Posts Tagged ‘Fundamentalism’

What Can the Social Sciences Do for Us?

June 20, 2017

By Sara Fatima

This post is in response to a recent article by Professor Mohammad Waseem (‘An ignoramus par excellence,’ The News, June 11, 2017) in which he argues that the majority of the professional, political, bureaucratic and military elites of Pakistan are uninformed about the larger issues pertaining to our social, national and global life. Some of the issues he mentions are the weakness of our foreign policy, increasing social violence, population explosion, water shortage and cultural practices oppressing women and minorities. Professsor Waseem attributes this outcome to an insularity of vision and thought which, in his view, stems from a lack of exposure to the social sciences in our educational system.

In elucidating this weakness of Pakistan’s educated elite, Professor Waseem compares the typical Pakistani school graduate with one in the West. He asserts that in the West a school graduate is introduced to the origin and history of major ideas and is equipped with the conceptual tools to perceive and understand the dynamics of the real world. The social sciences are a part of the educational curriculum even at a preliminary level. Such is not the case in Pakistan where a school graduate is not equipped with a strong foundation in the uninhibited exploration of ideas. The canvas of education is limited and insular, a weakness that is exacerbated by textbooks that are not rich enough to familiarize students with a rapidly evolving world. Nor do they convey sufficient knowledge of ancient civilizations or even of the contemporary world. The result is a myopic worldview.

This observation is quite plausible but we may question whether it is just the content of the textbooks that is source of our problems. If we replace these books with those used in the developed world, would be induce the required change in the thinking of our people? It seems unlikely because of the inadequate training of teachers and their adherence to outdated pedagogical methods.

In Pakistan, students are discouraged from asking questions in class. They cannot even think of disagreeing with their teachers who are considered as being in positions of supreme authority, a relationship that discourages critical thinking. Teachers in turn are risk-averse and prefer not to stray from the conservative norms of religion, race and gender. They are either incapable of, or deliberately stay away from, conveying a more universal humanism depriving the students from developing a tolerance of differences in attitudes and values.

Another important factor contributing to the narrow-mindedness of the educated elite is the elimination of the social sciences from professional training at advanced levels of education. This is particularly the case in engineering, medical and military training. The curriculum is confined to technical subjects leaving out the more open-ended subjects that need to be a part of  intellectual growth. This one-dimensional education is resulting in the growing fundamentalism and increasing intolerance of our educated youth.

Recent research suggests that a disproportionate percentage of students involved in violent activities have a background in science, engineering or medicine. A study conducted in the sociology department of the University of Oxford (‘Engineers of Jihad,’ 2007) confirms this hypothesis that students of the above-mentioned subjects are over-represented in violent Islamist movements. The plausible explanation given for this phenomenon is that the mindset of people with this educational background inclines them to take extreme positions on matters that may have multiple answers or causes. The study reinforces the importance of the social sciences to mould individuals who can see things in grey instead of in black and white.

Despite the above, there are some other questions that need to be raised in order to address the issues raised by Professor Waseem. We need to be sure that our elite is truly ignorant of the crucial issues as presumed by him. Could it be possible that the  ignorance is a mere pretence? Is our political elite really interested in building an open intellectual environment in our society or does the status quo better serve its parochial interests? These questions direct us to a larger debate that is probably more significant in unravelling the sociopolitical dynamic of our society.

Sara Fatima graduated from LUMS with a major in Politics and Economics. For a related article, see Education: Humanities and Science

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Awareness of History

November 29, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

I was reading an interview about philosophy when I came across some tangential remarks I felt would be useful to reproduce on this blog in this time of rising fundamentalism in the Indian subcontinent.

The interview is between 3:AM Magazine and the  philosopher Jonardon Ganeri (one of whose latest books is Identity as Reasoned Choice: A South Asian Perspective on the Reach and Resources of Public and Practical Reason in Shaping Individual Identities).

The tangential remarks pertain to the evolution of intellectual history in India.

The bottom line for JG emerging from his detailed research in the history of Indian philosophy is the following: “In India what Navadvīpa demonstrates is how wrong-headed are Hindu fundamentalist histories of Indian Islam.”

This fundamentalist history is very familiar and repeated in countless comments on innumerable blogs: Muslim invaders imposed Persian, oppressed Hindus, destroyed temples, decimated Indian scholarship, etc., etc.

Instead, what JG discovered was a surprise to him: “What I discovered was that at the same time Europe was undergoing a transformation from a mediaeval to a modern world-view, analogous processes were under way in India, and, even more surprisingly, that this was taking place among Sanskrit intellectuals at the height of the Islamic Mughal age.”

