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The conflict between Pakistan’s lived and imagined culture

Published Oct 19, 2012 01:01pm


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One wonders what goes through the minds and conscience of millions of people in Pakistan who take bribes, cheat their customers, exploit servants, put the life and safety of others at risk, adulterate food and medicines, grab land and appropriate others’ properties?

Most Pakistanis would say that they, as well as other Muslims, are morally superior, unlike those Indians, Christian, Jews and Godless westerners. From these moral roots spring the daily crop of brutality, mayhem, corruption, and violence against minorities. Consider the sorry state of our morals where even the day designated to express our love for the Prophet turns into an occasion for  looting, burning and killing.

There is a common thread in all these behaviours. Our notions of right and wrong have been scrambled. Our moral clock is set at a different time and long lost social order. We are in a state of confusion about values and ethics. A crack runs through Pakistan’s national and regional cultures, which requires us to review our unchallenged assumptions about culture and society.

Pakistan’s lagging non-material culture

Culture is imprinted in human psyche to guide individuals’ thoughts and actions. It is broadly divided into material and non-material traits. Material aspects of culture are its technology, instruments of economic production, consumption and household goods. Non-material are beliefs, values, norms, laws, symbols, religion, literature, arts and folklore, and morals. For example, a car is an item of material culture but it carries with it non-material norms of driving skills, traffic rules and ethics of road behaviour. Pakistan’s traffic chaos is a symptom of its lagging non-material culture.

Socially and culturally Pakistan is not the country that it was in 1947, 1960 or in the 1970s and 80s. It is no longer a predominantly agricultural country. Almost every rural household has one or more members working, studying, and living away in cities. Despite grinding poverty for about a third of the population, materially and economically Pakistanis are three times better off now in constant per capita income than they were in 1947.

More importantly, Pakistan has become an urban country. About 36 per cent of its population lives in cities, but by the UN threshold of urban density of 1000 persons per square mile, about 60 per cent of Pakistan’s population lives in urban conditions.  Furthermore, Pakistan has taken to material modernisation readily. In May 2011, Pakistan boasted 118 million mobile phone subscribers. Even videos and the TV-smashing Taliban have no hesitation in using cell phones, western medicine, FM radio stations, dollars and rockets. Similarly, motorised vehicles have transformed even in the village life where agriculture has been largely commercialised.

Urban moral order

Urban living demands collective goods such as water supply and waste disposal, universal literacy, traffic control, police and fire services. The need for these services affects our behaviour. Their defining characteristic is that many of these needs cannot be provided for some without providing for all because their effects are indivisible. Urban life is based on a social contract, i.e. everybody’s well being is connected with the welfare of all.

The moral order of urban life is different from that of agrarian and tribal societies. Urban life necessitates intricate division of labour and coordination of activities. It brings everybody in daily encounters with strangers or at least with those unrelated by blood and marital ties. It creates pressures for impersonal dealings and requires rules and mutual trust. Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century observed that tribal mores are not transferable to cities, which breed their distinct society and culture.

In times of rapid cultural change, the balance between material and non-material aspects of cultures breaks down. In Pakistan, something more is happening. Its non-material culture is not only lagging but is actively moving towards orthodox Islamic mores. Here lies the dilemma: Pakistan’s material culture is modernising and non-material culture is Islamising. The result is that the values and norms that we espouse, offer little guidance for the behaviours necessitated by our material and urban ways of living. We are in a state of moral conflict.

Islamisation in Pakistan has been a process of inventing traditions. Islamisation cultivates notions of right and wrong based on women’s segregation, religious observances, sexuality, personalised evidence, retributory justice and demonstrable piety. Yet, urban living requires impersonal organisations, trust of others, women’s participation, freedom of expression, individual rights, empirical logic and transparency.

The divergence between our lived culture and imagined culture is turning into a gaping chasm. Islamisation of narratives has diverted the public discourse and channeled social energies into reinforcing the imagined culture. It diverts us to moral discourses that do not conform to the lived reality of our urban livelihoods.

