Ex-foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi echoed many TV anchors when he appealed to ‘qaumi viqar’, (national honour) as he disclosed why he had disagreed with the assertion by the US that the American killer Raymond Davis enjoyed blanket immunity as a diplomat.
This meant that the argument was not only legal. It had to be upheld also, in the face of a superpower, if Pakistan was to retain its honour. Could he have said what he said if Pakistan was not a weak state? In Socratic terms, he wanted the weak state to assert its honour in the face of a hegemon. Honour, it seems, compensates for the feeling of subordination felt by the weak. On the other hand, wisdom seems to conceal weakness through strategies of survival.
Honour is held up by high principle and inflexibility; wisdom is the seeking of a middle ground through a flexible response. Honour is isolationist and non-communicative because of its readiness to fight ‘against all odds’; wisdom is a process of reconciliation and pursuit of agreement through communication. Honour is idealistic; wisdom is pragmatic. The high point of honour is martyrdom; the high point of wisdom is survival.
The above categorisation is a hermetic formulation. In any human condition, there is always a middle ground of intermixture of categories. Examples of honour and wisdom abound in history, including in our Islamic history. The second imam, Hasan, accepted the caliphate of Muawiya in an act of wisdom; the third imam, Husain, defended high principle and opposed the caliphate of Muawiya’s son, Yazid. This was an act of honour culminating in martyrdom.
In his book The End of History, Francis Fukuyama’s heroic ‘first man’ who fought for honour was taken from Plato’s Republic. Socrates explained how defence of honour created great tragedy and elevated man. Socrates himself preferred to die in the cause of high principle when he could have saved his life. Much later, Galileo, facing the Inquisition in Rome, chose to sign the church doctrine that the earth was flat and save his life. That was wisdom.
The great sixth imam, Jafar Sadiq, developed the doctrine of ‘quietism’ and saved Shiism as the ‘faith of the downtrodden’. In today’s vulgar parlance, it can be called a ‘lie low’ policy. This was wisdom, adding a second important but parallel (to martyrdom) strand in Shia thought. Mansur Hallaj could have saved his life when faced with torture in Baghdad but he chose high principle like Socrates and was martyred. Honour is rated higher in national memory than wisdom. Wisdom (hikmat) appears to be the opposite of honour (ghairat).
In their internal behaviour, states have governance in accordance with laws. In international affairs there is no governance. States, therefore, formulate ‘policy’ to engage outside their borders. Inside, it is governance that is needed; outside, it is ‘policy’ that is required. Nationalism, if it lasts, embodies a nation’s sense of honour and, like honour, is related to war and martyrdom.
However, if nationalism stands for honour, the national economy stands for wisdom. If nationalism cannot abide analysis, the economy demands constant analytical review. Because of its fundamental principle of ‘rational choice’, the economic function also brings forth the element of rationality in wisdom.
The economy wants peace at all costs and will countenance no war, just or unjust. It will not function under isolationism which is a characteristic of honour. In this sense, the national economy is a ‘dishonourable’ enterprise. Honour is prized in tribal societies more than in urbanised societies. It is also a trait of the low-literacy populations, mainly, because of its requirement of emotion rather than reason.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 27th, 2011.