Our identity crisis

Published August 1, 2020

PAPER burns at 451 degrees Fahrenheit. I gleaned this arcane bit of knowledge from the title of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451.

In Bradbury’s dark vision, the world is run by authoritarian rulers whose agents go around burning books. Information, advertisements and entertainment are only available on the electronic media which, of course, is controlled by the state. Written in 1953 at the height of the Cold War, the book was motivated by Bradbury’s revulsion of the McCarthyist crackdown on real and suspected communists in the United States.

But we have many examples of book-burning that are all too real: witness the inferno of all printed material thought to be against the Papacy. Begun in 1480 in Spain, the autos-da-fé of the Inquisition killed thousands for any views deemed to be unorthodox. Men and women could be tortured, or burned alive if accused of witchcraft.

The great Library of Alexandria that had the ambition of housing every scroll ever inscribed fell into a state of disrepair as rulers who followed Alexander and his successors began to suspect the power of ideas. After flourishing for some 300 years, the library became a poor imitation of its previous glory.

More recently still, the Nazis incinerated piles of book seized from Jewish homes as they dragged the occupants out to be sent to death camps. And of course, Nigeria’s anti-education Boko Haram are today’s champion book-burners.

One can imagine minions conducting raids on Lahore’s bookshops.

In 2013, the violent Ansar Dine occupied Timbuktu, Mali’s ancient trading centre, and destroyed the library that contained thousands of manuscripts relating to Mali’s history, as well as old records of Islamic thought.

So why this suspicion of books? Basically, they can contain subversive ideas that might undermine the state-approved narrative. But this is exactly why they remain so popular: almost every literate person who has read contemporary English literature will instantly recognise Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World.

Here in Pakistan, we have a problem of a different dimension. In most other countries, books are written and sold in larger numbers than ever before, and little censorship exists. In Pakistan, in an attempt to drag us even further back, the state has been stamping its authority on books for years. This effort has recently attained new heights in Punjab that is governed by Imran Khan’s hapless satrap, Sardar Usman Buzdar. One had hoped that the appointment of this unknown tribal chief would result in better governance. But this hasn’t been the case.

A recent bill passed by the Punjab Assembly, the Tahafuzz-i-Bunyaad-i-Islam, lays down various penalties for publishers, booksellers and printers for selling books that do not conform to the nomenclature laid down to accompany the names of various historical Muslim luminaries. Shia leaders had some doubts, so the stage is now set for a totally unnecessary confrontation.

With the passage of this bill, I can imagine the celebrations taking place in the office of Punjab’s director general, public relations. This worthy will henceforth be responsible for implementing this law. I can imagine minions from this office conducting raids on Lahore’s excellent bookshops, and hauling away obscure books written by foreign scholars unaware of these new requirements.

Meanwhile, the Punjab Textbook Board has banned 100 textbooks used in private schools for unspecified reasons. (I am grateful to I.A. Rehman for this information.)

We have been banning films, paintings, books and poems with abandon for several years now. Anything with a whiff of independent thought is immediately suspect, and its creator branded a traitor at the drop of a hat. And increasingly, he or she is hounded and, in far too many cases, kidnapped and beaten up or treated roughly, as we saw in the recent case of journalist Matiullah Jan.

A state confident of its legitimacy and proud of its history and culture does not stoop to censorship to protect itself. But since Partition, Pakistan has been locked in an identity crisis as the state seeks to find its place in the world.

Islam takes us towards Saudi Arabia — although there are more non-Arab Muslims than there are Arabs. And our history and culture are very much South Asian, as attested by our cuisine, music and marriage customs.

In order to justify our separation from India and Jinnah’s two nation theory, successive governments have attempted to show that Pakistan is indeed a country with a different cultural identity. Hence this drive to Arabise our educational system, and somehow transform the country into an Arab state.

Of course the Arabs despise us for this pathetic effort to imitate them, but can beggars be choosers?


Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2020


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