Cultural wisdom in crisis

Published: August 8, 2010
The writer read social anthropology at Oxford and is an independent consultant

The writer read social anthropology at Oxford and is an independent consultant [email protected]

The list of calamities affecting Pakistan continues to grow. Leaving aside socio-political crisis, mass poverty and economic deprivation, natural disasters over the years and epic tragedies to have struck Pakistan have escalated. In the aftermath of last week’s floods, one is compelled to wonder about the whys as much as the hows and question the cultural wisdom that seeks to explain these.

As a land of a rich mystic tradition and varied spiritualisms, the subcontinent has been susceptible to embracing metaphysical explanations for even the most corporeal phenomenon. Pakistan in particular, seeks to understand most phenomenons in relation to ‘God’, encouching spirituality in the dominant idiom of ‘Islamic’ beliefs. ‘Gods wrath’ becomes the most widely accepted prima facie reasoning by the majority of our masses — both by those uneducated in the western science and logic, and begrudgingly believed by the liberally educated minority. Once logistical and scientific rationality reaches the point of reductio ad absurdum, spiritual discourse steps in to bridge the gaps. This carefully constructed reasoning comes not from an absence of rationality or lack of exposure to ‘science’ or ‘western rational thought’, but is resultant of a scientific process of its own, with its own method of (ethno) empiricism and logical positivism. It arrives with answers when science exhausts itself, when one must also ask the whys beyond the hows.

The cultural body of knowledge in Pakistan would justify individual tragedies in terms of witchcraft or magic, or even the evil eye. With respect to tragedies occurring in the domain outside the ‘Muslim’ world, they are explained through reasons such as an absence of religiosity, of mis-directed faith, of being led astray, or as an early warning of approaching doomsday. Such answers have been easy to render in relation to alien cultures. However recourse to such explanations and religious belief fails miserably in the face of natural calamities and disasters particularly as the questions are increasingly asked about the self. When it is the perceived ‘us’ that begins to infest the core, the distinction between the ‘self’ versus the ‘other’ and the logic of an absent morality begins to erode. And so, one must find new ways to answer the dilemmas of a devout Muslim population repeatedly struck by inexplicable disasters.

The turn of the century brought new challenges for Pakistan that it has had great difficulty in surmounting. Socio-politically, it has always been a cauldron of trouble, with unstable and corrupt political rule, legislation that represses rather than protects its minorities, economic deprivation and a nation on the perpetual brink of civil war. In the last few years this has been supplemented by natural disasters of unprecedented magnitude in the country. The recent Airblue crash, and the floods of last week that have already recorded a death toll in thousands. The widespread target killings and assassinations, dissemination of terrorist networks, increased alien drone attacks and unpredictable bombings – that can and have occurred anywhere, anytime – have shaken the very core of a national sense of security.

Perhaps the most alarming attack on the dominant belief system in Pakistan has been rendered by the violation of sacred places and rituals, as terrorist bombings increasingly target houses of worship, religious processions and clerical figures. As perceived, Muslims attack others in houses of refuge, the meaning of Islam has come to be challenged and debated, with a struggle to define a new mould of tolerance. Formerly, despite the distinctly non-monolithic character of Islam, pressure to assimilate and accept a normative conception of ‘Islam’– as rendered by the state or the clerics – had compelled the nation to comply. Increasingly this dominant propagation of religion – as mandated by the constitution, the current regimes or dominant ideologies of the time – have been rendered incomplete or invalid.

Resultantly we witness a ‘spiritual crisis’, perhaps in the shape of an arguable ideological paradigm shift, where former cultural wisdom is being contested, supplanted by the need for more potent solutions. Recently a Newsweek article recorded how GDP figures correlated with church visits, marking an inverse relation. It remains to be seen – despite the dubious commensurability of such a hypothesis – how increased calamities, death tolls and conflict in Pakistan correlate with increased/diminished religiosity.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 9th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (8)

  • Meekal Ahmed
    Aug 9, 2010 - 12:26AM

    ‘unstable and corrupt political rule’….

