Posts Tagged ‘Culture’

Nowhere to Go

May 4, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

I am intrigued by the thought that for an ambitious youngster, passionate about the arts and with a compelling belief in himself or herself, there may be no place in Pakistan to run away to.

The thought occurred to me on reading the biography of Naushad, one of our great music directors. Born in Lucknow, he became fascinated with music early in life. Told by his father to choose between home and music Naushad ran away to Bombay at the age of 18. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Bombay of those times was the place to run away to for the passionate young. Naushad was not the only one. There were literally hundreds of others from cities as far away as Peshawar and Madras and towns and villages scattered across the subcontinent. It was a magnet not only for those interested in music but in dance, theater, films and writing – a mecca for aspiring artists whose talents and ambitions were either thwarted or had no prospects of fruition in the milieus in which they were born and raised.

Bombay was a magnet because it also had the ecosystem of peer groups, mentors and patrons in which a young runaway could hope to find a niche and be accommodated. Naushad, after sleeping on footpaths for a while, found Ustad Jhande Khan (himself from Gujranwala) who became a guide and a link to others who could recognize, appreciate and nurture a precocious talent.

Thinking along these lines brought home to me that such artistic meccas exist in many countries. New York City is the quintessential example. Reading the biographies of celebrated American artists one is struck by how many of them gravitated there from small towns, rural districts and depressed areas thousands of miles away and how the city provided the nourishment for their talents to be realized.

London, Paris and Vienna are well-known examples from other countries. It is cities like these that keep culture alive and vibrant within countries and serve as beacons of hope for those who feel the overpowering urge to become a part of that culture.

One might wish such ambitions to find nourishment for their fulfillment anywhere in a country but that is an impossibility because of the economies of scale and agglomeration. Much like clusters of industry there are clusters of the arts where nourishing ecosystems become established. Some countries have more than one. In the US, for example, one can consider New Orleans and Los Angeles in a similar light. Young people attracted to jazz head to New Orleans while those hoping to make it in the world of film are drawn to Los Angeles.

Does it matter that there is no such place for the young to run away to akistan? Is the artistic culture of the country being impoverished or not being rejuvenated sufficiently or being confined to those who have privileged access to it by being born in the right home in the right place?

Young men from Charsadda and Skardu and Turbat do move to Karachi for jobs but does one know of budding musicians or artists or actors heading there from similar places with a hope that a nurturing haven would be found in the metropolis.

Lahore could have been considered a mini-Bombay in the decades when it had its major film studios and the Pak Tea House as the abode of writers. But that seems no more the case. Even then, at the Tea House it was only local students who could become part of the intellectual circle. There is no evidence of a regular influx of outsiders turning up with burning ambition and the hope of learning enough to make a living from their passions.

I hope I am wrong and wish someone will identify such places in the country. Perhaps some shrines, especially in Sindh, serve a similar function though I wouldn’t put them in the same category as a place like New York where something new is always in the process of being born.

I am also sobered by the thought that over the last few decades places to run away to in Pakistan might have emerged for the young moved by religious fervor. Depending on preference they could head to Raiwind or Akora Khattak or Karachi with the knowledge that they would find a haven with refuge and nurturing.

Some of these havens have acquired international recognition and youngsters have started streaming to them from the far corners of the globe. In a sense they have attained the stature of the Paris between the two wars when it became the destination of choice for aspiring artists from the world over.

Could this be a reason that Pakistan has become known in the world as the center of Jihadi culture while its artistic evolution continues to shrivel?

This opinion appeared in Dawn on April 30, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Patriarchy in the Culture and Language of the Subcontinent

June 3, 2015

By Rizwan Saeed

Patriarchy is an established informal system. It has clear hierarchy of power and authority that is transferred from one generation to other. As it is an informal system, its roots are embedded deep in cultural settings and social fabric of societies.

There are certain rituals and cultural practices that protect and strengthen this patriarchal system in the subcontinent. One key component of culture is language. Here I explore patriarchy in the culture of the subcontinent through the lens of language.

In Urdu, there are names for each relationship that falls under the line of authority. To understand authority lines we will have to understand some basic family structures prevailing in the subcontinent.