Pakistanis urgently need alternative narratives that may compete dialogically with the orthodox Islamic thought. But it is not just the narratives that will bring the imagined culture in line with the lived culture. There has to be social movements for tolerance, rationality, freedom to think, cultural diversity, and gender equality. It is not an easy task. It will take the form of long drawn out arguments and political struggles in streets, schools, the media and homes for the Pakistani mind. It has to begin by wresting the self-assumed ‘Fatwa’ authority from the Mullahs.


Mohammad A. Qadeer is the author of the book, ‘Pakistan- social and cultural transformations of a Muslim nation’. He can be reached at


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (54) Closed

Abdus Salam Khan Oct 20, 2012 01:21am
Qadeer Sahib is mixing culture with moral and ethical values taught to those of us who believe through divine guidance and these are universal. For example, all mankind is aghast at the barbarity shown in Malala's case. As for the Pakistanis, how aptly Iqbal has described them by his following couplet: "naheen hai na'umeed Iqbal apni kishtay weeraan say zaraa numm hoe tow yeh muttee barree zarkhaiz hai Saki" ( Iqbal has not despaired of his desolate field, For if it gets even a little wet, it becomes very verdant) To see how verdant they become with a little watering, just visit the overseas Pakistanis living in Europe and America. you would be pleasantly surprised they have blossomed.
Sunil Oct 20, 2012 07:35am
@Sandip: Nonsense. Which Hindu schools are you talking in India? Hindu being majority have no rights in India to open a HINDU school. Only minorities (Muslims, Sikhs, Christian, etc.) can have "minority institutes" (with their own set of rules, regulation and special reservations for their respective communities). As such all schools/college/institutes owned or governed by Hindus are open to all communities and hence can NOT, by law, impart religious education (Hindu religion) to students.
kbg Oct 19, 2012 07:04pm
It is good sign people are talking openly but action should follow to yeild results.Extrimism not serve the perpose but take one step backward.European become developed they become secular.Here people become more developed,then become more religious & more extremist.In the name of religion you can do any nonsense, no body can challenge you & no body can stop you.
Azmat Oct 20, 2012 04:37am
A timely and sober analysis from someone who understands the route causes of the social anarchy we are faced with today. Ofcourse we also need solutions & there is no quick fix...we have to travel a long road to back sanity. Some suggestions.... Start a national debate of academics & social scientists with the help of the media & gradually include progressive ulemas(if there is any left in Pakistan).. Slowly the voices may get louder... I personally believe that it is our young generation which will lead the change.... they are not beset by the deep routed prejudices of my generation. ....
Muhib Oct 19, 2012 04:24pm
wrong. If dad did not read quran(i dont know about geeta) he would not let his son to go to madressa. Becuause dad is an educated middle class engineer. So he would like his son to be an engineer rather than a taliban. And if dad was taught in a pakistani university of engineering, he would try to educate his son from a foreign university...... But not a MADRESSA.
Sandip Oct 19, 2012 11:50am
In south asia nothing is predominant then religion. The practice born in each an every home. For e.g. if Dad did not read Quaran or Geeta but his kid is invovled in study of Quaran or Geeta in one of those madrassa or hindu religious school, dad is not going to say no to him (and why would he, it brings him free education and possible free food to house). And Morally he is thinking his son is doing good thing. This brings back to the question of basic learning that previous generation missed to differentiate between right and worng and this gap being filled by extremist teaching for new generation. Human mind needs to be feed in something and it will take information from anywhere it can get.
areluctantpakistani Oct 19, 2012 01:16pm
A really good article. But it could have been a bit better had it been a bit bolder. When two things don't mesh well, the fault has to be assigned to at least one of those if not both. So where does the fault lie here?
uchak Oct 20, 2012 10:30am