    Excuse me?

    Aren’t we forgetting something?

    How about repressive and corrupt army rule?Recommend

  • cmsarwar
    Aug 9, 2010 - 5:54AM

    Kashmali Khan’s article, unnecessarily overloaded with the jargon of Anthropology ,which she is reading at Oxford,is least helpful in leading us to any clear direction of thought or analysis.In order to understand complexities confronting the nation you do not need cultural wisdom,mystical insight or increased/decreased religiosity.You can apply simple and plain common sense combined with objective and dispassionate scrutiny of ground realities.I do not think we have exhausted all the available scientific expertise and have been unable to diagnose our maladies.Kashmali has only invited us to look into the realms of the unknown and the unexplained so that we stop looking at what is only too obvious.Nations started moving forward when they started moving away from religiosity in the affairs of state.A government is supposed to provide an equitable,just and a fair social order to its citizens.You do not need a supernatural authority to approve and sanction a political structure to ensure this.And when such a working structure is not in place the results are obvious:socio-political crises,mass poverty,economic deprivation,inability to cope with the natural disasters etc etc.It would be foolish to attribute Air Blue tragedy to some supernatural forces and a sensible approach to wait for a proper scientific investigation.I wish Kashmali Khan the best in her studies.But I would request her not to involve us in her day-to-day readings of her subject.Recommend

  • Sahar
    Aug 9, 2010 - 1:36PM

    Ridiculous assertion that religiosity in Pakistan could have anything to do with GDP – even when mosques have been attacked Muslims have continued to go to for Friday prayers. Even when minorities were under threat Christiand headed to church every Sunday.
    Our culture puts a premium on faith. When things get bad we cash in. As tragedies pile up this summer we will not turn away from God ( even though perhaps in urban centres there may be a feeling of “I hate God – why is he doing this?” ) but turn to him – this is the way we have been socialized.
    We will remain a traditional society in this way – explaining disasters in the context of the supernatural.We have been ‘punished’ for our wrongs – we will tell ourselves – or – warned to mend our ways.
    Religion is the comfortable blanket that makes it all go away – why in God’s name would we rationalize that away?Recommend

  • Aug 9, 2010 - 5:51PM

    Tolerance. Guys, let her speak. She has a point!Recommend

  • Amaar
    Aug 9, 2010 - 8:02PM

    If there is a God (which many of us believe in) then the laws of nature and such disasters are merely a reflection of His divine will. Agreed that earthquakes and floods have occurred since ages but the scale and scope of such unparalleled disasters in history should make us wonder about what is going on (e.g. Tsunami 2004, Earthquake 2005,….Floods 2010).

    If human actions against environment (and which ultimately reflect his greed and exploitation) can cause global warming then why is it bizarre to accept that God can also affect the world in tangible ways? And btw most of the disasters are largely the making of man. Even the present predicament could have been managed much better and perhaps hundreds of lives could have been saved through proper warning and training.

    You can take it as a warning from God or not, but ultimately these disasters are only reminding us that we need to reform and change before it is too late. Recommend

  • Qirat
    Aug 9, 2010 - 8:50PM

    The Ever-Living and the Self-Sustaining is not a silent spectator. He speaks, listens and acts. His powers are unlimited and undiminished. He protects his followers. Recommend

  • Aug 9, 2010 - 9:05PM

    I would like to share a piece on culture by aatish taseer… v well wriiten and I had to agree to some of his points……
    link text
    I also remember a quote by a writer where he says, “Kamyabioin ki wajah devta hein, nakamion ki wajah hum khud hein”….
    We are the masters of our own destiny….Recommend

  • M Mustafa
    Aug 9, 2010 - 11:57PM

    Only the Lord knows his ways. The humble only guess. And He is always with the righteous. The transgressors never win.Recommend

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