This post continues the series initiated by Imran Khan’s observations on the differences between West and East (Why the West Craves Materialism and Why the East Sticks to Religion) but it is more about the issues and less about Imran Khan.
In particular it addresses the points raised by Tahir in his four comments on the earlier post. These points cover so many areas that it is best to deal with them in a separate post.
To start with, it is useful to separate the various strands in the comments and respond to them one at a time. For example, it would help to separate the political and the religious dimensions. There is little doubt that the US has exploited many countries including Pakistan. But this has very little to do with religion.
The fact is that throughout history those with power have used it to exploit those without power. Many examples can be cited not only those involving Western countries. The case of Japan (in China, Manchuria, and Korea) and of Pakistani governments (in East Pakistan and Balochistan) can be cited. Buddhists and Muslims, respectively, carried out these abuses of power.
Human beings, whatever their religion, have not found a way to impose any kind of morality on the use of power – naked self-interest always seems to triumph. Therefore the issue of politics and religion should not be mixed together. Rather, the challenge is to understand why this continues to be the case and to propose mechanisms to restrain future abuses of power.
Second, the issue of materialism also needs to be separated from religion. Tahir has mentioned that even in Pakistan urban areas are more “materialistic” than rural areas. Therefore it is a useful hypothesis to explore whether urbanization contributes to an increase in materialism. If so, one can explain greater materialism in the US simply because it is much more urbanized. But, surely, no one will recommend keeping Pakistani society forever rural in order to preserve its asserted lack of materialism.
However, before exploring such a hypothesis, one would have to define what one means by materialism. Urban areas are much more dominated by a market economy compared to rural areas and household incomes are also higher. In a market economy no one makes everything they consume; rather, they buy the things they need from the market. This need to buy things due to the different nature of the market cannot be labeled materialism and considered bad.
Without a definition with which to measure materialism, comparative statements like “Eastern society was never materialistic” do not carry much conviction and can only be treated as assertions in need of proof. Also, a statement that “to the people of the East, life is not just about earning money” needs substantiation. The ranking of Pakistan on the Transparency International Corruption Index is among the highest in the world. This would need to be explained if making money is not important. Similarly, the incidence of charitable giving and volunteerism in the West is very high. Why would a totally materialistic society subscribe to such practices? This too would need to be explained in a more complete framework.
Third, there is a need to separate ethics and religion. Tahir mentions that sectarianism and theft were common in the West till the 19th century. This means that if sectarianism and theft have significantly decreased in the West despite (as claimed) an equally significant decline in religious belief, the two are perhaps unrelated. And the fact that the East sticks to religion and yet has a high incidence of sectarianism and theft points to the same conclusion. Becoming more religious does not look like solving these problems. In fact, Pakistan is much more religiously oriented today than it was in the 1960s and yet corruption has greatly increased.
Fourth, the point about indigenous institutions is also independent of religion. It does make sense to build modern institutions on the foundation of familiar inherited traditions after their deficiencies have been remedied. But these, like the jirga, are cultural traditions that have little to do with religion.
Fifth, it is a weak argument to attribute our failings to the fact that religion is not being followed in the true sense. There is a contradiction here. If the West has overcome these problems without religion why does the East need even more religion than it now has? In fact, this argument opens up a very difficult question: Why can’t people in the East follow their own religion? Who is stopping them from behaving ethically in their personal lives? What’s the point of having a great religion if nobody follows it unless intimidated through the brutal use of force?
By bringing in religion into every issue and getting sidetracked into attempts to prove that “our” religion is better than “their” religion, the solution of problems that are important to ordinary people are indefinitely delayed. One can only deplore the fact that even in the 21st century half the population of Pakistan is illiterate and significant percentages denied basic human rights and services like clean water. True religion may not deliver these because some group will always claim that the religion we have is not the true one. Politics usually hides behind the veil of religion and inevitably power would be used to resolve such disputes just as the Deobandis and Barelvis are doing today.
A more useful benchmark to measure the success of a society is to see what it has been able to provide for the bottom twenty percent of its population. On that criterion some countries in the East have failed miserably. And when one uses an objective indicator like that, it ceases to matter who might be lying or telling the truth. The results speak for themselves.