is defective, the country is weak.” And further that, “to be violent at first and wind up fearing one’s people is the epitome of ineptitude”. Let us concede for a moment that our civilian elite has been thoroughly incompetent, corrupt and ineffectual. But reflecting on the decades of khaki control over this country (direct and indirect), can our generals claim to have served this state and society well?

The challenges that confront Pakistan today are acute and innumerable. They are a product of our checkered past that disentitles all our institutions from preaching their virtue. A notion of patriotism defined by singular commitment to preserving the dignity of one institution at the expense of others is divisive and not uniting. If we wish to save the whole of Pakistan and not bits of it, we will need to replace bravado with introspection, hubris with self-correction and the prevalent culture of honour with one characterised by the rule of law.

The writer is a lawyer.

sattar@post.harvard.edu

Twitter: @babar_sattar