The level of cultural degradation in Pakistan can be gauged from fact that Dr. Aamir Liaquat Hussain teaches us religion, Asif Zardari honesty, Altaf Hussain peace and Engineer Agha Waqar technology
Raymond Williams termed culture as one of the most difficult words in any language. Any analysis of culture naturally finds it very difficult to find a single locus. To understand culture in its myriad forms we have to focus on multiple loci.
Power is the common thread that connects multiple sites of culture. Power in culture often does not manifest itself directly. Rather it operates in any given culture in a diffused form. Because of its diffused nature Michel Foucault said ‘power is everywhere but it comes from nowhere.’ In the case of state and society, the state’s policies and approaches directly or indirectly influence the culture of the society. In this essay culture will be treated as a powerful site of the manifestation of power in Pakistan.
According to the New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought culture can be defined as the total body of material artifacts, of collective mental and spiritual ‘artifacts’, and of distinctive forms of behaviour created by a people in their ongoing activities within their particular life-conditions, transmitted from generation to generation. In simple words, culture is what people practice and make. Culture is distinct from nature because it is manmade. When the culture of a particular society is examined with reference to changes in government, it is difficult to identify the actual moments which we can clearly define as change. Culture is a perpetual process of change. When a culture ceases to change, it becomes irrelevant to society. The important question about culture is whether cultural change leads to betterment of life or to its deterioration. It is a double edged sword. For an inept society with an obedient mind it proves to be lethal.
The current government, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) took power in 2008. The PPP claims a base of support among the poor, mainly in rural areas. Although it has a presence in the urban centres of Pakistan, it is not as strong in urban centres as in rural areas. This makes the composition of the party, its priorities and the outlook of its leadership, its patterns of governance and its politics different from other parties. The main challenge faced by the government is the rising dominance of militant Islamists in different parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Although the monster of Islamism spread its tentacles to tribal areas and to Swat before the current government assumed power. Formation of coalition government in KPK by Awami National party and the PPP has enabled them to make space for secular politics in the areas where fundamentalists were gaining ground. Since the outlook of both parties towards the cultural sphere was secular, both of them understood the common enemy to be the Taliban. This has helped different sections of society who are in favour of a secular/liberal culture to converge on a single issue.
Concomitantly, the government directly and indirectly favoured syncretic and populist forms of religion in different regions of Pakistan. Being a party with roots in populist culture, PPP espoused Sufi Islam, a form of Islam that follows syncretism While doing so, the government and proponents of this idea do not realize that the puritan and fundamentalist form of Islam has succeeded to capture more space in the cultural and mental landscape because the traditional Islam has failed to make sense to people who have been displaced from their indigenous roots and find themselves in an alienated ambience of urban centres. It is to find ontological security at individual and collective level in an alienated culture, urban middle class and poor segments of society refuge in religion. The attempt by the PPP and its allies to rejuvenate old cultural forms to tackles modern challenges is a non starter. It demonstrated a lack of imagination on the part of PPP and the secular class. This failure is reflection of culture that has failed to make sense of the modern world.
Interestingly, the rural roots of PPP have bearing upon decisions regarding choice of current and future leadership. Paradoxically it is a party that claims to be progressive, but follows the typical feudal norms by promoting hereditary politics. President Asif Ali Zardari tours foreign countries with Bilawal Zardari at public expense. Yousaf Raza Gillani gave leeway to his children to find a niche for themselves in Pakistani politics. When it comes to Nawaz family they do not tolerate any change in party that dents their family power. Thus, the synergy of particular political dynasties with modern institutions enabled the culture of traditional mindset to dominate the political scene. When the whole state becomes subservient to traditional mindset and family interest, then it is illogical to expect culture to be tolerant, open and progressive.
On the other side, the populist power in urban centres has propelled Mutahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) into power. It is a party that derives its legitimacy from being a representative of middle class. The concentration of power in the single person and over celebration of middle class without democratic checks and balances has turned the progressive mindset of Karachi into tribal one. Though, Karachi does not have indigenous concept of tribe, its culture has virtually been transformed into tribal one. It is the culture of expediencies that enabled ruling class to accommodate fascism within democracy. So it can be said that both lack of power and concentration of power led to a culture intolerance and violence in Pakistan.
The crisis in Pakistani society provided fertile ground for different forces to mould the culture in a cast that served the interests of their respective power centres. It led to experiments and interventions in different domains of life. In this way it allowed INGOs to play a major role in determining the contours of the culture in this phase of change. Time bound and rootless, the initiatives of the INGOs did not yield the desired results for social change. Their interventions generated activity for specific periods of time and involved groups of people, but their activities ultimately fizzled out because they lacked an understanding of local interests. They provided time limited funding and failed to engage in activities and projects organic to the local society. The result was a tenuous connection with the citizenry. This led to a sharp social distinction between the milieu that emerged from the development sector and those who were disillusioned with development actors.
