Saturday June 22, 2024

Can Pakistan manage modernity?

By Javid Husain
August 26, 2023

Pakistan, like most of the Muslim world, is faced with the existential challenge of modernity. The challenge was initially posed around the beginning of the 19th century when the Islamic world, weakened by outdated dogmas and rituals that were at variance with the teachings of Islam and its real spirit, collided with a resurgent West which had been awakened by Enlightenment and fortified by the industrial revolution and scientific and technological advancement.

The decadent Muslim states from Indonesia to Morocco collapsed in the face of an expansionist West so that by the beginning of the 20th century most of them had been colonized by one Western state or the other. The defeat of the Ottoman Empire during World War I and its subsequent disintegration were virtually the last nail in the coffin of the decadent Muslim world.

What caused the Muslim world, with a distinguished past both in terms of physical expansion and scholarly achievements, to cave in so ignominiously in front of an expansionist West? The answer to this question may provide us with guidelines for the revival and progress of the Muslim world in the future.

The Renaissance in Europe starting from the 15th century gave birth to free and critical enquiry leading to the questioning of received dogmas and advancement in human knowledge. It laid the foundation for the Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries which emphasized the use of reason for understanding the universe resulting in revolutionary progress in different branches of knowledge especially sciences and leading to the industrial and technological revolution from the 18th century onwards. In politics, the Enlightenment gradually led to the organization of the state on democratic lines.

New scientific discoveries and the industrial and technological revolution enormously increased the power of the Western nations as they set out to conquer distant lands and exploit their resources for their own benefit. By way of contrast, the Muslims, who in their earlier years of glory and progress spanning about a thousand years since the advent of Islam were the torch bearers of human learning, had lost interest in the advancement of knowledge especially sciences. This was tragic particularly because of the emphasis that Islam places on gaining knowledge through observation and scientific enquiry as repeatedly enjoined by the Holy Quran and several sayings of the Prophet (pbuh).

Instead of inculcating the spirit of free and critical enquiry, Muslims were content with practicing received dogmas and rituals which deviated from the true spirit of Islam. It was not surprising, therefore, that Muslim states, which lacked the vigour of intellectual dynamism, the unity and solidarity derived from the political organization on democratic principles, and the strength of scientific advancement and industrial revolution, were easily defeated by Western nations.

The pace of modernization has gathered speed since the beginning of the 20th century. Modernity as we understand it now is marked by intellectual readiness to question received dogmas and consider new ideas, religious moderation and tolerance, scientific progress, development of new products and technologies, innovative managerial practices, fast means of transportation, instantaneous communications, and accelerated financial exchanges. In essence, the modern era is both knowledge-based and knowledge-driven, that is, knowledge mainly determines the position and the pace of progress of a state in the comity of nations.

Unfortunately, Pakistan as a nation fails in meeting most of the criteria of modernity. For instance, instead of encouraging critical inquiry in our search for knowledge, we are prone to accept received doctrines in different branches of knowledge without questioning their rationale and validity in the modern age. This approach leads to intellectual stagnation with a negative impact on humanity’s march forward on the road to progress and prosperity. This flaw is particularly prominent in the way we deal with social, political, and economic issues confronting society. Contrary to the teachings of Islam and the demands of modernity, our society also suffers from growing religious extremism and intolerance as evidenced by the tragic events witnessed at Jaranwala recently.

Pakistan regrettably also falls in the category of those nations which have assigned a low priority to education in general and to science and technology in particular despite the importance of knowledge in the modern era. Historically, Pakistan’s total expenditure on education has been far below the international standards. As against the Unesco recommended ratio of 4.0 per cent of GDP, Pakistan’s expenditure on education has rarely exceeded 2.0 per cent of GDP and was as low as 1.7 per cent of GDP in 2021-22. Consequently, our literacy percentage is at the shamefully low level of about 60 per cent which means that out of a population of about 250 million according to the latest estimates, 100 million are illiterate.

We hardly have a university in the country capable of producing graduates of international standards. We are particularly far below international standards in teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects, which puts us at a great disadvantage in the global race for the development of sciences and technologies.

Pakistan also lags far behind economically advanced countries in the development of physical infrastructure including roads, railways, airports, seaports, means of transportation and communications, and sources of energy which constitute the base for progress in industry and agriculture. Similarly, Pakistan’s managerial practices in general leave a lot to be desired from the point of view of the demands of the modern era.

Finally, Pakistan’s political thought and practices have failed to catch up with the evolution of democracy that has taken place in the modern era. We still have to resolve the continued tension between the elected institutions of the state and the military establishment which has ruled the country during almost half of its history while controlling the other state institutions from behind the scene during the remainder half. Consequently, Pakistan has suffered from continued political instability which has in turn prevented our governments from performing well. The continued hold of feudalism is another factor preventing Pakistan from entering the modern era.

Pakistan’s leaders and policymakers need to ponder over these issues with a view to drawing the right lessons from our history while keeping in view the demands of the modern era. It is only thus that we will be able to correct our past mistakes and put the country on the road to progress and prosperity.

The writer is a retiredambassador. He can be reached at: