Archive for the ‘Modernity’ Category

What the Fishermen are Telling Us

May 25, 2014

Here is a headline from today’s newspaper:

Pakistan frees 151 Indian fishermen ahead of Sharif’s Delhi visit

What can we infer from this headline about the world we live in?

Recall the stories of bygone times that marked auspicious occasions:

It was the king’s birthday – he ordered 100 prisoners to be released.

The queen gave birth to an heir – the dungeons were emptied.

The heir apparent got married – all death sentences were commuted.

Are we living in bygone times or have the bygone times never left us?

King Sharif?

I am going to India – let us free 151 fishermen.

Not only that, let us drive them from Karachi to Wagah in an air-conditioned bus. Let us give the ‘poor’ fishermen royal treatment because we are particularly pleased by the invitation – phooley nahiiN samaa rahey.

Remember Diwali last year? We celebrated by releasing 15 fishermen as a gesture of our goodwill.

We still have 229 fishermen and 780 boats in our custody.

We will release them on the days we are feeling particularly good or have something to celebrate – like when we win a cricket match against India or have a chairman of the cricket board we really like.

You get the point.

Is this how things are supposed to work in the 21st century?

Is there anything akin to due legal process in our land?

Here are these poor fishermen arrested for violation of some international law related to territorial waters. Can their cases not be processed expeditiously and decided one way or the other?

Have any cases ever been decided?

Or do they exist only to serve as gestures of goodwill for our monarchs?

Since we don’t feel good all that often these days – what with ungrateful Talibaan and all – many have died in custody before they could be released.

But their bodies have been handed over as gestures of our magnanimity.

Now that we are thinking of ‘poor’ fishermen, how many have trespassed into alien waters on their own volition? Who is sending them fishing across the line and not caring if they are arrested or not because there is an endless supply of poor fishermen?

Why not go after the big guys? Why take it out on the ‘poor’ fishermen and their poor families?

And, for that matter, why not go after the big Japanese trawlers? Is that because they can’t be grist to the goodwill mill?

Think too of all the poor farmers rotting in jails on charges of crossing the land borders for spying? Who is sending them across the border and not caring if they are arrested because there is an endless supply of poor farmers? Why not go after the spymasters?

The farmers can’t be released as gestures of goodwill because spying is serious business unlike the stealing of fish. Only their dead bodies can be released as gestures of magnanimity.

Sometimes when we are feeling particularly satiated, like after an extra special dish of siri paaye, we might, with an appreciative belch, allow a visit by the wives and daughters and transport them in air-conditioned buses.

But we can never release them. And, of course, the thought of trying them has not occurred to us.

Okay, Okay. You don’t really expect us to telescope into the modern age all of a sudden.

But here is a suggestion.

If we are playing this tit-for-tat game of goodwill, why not keep exchanging the poor fishermen and poor farmers as soon as we arrest them?

That way we will remain on a perpetual goodwill high.

And the modern world would be dumbfounded by the extent of our old-fashioned magnanimity.

Loag ash ash kar utheN gey.

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India: A View of People

October 11, 2010

And Why It Matters

Suresh Kalmadi has something to answer for to the Indian people for the chaotic run up to the Commonwealth Games. But given his belligerent stance it seems he feels he doesn’t have to. This would not be a surprise because in India many have gotten away with much more.

What I do find surprising, however, is that he has not even been called up for something that, in my view, no one should be allowed to get away with in this day and age. With reference to the lack of spectators at the Games, Kalmadi is reported to have said: “We are working on the children from schools, already steps have been taken in that direction…. And also from the low level of society, we have been distributing a lot of tickets.” (more…)

On Globalization: Separating Ideas from Geography via Tradition

July 12, 2010

By Arun Pillai

Before we can talk about separating ideas from geography, it is necessary to say what ideas are, what I mean by geography, and what traditions are. I will start with ideas.


