Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

Fifty Years of Activism in Pakistan: A Sea Change

January 11, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan today is very different to what it was fifty years ago. An aspect that has changed significantly – literally turned on its head – is the nature of political and social activism, i.e., the very dynamic that leads to change in society. I describe this transformation based on my interactions with the young – as a student at the beginning of the period and as an instructor of students at its end.

Needless to say, the majority in any society is content to swim with the tide. Members of this majority may hold opinions about desirable changes but they are not involved in the process of bringing them about. On the other hand, there is always a small minority of individuals who become actively engaged in efforts to change society. Such activists mobilize varying numbers of the majority for or against in different situations but the fact remains that most internal movements are initiated by this small number of activists.

As one would expect, activists are motivated by a range of concerns and inspired by varied sets of ideas. Since both concerns and dominant ideas change over time, it is reasonable to think that the nature of activism itself might undergo changes of various kinds. The transformation in the nature of activism in Pakistan over the last half century is the focus of this discussion.

At one level, the situation fifty years ago was simple. The 1960s, with the ongoing Vietnam War and decolonization, was the height of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist sentiment, both reflected in the popularity of Marxist-oriented alternatives. These had an appeal to those segments of the young who were open to external ideas and focused primarily on political change in the nature of the state. This orientation was supported by the influx of heavily subsidized literature from Soviet and Chinese sources.

There was another set of the young who were motivated much more by internal ideas and focused primarily on moral improvement of individuals in the belief that such moral improvement would result in a better society. These were primarily Islamic moral and religious ideas for a better future.

There were a number of important differences in these two broad categories of activists. The left-oriented political activists articulated the views of a small minority of the total population but were a fair proportion of this population. The right-leaning social activists articulated the views of a large majority of the total population but were a relatively lower proportion of this population. On balance, because of the large difference in the relative sizes of the population pools, the absolute number of right-leaning activists exceeded the number of left-leaning activists.

Other salient differences were quite obvious. Left-leaning activists subscribed to secular ideas, sought systemic political change, and attempted to mobilize collective movements to achieve their objectives. Right-leaning activists derived their inspiration from religion, focused on individual moral improvement, and furthered their objectives through schemes providing social welfare to communities. It would also be fair to say that in Pakistan left-leaning approaches were top-down while right-leaning ones were bottom-up.

Fifty years later, the situation appears significantly more complex. External ideas offering alternative models of state structure have lost much of their appeal. Marxist approaches, in particular, have little credibility to offer and various articulations of hybrids remain too vague to have sufficient resonance in large enough groups of people to be relevant. Internal ideas, on the other hand, have grown from a focus on individual moral reform to offering political alternatives of various shades supported extensively with subsidized inputs from the Middle East. These mark the transition from the Islamic to the Islamist orientation in Pakistan.

What one sees today is a world of activism almost upside down. The segment of youth that fifty years ago would have been in the vanguard of left-leaning, secular, political activism is engaged now in a very different manner. Most are involved in efforts to improve individual social welfare through NGO-sponsored community projects while at the same time being quite at ease with religious prescriptions to achieve a better society. The latter is manifested by initiatives centered on promoting inter-faith harmony.

On the other hand, the segment of youth that fifty years ago would have been in the vanguard of the right-leaning, religious, moral activism has split, with a significant element moving on to religiously inspired activism directed towards political change. (The reader would no doubt register that these are broad generalizations and not applicable to every single individual in either group.)

The bottom line is that there has been a marked rightward shift in activism in Pakistan over the last fifty years. This shift includes both the sources of ideas and the nature of the activism itself. A large proportion of the segment that earlier contributed political activists has transitioned to social welfare approaches while those who earlier contributed moral activists have split into two – a section continuing in the older tradition and another moving on to political activism inspired by internal religious ideas.

This much should be acceptable to the reader who takes the time to reflect on these changes. It is less clear, however, as to what might be the forces driving this change itself. At one level, the erosion of the credibility of externally inspired models is a convincing enough reason for the decline of left-leaning activism. In parallel, the emergence of a seemingly real clash of religions at the global level can explain the rise of right-leaning political activism.

However, there might be a less obvious factor that has facilitated this transition and helped give it the specific character we see today. This relates to the evolution of the labor market in Pakistan over the last fifty years. At the beginning of this period the balance of economic growth and the supply of labor was such that almost anyone with some education was guaranteed a reasonable employment. This assurance was sufficient to allow many young people to indulge their idealistic aspirations whether on the left or on the right.