In the subcontinent, joint and extended family systems exist in which husband, wife, husband’s brothers and their families (spouses and children), parents of husband, and unmarried sisters of husband live together under one roof. In this arrangement, the grandfather is the ultimate authority as he owns all the property and wealth of the family. If we unpack this family structure further, we clearly find a hierarchy in the family. This hierarchy is translated into language and names are assigned to each relationship. Let’s take an example of a man (who is a son and unmarried). Brothers of his father are titled as Taya (elder brother of father) and chacha (young brother of father). The sister of father is called phupho irrespective of where she sits in the family hierarchy and there are no separate words for elder or younger sisters of father. Going further when this son gets married, his wife becomes part of his family and starts living with her in-laws. Now see the hierarchical system for the wife. The husband’s father is considered supreme head of family. Next to him power lies with elder brother of husband who is titled as Jaith. Then comes the husband. After the husband, his younger brother joins the power line, and he is titled Dewar. On the other hand, there is no segregation among elder or younger sisters of husband. They are simply called Nands. Similarly, if we see relationships from the husband’s perspective we find that there are no separate titles for brothers and sisters of the wife. The former are called Salas (singular is sala) and the latter are called Salis (without segregating elder or younger ones).

It is noteworthy that this entitlement is not simply giving specific names to one male relation. It actually indicates power and authority line both within the husband’s household which specifies the elder male who has more authority over both younger men and all sisters as well as how the wife experiences relations once she is married, where her own brothers and sisters are less important than the husbands. Taya (elder brother of father) can scold the father. Similarly, Jaith (elder brother of husband) can scold the husband. On the other hand, male member of wife’s family have no importance, no separate entitlement, and no hierarchy. All are dealt with the same stick.

Beside relationships, proverbs are another aspect of Urdu language that promotes certain patriarchal and hierarchical thoughts, and even make these thoughts the norms of society. Let’s explore how certain proverbs reflect patriarchal thoughts implicitly. For instance, Sali adhi ghar wali (sister of wife is half wife) is a renowned proverb in India and Pakistan. This proverb implicitly gives the message that husband has authority to seduce his wife’s sister. This is not an uncommon occurrence. This proverb is not simply a proverb. It actually reflects society’s thinking towards these relationships. In the subcontinent, there are numerous examples where Jeeja is married to his Sali.

On the other hand, terms denoting the wife’s relatives such as the brother (sala) and the maternal uncle (mamo) have derogatory sexual connotation and are often used between men to belittle or tease one another. The term sala (brother of wife) is used to hurt or challenge ‘masculinity’ of a man in the society. The abuser implicitly says that he has sexual relationship with the sister of abused, and the latter is not a man who could have protected his sister. The word mamo (wife’s maternal uncle) contains the message that a man was not smart enough to protect his interests, and was looted because of his naïveté.  If we interpret this in the language of masculinity and sexuality, it means the mamo was not man enough to protect his “property” (sister’s daughter). This might be the reason that Mamo of Munna Bhai MBBS got popularity while Amir Khan’s Chachu (3 Idiots) couldn’t. Young boys often challenge their peers’ masculinity and sexuality by commenting, “If you are not gonna ‘take’ her, then be ready to be called maternal uncle (mamo) of her children”. Here the connotation is that you become her brother, one that cannot have sexual relationship with her, in other words impotent.

Contrary to this, the husband’s younger brother is portrayed as friend of his brother’s wife. Culturally, wives cover their heads and/or faces with veil while facing elder brother of husband but they do not do so while interacting with younger brother of husband. In India and Pakistan, marriages between dewar (younger brother of husband) and (former) bhabi (wife of older brother) are very common. Rather, in case of death of husband, it is preferred that his wife should marry to her deceased husband’s brother (usually the younger one). Often hidden behind such marriages is a need to protect division of assets.

Another aspect of Urdu language that promotes patriarchal thinking unconsciously is its linguistic structure of feminine and masculine relations/things. Last two alphabets of Urdu are called “choti ye” (sounds like ee in English) and “bari ye” (sounds like yea in English). In Urdu most of feminine things/relations end with ee sound. It basically connotes their smallness/less value. For example, dadee (paternal grandmother), nanee (maternal grandmother), chachee (wife of uncle), tayee (wife of father’s elder brother), jaithanee (wife of husband’s elder brother).