Ideas are abstract things, like words and numbers. They don’t occupy space or time. A physical object occupies space and time, and if it is in one place, it cannot be in another (I will ignore the puzzles of quantum mechanics here.) This is not true of ideas. We can all simultaneously entertain the same ideas, or utter the same words, or calculate with the same numbers. (This is partly why the area of intellectual property rights is so tricky.) In any case, there is a fund of ideas that belongs to everyone, like the ideas in the sciences and other areas of culture. (more…)

Ghalib -29: On Being Modern

June 28, 2009

Brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant. We have been struggling with the notion of modernity in South Asia and wondering how “modern” modern South Asians are. And here is Ghalib providing an excellent illustration of what being modern might, at least in part, entail:

kyaa farz hai kih sab ko mile ek-saa javaab
aa’o nah ham bhii sair kareN koh-e tuur kii

Is it necessary that everyone would get the same answer?
Come! Why don’t we too go for an excursion to Mount Sinai

The first thing to note is that being modern does not been mean being ignorant of tradition or history. Ghalib motivates his argument by leveraging the story of Moses going to Mount Sinai and asking to see God; and God responding to Moses that you would not have the strength to withstand the vision. (more…)

Hinduism – 7: The Wall of Amnesia

May 2, 2009

In this episode we were scheduled to move into the period of the British encounter with India. But there is nothing inevitable about schedules. We take a step back because we have found another vantage point from which to observe the path and the past that we have already traversed.

This step back comes courtesy of Ian Almond who had no white friends till he was sixteen and, growing up amongst South Asians, answered only to the name of badam. Sharmila Sen, who writes about him, picks up on the phenomenon of collective memory and reminds us what an odd thing it can be: “We can remember a collective past that never existed and bring nations, religions, and cultures into existence. We can also suffer from collective amnesia and bring ourselves to the brink of destruction.” (more…)

Has Islam a Place in a Modern World?

November 11, 2008

By Bettina Robotka 

The question of whether there is any positive role for Islam or for religion as such in a modern world is gaining urgency in the light of an ongoing “War against (Islamic) terror” and the spread of militant and conservative interpretations of Islam. The picture which this Islam tends to paint of an ideal Muslim society is that of a patriarchic, male-dominated community inhabited by intellectually unquestioning Muslims who live in closely knit kinship relationships including tribal, biradri and caste units, who accept existing society as given, and who are supposed to follow what the state defines as right or wrong through its laws. There is limited place for individuality, no place for questioning of the basics of social, political and economic life and the task of moral, political, economic and spiritual guidance seems to be left to a small group of Islamic scholars and mullahs who have no worldly knowledge, who are neither elected nor responsible to the public, only to God when the Day comes and who have the monopoly in understanding and interpreting Islam.

On the other side of the divide, by the West we are told that modernity means the application of reason and rationality, men in their individual capacity are the lords of the world and the ones who decide what is right and what is wrong and which way to go. Religion has no place in that set-up, because religion has proven to be irrational by refusing to accept the scientific facts researched by scientists like Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and by refusing to adjust the religious dogma to fit the realities of the material world. God is thought to be irrational; knowing and believing seem to exclude each other. Secularism, the division between the church and the state, between blind dogma and the human quest to know, to discover the material world and to rule this world through that knowledge, has been declared “progress”.

How should we deal with this? Do we have to choose between religion and modernity, between backwardness and progress?  My answer to it is in the negative. Western modernity has produced unbelievable scientific and technological advancement. But alongside with that, it has produced two world wars and umpteen local wars killing an uncounted number of people; it has produced Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it has created affluence for few, hunger and poverty for many; it is destroying the environment in its race for more material goods, the hold over natural resources and more consumption for a minority. It is threatening the very survival of human life and has failed so far to solve the basic problem of humanity – to provide a humane society for all which is in balance with nature and the universe.

The reason for this I see is the abolishing of religion and the belief in God. It is religion which provides man with morality; it teaches us what is right and what is wrong, it gives us direction and guidance. By abandoning religion and concentrating on material advancement only the moral basis of human society has been lost. But “progress” understood as material and technological progress only is dangerous. It amounts to defining progress as being able to kill more people in a shorter time because of more sophisticated technology. Knowledge acquired without the moral values to handle it has proven to be destructive.