This is the reason JG advises people to learn from history, avoid locking themselves “into boxes” and “to be less dogmatic and categorical in their thinking.” He concludes with a recommendation that is eminently sensible but surprisingly hard for people to accept: those who desire knowledge should cultivate the intellectual virtues of keeping an open mind and seeing what turns up.”

The selected excerpts below speak for themselves. Key sentences are highlighted. The complete interview can be read here:

http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/artha-india-and-the-global-preoccupation-of-philosophy/

3:AM: The world’s in a mess and it’s partly because people are ignorant of their own histories…

JG: Intractable conflicts arise when people think themselves into boxes from which they can’t escape…

3:AM: Last year you published ‘The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India.’ Certainly for me it was a revelation. The names were new to me and probably were to most philosophers working in the philosophical mainstream. Can you say something about these key figures and why they are significant? So the Bengali Raghunātha Śiromai was the inventor of the ‘new reason’ philosophy and shaped metaphysical enquiry through the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Can you say what this ‘new reason’ philosophy was and why Śiromai was so important?

JG: The names were new to me too before I started laboriously trawling through manuscript catalogues in India and Nepal. I gradually began to notice that something very exciting had been going on in this period, something never mentioned in the standard histories of Indian philosophy which generally try to reinforce a picture of India as an ancient civilization.

What I discovered was that at the same time Europe was undergoing a transformation from a mediaeval to a modern world-view, analogous processes were under way in India, and, even more surprisingly, that this was taking place among Sanskrit intellectuals at the height of the Islamic Mughal age.

Early modernity, I discovered, was not an exclusively European affair after all, but, rather, different forms and varieties of modernity were emerging concurrently in many places. In trying to give some context to the rise of these new philosophers, I found that they were mostly concentrated in two cities where there was a lot of interaction between Muslim and Sanskrit intellectuals, namely Benares, or Varanasi, and a smaller place in Bengal called Navadvīpa, or Nadia in its latinized form

3:AM: Given recent contemporary history, it is fascinating to read about the complex Muslim-Hindu interaction of Navadvīpa at this time…

JG: Navadvīpa was one of the great powerhouses of philosophy in the seventeenth century, and had been for three or four centuries. Before that, Buddhists had set up monastery-universities in Nalanda and elsewhere, but Navadvīpa was organised around a more traditional South Asian model, and was more like an extended intellectual community. One could get an extremely good education in the techniques of philosophical reasoning there, and students would come from all India for it, whatever their religious background. It seems quite likely that there was even an exchange with the flourishing intellectual culture in Tibet.

One thing which became clear to me is that the philosophers here enjoyed an enormous amount of intellectual liberty, and pursued a whole range of very innovative research programmes into all manner of topics in pure philosophy, especially semantics, epistemology, metaphysics, but also into the philosophy of law, and areas of social and political philosophy. I wondered what explained this unparalleled level of intellectual autonomy. The most evident fact about Navadvīpa was the strong ties it had with the larger world of Persianate and Islamicate scholarship, as a result of an enlightened history of Muslim governance.

I don’t think that it is any coincidence that one of the great religious reformers of the time, Caitanya, came out of Navadvīpa at this time. My primary interest is in the astonishingly modern, and yes basically secular, philosophy that was created, but I do think that Navadvīpa is great example of the tremendously progressive impact that Muslim attitudes towards intellectual inquiry have had on the world. In India what Navadvīpa demonstrates is how wrong-headed are Hindu fundamentalist histories of Indian Islam…

3:AM: You regret the historical facts that brought the new reason philosophy to a standstill. This was the collapse of the Mughal power and the new British imposition of fiscal arrangements and educational policies that funded colonial universities and colleges and down-graded the poorer, traditional networks in which the new reason philosophy had thrived. So we Brits were the bad guys here! Can you say something about this?

JG: Yes, Richard, I’m afraid we were. Britain did a lot, at the end of empire, to destroy the evidence, but on 18 April 2012 a large cache of Foreign Office documents whose very existence had been kept secret was forced into the public domain through a legal action taken by the Mau Mau. They paint a picture of atrocity and inhumanity that the British have worked hard to erase from the collective psyche.

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The Black Album: Between Liberalism and Fundamentalism

October 17, 2012

By Kabir Altaf

… ‘Please excuse me,’ Riaz was saying to Brownlow. ‘But you are a little arrogant.’…. ‘Your liberal beliefs belong to a minority who live in northern Europe. Yet you think moral superiority over the rest of mankind is a fact. You want to dominate others with your particular morality, which has—as you also well know—gone hand-in-hand with fascist imperialism.’ Here Riaz leaned towards Brownlow. ‘This is why we have to guard against the hypocritical and smug intellectual atmosphere of Western civilization.’

