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.