One of the reasons (among others) why communism didn’t work was that the moral attitude one needs to work for the good of all society rather than for money or material gain was lost by banning religion and it could not find another adequate ethical basis. Communism as a materialist idea only did not work. Neither does the Western model of modernity designed as a materialist outlook. So far no substitute for giving a moral basis to human society apart from the belief in God has been found and practiced convincingly. Even in secular Europe whatsoever ethical values are there originated from Christianity even though the majority of the Europeans are not members of a church and do not believe in God. This truth has been realized in the wake of the discussion about European values which had to be part of the draft for a European constitution.  Since then we are witnessing a resurgence of religion over there.

If we look into the history of humankind all societies have developed a religion, a belief in a Power that is greater than us and to whom we are responsible. Religion is intrinsic to man, that is what Karen Armstrong said in one of her interviews. Islam is the last of the revealed religions and it is a valid guide towards the Truth which is a balanced and happy life for human society. In Islam there is no discrepancy between knowing and believing, between the material and the spiritual sides of the world. Belief (Islam) and knowledge (the world) – both come from the same Source, that’s why both can not contradict or destroy each other. Islam is rational and it wants us to use our reason when studying the stars, the sun and the moon, the change of the seasons and the histories of former civilizations. It wants us to go even to China for more knowledge. God wants us to know (Him) and one of the ways for that is by studying His creation. The Christian West has so far missed this point which must be valid for Christianity also because it guides towards the same Truth.

Therefore, the question is not if Islam or religion has a role to play in a modern society but how to read and understand Islam in the light of the realities around us. The problem is not with Islam, it’s with the Muslims.

Bettina Robotka is presently teaching in Karachi.

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What’s Happening in Small Towns?

October 5, 2008

By Anjum Altaf

In an earlier post (What is the Future of the City in South Asia?) we had mentioned that the dynamic in small towns was quite different from that in the major metropolitan centers. In this post we speculate about some of the possible differences.

An unusual approach is to work backward from the observation that while all attention is focused on the tribal areas in Pakistan, the breeding grounds of religious extremism are actually the small towns in the Punjab. Why might this be the case?

One hypothesis is that small towns in Pakistan that have declined economically have become socially more conservative with a possible link to the increase in religious extremism.

There is little doubt that the economic function of small towns has changed significantly over time. Earlier, most of them were busy market (mandi) towns serving as points of interaction between rural hinterlands and the larger commercial centers.

Dramatic improvements in transport and communications have eroded the importance of this function. Agents in rural areas can now be in direct touch with their counterparts in the big cities, and transportation is fast, cheap, and efficient enough to eliminate the need for intermediate transaction points. The net result is that the economic reach of the big city has extended much further and has absorbed many of the old economic functions of small towns.

Cell phone and Internet-based technologies are further enlarging the reach of the big city. A pointer to the future is the emergence in India of a service called ‘e-choupal’ which creates a direct marketing chain between the village and the big city by eliminating the middleman. Its advantage is claimed to be the reduction of wasteful intermediation and multiple handling, thereby lowering transaction costs. 

Similar changes in the economic functions of small towns took place in Europe over the last century. However, as a result of economic growth, these small towns developed new economic functions to replace those they had lost. In particular, as the costs of land and labor rose in the big cities, many mature industries moved out of the big cities and relocated in the less expensive small towns.

This has happened to some extent in Pakistan around Faisalabad, Gujranwala and Sialkot. But Pakistan over the past quarter-century has been characterized by industrial stagnation, and such relocation has not been widespread enough. In addition, fraudulent practices in the land market have deterred entrepreneurs from risking their investments in unfamiliar places where they might lack local contacts in the right places. On balance, small towns in Pakistan seem to have lost more economic functions than they have gained.