 … ‘That atmosphere you deprecate. With reason. But this civilization has also brought us this –’

‘Dr. Brownlow, tell us what it has brought us,’ Shahid said. (more…)

On Secularism in South Asia

January 17, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

I made the argument in an earlier post (The Peculiar Nature of the Pakistani Liberal) that the political debate in South Asia is confused because we have borrowed labels – “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “reactionary” – from the discourse of the European Enlightenment without adapting them to the local context. My intent was to follow up and attempt a more nuanced portrait of an individual who would be loosely identified as a liberal in Pakistan today.

I realize now that in doing so I would have to negotiate through the tricky terrain of secularism, which, like the others, is a concept that has suffered much distortion in South Asia. Therefore, I need first to state clearly how I understand secularism before I move ahead to discuss how South Asian ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives’ relate to it. (more…)

Review: A Gash in the World

July 15, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

 

A Gash in the World, a novel by Prashant Parikh, iUniverse, 2009

When I read A Gash in the World, I was immediately reminded of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco because of the thematic similarity. But I also thought of Ectopia by Ernest Callenbach for entirely different reasons.

Ectopia was written in 1974 and rejected by every significant publisher. As the author describes it: ‘Some said it didn’t have enough sex and violence, or that they couldn’t tell if it were a novel or a tract. Somebody said the ecology trend was over… I was on the point of burning it.’ (more…)

Beyond Anti-Americanism

July 3, 2009

We have gone back and forth on the issue of American intervention in developing countries and I wish to return to the topic to broaden the terms of the discussion.

Reader Tahir had raised the issue in defense of Imran Khan’s position that was the subject of three earlier posts (here, here, and here). Let us see if a wider perspective improves our understanding and helps us think of better responses, both intellectual and practical.

The evidence of American interventions is not in dispute. In his Cairo address, President Obama conceded American involvement in the 1953 coup in Iran that toppled a democratic government. And this is only one of many, many instances well known to all except, perhaps, a majority of American voters. Imran Khan is part of the multitude that sees through the American rhetoric of high morality. (more…)

Similar and Different: Common and Problematic

April 5, 2009

Two books have come out within a year pointing to a serious problem common to India and Pakistan.

Before describing the books let us note that we are now talking about what is common between India and Pakistan. This makes a lot more sense than debating whether Indians and Pakistanis are similar. Indians and Pakistanis have so many differences within their own communities that it is futile to try and reduce them to a single dimension that can then be compared. To take a very simple illustration: there are secular Indians and communal Indians just as there are secular Pakistanis and communal Pakistanis. There is no one type of Indian or Pakistani.  (more…)

Governance in Pakistan – 5: An Example of a Good Analysis

March 15, 2009

Professor Ralph Russell died on September 14, 2008 at the age on ninety. Known as the British Baba-e-Urdu, he was a leading scholar of the language and was awarded the Sitara-e-Imtiaz for a lifetime of notable contributions.

Professor Russell was a scholar of language and literature and never thought of himself as a political analyst. But his training in the humanities endowed him with the ability needed for good analysis.

Here I take an extract from his essay (Strands of Muslim Identity in South Asia – first published in the 1980s) to illustrate the attributes of good analysis.

It is quite likely that Muslims and Pakistani readers were upset by this analysis. But Professor Russell, a great friend of Urdu, Islam and Pakistan, never let that keep him from saying what he felt needed to be said. It is from him that I picked up the line: Do you want me to say what I think or what you want to hear?

In another of his essays, Professor Russell says “I sometimes have the impression that in the field of Islamic studies more than most, scholars feel a need to be ‘diplomatic’ (which, let us face it, is only a polite way of saying ‘less than completely honest’) so that influential people will not be offended. And then he refers to Hardy in the Explanatory Note to Tess—that ‘if an offence comes out of the truth, better it is that the offence come out than that the truth be concealed.’ 

So here is Professor Russell not trying to be analytical but making an observation based on the analytical process. Follow the logic of the argument as Professor Russell tries to explain the rise of religious fundamentalism in Pakistan:

The sophisticated Muslim case underlying the separatist demands that ultimately became the demand for Pakistan rested on the secular or quasi-secular concept of the Muslims of the subcontinent as a separate nationality; in the years preceding independence it was this concept that was always stressed by the authoritative spokesmen of the movement for the creation of Pakistan. To such a concept religious orthodoxy was irrelevant. ‘Muslim’ meant anyone who called himself a Muslim, anyone who was born into the Muslim community, even if he were a militant atheist. Jinnah himself, the Qaid e Azam (Great Leader) of the Muslim League, was anything but an orthodox Muslim of the old-fashioned kind. For him, the concept of a Muslim nationhood implied even an onslaught on the conservative Muslin divines, and an effort, as he wrote in 1942, ‘to free our people from the most undesirable reactionary elements.’