Ironically, the word Aunt has been adopted and modified by Urdu speakers as Auntee. This “ee” phenomenon is not just limited to relationships, most of the things that are meant to be portrayed as smaller are titled with words ending with “ee” sound. For example, daigchee word is used for small pot, and daigcha word is used for bigger pot. More examples include chamacha (bigger spoon) and chamchee (smaller spoon), register (for a bigger notebook) and capee (for smaller notebook), maize (table) and kursee (chair) is used to connote smaller size of chair as compared to table.

Language is a strong vehicle that allows patriarchal norms and values to become part of our everyday life. Language discriminates and creates difference and is reflective of existing patriarchal norms in society and often we internalize this language without realizing how we have become blind to its inherent unfairness. Challenging patriarchy must involve a review of language and a search for more equal ways of relating to each gender. The fact that patriarchal values are embedded in the very ways we communicate with each other through language and through our most important kinship relations makes it all the more harder to ‘see’ the gender imbalance that exists around us and that we promote.

Rizwan Saeed is an anthropologist. He conducts trainings and writes on the issues of gender, patriarchy, and masculinity.

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The Economics of Culture

October 22, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

I doubt anyone would guess right if a quiz master were to ask what Britain’s leading export was in 1997. The surprising answer: The Spice Girls, through sales of their music, attendance at their film, and related merchandising.

This confirms that culture is big business. In the same year, the US economy produced over $400 billion worth of books, films, music, TV programmes and other copyrighted products and this category emerged as the leading export for the US as well. Not only that, the sector is growing rapidly, between two to three times as fast as the overall economies in developed countries.

East Asian countries which grew by leaps and bounds during the last quarter century on the strength of low-cost manufacturing have noticed this phenomenon in their search for diversification. Almost all of them are investing heavily in promoting their own cultural output as well as in providing lower-cost facilities for the making of cultural products. Entire digital multi-media cities are being set up in a number of locations including Kuala Lumpur, Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore with Shanghai not far behind. The Indian movie industry has started to attract external capital and looks set to follow software as a global player.

All this is a preamble to highlight an undiscovered and under-exploited source of economic growth and to motivate a discussion of what we might be doing in Pakistan. Clearly we ought to re-examine culture not as a luxury but as a source of economic growth and employment creation. The market is extensive. There is a very large South Asian diaspora with adequate purchasing power. In addition, South Asian culture is continually making inroads in Western markets building on the breakthrough provided by Ravi Shankar: just in the last year, Lagaan was nominated for an Oscar, Bombay Dreams opened on West End, Moulin Rouge paid tribute to Bollywood, and Ashwariya Rai made the cover of Time magazine. Then there is a very large Indian market itself waiting to be tapped. Just to look at one dimension: there is a ghazal craze in India and artists of the calibre of Mehdi Hasan, Ghulam Ali, Fareeda Khanum and Iqbal Bano can sweep that market repeatedly with ease.

The possibilities are manifold. However, on the negative side, we have not only failed to tap these markets in the past, we have allowed our cultural heritage to decay to an extent that we may not be able to exploit the markets when they do open up and we realise their potential. Some examples are obvious and cannot be disputed. Thus, there are no comparable replacements for Roshan Ara Begum or for Ustads Amanat Ali Khan-Fateh Ali Khan, Nazakat Ali Khan-Salamat Ali Khan, Shareef Khan Poonchwaley, Shaukat Hussain Khan, and Bundoo Khan.

It is incorrect to argue that this is so because there is no demand for classical music. We have failed to reproduce this asset base out of sheer neglect and callousness. Musical trends among the youth are no different in India yet Ustad Allah Rakha has been followed by Zakir Hussain, Ustad Vilayat Ali Khan by Shahid Parvez, and Ustad Nisar Hussain Khan by Rashid Khan, to give just a few examples. The number of exciting new stars moving up the ranks is very large. The contribution of the Indian Tobacco Company in setting up the Sangeet Research Academy in Calcutta is an eye-opener (for details see

But even if we accept that classical music is dead in Pakistan, if only for the sake of argument, we cannot say the same for the ghazal which remains immensely popular. Yet, even here we have not been able to reproduce and replace artists of the calibre of Mehdi Hasan, Fareeda Khanum and Iqbal Bano. Nor is there the semblance of a replacement for Nur Jehan Begum on the horizon.