any person can be 'violent' and so called 'immoral' and still be 'religious'. It all depends on what that'religion' is teaching and what you consider as 'violence' and 'immorality'. I personally don't see any contradiction in Pakistan becoming more religious and behaving more like the way it does.
jhaman Oct 20, 2012 10:29am
it is not religeon but right interpretation and proper use for the betterment of humans
jhaman Oct 20, 2012 10:32am
exactly pinpointed . common sense is now taking roots .future will be bright
jhaman Oct 20, 2012 10:42am
haroon sahib this article will be read only by who read this paper=1% of pakistani population and rest 99 have different mind set with urdu reading papers who spit poison
Vigilant Oct 20, 2012 11:04am
Good read
Dixit Oct 20, 2012 04:49am
"Our notions of right and wrong have been scrambled". You summed it up in one sentence. Great writing.
Feroz Oct 20, 2012 07:49am
Sir, we can beat around the bush for eternity but you never mentioned what makes people in Pakistan so violent and according to you immoral, while simultaneously believing they are very religious. I think a psychiatrist rather than social scientist could throw some light. Symptom is of acute schizophrenia.
prakash Oct 20, 2012 12:40pm
A very thought provoking article, very simply put and beautifully articulated. I recently came across a debate on youtube regarding education in Pakistan. The whole discussion at the end inconclusively centered around two schools of thought. One, that State should have nothing to do with religion and it should strictly be a personal affair and the other that the concept of Pakistan was based on a homeland for Muslims in the sub continent and if the first policy was to be adopted what was the necessity of partition. Watching the debate ( and some others also ) I got the feeling that a very narrow concept of secularism is in vogue and somehow being secular is thought to be being un-islamic or un-religious in Pakistan. A very narrow and orthodox concept of religion slows down a society and does not allow it to think freely and boldly. The partition is over, Pakistan has come to stay, it has a healthy growing and progressive middle class who should take the lead to build institutions of modern thinking, Even in Saudi Arabia there is a movement to allow women to drive cars. Best wishes from Delhi
Subbu Oct 19, 2012 06:05pm
Great article. I salute Qadeer Saab.
Angry Desi Oct 19, 2012 07:00pm
I'm impressed with this article clearly outlining the conflict between urban and rural morality and the roots (or evolution) of such morality. Pakistan (and for that matter, most of S.Asia) need to dig its rural areas out of the medievalisic 6th century mentality (supposedly ... the "only true way to live" ... since that is all they have heard about all their life). Only way to do it is rural education, improvement in infrastructures (road / electricity / health) in order to urbanize the rural areas as well and most of all .. media penetration - not just state run TV channels, but cheap access to private cable/satellite channels.
aviratam Oct 20, 2012 07:28am
An excellent piece, the heart of which is encapsulated in the sentence " ..our moral clock is set at a different time and long lost social culture.." As societies develop, they become more complex, and as material wealth develops, beliefs change. Just one example; equality of women has been called for in many religions and by philosophers such as Plato. Yet this began only when the Industrial Revolution took place and the need for harnessing all available labor. The three most important characteristics that differentiate the developed from the primitive include the use of reason rather than scripture, the separation of church and state and the equality of sexes. These were all the fruits of the Enlightenment. South Asia remains God-intoxicated, and we can only hope that with the spread of education (the key) and the consequent rise of material wealth, a more rational discourse becomes the norm.
Introspection Oct 20, 2012 05:32am
A very well written and adeptly presented article indeed. It would be more educationally beneficial for the entire nation of Pakistan, if the writer in another near future article of his would discuss, differentiate, and present what in his view is
FacT Oct 20, 2012 07:46am
If Religion dictate's countries policies, above mentioned mess is obvious..
Ashraf K Oct 20, 2012 03:41am
As the author indirectly suggests, there is a need for a little less religion in this region.
ali erfani Oct 19, 2012 03:51pm
