Culture wars

Dr Manzur Ejaz, USA

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The Pakistan ruling elite had started creating a cultural vacuum by undermining indigenous cultures and languages. This was partly designed to eliminate diversity in order to create a homogeneous Islamic state

I couldn’t help listening in on a cooking programme my wife was watching on a Pakistani channel. The chef was giving a recipe for some Middle Eastern dish, something that didn’t come close to any cuisine from the subcontinent. Towards the end of the programme, my wife commented that she had been watching the programme for the entire month of Ramazan and the chef had been giving Arab recipes only. The cooking part of the show was followed by an Arabic hymn.

Was this evidence of a cultural invasion from the Middle East or of the Pakistani defeatist-inferiority complex? Do such Arab-centric programmes help Al Qaeda’s ideological penetration into Pakistan or are there other dimensions to this?

I know Indian Muslims have always been fascinated with the land of Prophet Muhammad PBUH, but their interest was more a part of their imaginary or metaphysical world. In their daily affairs, they enjoyed their indigenous traditions, culture and literature. Back then, the Arabs were mere Bedouins and the subcontinent was relatively prosperous and modern.

The discovery of oil and the influx of petrodollars changed the whole equation. Now the people of the subcontinent are going to Arab countries as lowly labour, pejoratively termed maskeens, and the Arabs are building big modern cities and playing a significant role in the world financial system. They hold the purse and we Pakistanis in particular have become the beggars.

Starting from Bhutto’s ostentatious Islamic Conference in Lahore, immediately after he took over power, every succeeding ruler, military or democratic, has paid homage to the Saudis. Saudi intervention in Pakistani politics dates back to the Bhutto period when he objected to an alleged large cheque sent to Maulana Maududi. That was followed by Zia-ul Haq, whose personal ideological preferences and the war in Afghanistan paved the way for the onslaught of the puritanical version of Islam from the Middle East.

This period left a deep impact on society – consider that even commonly used terms like khuda-hafiz were changed to Allah-hafiz. Use of the non-Arabic word khuda became redundant. Some even considered its use shirk.

The Pakistani ruling elite played a very shrewd but self-defeating cynical game. They exported human commodity (labour) to the Middle East to earn foreign reserves for their luxury imports and introduced Arab culture and ideology to the people. It is amazing that the late Qurratulain Haider, in her early 50s novella Cactus Land,had portrayed the way the ‘Islamic Republic’ was importing the Arab culture.

She was only partly right because the elites imported Arab culture for the common people but Western education and lifestyle for themselves. And ironically, to sustain their alien Western lifestyle, they chose to construct big mansions on Arab land, in Dubai and other Gulf states, as showcases of their ascent.

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan had started moving towards Middle Eastern culture much before its first contacts with the United States. Of course, the US used the misguided ideological and cultural direction of Pakistani rulers to further its interests before and after the Afghan war. And why would a country not use others to protect its own national interests? One cannot put the entire blame on the US. As a matter of fact, the elites of Muslim countries, allied with the US, want the people to blame the US and not them.

The Pakistan ruling elite had started creating a cultural vacuum by undermining indigenous cultures and languages. This was partly designed to eliminate diversity in order to create a homogenous Islamic state: a composite ideology comprising Islam, Urdu and massive distortions of history was imposed by civilians and, more so, military establishments. Indigenous culture and languages were annihilated, particularly in Punjab and the NWFP. The state’s self-constructed ideology could not fill the resulting vacuum. Therefore, puritanical religious ideology and culture penetrated the above-mentioned areas. No wonder most jihadis were, and are, bred in the NWFP and Punjab.

However, this aspect of history is not the only factor in introducing the Middle Eastern version of Islam, which is at the core of Talibanisation. Socio-economic transformations over the last thirty years may have played a greater role in this upheaval, as was mentioned by the American intellectual Rodney Jones at a seminar recently organised by Khawaja Ashraf, President of the Pakistani American Congress.

Mr Jones argued that through migration of workers from the tribal belt and due to other overwhelming external factors, the traditional tribal system collapsed. And since the Pakistani state did not introduce modern institutions of governance, a vacuum was created, filled by the Taliban. In his view, Talibanisation of the Pashtuns is also an effort to maintain their hegemony in Kabul.

Leaving aside the aspirations of Afghan Pashtuns for another column, I feel a similar process has destabilised Punjabi society, giving rise to an extremist version of Islam in certain sections. The fast-paced socio-economic changes in the province have transformed the population, while state institutions have remained as primitive as they were sixty years ago. Same characterisation can be applied all of North India where Hindu extremism has risen in the Hindi-speaking Cow Belt and the Khalistan movement in Punjab.

However, Pakistan’s situation has deteriorated more rapidly because the state imposed a composite reactionary ideology, which resulted in evaporation of indigenous cultures and languages. For example, in Punjab, one can only find anti-theocracy ideology in classical Punjabi literature written by Sufis. If one substitutes the works of these thinkers with ruthless invader heroes in the educational curriculum, one should not expect moderate and enlightened individuals coming out of the educational system.

The writer can be reached at
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