The reason can be very simple. These artists were truly great because they had a firm grounding in classical music. New singers often have equally good voices but it is easy to tell that their sense of pitch and rhythm is nowhere the same. They can imitate some of the songs of the greats very well but whenever they sing something original their weak foundations are exposed immediately. Inadequately trained artists would survive in the home market but would find it very difficult to make a mark in a much more discriminating global one.

Given the extent of the neglect and decline, it is obvious that Pakistan cannot jump into the forefront of the market for cultural products. But a realisation that such a market exists can provide a motivation for actions that will not only reverse the decline but likely generate other positive externalities as well.

In this context, we need to remind ourselves that the value of culture extends beyond economics, something we were aware of but have seemingly forgotten. Just one Ravi Shankar has created more goodwill for India than hundreds of paid publicists could ever hope to deliver. At a time when a very negative image of the country has to be overcome, the role of culture in presenting an alternative image cannot be overlooked. Globally recognised cultural icons like Abida Parween, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, Naheed Siddiqui, Ustad Raees Khan, and Zia Moheyuddin (to name, in alphabetical order, a few of the ones who are still with us) have the power to create positive emotional resonance for a country in search of a new image.

This article can be concluded with another little-known fact. The best-selling poet in the US is Rumi in translation. This is another indicator of the surprising nature of global demand. Yet, none of the great Sufi poets from our region have been translated or marketed in a manner which caters to the global market. Is that really an impossible task? I don’t believe it is and in a follow-up article I will present for discussion a modest proposal for the revival of the arts in Pakistan.

Anjum Altaf is provost of Habib University in Karachi. This op-ed appeared in the Daily Times on 9 February 2004 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission because of a renewed interest in the economics of culture.

The Rise and Decline of King’s Urdu

July 29, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Any discussion of the future of Urdu arouses heated emotions turning swiftly into a test of one’s loyalties. But love of the language should have no bearing on a candid consideration of its prospects. I believe such a consideration is possible and wish to revisit the issue in light of aspects of the language I have been thinking about lately.

As part of the exploration of some aspects of Urdu speech, I have already discussed the rise of King’s Urdu in the courts of the later Mughals where, according to many, it attained its zenith during the reign of Bahadur Shah with whom the dynasty came to an end. Did that event mark a major turning point in the trajectory of Urdu? (more…)

Is There a Puzzle in Indian Culture?

July 25, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

The seeming disconnect between the aural and visual dimensions of popular Indian culture has left me in shock and struggling for an explanation. There are many things I don’t fathom but most of the time I can advance plausible hypotheses to work towards an understanding. Not so in this particular case.

I have come upon this puzzle late and in a peculiar manner. Being aurally-oriented to an extreme, I have had very limited exposure to the visual medium. I have watched some classical dance live, attended the occasional play, and consumed some sports on TV. But as far as visual expressions of popular art forms are concerned, I am largely ignorant. Movies, in particular, I haven’t watched for decades.

This changed recently when I found myself responsible for managing senior citizens whose daily routine included a number of hours before the television. Hoping to wean them away from StarPlus soap operas and gruesome news footage, I proposed what I thought would be an acceptable compromise – leveraging new technology to watch video clips of classic Indian film songs of the 1960s and 1970s that evoked pleasant memories for all.

The senior citizens took the experience in stride but for me it was a monumental disaster. What had retained an enormous emotional hold for decades was rendered unbearable when picture was added to sound. I have since found it very difficult to unburden myself of what I can only describe as a contamination of the pure with the profane.

For me, one of the most sophisticated aspects of Indian culture is its music represented at its apex by the classical forms. One cannot miss the influence of this sophistication on popular film music as well, at least that of the 1960s and 1970s. The most haunting and memorable film songs of that period bear the unmistakable stamp of the classical tradition. The same sophistication in the visual dimension is represented by classical dance. Yet, that seems to have virtually no relationship to the depiction of movement in the popular domain. Why might this be the case?

Clearly, one argument would pertain to the nature of the audience; classical forms have a limited audience while popular forms are aimed at the mass market. But this does not provide a complete explanation. If the mass audience can relate to adaptations of classical music, why presume they would be unable to adapt to classical movement?

It is not even as if the visual representations are derived from Indian folk traditions. The folk forms, music and dance both, are beautiful in their own right. After all, the classical is nothing but the extraction of the essence of the folk, a process of refinement that has been going on for centuries. What I saw on the screen was neither classical nor folk; nor was it a caricature of Western dance forms although that might be a possible source of inspiration.