a very sensable approach toward the is our text books that guide us a little toward orthodox islamisation and what about those texts who have always being calling a new and modern thing as "bid'at".i dont know why the middle-man(mullah) so easily invaded the thoughts,concience and actions of a common man.what was the media and other secular material doing at that time.who is more responsable for giving a free space to these brutal butchers of the poius non-material culture.
aamna Oct 21, 2012 02:01am
The real challenge is to make everyone in Pakistan be free to choose and I must say as much as most people love the slogan of democracy they won't like it one bit if they choose religion over anything else.
Rafia Mirza Oct 21, 2012 02:08am
obsession with India & religion & zero tolerance for other view-points
Ravindra sanap Oct 20, 2012 02:34am
Sandip, where are 'hindu religious schools' in india ?I never found those atleast in maharashtra !
Haroon Oct 19, 2012 09:12am
A very well written article and I agree with your observation that Pak society is getting bitterly divided. One section of the society is becoming over westernised and the other section over radicalised. And the clash of these two different thoughts is played daily in the form of civil war and insurgency raging in the country.
Rima Varsy Oct 19, 2012 09:11am
Excellent thought provoking article................thanks for posting
mazharuddin Oct 21, 2012 05:50am
For all these mayhem responsibility goes to bad governance and no just role by media.
muhammad Oct 20, 2012 06:11am
Genuinely honest in killing human beings and destroying every single sign of development/progess
Pat Oct 20, 2012 06:13am
Utterly brilliant!
Aamna Oct 21, 2012 01:47am
What does religiosity have to do with corruption and losing our morality? Who says that if you'r buying technology from the west you must also graciously accept the trash they throw at you in the name of modernism? I fail to understand that even the perception of Muslims towards Islam is so narrow that they believe that anyone speaking about Islam in anyway except negative is a mullah which is absurd.
aqabdulaziz Oct 19, 2012 03:20pm
The root cause of all this problem involves two main things: 1. Obsession with religion and 2. Obsession with India.
Rp Oct 20, 2012 10:14pm
The author offers his analysis - why can't we readers make our own conclusions? Poking people in the eyes would not really be viewed as bold!
farkhunda Oct 19, 2012 09:38am
I agree with the writer that Pakistan must be tolerant, rational and have gender equality.
Neer Nayan Oct 20, 2012 08:51pm
A thought evoking article, though written in the context of Pakistan, yet relevant to the societies of most of the developing Nations of The Subcontinent, undergoing unprecedented clash of values, ethics, religion and rising myopic greeds of human beings. Great effort by Qadeer Saheb! Well, the noble ideas propounded by this appreciable article, and similar others, must be translated into action by us, and practiced in ways that others in our respective vicinities understand the need of the hour. Looking up to others for bringing in a change will ever remain a dream; we need to be that change, be it a little one.
Think Oct 20, 2012 08:42pm
Once you leave it to "interpretation" then there can be a million ways of doing so -- root cause still remains the same-- excessive dependence on religion and seeking an answer in religion for EVERY problem. Problem remains that much of religious guidance is not contemporary and interpretation should not be literal but change with times-- Moving towards harmony and peace - a toleration for others' ideas is the first step. Any religion that does not seek tolerance becomes difficult to adjust to -- for those outside that religion. I do think you make a good point - but how do you move to that right interpretation for betterment of humans?
Narayan Oct 19, 2012 09:23am
Exceptional article, even by Dawn's high standards. Here is an intellectual analysis that should set at least the intelligentsia stirring and debate the way forward. And it would be fair to say Pakistan's future will be defined by the decisions that arrive out of this debate.Kudos to Mr Qadeer.
NASAH (USA) Oct 20, 2012 04:52pm
The post does not hurt the feelings of the Hindus or the Christians -- it shows they have adjusted their religion according to the needs of the modern callings, we haven't -- we are overly obsessed with our religion. So what is so immoderate about this post?
Shah Oct 20, 2012 03:37pm
