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A clash of cultures


May 17, 2018

Samuel P Huntington may have talked about a worldwide clash of civilisations, but we have a clash of cultures going on right here within our homeland.

This is a clash between the toxic medieval culture shaped over centuries by invasions, conquests, exploitative and autocratic rule of the Subcontinent and the barely 100-year-old nascent culture of development and democracy.

Culture is the learned behaviour of human beings. Its full range covers many subjects including knowledge, art, customs, laws, governance, organisation, ethics, work habits and any other capabilities of people in society. Our concern here is cultural capital – the sum total of social norms and behaviour – which has failed people of Pakistan in every area of human development, although it has been ruling the roost for decades. Medieval culture is the antithesis of development of society and democracy, in both concept as well as conduct. Nurtured for centuries by the ruthless pursuit of power and wealth, medieval culture evolved as a self-serving system of governance for protecting the interests of the rulers and their courtiers.

There was no concept of societal development, neither any space for political, cultural or religious minorities and women in medieval culture. The government took no responsibility for access to health and education. And ‘education without knowledge’ left people incapable of advancement. This disaster continues even today when 30 percent unemployment and 48 percent illiteracy rates define our society’s social and economic dilemma. Widespread disease and malnutrition had shortened life spans in the medieval age. These problems still haunt people’s lives, especially children, 44 percent of whom grow up to be stunted and suffer impaired growth because of malnutrition.

People in the medieval culture were on the periphery and left to find their own ways and means for social and economic survival, as the government did not recognise their ‘right’ to development. There may have been some work undertaken by the rulers, of which people might have benefitted, but these were undertaken at the ruler’s discretion as charities or religious projects. The same medieval practice continues with our model of ‘discretionary development’ by the pillars of power, in defiance of laws of economics.

It was because of this anti-development medieval culture that it took 1,000 years for the world’s GDP to double in the medieval era. The cultural changes brought by the Industrial Revolution had doubled the world’s GDP in 100 years in the 19th century. And as technology expanded, in the 20th century, it took the world’s GDP only 50 years to double. This period is expected to be further shortened in the 21st century.

Can Pakistan afford to continue with the medieval model of ‘discretionary development’ and risk rising social, economic and political tensions in this day and age?

In areas of governance, the medieval culture did not provide for redress against the high-handedness of the rulers or their courtiers. People suffered indignities unless they could mount rebellions or seek aid and assistance to topple the rulers. Law was all about the word of the ruler, which changed every time the ruler changed. Since the law did not exist as a social and cultural force, no limits could be enforced on the power of the ruler neither could he be held accountable regardless of how questionable his conduct was.

Gradually, these conquerors created dynasties and settled down to rule different parts of the Subcontinent. However, as unaccountable as it was, this medieval culture grew weak, inefficient and decadent over time and was easily overwhelmed by a small band of adventurers of the East India Company. But as the British Raj wound up its colonial business and the Subcontinent became independent, the same culture quickly took control of the levers of power of our nascent state and received a new lease of life.

Over centuries, this medieval culture has by force conditioned populations to accept social and economic inequalities – ‘fate’ as it is called by the poor and helpless people. Loot and plunder was considered normal behaviour of leaders, whom people also took to be above and beyond the law of the land. This and other toxicity of the medieval culture was supposed to be uprooted with the Independence, but is still claimed as a privilege in the 21st century. This shows that we have been served old wine in new bottles.

This sorry state of affairs has continued because there has been no realisation of providing people the right to dignity and development. There has neither been any repentance for the sins committed against the people during the dark days of this medieval rule, nor have any structural changes in the systems of governance, or even policies, been introduced. The medieval culture has been emboldened and asserts itself on the nascent state. However, only this time it is wearing a mask, so that you cannot see its real face.

The purpose of Independence was to end the dual exploitation of people at the hands of colonialism and medievalism. But we only removed one layer of foreign rule and revitalised the second one. Are we then telling people that they should feel less pain if they are denied their dignity and robbed of their assets by people of their own faith, colour or language than by outsiders?

If the answer to this question is in the negative, then another question arises: why then haven’t we done away with this medieval culture whose toxic effects continue to appear in the shape of continuing poverty, illiteracy, indignity and unemployment of people and corruption and incompetence in governance? The reason is that this culture has created firewalls to keep itself out of the reach of laws and institutions by disabling the instruments of governance to prevent its questionable activities, thereby ensuring that the system keeps regurgitating a leadership that is severely handicapped in knowledge, skills and ethics. And so far it has been embarrassment for Pakistan at both home and abroad.

Any nation-building project must first set the direction of its instruments of governance. Every project should be checked for whether its compass is directed to serve the people or the rulers? If it is the latter, then no sectorial policies and programmes – education, health, law and order – will achieve the real objectives. These would all remain subservient to the overall objectives of the governance and be obliged to advance the power, influence and interests of the rulers in every each of the sectors. This is why there is so little to show for so much money spent in the name of development in Pakistan.

In this day and age, where people have access to worldwide information throughout the day, it is impossible for any product, including democracy, to survive. There is no other threat to democracy or development potential of Pakistan except this toxic medieval culture.

This piece would not be complete without mentioning the lessons learned from the stunning comeback of Mahathir Mohamad, recently elected prime minister of Malaysia at the age of 92. His victory is peoples’ tribute to the ‘politics of development of the nation’ and an expression of disgust for self-serving politicians. Malaysians are lucky to have a leader like Mahathir Mohamad. Tired of our model of ‘politics without governance’, we might as well ask for Mahathir’s services for Pakistan too.

The writer designed the Board of Investment and the First Women’s Bank.

Email: [email protected]

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