Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

The subject of Pakistan Studies was introduced in the early 1970s. It was first made compulsory in schools and, from the late 1970s onwards, in colleges and universities. Over the years, it has often been lambasted for promoting half truths and — from the 1980s — even religious and racial bigotry.

Various Pakistani scholars, such as Dr A.H. Nayyar, Ahmad Salim and Rubina Saigol, have substantiated these claims through detailed Studies of Pakistani textbooks. Indeed, the content in these tomes, especially in Pakistan Studies books, is rather alarming.

The overlying consensus in this regard is that the subject of Pakistan Studies was concocted as a reaction to the rising sentiment of ethnic regionalism in the country; and largely as a response to the violent manner in which the former East Pakistan broke away in 1971 to become Bangladesh.

The subject may have been formulated and promoted by leftists and liberals as a response to the country’s existential crises but they themselves became its victims

According to a desperate and bruised state and a new populist government headed by Z.A. Bhutto, this happened because a cohesive ideology of Pakistan, based on a shared Muslim faith which transcended ethnic identities, had not been properly formulated and ingrained among the people.

So, Pakistan Studies set out to do just that, even if it had to distort and omit certain inconvenient truths. But, as a project, it was initially not really in the hands of belligerent politico-religious scribes, even though it would become just that during the Zia dictatorship in the 1980s. Initially, as an intellectual pursuit, it was formed by some noted, rationalist historians and introduced by a ‘modernist’ state and a populist left-leaning government.

But here’s the interesting bit: Those who came up with this subject eventually became its victims. Let me explain. The creation of Pakistan Studies in the 1970s was related to what was emerging in certain prominent segments of the academia in the US and Europe at the time.

In 1961, the French philosopher Michel Foucault published Madness and Civilisation. In 1962, the American philosopher Thomas Khun published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In 1966, two American sociologists, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, penned The Social Construction of Reality. In 1968, the American anthropologist, Carlos Castaneda, published The Teachings of Don Juan.

These books made a huge impact on the evolution of psychiatry, sociology and anthropology. Each one of them were authored by ‘progressive’ men who were educated in some of the finest Western educational institutions which, for years, had upheld the core principles of the Age of Enlightenment: reason, rationality, science and empiricism.

Yet, these books are all vehement attacks on these principles. They claimed that truths, even scientific truths, were all constructions of power elites. Mental illness was a concept, not a truth. Reality was a social construction. Superstitions and ‘magical thinking’ can be as legitimate as scientific truths because truth was ‘relative.’

Noted American journalist and author Kurt Andersen, in his 2017 book Fantasyland, demonstrated how an attack on rationalism and science by left-leaning academics romanticised and then legitimised irrationalism as an ‘anti-establishment’ pursuit, which then began to influence subjects such as sociology and anthropology.

Anderson quotes the famous author and intellectual Paul Goodman lamenting that college students were no more interested in gathering evidence to tell sociological truths because they believed all such truths, were created to empower the ruling elites.

In 1947, two left-leaning German philosophers and sociologists, Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, got the ball rolling with their book Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which they critiqued the ‘Enlightenment project’ as one of the reasons behind the rise of Nazism in Germany. This meant that 19th century racist and anti-rationalist ideas that had evolved into becoming major fascist ideologies in the 20th century were now absolved of all blame.

Therefore, it was only a matter of time till what began as an anti-rationalist onslaught by the academic left would eventually be embraced by their rightist counterparts. Since truth was now relative, and no amount of evidence could prove otherwise, one could spout anything and call it the truth without being challenged.

But those on the right became better at using this mindset. The left and the liberal, now entirely engulfed by concepts such as post-modernism, post-structuralism, relativism, etc., were caught in an intellectual quagmire. The result: a dialogue between the left and the right which produces zero synthesis, because it largely constitutes monologues, rebounded by echo chambers, contradictions and anger that has become a parody of itself.

Pakistan Studies was born in the 1970s in an intellectual environment that had become dominated by former rationalists turned anti-rationalists. It offered ‘truths’ concocted to appease Pakistan’s post-1971 existentialist crises. ‘Truths’ formed by respected historians and a leftist regime but then wholeheartedly embraced by the rightists, who then went on to concoct another ‘truth’: The left/liberals broke Pakistan. As modern anthropology would suggest, it’s ‘their truth’ and you’ll be a spoilsport to deny it.

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 4th, 2019