Could it be that popular Indian movies aim to appeal to fantasy and there are many more liberties that can be taken with movement than with sound to serve that end? Would it be correct to conclude that, at least in the minds of movie-makers, the Indian audience cannot be visually entertained without being titillated? Can one assume that this is not a trend likely to be reversed any time soon? And is music now also belatedly being liberated of its sophistication?

If one adds to this another presumption that suggests itself from my recent limited exposure, that the mass Indian audience is amused only by watching something silly, there is the making of a truly surreal experience. From what I remember of the Charlie Chaplin I watched as a teenager, there is an entire tradition in Western movies of being silly in an amusing way which seems quite different from the Indian tradition of being amusing in a silly way. And it seems to me that this acculturation starts at a very early age. Last year, I tried to watch the StarPlus Chhote Ustad series, a music program for very young children from India and Pakistan. I gave up after the first episode because I found the MC unbearable. It seemed it was taken for granted that the children would only be amused, entertained and made happy by the most grotesque kind of silly actions and conversation.

I really have nothing to offer here except my puzzlement and would greatly welcome any enlightenment, even censure of what may possibly come across as elitism. The only comparable experience I recall was pondering over the Ragmala paintings that are supposed to illustrate various classical ragas. I was unable to comprehend the connection but that did not ruin my enjoyment of the music itself. This experience belongs to another category altogether. I am now unable to listen to the songs without the association of the accompanying visuals. Shutting the eyes tight is no help.

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Classical Music in Pakistan: A Requiem?

June 1, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

One often gets the sense that classical music is breathing its last in Pakistan, the death throes so painful that one prays against one’s will for its quick demise. The thought of efforts aimed at its revival evoke dread rather than hope. Why not let it rest in peace? After all, the death of classical music in Pakistan will not be the death of classical music. It is alive and well in India and flourishing in the West. Even if it were not, there is now a storehouse of exquisite recordings that are infinitely more pleasurable compared to the indignities music has to endure at live performances in Pakistan.

No doubt this is an extreme reaction colored by distress inflicted at a recent concert billed as a milestone on the road to resurrection. At the very least, it forces one to question one’s own deep desires and wonder if they are based on something more tangible than wishful thinking. (more…)

On Culture and the Clash of Cultures

March 18, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

The “West” versus the “East,” the “West” versus “Islam” – there is much talk of the clash of cultures in these ideologically charged times. Yet, there is as much confusion about the understanding of culture itself. If we are to be clear about the nature of the conflict, we need to first define what the argument is about.

Culture as a thing in itself: “the power of culture”

Culture has many dimensions and meanings – we can talk of the power of culture as well as of the culture of power – and some of the meanings have altered over time. In its original sense the notion was applied to humans as it was to the earth, the equivalent of agriculture – a way of cultivating the mind akin to cultivating the soil. It was common to speak of a cultured person as one who had cultivated good taste (even the choice of the word ‘taste’ hints at the commonality of the origins) – tastes could be refined with effort much like sugar. In this usage, culture was something an individual aspired to acquire and refine. The oft-heard European characterization of Americans as ‘uncultured’ reflects this usage. Within countries, ministries of culture were the facilitators of the cultivation of tastes.

It is less common these days to speak of culture in this manner because the focus has shifted to conflict and therefore away from the individual to the group. Yet, some of the sense of culture as taste remains when there is talk of the “cultural wars” between highbrow (elite) and lowbrow (popular) cultures.

Culture as the ethos of something else: “the culture of power”

There is a transition to associating culture with a pattern of behavior when one refers to the culture of power. Notions of the cultures of affluence or poverty convey the same sense – the powerful or the affluent or the poor behave in ways that are recognizable and common to the members of the group. It is also common to speak of the culture of organizations – the distinction was often made between the vertical culture of IBM (based on hierarchy) and the flat culture of Apple (based on equality).

The culture of a place

This transition to the behavior of groups can be rooted further in a specific geography. The association of culture with place – the culture of New York, for example – is an obvious extension although it is not as simple as it seems because a place can contain subgroups with quite distinct cultures of their own – say, the poor and the rich or the elite and the commoners. This nuance is vividly illustrated by an observation about New York by E.B. White: “Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.” All these distinct subcultures come together to comprise the composite culture that New Yorkers claim as their own.

