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Confronting the Self-Defeating Assumptions, Beliefs and Norms in Pakistan

A Catalogue of myths and self-destructive tendencies of the society

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Problems that persist or repeat over time cannot be attributed to chance. They are not accidents of history, or elements of fate. They need to be analyzed to identify a root-cause. A mature society constantly searches for the underlying causes of its major issues and strives to eliminate or minimize the problems.

Pursuit of truth is at times a bitter and painful experience and reveals a self-created pattern of failures. Humans, both as individuals and as groups, often engage in thoughts, emotions, beliefs and behaviours that stall their own growth and development. These human tendencies are often called self-defeating behaviours. The phenomenon is usually activated at the subconscious level and therefore is hard to unearth. Our assumptions, beliefs, thoughts, feelings and attitudes all strongly influence our behaviour, but often indirectly, subtly and unconsciously.

Self-awareness, realization, and acceptance are the first yet critical steps towards solving a problem. Finding remedies becomes much easier once you know and recognize the fault. The text that follows aims to expose a set of assumptions, beliefs, attitudes and norms of our society, that in my opinion have significantly hampered our progress as a people and have negatively contributed towards many of the societal problems that we face today. Challenging and confronting these beliefs and norms in my view is integral to any serious effort of social reconstruction.

  1. Poverty is a shameful curse and the poor a burden

    Societies who perceive poverty as a shameful state tend to hide it instead of addressing it (don't you know why some countries shift their capitals to artificial cities like Islamabad?). This attitude gives permanence to poverty and deprivation. Secondly, have you ever thought about the class of poor? Who are they? A poor farmer who provides you with grains, juicy fruits and nutritional food? A labourer who skillfully constructs your house, office, hospital etc.? A carpenter who crafts your lavish furniture? A barber who makes you look like a human? An electrician who provides you immediate relief from scorching heat by efficiently fixing your AC, though he himself never enjoys the luxury at home? Can such class of individuals ever qualify to be a burden on society? Is it not the time to challenge the way we perceive social reality?

  2. Religion is all about belief, speech and worship

    Religion is not about words but deeds. The crux of all great religions is adherence to (not preaching of) values, manners and social conduct. Belief and worship are the tools that inspire behaviour and are not the end. The gap between words and actions is called hypocrisy - one of the most condemned conditions in Islam. Are we not a band of hypocrites? Isn’t much of our religiosity a mere façade that veils our true character? If not, then how can such devoted men and women be in such a pitiful social mess?

    نماز و روزہ و قربانی و حج
    یہ سب باقی ہیں تُو باقی نہیں ہے
  3. Attribution of critical failures to fate – a convenient escape route

    عبث ہے شکوۂ تقدیر یزداں
    تُوخُود تقدیر یزداں کیوں نہیں ہے؟


    خبر نہیں کیا ہے نام اس کا، خدا فریبی کہ خُود فریبی
    عمل سے فارغ ہُوا مسلماں، بنا کے تقدیر کا بہانھ
  4. God will take care of this, Inshallah!

    "Verily never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves (with their own souls)" Al-Quran (13:11)

    "On no soul doth Allah place a burden greater than it can bear. It gets every good that it earns and it suffers every ill that it earns" Al-Quran (2:286)

    Despite enormous stress that Islam has placed on effort, deeds and accountability, how conveniently do we Muslims escape responsibility? Who are we kidding?

  5. Attributing all major societal failures to corrupt and inapt government

    How can a bunch of individuals be held responsible for the fate of 170 million people? This could only be if we let it happen - and we have. A passive majority has no business to meddle in the affairs of an active minority. And in Pakistan, the active minority of generals, bureaucrats, land lords and corrupt politicians etc. reign supreme. As long as we remain comfortable in the back seat, the ones with ambition would keep steering us at a direction of their own choosing. Do we really have a right to complain?