Advances in communication and transport that have increased the reach of the big city have also had a negative impact on the social fabric of small towns. Small town elites formerly comprised property owners who used their political power to obtain public funds for improvements in local living conditions, e.g., roads, schools, clinics, etc. But technological advances have now made it possible for these elites to continue doing business in small towns while moving to live in bigger cities where better services and opportunities are available for themselves and their children. Their interest in the social improvement of small towns has thereby diminished considerably.

In Pakistan, it seems that the vacuum created by the social withdrawal of the economically productive, property-owning, elite has been filled by the emergence of a professional religious class. Over the last quarter century or so, these new ‘elites’ have been able to channel funding for religious purposes (zakaat) into the promotion of religious education and institutions like the madrassahs. As a result, the central ideas that motivate social behavior and political action in small towns are now largely religious, not economic.

The unemployment stemming from the economic decline of small towns has been exacerbated by the increased supply of unemployable youth graduating from the madrassahs. This supply is the consequence of a below-the-radar human-capital development program that has, by now, produced graduates numbering in the millions. This bulge of unemployable youth has, in turn, increased pressures for injecting more religious content into the institutions of society to provide some kind of employment opportunity for graduates with religious qualifications. Social improvement is now sought increasingly through governance based on religion rather than through old-fashioned economic development.

While we have described a possible dynamic in economically stagnant small towns in Pakistan (which are nevertheless increasing in population size), Sunil Khilnani presents in The Idea of India a picture of prosperous small towns in India that are also marked by a culture of violence.

An aggressive small-town India was surging across parts of the country, impelled by rural economic surpluses…. built-up sprawls stretching along the national highways deep into the countryside, blurring distinctions between the village and the city…. these are the homelands of India’s ‘new middle classes’.

Sunil Khilnani describes how these emerging new cities “have become the heartlands of a vigorous caste politics” and also the “recruiting grounds for the BJP’s Hindu nationalists.

The BJP’s brand of televisual religion is attuned to the desires of these cities’ inhabitants, and the mobilization of their votes has become an essential element in the party’s strategy. L.K. Advani’s rathyatra of 1990, for example, a chariot procession that covered more than 10,000 kilometers, took in dozens of such cities… sparking off violence and riots wherever it went.

So, whether small towns are declining in Pakistan or prospering in India, their social dynamic is giving rise to a dangerous intolerance and a culture of violence. A part of the answer to the puzzle might be found in Professor Dipankar Gupta’s thesis of the ‘vanishing village’ in India. As villages fail to provide adequate employment and livelihoods, their residents move to small towns and the process of social dislocation combined with the imperatives of South Asian electoral politics gives rise to various poorly understood pathologies.

It is clear that a lot more study needs to go into understanding what is happening in small towns in South Asia today, what it means for the future, and whether a vision can be articulated for a positive contribution of small towns to the economic and social development of a prosperous and peaceful South Asia.

A part of this analysis appeared in the Daily Times, Lahore, on May 30, 2004. The author was a Visiting Fellow at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad at that time. Readers should link to Himal magazine’s October-November 2008 issue for a discussion of cities in South Asia today.

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What is the Future of the City in South Asia?

October 5, 2008

By Anjum Altaf

This is a very broad and brief overview of the past, present, and possible future of the South Asian city. It raises a number of points each of which can be discussed in much greater depth in future posts depending on the interest of readers.

Any discussion of cities in South Asia has an inspiring point of departure. Almost 5000 years ago, Mohenjodaro was probably the most advanced urban settlement in the world. It had a planned layout with a grid of streets laid out in perfect patterns. Wastewater was disposed through covered drains that lined the streets and were sloped such that the water never stagnated and it was treated before being discharged into the river.

South Asia has rarely been able to provide that level of urban planning and efficiency since. It is worthwhile subject to explore (later) why that might be the case.

Let us fast forward to the South Asian city of the present. It leaves a lot to be desired in terms of livability and urban services; virtually no one would consider these cities unproblematic and it is no wonder that they are thought of only in terms of the problems they pose. Once again, the reasons for this dismal state of affairs need to be explored and we shall do so at another time.