Residents of New York and San Francisco would insist that the cultures of the two cities are very different. One cannot conceive of saying about New York what was said of San Francisco – “If you’re going to San Francisco be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” Those going to New York might be better advised to wear a Blackberry on their hips.

One should note that in this conceptualization of the composite culture of a healthy organization or place, the differences in the subcultures of its members, their religions or ethnicities for example, have relatively minor importance. Thus the culture of IBM is not sensitive to the different religions of its employees. Likewise, residents of Chinatown and Little Italy readily identify themselves as New Yorkers.

This is rather more difficult for us to appreciate in South Asia where we have witnessed composite cultures fragment and polarize around subcultures of language, religion or ethnicity. Nevertheless, despite the traumas of recent history, it still remains possible to speak meaningfully of a composite culture of UP or Punjab that subsumes religious differences. Indeed, we often speak of an even larger Ganga-Jamni culture that emerged out of the interaction of two initially very distinct cultures – something that was the subject of Dara Shikoh’s justly celebrated work, Majma-ul-Bahrain (“The Confluence of the Two Seas”).

Culture and religion

This conception of the composite culture of an organization or place should caution us against falling into the trap of giving primacy to religion in the discussion of culture. Religion influences culture but is itself embedded in pre-existing cultures – every place has a culture before religion is introduced into it. It is for this reason that the culture of Saudi Arabia is distinct from the culture of Iran or Indonesia even though they are now all countries with Muslim majorities. It is also the reason why society in Pakistan shuns social equality when the message of its holy book espouses equality quite explicitly. And within Pakistan, the social norms that prescribe how honor is defended in the different provinces vary from each other and also from the prescriptions of the Shariah.

West, East, Islam: misplaced categories

We are now in a position to return to the issue of interest – that of the so-called clash of cultures. It should be noted immediately that there is a serious incompatibility in talking about a culture clash between the West and Islam – the former is a spatial unit while the latter is a type of a non-spatial organization. We can either talk of a clash between Christianity and Islam or remove the incompatibility in some other way.

A formulation in terms of Christianity and Islam is much too broad – one has never heard, for example, of a conflict between the Christians of Latin America and the Muslims of Sub-Saharan Africa. Reformulation as a conflict between the West and the East is equally problematic because the East itself is too large a unit – there is little that can be considered common in the cultures of South Asia and East Asia, for instance.

Conflict of cultures or conflict of interests

A little thinking should reveal the intellectual laziness or subterfuge in such formulations. What initially motivated the proponents of the theory of culture clash was the problematic of the different interests of the USA and Europe on the one side and the Muslim countries of the Arab world on the other. It lent a false generalization to the articulation to conflate the former with the “West” and the latter with “Islam.” No doubt it also helped to mask the real nature of the material differences in interests that fueled the conflict. Over time, the generalization acquired the momentum of a self-fulfilling prophecy as more and more people began to see the world in its frame of reference.

Posed against each other in this formulation were the democratic, secular, and peace-loving values of the “West” against the totalitarian, religious, and aggressive values of  “Islam.” After the recent developments in the Arab world the mask has slipped to some extent from the emptiness of this conflation and questions have begun to be asked about the odd reality in which the friends of the “West” in the Arab world were precisely those totalitarian autocrats who were receiving billions of dollars to deny democracy and freedom to their own people. The choice of friends was the giveaway in the gulf between the rhetoric and reality of this false clash of cultures.

Culture and values

Although there is a very clear political economy rationale to the articulation of the clash of cultures, let us set it aside for the moment to discuss the conceptual issues in the understanding of culture. What exactly might we mean when we speak of a culture of the “West?” We are in the realm of geography and had mentioned earlier the notion of a culture of New York that was distinct from a culture of San Francisco. If we think of culture as a manifestation of shared values, to what extent can we enlarge a geographical unit while still recognizing some significant value that remains common across that unit?

In this sense can we associate certain shared attributes with as broad a geographical unit as the “West?” We can say perhaps that the West is relatively horizontal in terms of social relationships and that religious beliefs have relatively little impact on political behavior. In contrast, we can easily recognize some societies that are relatively vertical in terms of social relationships and where religious beliefs have relatively greater impact on political behavior. South Asia immediately comes to mind but note that East Asian societies are markedly different from South Asia in many respects so that a simplistic West-East classification would be very misleading.