"It has to begin by wresting the self-assumed
peace lover Oct 19, 2012 09:52am
many people ask what is Pakistan's problem? The answer lies in this article. by far the best article detailing crux of all problems.
akhtar Oct 19, 2012 10:06am
mazharuddin Oct 19, 2012 10:53am
Did not mention the differences in culture of urban and rural etc. with reasons and the impact on society.
Zimbo_Indian Oct 20, 2012 02:36pm
When 1. goes, 2. will also go away.
shujaa Oct 19, 2012 05:38pm
The best reading in a while. Hats off to Mr Qadeer
reality not selected truth Oct 19, 2012 11:43am
I dont agree with the article. It is more of a culture nowadays that if you say something moral or act moral you are definitely upto something. It might be religious it might not be religious. The new trend is as long as you are doing something wrong and screaming ''i did it'' you are honest. This new definition of honesty has created alot of problems for everyone. This leads no space for people who are genuinely honest.
Sumant Oct 19, 2012 02:34pm
Excellent article Mr.Qadeer.The next question is whether Islamisation is a phenomenon affecting all Muslim countries or peculiar to Pakistan.Further to what extent is it related to the Pakhtun and Punjabi self assertion as manifest in the Taliban and similar groups. I hope you will address this in future articles.
BRR Oct 19, 2012 11:17am
A one of a kind article, one that thinks out of the box, and digs deep into "root causes". A very revealing article. Good job.
Muhammad Ahmed Oct 19, 2012 02:27pm
I will agree that not keeping up with requirements of modern times in terms of urban moral values might be related to some of our problems but is it really the root cause of issues that might be applicable in modern city dwellings of Pakistan? I am kind of confused when I see hundreds murdered in Karachi because of conflict of three polictical parties and all of these claim to be liberal socialist parties whose leaders have expressed their disdain towards islamization of Pakistan. People utilize religion here for their convenience rather than actually following it. It will not matter that what type of urban moral values are introduced in this system until the cultural norms are challanged. Islamization is reaction to current ecnomic system which has significantly introduced class based differences in our society. People really are using religion as a sanctuary to avoid the relaities of a system which only works for you when you know the right people or you are willing to spend the right amount. The religious utopia provides this great myth of resolving all issues and until people have experienced realities of such a system they will keep yearning for it. This transformation of society will occur in Pakistan at a different pace and will not happen in a short amount of time. We may have to experience further fundamentalism and even fyuurther break down within our system before we may be able to introduce a social order where the suggestions made by the author will become possible.
Arsalan Oct 19, 2012 04:16pm
Excellent reading! Enjoyed reading it as much as it is closed to reality. Keep it up....
Kausik Oct 19, 2012 08:38pm
I am sad to say the author is a dreamer when he says "There has to be social movements for tolerance, rationality, freedom to think, cultural diversity, and gender equality. It is not an easy task"this is impossible to achieve as Holy Quran is open for misinterpretations and mullahs are not in agreement.Just look at dress code even in India Sania mirza can play in shorts and shirts and there are bur qua clad women in Hyderabad.I had classmates come to medical college in kurta pajama and sarees but no burqua.Unless the society allows women to have a choice in dressing they will never progress.
Navin Oct 19, 2012 05:11pm
"Most Pakistanis would say that they, as well as other Muslims, are morally superior, unlike those Indians, Christian, Jews and Godless westerners." Above caption in the article says everything about clash of civilisation.I don't see any chance of muslims living in harmony with others.Either they will prevail or opposite will happen.I bet for the later.
emory Oct 19, 2012 05:19pm
Good Job Mr Qadeer. Pakistan is badly in need of more people like you.
Mustafa Razavi Oct 19, 2012 05:56pm
As someone has said, Pakistan's biggest problem are the English-Medium Jahils.
Agha Ata (USA) Oct 19, 2012 01:07pm
Nothing is final. Everything is changing, from an atom to a galaxy. We are all moving towards a vanishing point, eternity away!