Given what we know of the present, what can we say of the likely future of the city in South Asia?

Many people look at the now developed cities of the West as models and hypothesize that the South Asian city would follow the same trajectory of urban reform. London, at the time of the Industrial Revolution, was an unlivable city with death rates higher than in the surrounding countryside. Dickens captured its degradation for history; Engels did the same for Manchester.

Conditions were more or less the same in all the major cities – Paris, Milan, New York, Philadelphia – all were ravaged by epidemics and unhealthy living conditions. One book that captures the period very well is Naples in the Time of Cholera 1884-1911 by Frank Snowden (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Today all these cities are amongst the most attractive places in the world having undergone major urban reforms that transformed them beyond recognition. Will South Asian cities follow the same trajectory with a lag?

We think not for a number of reasons. Very briefly, the urban reform movements in the developed cities of today emerged out a set of peculiar circumstances. First, the state of technological development was such that the easy segregation of rich and poor residents was not feasible. Think of the absence of automobiles and suburbs and bottled water. The list of distinguished citizens who fell victim to disease in these cities at the time included ministers and prime ministers.

Second, and very ironically, experts of the time believed an incorrect theory of disease transmission (the miasma theory), which held that epidemics were spread by foul odors emitted by decaying effluent carried by the air.

The urban reform movements in these cities were therefore led by the elites of the day (physicians, business leaders, etc.) who feared for their lives and businesses. They had the ability to force legislative changes and allocate resources to investments in environmental improvements related to sewerage and sanitation. The impetus for the eradication of slums and the design of wide boulevards in Paris were direct consequences of these peculiar factors.

This set of conditions does not exist any more in the developing cities of South Asia today because of advances in both technology and medical science. Technological advances have allowed the rich to physically segregate themselves from the poor. Thus, instead of improving as a single entity, each South Asian city has split into two – the rich enclaves and the poor slums.

At the same time, the discovery that disease is spread by germs not polluted air has shifted the focus from collective sanitation reforms to protection of the individual through immunization. The rich have thus also isolated themselves from the diseases of the poor. As a result, there is no powerful lobby of influential citizens behind urban reform that benefits the entire city.

So, is the South Asian city doomed to a schizophrenic and split future? Perhaps, but there is a now a new dynamic that portends a possible new trajectory in the years to come.

The new wave of globalization and privatization sweeping the world is structured more around a fierce competition amongst cities than among nation-states. In some respects, Bangalore and Bombay have become more relevant to business than India as a country. And this new competition amongst cities has put a premium on their livability and civic order. This creates a possible new opening for those who have so far been excluded from the benefits of urban life.

The new development mantra is that cities are the ‘engines of growth’. Cities are actually investing money in improving their efficiency, competitiveness and livability. The process is most advanced in East Asia where cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok are investing not only in traditional infrastructure but also in social infrastructure like museums and opera houses to become attractive to global capital and the footloose experts of the knowledge economy. (See an illustration of the ambitions of cities in the new China.)

This points to a possible trajectory for cities in South Asia reflected in the ‘Bombay First’ initiative. But one must be just as cautious in extrapolating casually from East Asia to South Asia as one was in extrapolating from the Europe of the past. For one, most of the cities in East Asia are characterized by much more ethnic homogeneity than is the case in South Asia. For another, migration from rural to urban areas has been strictly controlled in China for decades.

Cities can just as easily become hotbeds of conflict as engines of growth. It is easy to forget the fact that as recently as 50 years ago, there were major urban riots in the US; that there are major issues related to identity politics in a city like Mumbai; and that a rapidly industrializing city like Ahmedabad has been the home of violent ethnic cleansing. Even in China, the experience of Lhasa indicates that matters can be considerably more complex than they appear.