Fifty years later, the pool of educated youth has expanded manifold and greatly outpaced the growth in the number of acceptable jobs created by a consistently anemic economy. This outcome has pushed even the better educated to struggle for decent employment which has become the over-riding priority. Idealistic aspirations are now satisfied through part-time or incidental social work. At the same time, the job market for the less well-educated is so bleak that many of them have found attractive the promise of political change that would skew the distribution of resources in their favor. One might almost claim that the activism of idealism has been replaced by the activisms of anxiety and resentment.

A counterfactual thought experiment might prove useful to probe the plausibility of this hypothesis. What would have happened if the Pakistani economy over the past fifty years had been propelled by East Asian rates of growth? Would we have seen the same patterns of activism even in the face of the decline of Marxism and the rise of the clash of religions?

If not, what might we have seen instead? Perhaps much more activism centered on human rights, participatory governance, and basic freedoms. It is plausible that the concerns could have been quite different. If so, the conclusion supports the contention that the evolution of the labor market is a factor that must be considered in understanding how our society and the nature of its activism have evolved over the preceding half century.

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Some Thoughts on God and Religion

January 10, 2016

I found myself residing once again in a locality exposed to holy noise – the simultaneous narration of the azaan from about a dozen mosques that renders the resulting sound completely unintelligible. This time there was one difference – one of the mosques had amplified itself beyond the reach of the competition and its imam had specialized in a quasi-sermon at six every other morning. Whether it was for a live audience or just for self-improvement I don’t know but almost every word of the narrative was now intelligible. After a few iterations, almost entirely repetitive, I figured out the pattern. The narration, about fifteen minutes in duration, was divided into two equal halves – the first communicated a list of things God doesn’t want people to do and the second a matching list of things God does want people to do. Needless to say, this structure allowed for dramatically rhetorical and rhythmic oration that gradually built up to a rising crescendo of moral righteousness.

The last time I checked I had found that the law of the land restricted the use of mosque loud-speakers to the amplification of the azaan and the Friday sermon. I wondered if the imam knew he was violating the law since this had been a subject of public discussion a while back. Perhaps he did but believed that this was one of the things God did want him to do and in our country, I am told, the commandments of God trump the law of the land. As was the case during my previous stay in the locality, the residents though tired of the repetitive message, were unwilling to raise the issue for fear of finding themselves at the wrong end of holy wrath.

I tried to make the best of the situation and turned my attention to exploring the relationship between God and religion which is something in our country we take for granted. It seemed reasonable to me to believe that the notion of god must have preceded the invention of religion. History does seem to suggest that from the very beginning of human existence man must have been wondrous of natural phenomena beyond his control and critically important for his survival – thunder, lightning, rain, earthquakes, fire and so on. Anthropological accounts provide evidence of how these phenomena were attributed to gods. Hence we have the very well-known pantheon of pagan gods of the Greeks and Romans – these imagined entities were the causes of various natural phenomena and some of them had to be appeased to be beneficent to human beings.

The invention of religion as we know it today seems to be a much later phenomenon dating perhaps to the emergence of large settled communities at the beginning of the age of agriculture. The stability of large communities was crucially dependent on adherence to a shared and mutually acceptable set of rules and values that yielded order and minimized disorder – hence the almost universal prohibitions against deceit, theft, murder and so on. These codes evolved to assume the form of religious injunctions.

What is of interest is that the concept of God and the institution of religion did not come together automatically – in some places they did and in some they did not with hugely significant implications. In fact, even the step of many gods being replaced by one god and fallible gods with limited powers being replaced by one omniscient creator of life was not a universal occurrence. The attribution of a divine plan to the omniscient god, transmitted to chosen sets of people charged with the mission to follow and realize it and to be judged based on their performance, was even less universal.

If we look across the world today, we can discover all sorts of combinations of godhood and codes of behavior. Aboriginal people like Native Americans retain almost all the characteristics of the pagan Greek and Roman constellations of gods. Hinduism, which should more accurately be considered a code than a religion, retains multiple gods with a great degree of freedom to deem any one of them as the patron god of a family. Buddhism is a religion without a god. The Chinese worship their ancestors and some acknowledge a benign heavenly emperor in the sky without any divine plan of sorts. In fact, Confucianism is simply a way, a guide to good living compiled by a human being without any divine sanction to enforce its acceptance or implementation.

It is only the three monotheistic religions arising in the Middle East that have gone all the way combining codes of behavior with the sanction of a single omniscient God with a divine plan communicated to followers through a holy text. And it is through these texts that one gets to the stage of knowing what God wants us to do and not to do – for example, the content of the sermon of the imam which triggered these observations.