Values and social structures

Thinking further along these lines would suggest that these attributes are not intrinsic to people but related to the structures of societies at particular moments in time and that there is a relationship between structural attributes and social values. The values of a pre-industrial society could be expected to differ from those of an industrial one. We can quite readily characterize a set of values as “feudal” and another as “capitalist” – it would be quite natural for honor and loyalty to be carry more weight in the former while the bottom line and merit gain more prominence in the latter. This also suggests that values change over time as the structures of societies evolve. Europe too was feudal, clerical, and dynastic at one time.

The clash of values

This should lead to an important observation. The fact that societies have different values does not imply that they must necessarily clash. To revert to an earlier illustration, IBM had a vertical culture while Apple had a horizontal culture but this in no way made a clash between the two inevitable. There was competition for sure but even this was modulated within the meta-rules of a composite capitalist culture.

However, and this is an equally important observation, when there is a conflict of material interests, real or perceived, one can expect a clash of values even within the same society. One can see this in the conflict over caste-based quotas and reservations in India as well over race-based affirmative action in the US. These material conflicts are recast in terms of a clash of values, between social justice and individual responsibility or between desert and merit, for example.

The conflict of interests

The key to understanding an articulation of a clash of cultures is to recognize the underlying clash of material interests and to identify the parties representing those interests. From there one can follow how the conflict of interests is recast as a conflict of values, how each party characterizes the values of the other as the exact opposite of its own to the point that the conflict is transformed into one between good and evil. This rhetoric of good and evil is then used to rally popular support – how often have we heard in recent years that “they” hate “us” because they dislike our values and our freedoms.

Seeing through the fog

This strategy continues to pay because there is always a pool of people ready to line up behind it. The resulting jingoism and chauvinism leads many to fall into the deeper hole of believing and wanting to prove their values superior to those of anyone else. This is easy enough – any one of hundreds of possible indicators can be picked as evidence of the superiority. Thus many Muslims claim Islamic values superior to Western values because the divorce rate is lower in Muslim countries. The failure to realize that they are comparing apples and oranges or that there may be other indicators suggesting the opposite conclusion illustrates well the benumbing influence of seeing the world through the lens of a clash of cultures. There are no clashes of cultures, only clashes of interests masquerading as clashes of cultures.

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Culture Bypass: A New Paradigm – 5

September 24, 2010

From A’daabKhuda HafizAllah Hafiz – How cultural expressions are transformed?

By Ahmed Kamran


We have seen in Part 4 how by the time Pakistan was formed the die was already cast. Let’s see how we continued to sink further into intolerance and religious bigotry declaring more of us as Kafirs and non-Muslims. How the long journey that we collectively embarked upon on this Bypass is clearly leading us through barren and desolate cultural landscapes to eventual self-destruction. The question is: Is there an exit available on this Cultural Bypass?

After a long colonial occupation, India was declared independent and a new country, Pakistan, specially carved out of the majority Muslim areas of India emerged on the world’s map in August 1947 amidst human blood flowing in the streets and fires burning from the houses. (more…)

Culture Bypass: A New Paradigm – 4

September 15, 2010

From A’daabKhuda HafizAllah Hafiz – How cultural expressions are transformed?

By Ahmed Kamran


In the previous three parts (here, here and here) we examined the long journey of Indian Muslims from the inception of a great common Indo-Persian culture in the 13th century to its political isolation especially by the end of 1930’s. By the time British rulers were fully engaged in World War 2, Muslims, with an acute sense of their separate identity that developed particularly in the backdrop of political events during 1920’s and 1930’s, were about to embark on a collision course with rest of the Indian people. Let’s discuss the key drivers of this great sea change in Indian politics as the British prepared to leave an independent India in the hands of indigenous people. (more…)

Culture Bypass: A New Paradigm – 3

September 10, 2010

From A’daabKhuda HafizAllah Hafiz – How cultural expressions are transformed?

By Ahmed Kamran


In Parts 1 & 2 we discussed an Indo-Persian culture that evolved in India, and how this Ganga-Jamni Tehzib responded to the collapse of Muslim political power and the rise of European powers. We have seen how the frustration of the Muslim intelligentsia gave rise to an aggressive Jihad culture and an inverse reflection led it to the pursuit of modern knowledge and secular progress. Let’s see how Indian Muslims slowly drifted towards a new path of social and political isolation. (more…)