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July 6, 2019

Dilemmas from the periphery


July 6, 2019

Culture is a contested concept which encompasses a variety of dimensions of human life including social cohesion, collective experience, self-expression and creation of art as its constituent parts.

Culture enthusiasts refer to indigenous self-expression, social behaviour, collective experience, art and local customs and practices as manifestations of the identity of a particular society. Culture in this sense has a deep-rooted meaning for people and functions as a catalyst for identity politics. Lack of access to material resources, a sense of inequity, and lack of opportunities in a given system of institutions give birth to political discontent – and culture provides the common ground to express such defiance.

The cultural expression of political defiance is the hallmark of peripheral societies, accentuated by the colonial experience and rise of nationalism. However, it is not only confined to the defiance of a dominant culture and an official narrative of nationhood; it is also found among well-knit faith-based communities. The defiance can take the form of strong resentment against the dominant class within the community institutions with the view to reform such institutions as common heritage or to alter the socioeconomic calculus of control all together.

The dilemma of faith-based communities is that they are apparently driven by abstract ideas of harmony, solidarity and co-creation as freedom but in reality they are governed by a strict discipline of control and censorship. They are defined by inner conflicts between the dominant and marginal groups for control of community institutions and communal resources. This leads to confrontation when culture is reduced to an instrumental function to serve the commercial interests of the dominant class.

The tragedy of culture’s commodification is not just the exclusive domain of global capitalism, but has become a well-entrenched recipe of profitability for the elite of faith-based communities too. This is a tragedy because the social meaning and creative dimension of a particular culture is reduced to a profitable business proposition for a few private hands. Culture is a dynamic public good which evolves as a collective expression of art, creativity, experiences and the processes of transition of a society. While there is no harm in promoting culture as a creative industry of local entrepreneurship and socioeconomic transformation, it is, however, an act of exploitation to extract profits for exotic private business groups out of a local culture.

Let me discuss briefly the idea of a faith-based community first so as to set the context of how such communities become hotspots of the commodification of culture. The notion of faith-based community has increasingly been used in the modern world when religion became an individual affair. In secular modern democracies, faith-based communities exercise their will to worship their own gods and deities without disrupting public life. The religious practices of faith-based communities become questionable only if they are perceived as a political threat to secular values. Therefore, the idea of political distinction between the sacred and the profane is not limited to theocratic regimes only but is true in the case of secular democracies as well.

In the capitalist secular democracies of the West, the religious insignia of faith-based communities becomes a profanity as an insidious act to threaten the sanctity of secularism. In this context, faith-based communities in the developed secular democracies become introverted to exercise their religious faith within predefined communal spaces without challenging the sanctity of secularism. The idea of being a community is consolidated through communal spaces of social interaction, religious communions and collective prayers etc. The ban on the hijab in public schools in France etc is one such example of how religious symbolism becomes a profanity against secular sanctity.

However, in the case of postcolonial societies such as ours, faith-based communities are driven by the social necessity for coexistence in the face of competing sectarian ideologies. Smaller faith-based communities face existential threats from the dominant religious groups in the struggle for accessing resources. Such communities develop their own institutional mechanisms to counter such threats, and hence they preach peace and pluralism. In this context of competing sectarian narratives, those who dare to speak sense become the common enemy of sectarian and religious groups. The state also patronizes competing religious groups and uses faith-based communities to isolate and persecute critical thinkers and dissenting voices.

Dissenting voices from the peripheries face double persecution – for their marginal political status in political life and from within their communal life. Persecuted and disgruntled, these dissenting voices give birth to movements of social resistance as they see a strong nexus between the state, the elite of their community and at times the belief system in its totality.

In such communities, dissenting voices have, of late, become more pronounced among young educated professionals who think that their platforms have been hijacked by the business elite who use them for promoting their business interests. They feel the approach of promoting a value-led civil society, as propounded by community elders, has not been fully realized because of a lack of will and institutional commitment. They also think that the quality-of-life framework, which was essentially a holistic socioeconomic transformation model, has been put to rest now with boards being controlled and run by a business elite with little or no understanding of development and poverty. People have to pay for health and education services delivered through community agencies while the local cultural heritage is being turned into business ventures.

Faith-based communities are generally thought of as well-knit groups with inward-looking ideologies of self-preservation. This self-preservation becomes a collective psyche of smaller communities animated by perceived external threats to survival. While faith provides the overarching principle of social solidarity, it tends to hide the agony of critical thinkers whose dissent is stifled under the pretext of maintaining social and spiritual harmony. A stronger sense of communal life becomes a social compulsion in less democratic and more polarized societies where individuals express their identity as part of a large whole. When societies become less tolerant of free expression, people usually find solace in smaller groups to avert the wrath of powerful groups.

A faith-based community will always need a highly centralized authority to draw social legitimacy to its practices and unique identity among competing social groups. The key intellectual imperatives of such communities are to propagate peace, pluralism and respect of diversity – not as an inherent value of communal life but as a strategy for survival. In reality, the communal order is maintained not through diversity and pluralism but through homogenization of belief system, traditions and cultural narratives. The introversion at times turns into a tendency to purge pluralistic ideas and to undermine critical thinking.

Those who hold power and influence use the communal identity as a means of dominance to control strategic positions and bargain privileges with the state and the political elite. Dissenting voices are isolated and portrayed as anti-social to safeguard the status quo.

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AmirHussain76

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