In thinking through this evolution, it seems to me that religion has not done too well as far as its don’ts are concerned. Despite the rapid increase in the number of houses of worship per square mile of land, the incidence of code violations – untruth, dishonesty, exploitation – continues to mount and many excessively religious societies are in an extreme state of social disorder. The do’s of these religions, on the other hand, are a different matter – amenable to multiple interpretations and easily hijacked to support all sorts of political objectives. In this case, there are no countervailing forces to limit the potential damage to humanity.

Given the above and as a result of historical experience, it is not surprising to see in some places a movement in reverse – the separation of Godhood from religion. One comes across more and more people who consider themselves religious without necessarily believing in an omniscient God with either a divine plan or the power to judge, reward, or punish humans for their acts on earth. There are others who continue to believe in God but profess no particular religious identity. The declining global attendance in churches is one manifestation of these trends which does not imply that the people who cease to attend church have become irreligious. Rather, religion has once again been reduced to a social bond and a communal code of ethical behavior that people subscribe to without the need for divine sanction to ensure its acceptance.

I am eagerly looking forward to the completion of my stay in this locality although I am grateful to the imam for initiating this exploration. I am not sure he would approve of his sermon being used for such a purpose but perhaps he also does not fully know what God wants or intends in making his followers do what they do on earth.

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Reflections on Eid

August 6, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

It was fall last year that I was teaching the introductory course in economics and had drawn four concentric circles on the board to illustrate how the market was embedded in the economy which was embedded in society which, in turn, was embedded in the extra-terrestrial outerworld.  The objective was to spark a conversation about how the outer spheres limited what could or could not take place in the inner ones as also to point out the fact that while the economy and society had always existed, the market as an institution was a relatively recent phenomenon.

From there we moved on to discuss how the reach of the market was expanding and its ambit growing to include aspects that were previously never within its domain to the extent that reading the standard textbooks one could well believe that the market economy was all one needed to consider to understand everything that needed to be understood including births, deaths, marriages, crime, you name it – everything that mattered was the ‘Economy of Something’ and subject to the calculus of supply, demand, prices, and ability to pay.

It was in that context that it occurred to me to remark on the fact that all of the past Ramadan the Pakistan cricket team had been somewhere or the other playing a series of international matches. Only a few decades earlier this would have been unthinkable but now the market had engulfed the game and the governing body had laid down the schedule – defy it and lose millions of dollars. And dollars had won. So the direction of influence that used to be from considerations of afterlife to the economy was now clearly running the other way.

I thought we had laid this to rest when lo and behold the big Eid arrived during the semester and now the Pakistani cricket team was elsewhere and Eid was on the third or fourth day of the test match and, to my horror, it was not a rest day – the Pakistan cricket team was actually playing on Eid day.

Well, well! The ICC was clearly not foostering around with solemn looking men sighting the moon with naked eyes. Rot-in-Hell, they were saying – play or be damned which in our time is nothing more than being out of cash. And these fellows were playing – the same fellows who started every conversation with thanks be to Almighty Allah, the boys played very well but Allah did not want us to win while under the breath wondering if they could have made more if they had arranged for another no-ball on the fifth ball of the third over.

Clearly the market had triumphed and trampled Eid underfoot. All that came back to me as I woke up this Eid day to the incessant buzzing of my cell phone with waves of inane messages from people I had had the misfortune of having my trousers stitched or my head massaged years ago. It took me considerable time deleting the felicitations most of them without reading. It was then that I found that the same ladies and gentlemen had been ardent enough to make doubly sure they reached me by forwarding the same messages to my email account. Another round of feverish deletions ensued in the midst of which a truly determined soul decided to actually call to make sure his messages had been registered. It was then that I lost my cool.

Just about then a dozen mosques burst alive at the same time competing with each other in the true spirit of the market economy. I should have thought what a wonderful gift competition is and how blessed we are to be showered with it but by this time I had a terrible headache and felt deeply desirous of a dose of creative destruction. I decided that if the shaking of my hands could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with resigned despair to that end.

Readers interested in more on the embedded nature of the economy in society should refer to Part I (Economy and Society) of Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economies: Essays of Karl Polanyi (George Dalton, ed. 1968). Note the following comment on page 3: “No society could, naturally, live for any length of time unless it possessed an economy of some sort; but prior to our time no economy has ever existed that, even in principle, was controlled by markets.” The debt to Eliot is also acknowledged.

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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Reflections on Lost Times

August 1, 2014

By Ibn-e Eusuf

Father was like that. Eager to have us learn everything, oblivious to details. Busy, busy. Shunting trains by day, learning French by night. Mother never said much, went along mostly.

