Trees laden with fruit

Hubris, ignorance and policy make a toxic mix

Muhammad Hamid Zaman July 20, 2021
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

My mother who died in late July 2003 used to say something that could be loosely translated in English as “that a tree laden with fruit always bows down”. Admittedly, it sounds more poetic in Urdu, but the message is universal. Those with knowledge and wisdom are humble.

We’ll return to humility and knowledge a little bit later in this essay.

But for now, imagine if Mr Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the head of state of Uzbekistan — who presumably does not speak (or can read) Urdu or any of our regional languages, and does not have any formal degree in history of Pakistan or South Asia — came to a forum in Islamabad and declared that since Mughal Emperor Babur was born in modern day Uzbekistan and was an important figure in our history, Mr Mirziyoyev knows our history better than most Pakistanis — what would we think?

Or what if Sunil Gavaskar said that he knows more about Pakistan than any other Indian because he toured the country with the Indian cricket team a few times in the 1970s and 80s?

While some may simply dismiss such bombastic claims as innocent off-the-cuff remarks, or may think that such statements project confidence, the reality is much darker. Those who are in charge of policy — whether it is institutional or national — should never be arrogant (and hence ignorant) to the point of believing that they are the most knowledgeable person among hundreds of millions. Hubris, ignorance and policy make a toxic mix — whether it is at home, or abroad; whether it is by a head of a government or a head of a hospital.

I am reminded of the story of Dr William Halsted, who was one of the most prominent surgeons in the US in late 19th and early 20th century. He firmly believed in his aggressive methods of surgery, which he applied broadly to all who came under his care. Many of his patients were breast cancer sufferers, and Halsted argued (and practised) for cutting more and more. Going from the breast all the way to the collar bone. The end result was no better outcome for patients, no cure, but permanently disfigured women who Halsted did not seem to care much about. He remained committed to his method, despite strong evidence to the contrary. Hubris in his case undermined a lot of other good work that he did (e.g. creating modern residency programmes) and permanently tarnished his legacy. His legacy today is permanent scars and immeasurable pain on his suffering patients. Hubris — for those in authority today — may lead to similar, or perhaps a much worse verdict by history.

The antidote is quite simple — and it is the exact opposite of bombastic and highly embarrassing claims. The antidote is not to simply claim that one is a student of history, but read actual history by real scholars with a sense of humility towards knowledge. Among the many books on history of central Asia is an outstanding recent book by a Pakistani-American scholar, Professor Adeeb Khalid, titled “Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquest to the Present”. Prof Khalid has spent a lifetime studying history of Islam and Muslims in the region, in particular in Uzbekistan and his most recent book is rich, detailed, nuanced and highly readable. Reading this book would, on the one hand, add valuable (and real) knowledge, and on the other allow our leaders to reflect on the region, its people, and remind them why we should be careful about summarily dismissing claims of ethnic cleansing in the region. It would — in the paraphrased words of my late mother and many wise women of her generation — save us from becoming the tall and stiff trees that provide neither shade nor fruit.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 20th, 2021.

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