The reasons for these pathologies in South Asian cities can only be understood through a comparative historical analysis. One of the best is included in Sunil Khilnani’s book, The Idea of India (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1997):

Unlike in Europe, where city air was expected to loosen the stifling social bonds of traditional community and to create a society of free individuals, the cities organized by the Raj’s policies reinforced contrary tendencies in Indian society. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, caste groups, paradoxically began to emerge as collective actors and to conflict with one another in the city itself, the putative arena of modernity…. The rise in Bombay of a movement like the Shiv Sena should therefore hardly occasion surprise…

Deeper analysis is also needed to understand the nature of recent urban growth and development in the industrialized countries. Many inner cities in the US were, and are, decaying while growth is coming from exurban or edge cities giving rise to new issues in an age of higher energy prices. In Europe, one can see the emergence of new strains in cities like Paris as the percentage of immigrants rises – a trend likely to continue given demographic disparities.

In China, too, a significant proportion of the economic output till very recently was coming from Town and Village Enterprises located away from the big cities. Now, with the easing of migration restrictions to the big cities necessitated by a market-oriented economy, there could be something different in the future. Edward Friedman (Is China a success while India is a failure? World Affairs, Fall 2004) claims that “China’s Calcutta-like poverty is hidden away in the marginalized countryside. In India it has exploded into the cities, a dynamic just beginning in China.”

For all these reasons, it is important to not be complacent about the future prospects of the city in South Asia and to question the premises of the new development mantra. At the same time, it is equally important to think of what might be needed to actually turn the South Asian city into an engine of growth in the globalizing world and to lift its marginalized and excluded citizens out of the poverty that has been their fate for so long.

This is a birds-eye view of the history and prospects of the South Asian city. At this stage it leaves out many issues that need attention and also does not elaborate the politics of the urban reform strategy that is implied by the analysis. The post has also focused only on the major metropolitan cities while issues in secondary cities and small towns are quite distinct. Sunil Khilnani is very perceptive in noting that L.K. Advani’s 1990 ‘padyatra’ focused largely on the smaller new towns for good reason.

Sunil Khilnani provides one of the best entries into the study of the South Asian city. Readers should also refer to the October-November 2008 double issue of Himal magazine that is focused on urban issues and includes snapshots of 15 cities in South Asia.

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Are We Similar or Are We Different?

September 19, 2008

One could argue that fundamentally we are very similar – we are all conceived in the same way, we all come out into the world the same way, and we all die ultimately.

So, in the major events that our not under our control we are very similar. Where matters fall under human control, differences emerge. For instance, while we all die, our final rites can be starkly different – burial, cremation, being fed to crocodiles or to vultures.

What is a more important determinant of our being similar or different – events that are not under our control or those that are under our control? Surely we can find rational explanations for many of the differences. For example, people living in a desert would find it very difficult to cremate their dead or feed them to crocodiles.

Of course, there are some differences even in matters that are not under our control. Thus although we are all conceived and born in the same way, some are born male and others female; some with blue eyes, others black.

But note that differentiation in treatment along these characteristics is known as discrimination. Women have spent centuries fighting for equal rights with men despite the difference of gender. And now, under the law, it is illegal to discriminate by the color of the eyes.

So, we claim to be fundamentally similar and desire equal rights and treatment despite clear differences in physical attributes over which we have no control.

And yet, in matters that are under human control, we wish to accentuate our differences. Not only that, we spend an inordinate amount to time trying to prove that some of us are better than others. Often, we are even willing to destroy the other because of our belief in the superiority of our own ways (whether it is nature of the final rites or circumcision at birth).

Take nationality, for example. It continues to fascinate that some people around Ferozepur and Gurdaspur could have been either Indians or Pakistanis depending upon the tremor in the hand of an Englishman entirely ignorant of the geography or history of the subcontinent. And yet, once they have been cast on one side by this accident of history, they are supposed to hate the other. Surely, this is nothing else than a loss of sanity as pointed out by Manto in his masterful vignette of the Partition, Toba Tek Singh.

