The demand and supply of research

In Pakistan, there has certainly been no dearth of donor-funded projects on religious violence and identities.

Afiya S Zia August 15, 2012

There have been two recent articles in the same newspaper on the nature and quality of academic and policy research on Pakistan. However, the respective authors were almost diametrically opposed in their analytical conclusions.

Nadeem Hussain, in his article of August 6 titled “When Experts Generalise” (Dawn), traces the opportunist rise of American ‘experts’ on Pakistan and the questionable methodology employed by such analysts. He also challenges the reliance of the ensuing American policy that sources such dubious analyses and specialist studies.

In almost complete contrast to Hussain’s thesis, US-based Pakistani journalist Huma Yusuf argues that it is the “Dearth of Research” (Dawn, August 6) on Pakistan in the West and the lack of foreign interlocutors and donor funds within Pakistani academic institutions that are the cause of poor policymaking.

Yusuf’s suggestion that since Pakistanis aren’t producing research, “someone has to”, is the same orientalist logic that Hussain’s article calls attention to. Yusuf also considers the rumour of a Taliban campaign to recruit recent university graduates to be indicative of the state of higher education in Pakistan. Apart from the ahistorical, vague and questionable intellectual scope and validity of such a comment, Yusuf stands guilty of the exact sweeping ‘generalisation’ that Hussain devotes his article to.

Both make the correct observation that the only semi-academic attention that Pakistan seems to have been worthy of over the last decade, has been in the areas of security studies and religious extremism. However, what neither mention is how Pakistani experts and scholars of all shades and degrees have colluded in such enterprise and contributed towards this exceptionalism. Not only have the contributions of our researchers and ‘academics’ led to a misplaced emphasis on Pakistan as a permanent security state, but it has also stamped the country with an exclusive and ineluctable religious identity at the expense of a normative sociopolitical character. The lucrative industry that became ‘Islam Inc.’ after 9/11, pulled virtually all social scientists and potential academics into the dragnet, thereby inviting them to abandon the already fledgling mainstream social sciences, leading to a vacuum and general dumbing down of the discipline.

Neither has the Western academia stayed immune to brand Islam. Therefore, Islamisation, Islamic Studies, Political Islam, Islamic Violence, Islamic Agency, Islamic Rights for Women and so on have flooded university courses. Departments on Islam have proliferated and universities have awarded PhDs to theses, which merely tagged on ‘Islam’ to their proposals to qualify for major funding. This trend also provided the most mediocre Muslim scholars with lucrative careers and self-acclaimed analysts from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan to advise Washington on their respective countries or head think tanks at exorbitant salaries and with dubious results. While advocating scholarly pursuits that steer beyond security and violence, Yusuf counters her own claim by quoting the example of a US academic who advises the US government in support of drone attacks. Yusuf recommends that Pakistani academics should be engaged in similar moral nationalist agendas to support our government. Why do we need academics to do what nationalist religious parties are happy to promote anyway?

In Pakistan, there has certainly been no dearth of donor-funded projects on religious violence and identities. Such money flooded the research market and created a virtual army of post 9/11 specialists and experts on the subject. Anyone who was unemployed on Sept 11, 2001 in Pakistan and who considered himself a knowledgeable commentator could set up his own shop on religious conflict, jihad and extremism. Spurred on by donor dollars, this has resulted in a body of literature, much of which has been incredibly contradictory and reshaped the core of social science, merging it with politics, anthropology and policy and into a disciplinary mess.

So, it is not the dearth of research but the deluge in the kind of social science research produced over the last decade that is the problem. Within such research, all class-based identities tend to be subsumed under religious identities. Also, since such ‘scholarship’ is prioritised on the basis of funds received, it is compelled to offer pragmatic and often defeatist ‘solutions’, rather than academic ideas. Further, the findings tend to be self-perpetuating and almost always recommend more funded projects and studies.

The quality of this deluge of unchecked research and studies has led to tremendously skewed analysis and hence, policy decisions. Educational reform now means madrassa reform rather than the reformation of mainstream schools. Youth attitudes are being studied only in terms of their religious aspirations. Policies such as Af-Pak peace jirgas, which reinforce cultural essentialism, or Respecting the Veil, which re-inscribe sites of gender difference and discrimination, Islamic Relief rather than Red Cross, Sufi Universities and women’s empowerment through piety, are some examples of the limiting and defining features of the new scholarship.

One could blame this essentialisation and cultural determinism that smacks of neo-orientalism, entirely on donors. However, that would be to pretend that as academics and activists, we don’t play this to our career advantages. There is an entire generation of young revivalists comprising mostly of diasporic Muslim scholars, who are committed to the project of reinventing right wing or orthodox religio-political parties and organisations as anti-colonial, agentive, alternative Muslim subjects that can bring culturally appropriate changes in Pakistan. This is done at the expense of ignoring and suspending their political roles, bigotry and violent ideological commitment. These scholars argue for increasing spaces for religion in public discourse. Of course, many of them do so from the comfort of the ivory towers of Western academia located in secular societies and with the assistance of modern technology but that’s another matter.

While it is increasingly difficult to argue against the internal logic of The Market, which includes research and its own rules of supply and demand, there is at the very least, a need for a historically accurate and pointed understanding of why social sciences suffer in Pakistan. Some of this may be blamed on external interference but much of the cause is entirely domestic and hence, improvement depends on local resolve.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 16th, 2012.

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