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Sunday, 14 December 2008

10 lessons all Pakistanis must learn - By Hassan Baig

"Mulk khud hi chalta rehay ga" (approximate translation: the country doesn't need our contribution to thrive) is a sentence many Pakistanis are prone to saying. I confess that till a few years ago, I myself was confident of this misleading notion. Misleading and dangerous - especially in today's volatile climate. As Pakistanis, it is imperative that we come to terms with the fact that no heavenly Manna will alleviate our country's plight. The job rests squarely on our own shoulders; with the destiny of a whole nation tethered to our will and to the execution of that will. And so as the clock ticks and the prophets of doom raise a foreboding murmur from East to West, it is high time for us to learn some crucial lessons. Lessons without which our collective slumber will only deepen:

1) Extremism always overcomes moderation. History is fraught with examples of moderate majorities ruled and controlled by extremist minorities. Therefore unless we are extreme in our moderation, our endeavor - any endeavor - is doomed to be highjacked by powers which know more meticulous passion. From the radicalized Islamic cleric who preaches bigotry and hatred to the Neoconservative-backed Christian televangelist who sermonizes the urgency of preparing for an ethnic genocide pithily called Armageddon, we today live in an increasingly polarized world. And since Pakistan exists on the very fault-lines of this burgeoning conflict, our problems are exacerbated. Regardless of what stance we take or which side we pick, our country will remain on the receiving end for the foreseeable future. And regardless of how hastily we disregard conspiracy theories, the extreme forces on all sides will continue to augment their belief systems with hybrid religiopolitical prophecies. Prophecies which have a way of snowballing into self-fulfilment. Therefore it is critical that we take our moderate stance to be more of a proactive doctrine rather than apolitical aloofness. Our very existence depends on it.

2) Microanalysis never gives the complete picture. The details are undoubtedly important when comprehending any system. But often overlooked is the effort to mull over the big-picture such details contribute to Рroughly the equivalent of what Sir Dr. Allama Muhammad Iqbal referred to as tadabbur in his reformist discourse. As denizens of a land increasingly rife with numerous challenges, we simply cannot afford intellectual naivet̩. Notwithstanding esoteric themes, we consistently fall short of sensibly determining atleast the more obvious big-picture connections in unfolding narratives. This is utter mediocrity. Whereas some would mistake this for a failure of ability Рthis is infact predominantly a display of negligent disinterest; of an irresponsible, desensitized populace.

Countless times we have allowed ourselves to fall for the same old tricks. A glaring contemporary example is the myth of Pakistan's democratically elected government we all seem to have digested without any modicum of reflection. Ostensibly, the country voted out the dictator and brought in a government ‘for the people by the people’. But consider the macro picture: currently the seat of political power is the Office of the President - a position where the current incumbent's name was never advertised on the ballot on Election Day, a position where the current incumbent affected the people's voting decision by publicly disavowing any interest in the Presidentship on and before election day, a position which still exercises the uber-powerful, dictatorial Article 58 2(b). In form, we indeed have a democratic set-up in place. But in substance?

Now confessedly this example is a soft and convenient target. Moreover even had most Pakistanis successfully connected the dots, demands for a true democratic set up would be a low priority given more daunting issues the country is currently facing. But it's one of the more visible examples and is relatively fresh in memory - overall an effective illustrative point. Furthermore it helps emphasize the need for greater intellectual involvement on our part. Unless we start to discern between real enemies and contrived ones, manipulation of us and our coming generations by exploitative elements both internal and external will continue to be a dominant theme in the national narrative. That is no future to look forward to.

3) Moral relativism is a conduit to absolute corruption. Those who start compromising on principles – even in trivial issues – end up going all the way. A textbook example is that of our previous President: By the end of his regime, General Pervez Musharraf was not the man he was when he first usurped the seat of Pakistan's government. Over time as his political age advanced, he underwent a staged metamorphosis: from an amateur idealist, to a practitioner of temperate Realpolitik, and then finally to an outright Machiavellian Prince. This is the classic lifecycle of corruption; the philosophy that principles are subservient to actions instead of it being the other way around. We must learn once and for all that those who have the proverbial ‘crack in the armor’ inevitably succumb; that their demise is a certainty.