What is even more intriguing is that after hating each other so passionately out of this loyalty to India or Pakistan, people from both sides so readily exchange their precious nationality to become co-citizens with the British whom they jointly used to hate equally passionately for enslaving them for two hundred years. And once they find themselves together in Southall, they get along famously eating gulab jaman, listening to Lata, and raving over the square cuts of Miandad.

If we think of ourselves as world-citizens we are all similar because we had no say in our entry into this world. And we have a joint responsibility in keeping the world habitable and safe for our children and ourselves. If we think of ourselves as belonging to separate nations and tribes someone or the other will fool us into quarreling and ultimately destroying ourselves.

And once we have destroyed ourselves, despite the different ways we might be disposed off, if at all, won’t we become similar again in our non-existence?

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Do Devotion and Brutality Go Together?

September 17, 2008

First, let me quote a passage. Then you try and guess what it refers to. And then we will talk about it together.

A race absolutely alien to God has invaded the land of the Christians, has reduced the people with sword, rapine and flame. These men have destroyed the altars polluted by their foul practices. They have circumcised the Christians, either spreading the blood from the circumcisions on the altars or pouring it into the baptismal fonts. And they cut open the navels of those whom they choose to torment with loathsome death, tear out their most vital organs and tie them to a stake, drag them around and flog them, before killing them as they lie prone on the ground with all their entrails out. What shall I say of the appalling violation of women, of which it is more evil to speak then to keep silent?

On whom, therefore, does the task lie of avenging this, of redeeming this situation, if not on you, upon whom above all nations God has bestowed outstanding glory in arms, magnitude of heart, litheness of body and strength to humble anyone who resists you.

Let me pause here while you reflect on what this is all about.

Is this for real?  Is this some madman frothing at the mouth?

Hold your breath. The year is 1095; the place is Clermont, France; the speaker is Pope Urban II.

This was the speech that launched the First Crusade as Pope Urban “called upon Catholic Europe to take up arms and prosecute a vengeful campaign of reconquest, a holy war that would cleanse its participants of sin” with the promise “that those fighting as ‘soldiers of Christ’ would be purified by the fire of battle.”

Pope Urban’s impassioned description of the barbarity of savage Muslims propelled “some 100,000 men and women, from knight to pauper, to take up the call – the largest mobilization of manpower since the fall of the Roman Empire” – and march 3,000 kilometers to Jerusalem “leaving the air afire with their battle cry: God’s will! God’s will.”

This is the quote that begins the remarkable and highly acclaimed account of the First Crusade by Thomas Asbridge (The First Crusade: A New History, Oxford, 2004).

And here is Thomas Asbridge’s punch line on page 3 based on his meticulous research:

The image of Muslims as brutal oppressors conjured by Pope Urban was pure propaganda – if anything, Islam had proved over the preceding centuries to be more tolerant of other religions than Catholic Christendom.

And here is the psychological puzzle:

How could the crusaders demonstrate a capacity for “intense religious devotion” as well as “appalling brutality” at the same time?

Why are these things relevant for us today?

Because nothing much has changed except the geography. In an earlier post (How Far Behind is South Asia?) we had estimated that South Asia was about 150 years behind Europe as measured by material development indicators. But when we look at it from the perspective of mental attitudes could we say that the gap is as much as a thousand years.

Here we are almost 1,000 years after 1095 and we have Osama bin Laden telling the same types of exaggerated untruths about Christians and Jews and an army of believers willing to blow themselves up for the cause – intense religious devotion mixed with appalling brutality.

And what about the amazing happenings of the 1947 partition of British India? Neighbors who had coexisted for decades suddenly decided to demonstrate devotion to their faith by massacring those belonging to a different one. Is that how one shows devotion to the truth? (See the excerpt from Urvashi Butalia’s book in the post Ghalib- 8 and read Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan.)

There is always someone inciting people to a holy jihad and there are always followers available to answer the call mixing intense religious devotion with appalling brutality.

Why are people so ready to be conned so easily? How come people see devotion in brutality? Any answers?

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