Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In March 1987, I sat for my final year BCom exams. Pakistan Studies was the last paper. I was a student at a state-owned college in Karachi where I had spent more time doing student politics than studying. 

Some of my friends — mostly from the progressive student outfit that we were all part of — believed I did not need to study because my “English was good.” To them that’s all it took to get through. Their English, they lamented, was not good enough because, unlike me, they had all graduated from “Urdu-medium schools.” Since there was also the option of taking the exams in Urdu, they decided to do just that. All but one. Usman. 

Usman was a wiry young man who came from a lower-middle-class family in Karachi’s Nazimabad area. He insisted on taking the exams in English after convincing himself that I would “help” him out. No, not before the exams, but during the exams! I did “help” him in whatever manner I could. 

Trying to find a convincing answer to the question has eluded most who see Pakistani culture as under threat

I am relating this story due to the rhetoric one increasingly hears these days about what is not Pakistan’s culture. Once mostly the domain of clerics and religious parties, these days the issue has become a favourite of high court judges, ministers of culture and the media regulatory organisation Pemra. 

They are all quick to judge that an event, a film or a piece of art is not part of Pakistan’s culture, but they never explain what Pakistani culture really is. They don’t because they can’t.

For example, when in 2016, former IHC judge, Shaukat Aziz banned the celebration of Valentine’s Day, he stated that ‘it was not part of our culture.’ Recently a Lahore High Court judge said the same when he ordered that a statue ‘of satan’ at the Lahore Museum be removed. He said “this statue has nothing to do with our culture.” On January 9 this year PEMRA told channels to avoid ‘intimate moments’ on TV because “they violated our cultural standards of decency.” In January 2019, a festival on the work of Urdu short story writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, was not given the go-ahead by the Punjab Ministry of Culture. The January 15, 2019 issue of Express Tribune quoted unidentified officials of the ministry as saying, “Manto was a liberal and vulgar writer.” In December 2018 a Bollywood film on Manto had already been banned by Pakistan’s Central Board of Film Certification.

And here is where I return to my erstwhile friend Usman, who used to sit behind me during exams.

On the day of the Pakistan Studies paper, he whispered to ask me how he should answer the following question: “Define Pakistan’s culture in a paragraph.” Itching to finish the paper and catch the fifth Pakistan-India Test match during Pakistan’s 1987 tour of India, I told him to write whatever he wanted to. 

After completing the paper, I asked, him, “Usman, kya likha [What did you write]?” “Yaar, jo aya likh deeya [I wrote whatever came to mind],” he replied. But after a while he told me exactly what he wrote: “Maine likha [I wrote], my mother say give exam in English; father say give in Urdu; maulvi of mosque say give in Arabic; my province say give in Sindhi, and forefather say give in Punjabi. This is Pakistan culture. This is what I say.”

I thought that was brilliant. And I told him so, even though he flunked. “English weak hai na yaar [It’s because my English is weak],” he later complained.

Recently, high court judges, ministers of culture and Pemra have been on a banning spree, always maintaining that whatever they ban isn’t according to Pakistani culture. And yet, none of them can explain Pakistan’s culture in a convincing manner or in a manner in which the more conservative segments of society haven’t already.  

This question about Pakistani culture first emerged with force during the declining years of the Ayub Khan regime in the late 1960s. Before that, it wasn’t much of an issue, as such. It could not have been because Pakistan was still a very young country. However, nationalist historian I.H. Qureshi authored a book in 1956 titled The Pakistani Way of Life.

Even though the book celebrates the fact that Pakistan was a Muslim-majority country whose ancestors in the region and founders resisted being assimilated by Hinduism, it does not see the presence of both historical and contemporary non-Muslim elements in Pakistani society as something opposed to Pakistani culture.

In the late 1960s, when Ayub Khan’s ‘modernist’ Muslim nationalist narrative began to crumble, Abul Ala Maududi, the prolific Islamic scholar and founder of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) took this opportunity to plug his idea of Pakistani culture. He stated that Pakistan’s culture was “Islamic”. Professor of Sociology Saadia Toor, in her 2005 book State of Pakistan, writes that Maududi lamented that leftist, secular and Western ideas had entered Pakistan’s Islamic culture “through a Trojan horse” and were altering the country’s “Islamic character.”

Progressive Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz was quick to respond. In a series of lectures that he delivered to the Commission of Arts and Culture in 1967 (and which were later published as a report), Faiz explained Pakistani culture as a historical combination of varied and diverse religious and political, traditional and modern influences, of which Islam was one important aspect but not its entire body.

In her 2011 paper for the University of Alberta, S. Hemani writes that, in 1973, the Z.A. Bhutto regime organised a conference of intellectuals, historians and scholars. Two views emerged at the conference. One was that Pakistan’s nationalism should promote multiculturalism, as Faiz had suggested. But the other view insisted that (in light of East Pakistan’s separation in 1971) a more rigorous nationalism should be constructed and the country’s culture be defined as a single politico-religious entity.

This was an idea born from a sense of territorial insecurities and was thus bound to remain narrow and myopic.

Today, most high court judges, ministers and Pemra who imposed bans on certain events simply stated that “it (the banned event) was not according to Pakistani culture and Islam.” Such statements have become a favourite of the conservative segments of the state and society ever since the late 1970s, despite the fact that they are almost entirely rhetorical in nature and fail to explain that, if an event is against Pakistani culture, then exactly what is this culture?

Saying Pakistani culture is “Islamic” doesn’t say much because there are various manifestations of Islam in practice in Pakistan, in addition to the fact that there are non-Muslim Pakistanis in our midst as well and laws that are entirely secular. This is also why it has been easier for the state to define Pakistan as a Muslim-majority country but almost impossible to construct a monolithic definition of the expression “Islamic Republic.”

That’s why explaining something as being opposed to Pakistani culture has increasingly started to sound hollow. This is also because the state of Pakistan too is now comfortable (to a certain extent) in seeing Pakistan as a diverse society. Denying this reality would put the denier on the wrong side of history.

And this is exactly where some members of the government and judiciary are still stuck.

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 27th, 2019