Handed over to a music teacher or somesuch. Eight or thereabouts. No Sa Re Ga. Right away on to aye maalik tere bandey ham tuu ne zarrey se keeRaa banaya or somesuch. Closet evolutionist. Wept. Mother gently requested change of tune. Merey maalik bulaa le madeenay mujhe. About death and dying. Final requests, etc. Nothing doing. End of music hall career.

Still, thanks and all. Never forgot bulaa le madeenay bit. Coming in handy now. Understand all about politics. Aatey umrah jaatey umrah. Mountain of rye. Mice. Roared. Wind ke jhonkoN se. Pudeenay ke bagh. No offence. miaN khush raho ham dua kar chalay. Farsighted bastard. Somepeople know it all. Should have stayed with him. Might have been PM now. Other way blocked. Father said only duffers went into forces. Mother agreed: only one in entire family.

Handed over to very short Maulvi saab. Nine or thereabouts. Went through the text twice. Didn’t understand anything. Quarreled every day. Molly saab said duad mother said zuad. Molly saab fed up with food. Me fed up with duad-zuad. Third time got bored. Gave up halfway. Never went back. End of religious career. Could have eliminated some heathens. Earned hasanas. Hosannas? Gone to jannah early. No bukbuk of longmarch to Islamabad. Tantrums of Imran Khan. Missing Aunt Jemima. Pancake.

Handed over to Mohd Shafi painter. Ten or thereabouts. Lived in servant quarters. Carrying on with Bibbo next door. Accompany to Friday prayers. Garhi Shahu mosque. First time. New shoes stolen. Never went back. End of second chance. Unsolved mystery. Bakistan ka matlab kya. Whatever. Jo bhii. More heathens saved. Mohd Shafi made wooden box with name painted on top. For secret stuff. Now lost.

Handed over to Ijaz sahib. Real artist. Eleven or thereabouts. Bad at art. Failing at school. Art teacher Choosy mad yelling caning. Six of the best. Takhti wala skool me jaenga darakht ke neechey baithenga. Ijaz sahib trying all. Nothing works. Lines all crooked. Everyone resigned. End of art career. Picasso made crooked lines. Crooked lines not bad. Crooked good. More crooked the better. Things one learns too late. Life.

Handed over to Mehtab. Caddy. Twelve or thereabouts. Picked up fast. Excellent on fairway. Excellent on green. Daily practice. Hitting long. Lost father’s favorite red ball. Big fight. End of golf. End of golfing career. Forest for trees. Wood. Wooden headed. Live and learn. Don’t fight over little things. Little things seem big when little. Big folks mostly little. Live and learn.

Not handed over anymore. Given up. Teens or thereabouts. Did alright. Passed school passed college. Read Wilde stayed sober. Read Russell Why I am not a Christian etc. I doubt therefore I am. Mother read GhalibMirSauda. More doubt. No more same I. Faiz. PostmenoN ke naam. Girlfriend gifted origins of family and private property. World turned upside down. Pak sar zameen. Things not what they seem. Hain kawakib kuch nazar aatey haiN kuch. Bogey shunted to branch line. 786 Down.

End of college. Big fight. Want to study literature. Write poetry. Mother’s dream CSP. Commissioner. King of the district. Orderlies etc. Father MA English from GC. Handed over to father’s best GC buddy. CSP. Secretary of somethingortheother. Writer as well. Big pow-wow. Verdict. Only duffers study arts. Hath meiN hunar hona zuroori hai. Bad times. Bhutto idiot. Screwing up civil service. Lateral entry. Duffers.

Entered engineering university on high merit. Everyone proud. Many DN duffers. Headpiece full of straw. Real rulers. futtey. phitte munh phitte munh phiite munh e un e un e un. ATTESHA! Present arms. Gather alms. ghutliyoN ke daam. Baang. Whimper. Thusss. Hell on earth. Voted best English writer. Pansy. Wrote blasphemous poem for magazine. Turned down. Wrote obscene poem for magazine. Turned down. Wrote angry poem for magazine. Turned down. End of writing career. Obscenity ok. Manto. Ismat. Lihaaf. Before Zia. No more. Obscenity everywhere. Not much smut. Vanilla obscenity.

Frustrated. Selfhanded over to female. Twentyone or thereabouts. Life’s lesson. Never be frustrated. Too late. As ever. End of career. Dead end. End dead.

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Requiescat

July 12, 2014

By Anjum Altaf in the Economic and Political Weekly

Individuals picked off, gone – strangers, friends of friends, friends, relatives – some for who they were, others for straying in the way.

