By Anjum Altaf
I have not read a piece as often in recent days as Craving Middleness. It identifies a problem that is central to the Pakistani predicament – the widening divide between those who consider religion a matter of private belief and those who consider it central to public life. And it recommends the eminently sensible need for a dialogue between the two if an impending confrontation is to be avoided.
While its two end points are so correctly located, the intervening argument seems entangled in claims that are contradicted by observable evidence. It is with reference to this middle that I hope to begin my conversation with the author for whom I have the utmost admiration.
I will argue that the author oversimplifies by dividing Pakistani society into those who subscribe to absolute religious morality as the framework for all behavior and those influenced by Western Enlightenment values of individual choice and rationality. This sucks the narrative into the ‘Us’ versus ‘Them,’ ‘Mythos’ versus ‘Logos’ paradigm that hinders sound analysis.
The oversimplification leads the author to make the following types of claims: “The Western logocentric worldview ruthlessly drilled into these minds that privileges objective, empirical knowledge and rationalist thought over the intuitive ‘mythos’ does not help create the sentiment that can make the daily prayer an act of loving labor.” This is tantamount to saying that there should be nobody in the Western world for whom prayer is an act of loving labor – a dubious claim at best and an arrogant one at worst.
Or take the following: “Religion with its core principle of a Transcendent Unknowable Absolute Truth intuitively experienced through the exercise of the mythos therefore is unappealing to the highly intellectualized mindset produced in modern urban schools. This also explains the rising incidence of Atheism in Pakistan’s institutions for the ‘privileged elite’ – high schools, colleges, universities.” The argument cannot help but conclude that atheism must be increasing in elite institutions, a claim that would be difficult to sustain with hard evidence. All observation (dress, ritual, political control) points in the opposite direction – religiosity in modern urban schools (take Punjab University as an example) has been visibly on the increase over the preceding decades.
The line of argument leads the author to the following: “Encouraging a culture of questioning, critical thinking and non conformism to convention, this kind of a ‘privileged’ education makes Atheism an exciting alternative many like to consider with some seriousness and express with an audacity that becomes admirable in that educational context.” Does this mean that in order to reclaim ourselves we would have to discourage questioning and critical thinking and promote a culture of conformism?
The author also claims that the widening gulf “is frightening because these ‘cultures’ overlap the stratification of the society along the lines of social class.” This, too, is contradicted by the fact that the ruling elite is much more religiously oriented than in the past – from Jinnah to Zia was a monumental change and the before and after Imran Khan can be seen as part of the transition. The fact that upper class women have been taking to religion in such numbers that they have become the subject of numerous doctoral dissertations and books also negates the thesis to which the logic of the author’s argument leads her.
It is very hard to accept at face value a claim like the following: “Nor is it wise in the least to think – as the secular-liberals tend to – that solutions to contemporary problems have to be found beyond religion, or that ‘progress’ has to ape the ‘Western’ paradigm and jettison religion like the Enlightenment West did – lock, stock and barrel.” Anyone can see that religion is fiercely alive and well in the USA many hundred years after the Enlightenment.
In my view the weakness of the author’s logic stems from the labeling of one group as ‘Western,’ attributing the ‘problem’ to the act of ‘thinking,’ and misconstruing ‘secularism’ as ‘godlessness.’ All of these are highly debatable claims.
It is difficult to argue that religion was central, in the sense implied by the author, to public, as opposed to private, life in India before the advent of the European Enlightenment. How central was it in the reign of Akbar the Great, for example? And what did being secular mean in that context – surely not godlessness but a commitment to pluralism. Clearly, Akbar had thought long and hard about what was needed for effective governance in a society characterized by immense diversity.
(For more on Akbar, see Amartya Sen, East and West: The Reach of Reason, New York Review of Books, 20 July 2000, pp. 33-38. Note, in particular, the following: “Perhaps the most important point that Akbar made in his defense of a tolerant multiculturalism concerns the role of reasoning. Reason had to be supreme, since even in disputing the validity of reason we have to give reasons. Attacked by traditionalists who argued in favor of instinctive faith in the Islamic tradition, Akbar told his friend and trusted lieutenant Abul Fazl (a formidable scholar in Sanskrit as well as Arabic and Persian): The pursuit of reason and rejection of traditionalism are so brilliantly patent as to be above the need of argument. If traditionalism were proper, the prophets would merely have followed their own elders (and not come with new messages)?”)
It was only the shattering psychic trauma of the end of Mughal rule that splintered Muslim reaction into many strands. At the two extremes were those associated with Syed Ahmed Khan – rejuvenation through thinking and engagement with ideas, without giving up religion – and those associated with Sayyid Ahmed Barelvi – regaining lost ground through fighting and defeating the ‘Other.’ As in most situations of crisis, the simpler narrative left a deeper imprint on the consciousness of the humiliated and the fearful.
There is a seductive power in a simple narrative (the clash of civilizations, to take another example) and it leaves the author enmeshed in the very trap she wants so desperately to escape. In the end she is unable to explain the most obvious conundrum of Pakistani life – all those who are exposed to ‘Western’ education at school are also exposed to religious education at home. They should be ideally placed to find the middle way. Why can’t they?