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Wake up Pakistan ! Presently the Muslim societies are in a state of ideological confusion and flux. Materialism, terrorism,...

Monday, April 11, 2011

A portrait of Pakistan

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Does Pakistan, at this time, inspire some hope or utter dejection? And how can we be rational and objective in making our own assessment of the prevailing reality? 

My own experience is that in spite of the ceaseless pounding of the electronic news media on our senses, even the fairly educated are mostly ignorant of some basic facts that relate to our major predicaments. Nor do they have any great respect for logical reasoning. Yet, they are generally very passionate in presenting their own perspective on the country and its problems. 

Whenever I have an opportunity to speak to a class in a higher education institute, I ask them to do an exercise: paint a portrait of Pakistan with facts and figures that you think are the most important and then make your own analysis to try to figure out what, in your opinion, is happening to this country and where it is going. 

My purpose, essentially, is to make them think - a task that mostly seems forbidding in our society. Yes, there are always a few students in every large class who are well-informed and smart. But a majority of them makes you seriously apprehensive about the future of this country. The level of intellectual degradation that I detect during such encounters is mind-boggling. 

Anyhow, as I struggle to engage them in a discussion on current affairs, I begin with some simple observations. Pakistan, for instance, is the sixth largest country in the world in terms of population. It is one of the seven countries that have proclaimed nuclear capability. Another high ranking that we have, among the top 10, is the size of our standing army. 

After this, one has to fathom the lower depths of our existence. The questions to be posed are obvious. What, for instance, is our ranking in the UNDP’s Human Development Index? What is our rate of literacy? What percentage of our population has access to safe drinking water, electricity and medical care? Where do we stand in the context of infant mortality? How do we compare in these areas with other countries of the region, with the countries in sub-Saharan Africa? 

Yes, I also underline the need for identifying factors that are positive and encourage a measure of confidence in the future of the country. We do have individuals who have made their mark on the world’s stage, including students. There has recently been a focus on Pakistani writers who write in English. A number of our painters have done astonishing work. We are celebrating Faiz in this centennial year of his birth and it is always a joy to realise that we had a poet such as Faiz in our midst. We surely have something to celebrate in the midst of this onslaught of gloom. 

My argument is that a concerned and educated citizen should draw his or her own portrait of Pakistan on the basis of hard facts and relevant information. In addition, one must also have a fair appreciation of Pakistan’s historical experience and its social, political and economic implications. In fact, compiling a fact sheet on Pakistan should be the first step in a conscious endeavour to understand the present drift of the nation and to be able to decide what role one must play to join the struggle for Pakistan’s survival. 

I think it is important for all of us to take sides and have opinions that are founded on a careful analysis of the entire situation. In this respect, it would be vital to engage in serious discussions in a setting in which the interlocutors are willing to be patient in assessing the contrary point of view. Unfortunately, an enabling environment for such debates is simply not available because of religious extremism and the intolerance that prevails at various levels. 

Our talk shows, for instance, are usually devoid of any civilised and reasoned dialogue. Even more discouraging is the fact that rational debate is hardly possible on our campuses, in spite of any contribution that HEC may have made to improve the quality of our higher education. I am aware of one incredible incident when some students of a department of the University of Karachi became enraged when their teacher began to elaborate the meaning and significance of Reformation and Renaissance with reference to the evolution of modern Europe. They alleged that this was a subterfuge to promote secular ideas. 

So what do you do to raise the level of public discourse in this intellectual wilderness? One piece of advice that I have for students with whom I am sometimes able to interact is they should at least read newspapers and become aware of not just the political statements that are recycled on the outer pages but also look at comments that are made by national and international commentators. We do sometimes feel inhibited about expressing our thoughts in a candid manner and this discretion tends to enhance the significance of assessments made by foreign publications and institutions. 

As I write these words on Saturday, this morning’s newspapers are on my table. One major headline relates to the annual human rights report of the US State Department. About Pakistan, it says that “a failure to credibly investigate allegations, impose disciplinary or accountability measures, and consistently prosecute those responsible for abuses contributed to a culture of impunity.” The report has identified extra-judicial killings, disappearances and torture as major human rights violations in Pakistan. 

I would also like to refer to a rather detailed report on Pakistan that The Economist had carried last week. Its title: “A great deal of ruin in a nation.” It said that Pakistan “is not a country for those of a nervous disposition.” With reference to increasing incidents of terrorism and displays of fundamentalist religious and anti-Western feeling in the country, the respected news weekly makes this thought-provoking observation: “All this might be expected in Somalia or Yemen, but not in a country of great sophistication which boasts an elite educated at Oxbridge and the Ivy League, which produces brilliant novelists, artists and scientists, and is armed with nuclear weapons.”

This, essentially, is the enigma of Pakistan. It has nurtured primitive passions as well as impressive expressions of creativity and enterprise. At times, it seems that the forces of extremism and intolerance are gaining ground. Still, there is some potential for democratic development that is occasionally manifested in the resilience of our civil society organisations. 

If there are two Pakistans, which one would you like to defend? As I said, it has become necessary to take sides. But this choice has to be made in the light of what one knows about the country and its social and political evolution. I recall the comment of an Arab women’s-rights activist: “The goal is to liberate the minds of our people”.
Ghazi Salahudin: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail .com
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