Now realistically speaking it is true that there is no absolute escape from moral relativism, but we atleast need to be skeptical of the more blatant practitioners of this philosophy. We all know who they are. Too many times we have fallen for those who claim that they have been reformed; too many times we have made choices based on the ‘lesser of two evils’. This is folly because it reinforces the longevity of the corrupt by repetitively giving them second chances through the people’s misplaced, gullible trust. Until and unless we explicitly reject this opportunism, our polity will remain enslaved by the puppet-masters.

4) Morality is a myth in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Ethnocentric self-righteousness robs us of our ability to be constructively self-critical and stems societal improvement. Unless we teach our progeny the truth about the decrepit moral standards prevalent in the country and pass on a ‘to-do’ list of sorts; we would have failed in parenting responsible future citizens. We have all witnessed how the various religious movements burn CD shops, dynamite girl schools and dismantle barber boutiques without raising an eyebrow at the greater tyranny of the socio-political system. We have personally seen principled stands getting drowned in derision; the politics of necessity being proclaimed king. We have beheld firsthand justice being abused by megalomania; injustice becoming the law. This is not a lesson to be forgotten or concealed.

5) Don't believe everything you see in the media (self-explanatory)

6) But don't become too paranoid either: empathy and objectivity are seminal in asymptotically approaching the truth. Currently as it stands in Pakistan, we seldom 'think things through', and instead prefer to latch on to the first and most convenient explanation the social circle around us resonates with. This is futile practice. Futile because herd mentality is seldom rational, is borne of fear and dread, and invariably leads to the sort of exploitable mass-hysteria we have witnessed many times over circa 9/11. Make no mistake about it - by abandoning empathy and objectivity, we give up our very freedom of thought and become marionettes to higher interests. In a world of pervasive fear today, Pakistan can chart the course of its destiny better if the collective remains independently thoughtful.

7) Our destinies are tied to Pakistan, to our ethnicity, and to our religion. In the increasingly divisive world of today, individual allegiances are being outdone by overarching stereotypes. In other words, no matter what shade my skin may be, what dialect or accent I speak in or what my beliefs about God may be, I will always be perceived as a Pakistani Muslim by the world at large. And thus, my fate is inescapable from that of Pakistan. So for example if this country is torn asunder due to civil-war brought on by geopolitical strife, I will invariably be perceived as a refugee in the world. Thereafter I can achieve the American dream, or move in international social circles, or even perfectly synchronize my habits with Western norms - I can do all that and I'll still be a refugee. Pakistan's imprint echoes in my very existence; in all of us. We can live our life denying this fact and bury our head in the sand. Or we can accept it, embrace it and let it influence our priorities. How we choose our greater allegiance today will shape our collective, intertwined destiny.

8) The onus for reforming the system is on the middle classes. That is, the onus is on people like you and me. We are the potential agents of change. And thus by implication, we are also blameworthy for allowing the system to remain broken, for not wanting to 'get our hands dirty', for being the silent, apathetic onlookers. The moneyed elite are not to blame – they adhere to their characteristic decadence and nonchalance; they do precisely what they're expected to do. Corrupt politicians are not to blame – a thief knows little more than the art of thievery. Likewise, neither the military's top brass, and nor the have-nots of Pakistan are culpable. They all play their designated roles in manners they ought to. This leaves the middle and upper-middle classes - essentially people like you and me. Us. We are the true architects of revolutionary change. For we are the only societal segment in this country which is situated at the confluence of a moral code which may be disillusioned but still partly intact, a vision which is alienated but still somewhat patriotic and an agency which is disoriented but still adequately resourceful. In short we are far from perfect, but we are the only messiahs Pakistan can realistically count on. There is absolutely no one else. This lesson is perhaps the most consequential one we have to learn.

9) Incremental change is not a bad option. Activism through small, comfortable increments is not an impractical way of approaching the paradigm of change. That is, even small steps help since at any one time atomic constituents are more solvable than the complex whole. Hence we must not abhor atomizing issues and then indulging in micro-activism – it is ok if how one contributes does not have immediately noticeable repercussions.