The variance in perceptions among development practitioners created a culture in which the interventionists became spokespersons for the objects of their intervention. Deprived of agency within the structures of the NGOs, the majority of the population was disillusioned, while the development practitioners claimed to represent the wretched of the earth. The resulting social and cultural dichotomy was determined by how existing power relations are maintained and arranged in the particular context of Pakistan. The ruling class, feudals, and emerging nouveau riche from INGOs and the corporate sector, aligned their operations and perceptions according to existing power relations at the national and international level. It can be said that the cultural determinants in Pakistan are not only from within, but from without as well.
At the government level a culture of reconciliation was much touted. Reconciliation between different parties was encouraged, not because people in Pakistan had daggers drawn at each other but rather to protect the elite who wield power over the Pakistani state and society. One of the unfortunate consequences of the culture of reconciliation is the death of a politics of principles. The PPP capitulated to the demands of powerful groups at the expense of principles. This has led to a rent seeking attitude. Any opposition was swept under the carpet by declaring it against the spirit of reconciliation. The PPP’s so called culture of reconciliation resulted in reconciliation among the ruling class at the top and increased divisions along religious, racial, political and cultural lines among the masses .The disconnection between power and people further alienated the masses.
Historically these are the moments in the history of societies where the masses take charge of their lives by revolting against the prevailing order and culture. This is not happening in Pakistan despite the fact that objective conditions are ripe. The reason for this is that Pakistani culture is constantly fed by mysticism, fundamentalism, wish-washy liberals, feudal and false secular messiahs.
Mathew Arnold defined culture as the best that has been thought and known in the world. The level of cultural decadence in Pakistan can be gauged from fact that for knowledge the whole society is dependent on selected few anchor persons or columnists who claim to be intellectuals and pander to populist taste. Pakistani society has become a fertile ground for mediocre minds who present themselves as saviors and authorities by employing glitz and glamour of electronic media. These false gods create a culture on false premises and personas. As a corollary, the society has become culturally wasteland. Such is the cultural desperation and mental deprivation that we always accept gods who always fail. It is our desperation that makes our culture to search for heroes, however fake he or she is. In Bertolt Brecht’s drama ‘Galelio’ the dialogues of two characters aptly depict our cultural situation. They say:
Andrea: Unhappy the land that has no heroes.
Galileo: No, unhappy the land that needs heroes.
Sadly Pakistan is the land which is unhappy in both terms. A culture which is twice unhappy is a tragic culture. For a life affirming culture we have to get rid of prevailing culture in all its traditional and modern hues. Franz Fanon has rightly said that the task of anti-colonial movement did not end with independent from imperialism. With independence the second major task is to get rid of comprador class that rule over people through same tactics with indigenous face. Unfortunately, the comprador class has consolidated its grip over culture by propagating ideologies suited to them at different times. Our culture can take qualitative leap if we introduce, in the words of Fanon ‘invention into existence’. Invention in existence can be introduced through creating ideals, but our imaginative poverty precludes this existential leaps. Our intellectual culture has failed to give a single cartoon character to our children, let alone producing ideal leaders or figures to the adults.
Currently, we are paying the price of master narratives of strategic depth and assets internally and war on terror globally. To the much of dismay of rational minds, a culture of fear has been created across country and the world to benefit selected few. No doubt fear is the biggest profit making industry in the world. Pakistan has been epicenter of the fear industry in the world. On the one hand we create cultural reasons for, and technologically advanced and powerful countries invest in resources to confront the fear with fearsome weaponry. No doubt Pakistani culture looks so dismal in the context of looming disasters in the country, the region and the world.
Pakistan society is rendered apart by culture of distrust. People, sects, races and class do not trust one another. A common man does not trust the state. He or she knows that the ruling class will fled the country when the country is in dire straits. A culture lacking trust creates close society where people prefer to enclose themselves in the cocoon of their comfort zones provided by sect, language, race and class. The current cultural contradictions and social challenges in Pakistani society are a cumulative result of last 64 years history. To address these contradictions and tackle the challenges we need new associations, alternative vision, imaginative thinking, novel formations, cross cultural solidarities and destruction of current power order. For that to happen we need to get rid of ideological shackles and narratives prepared by the fake messiahs who are ready to sacrifice voice of a common man to serve the interest of their masters. In fact twenty first century is not end of history. It is prologue to new dawn. Fyodor Dostoyevsky rightly said ‘the darker the night the brighter the star’.