But such sophisticated concepts could not arouse the mass Muslim enthusiasm which the leadership needed if acceptance of its demands were to be enforced. With the illiterate and half-literate Muslim masses, what carried weight was precisely the ideas of the ‘most undesirable reactionary elements’—the prejudices which told them: ‘One Muslim is worth ten Hindus. We Muslims ruled over these people for centuries. We are a fine, manly people: the Hindus are slaves and cowards. Our type is the warrior, bold and generous: theirs is the banya, the cowardly, extortionate, hypocritical moneylender. Islam is a fine faith, the acme of all religious development: Hinduism is an inhuman and revolting system which sanctifies human degradation.’

And so on and so forth. An appeal to the Muslim masses to come into the political arena could, in the late 1930s and 1940s, hardly have had any other result than to fan this sort of Muslim chauvinism. The response to Jinnah’s call in December 1939, to celebrate a ‘Day of Deliverance’ when Congress ministries resigned, already showed this; still more horrifying was the response to his Direct Action Day of 16 August 1946.

It hardly needs to be said that if appeal to sentiments of this kind helped to mobilize the mass support without which Pakistan could not have been won, it also strengthened the religious (or pseudo-religious) fanaticism which Jinnah had opposed.

I am not saying that this is necessarily the correct diagnosis. What I am pointing out is the process by which Professor Russell explains the present through a link to the past and traces the consequences of actions taken and forces let loose a long time back to the conditions that exist at present.

If you feel Professor Russell is wrong, the field is wide open to present a better analysis. There would be little point, however, in the common response of merely accusing Professor Russell of being an agent of the enemy.

For those who consider Professor Russell’s description of the nature of the appeal to Muslim masses far-fetched, it would be salutary to read through the modern public school curriculum in Pakistan today (Here and Here).

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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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A Gash in the World

July 30, 2008

Chapter 16 “Us and Them (And after all, we’re only ordinary men.)” 

 

It started out as an ordinary day. Cars were plying their routes and pedestrians were rushing to their destinations. By now Samir had dispatched all the pages of the Sahityashastra. On the outside, everything appeared the same.

Two schoolboys strolled homewards around noon. As they walked along Chowpatty, they found themselves taking giant steps, as if they were on the moon. Too awe-struck to say anything, they noticed that other pedestrians were also walking that way, with giant steps. They were sliding, gliding, rising into the air, and trailing down again. Anyone looking at Marine Drive and Chowpatty would have observed a strange sight, like a slow-motion film, with people flying a foot into the air and then drifting down, spanning a distance of about six feet.

At first, the people were shocked out of their wits. They felt apprehensive. They couldn’t quite master the six-foot step. Some of them even fell down. But gradually they began to enjoy it. Soon they were speeding along the pavement.

Gradually, the sight spread to other parts of the city. Suddenly, one of the schoolboys at Chowpatty rose into the air, spiraling higher into the sky. The other boy soon followed. When they halted, they were hovering about a thousand feet high in the sky, the height of a skyscraper. Suspended, they discovered they could walk in the air just by thinking the thought. No dull, mechanical motion and transformation was required. They could descend if they wanted, or stay up if they wanted. And they chose to stay up.

Ten more people joined them. Some of them drove by in a car. The car braked, they climbed out and flew up. In about an hour, a hundred people were circling and dancing in the sky. No one said anything. They were too excited for words. Even the children knew it wasn’t just a matter of fun. By this time, of course, most of the pedestrians on the road were trickling upwards.

Two hours later, the same thing began to happen in different parts of the city. In about five hours, over a hundred thousand people were perched in the sky. Harold, too, who had been walking along the Causeway, found himself floating in the air.

“I tell you this is a symbol,” one of the people said.

“No, no, it’s the real thing,” his companion said.

“It’s both,” a third said.

“It’s the collective unconscious,” another said.

“It’s a space. A space for us to be,” a fifth person said.

“That’s right. A space free of constraints,” a different person said.

“It’s a space of pure desire,” another said.

“What does it all mean?” an eighth person said.

Later that day, one by one, people willed themselves down.

By nightfall, everyone was ensconced in their homes and asleep. Not a word was mentioned in the press for once. The whole city had participated in the event. There was nothing to tell.

Bombay had become conscious of itself.

 

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