I have encountered many Pakistanis who cite their inability to have a substantial, resounding impact as the main driving force behind their evident indifference to the country's woes. To all those who espouse this view, I say that though I can empathize with your sense of demoralization, I simply cannot condone the rationale for such inaction. For it is undeniable that some progress is better than no progress; that going from 100 to 101 is a better deal than staying put; that the smallest gestures help too. If all of us today - the 140 million plus of us no less – individually contemplate the smallest, tiniest way we can contribute to Pakistan's socioeconomic betterment and act on it, is there any doubt that the country will not change overnight in one big rush of altruistic activism? Now this is ofcourse an unrealistic, rhetorical example - but it is thematic of the power of incremental change. A change easy to accomplish with the results snowballing as more people buy into the paradigm. In short we must not overlook this option; rather it is sensible to include it as an ally in our portfolio of loftier ambitions.

10) Lastly, Pakistan can shine. No really; this is not just talk. If you don't know where to start, there's a lot of help around. And not to mention many examples to take inspiration from. Did you know that Pakistan possesses the technological knowhow to manufacture drones indigenously1? Or that one of the most highly regarded applications available in Apple's iPhone App Store today is of Pakistani2 origin? Or that 27 Pakistani scientists3 are scheduled to work on CERN's Large Hadron Collider (the 'Big Bang' experiment machine)? Or that a Pakistani Venture Capitalist has been placed in the top 104 in Forbes magazine's worldwide annual VC ranking?

These are just a few inspirational stories among a plethora of real-world anecdotes and accomplishments with a quintessentially Pakistani stamp on them. For all that is made out to be defective about this country, there are flashes of brilliance just waiting to be given the opportunity to show themselves in their true splendor to the realms; to spread out and envelope the gloom infesting our polity. We just need to get rid of the “Mulk khud hi chalta rehay ga” approach. And fortunately, this is not as hard as it sounds. There are numerous small but meaningful ways in which we can make a personal contribution. Some suggestions are:

* Make yourself heard. Become involved, for your continued silence is really an endorsement of the status quo. Reject what must be rejected, condemn that what is condemnable, endorse and encourage where merited. And do not be fooled into thinking that this is an ambitious proposition: increasing accessibility to the information superhighway has made it easier for any individual to become part of the public discourse. There are numerous Pakistani internet blogs and forums where you can voice your opinions and contribute in your own way to mold the national spirit for a brighter future. And you do not necessarily have to write articles – blogs traditionally invite one-liner comments as well. It is the same as, if not easier than, writing a text message on your cell phone.

* Brainstorm in public to seed ideas and to inspire. Many people talk about the way the world should be, but much less understand how to get there. If you do have thought-provoking ideas, then there is nothing more fruitful than exposing your design – through, say, the internet – to the collective intellect for it to dissect it, understand it, polish it if necessary and support it when satisfied. Also remember that your proposed solutions do not have to be comprehensive – for many issues simply cannot be solved bottom-up5 and the burden has to be placed on the unlikely possibility of a non-elitist, well-educated visionary coming along and dominating our political scene in the future. But your ideas can always ameliorate problems; lessen their severity so to speak. It is imperative that such brainstorming enters our public discourse – the resulting crosspollination is what will slowly and steadily alter the course of our destiny.

* Become an activist through inaction (can’t get easier than this). Every populace has its own share of idealists and lunatics. Ones who think the impossible is possible, the unrealistic is realistic and that conventional wisdom is unwise. And too often people succumb to the temptation of vociferously chastising such individuals; of telling them how futile their beliefs are; of how the system will crush their hopes. Now during my days at LUMS, a Groucho Marx quotation used to do the rounds quite often: “Blessed are the cracked ones, for they shall let in the light”. Just let the lunatics be no matter how imbecilic6 their ideas are. Let them have their shot at change. Next time you meet the idealist, unreasonably optimistic seedling who thinks he or she can change the world, be lazy and do not make the effort go negative on them.

All of the suggestions above are very small starts confessedly. But by no means is such a start inconsequential. Through the build-up of momentum, confidence to tackle bigger beasts can evolve and we can then trailblaze our way to that true destiny envisioned for Pakistan by Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. This is our moment; let’s seize it. Let’s get going.

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