Names etched in memories – Ali Haider, Faisal Manzoor, Mehdi Ali, Rashed Rehman, Irfan Ali, Farzana Parveen, Perveen Rehman…

The public, incapacitated – benumbed, indifferent, does it matter?

Instead, shrill voices of love and hate troll predictably, pressing stale arguments into uncomplaining service.

The telephone rings. A voice from afar:

— Time to give up now?

We have gone to bed often with this question only to wake up irresolute, buying time, cursing broken promises, comforting fading hopes.

Is love denial? Is hate the absence of understanding?

Is there truth beyond love and hate?

Can we look at ourselves, own what stares back at us, and find reasons to hope?

On one side, history – witches burnt, heretics persecuted, blacks lynched, Jews gassed – the journey from darkness into light.

On the other, reality – witches burnt, heretics persecuted, blacks lynched, Jews gassed – the ones that perished in the dark.

Who perishes in the dark? Who survives into the light?

Jews fled to survive. Blacks escaped north to fight.

There is no North here.

What do we say to them we have failed? We will emerge in the light fueled by your embers?

What do we say to ourselves when we begin to go mad, seeds of hatred lodged in every breast sprouting tangled, thorny vines? What do we do when we foresee our names in the registers, we who did not hate enough?

What do we do when the ship begins to list? Set it right, keep it afloat.

And when it begins to sink? Lower the rafts.

And be the last to leave.

This then is the answer – at once unconvincing and overwhelming – to the voice over the telephone.

— For them, over whom the black clouds have descended – flight, to fight another day.

— The rest, they stay – to make this land whole again as they see it whole.

One day, they too shall leave, but not yet, not just yet.

An epigraph from Yeats has been added to the print version by EPW.

Thanks to Hasan Altaf for valuable suggestions.

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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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…)

Understanding Communalism: The Past is No Guide to the Present

October 14, 2012

By Anjum Altaf

The present in South Asia is messy, gruesome and unpleasant; no wonder we keep referring back to the past to make sense of it. Most of the time, however, we end up distorting the past to craft seamless narratives that accord with our current sensibilities. I will argue in this essay that there is no such continuity to be crafted and enter a plea for the past to be left alone. (more…)

Brown as the Mouths of Rivers

May 9, 2012

By Hasan Altaf

Excerpts from an essay published in a special issue (A Country of Our Own – A Symposium on Re-Imagining South Asia) of Seminar, India, April 2012.

*

A nation cannot grow in entirely barren ground, however, and so in Pakistan we have attempted to replace “South Asia” with “Islam”: to substitute for culture, religion, in theory a straight one-to-one transfer. There is no space for chaos here, either, though; the Islam we choose to imagine is monolithic, straight-from-the-sands, brooking-no-argument; it ignores the vast diversity even among our Islams, let alone all our religions and cultures, and says that in the interests of simplicity, order, there will only be one, there has always been only one right way to go about this business.

Once again, it was the Met that put things in context. (more…)

Craving Middleness

April 8, 2012

By Maryam Sakeenah

I travel across two worlds in my 20-minute commuting distance between both my workplaces: a modern religious school and a private grammar school where scions of Pakistan’s moneyed elite are privileged with quality education in tune with modern needs. The mindsets I deal with, the attitudes I encounter make for interesting comparison. At the religious school, the concepts of the sacred and the profane as defined by absolute religious morality are the framework for all thought-patterns and behaviour. Fidelity to the sacred is the highest value promoted and readily accepted – at least ostensibly – in an environment designed to actively encourage it. At the grammar school, the central value is free thinking and critical inquiry rigorously promoted by the administration. The curriculum is built around and disseminates post Enlightenment Western perspectives and metanarratives, with the fundamental premise being that of morality being relative, and of individual liberty being the highest value to be protected and safeguarded. Students are taught to invariably seek answers and explanations through logic, and question where the logical basis for an assumption seems unsatisfactory. (more…)

God, Music and Food for Thought

July 14, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

In a discussion of the arts, it was mentioned that middle-class families in India encouraged children to learn classical music because it was a mark of high culture; it made one special in one’s esteem and in that of others. It was then asked why classical music was not healthy in Pakistan given that much the same considerations should be applicable across the border. It is my sense that the question was less an expression of belief and more an opening for a discussion and I am going to exploit that to speculate on some topics of interest.

The one-word, and not altogether flippant, answer to the question is God. Hindu deities (Krishna and Saraswati, to mention just two) not only approve of but delight in music. Whether Allah approves or disapproves is still in doubt with no resolution in sight while the camp of disapprovers continues to add adherents. (more…)


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