  6. Democracy is not suitable for this part of the world

    If you believe that democracy and democratic values is an exclusively western phenomenon, then you are suffering from historical amnesia. The myth that our society is not worthy of (or ready for) democracy is constantly and systematically hammered into our minds by military dictators, their western patrons and a few "enlightened moderates". They have worked real hard in associating stability, growth and prosperity with military rule (thanks to USAID, The World Bank and IMF) and instability, corruption and crises with democracy. They present democracy (in Pakistan) and dictatorship as black and white. A general acceptance of this thought pattern encourages and facilitates repeated military coups and subsequent legitimization and sustainability of military rule in Pakistan. This is how powerful societies deceive and rape poor societies. This is how people lose control over their own fate - by "free" choice.

  7. Pakistan is an Islamic State

    Ha, since when? What indicators do we analyze when we make such an absurd assertion? I believe the prefix of the official name of Pakistan is the fundamental indicator of this "fact", right? Such is the depth of our analysis!

  8. If you are born to a Muslim family, you are a Muslim

    دل ہے مسلماں میرا نہ تیرا
    تو بھی نمازی میں بھی نمازی
  9. We have an education system

    What we have is schools and colleges, but no education. Education and literacy are not one and the same thing

  10. Pakistan was created in the name of Allah... no power in the world can undo Pakistan

    And they say: "The fire shall not touch us but for a few numbered days"; Say: "Have ye taken a promise from Allah, for He never breaks His promise? Or is it that ye say of Allah what ye do not know?" Al-Quran (2:80)

    Societies are governed by certain laws, just like the laws of physics or other natural sciences. If every action in physics has a reaction, every act of an individual, group or society has an effect both on the environment and the entity itself. The future of a society primarily depends on the health of its choices made in the past. The above attitude depicts an ostrich like thinking. Though being optimist is healthy, yet extreme optimism could be disastrous and can make you more vulnerable than you actually think.

  11. Old is gold, seniority is merit

    This value represents a system driven primarily by tradition. Such a system is destined to stagnate and decay, and constantly loses vitality over time. When such a closed system is exposed to a relatively open system it becomes unstable as it is ill-equipped to deal with change, fresh ideas and new challenges.

  12. Might is right

    Power is the absolute license and authorization in the society which dictates what is right and wrong more than anything else. The military and the feudal class have collectively established the above as a canon of the society. To challenge this rule you need to be a fool, a mad man or possess suicidal attitude enabling you to pay the prohibitive cost of resistance.

  13. Authority implies rightfulness

    In the current system, power is assumed to be legitimate. While there could be voices that say otherwise, yet the system itself is too weak to challenge the legitimacy of the ones in power. The fact that I am in control and in charge, automatically affirms my authority as legitimate.

  14. Challenging authority is unethical and a threat to the system

    "Authority implies rightfulness" is a very interesting principle with profound implications. By this principle if I challenge the legitimacy of an authoritative individual, I am assumed to be challenging a legitimate power thereby rendering my position as immoral and illegitimate. Since the system is too weak to challenge the powerful, it turns against me to maintain "harmony". Yes harmony! A weak system is not strong enough to digest conflict and thus incessantly works to maintain "peace" and harmony at all times and at all cost.

  15. To question is to insult one’s authority or challenge the system

    Inquiry is a fundamental element of learning and rational thinking. Doubt is considered both a value and tool in all the sciences. In a closed system and a traditionalist culture, to question is to challenge the entire system. Why? Because in such a system, tradition or time-tested practices are "blindly" assumed to be right or perfect. Blind assumption means that people have lost track of the reasons and motives behind the establishment of the beliefs, values, norms or the overall system. For them, the norms become more important than the ends for which they were originally shaped. With the passage of time the society loses the intellectual capacity to think, analyze and conceptualize the system. At that point, any question, doubt or criticism could lead to anarchy and the entire system with all its assumptions and canons could collapse like a house of cards.

    Thus inquiry in a culture stagnant with absolute adherence to tradition is considered as a direct threat to the system. Learning in such societies is more about memorizing than critical thinking or analysis. Thus questioning is perceived like a disturbance, disrespect or shameful disobedience.

  16. Only fools dream

    "Pity the nation that despises a passion in its dream, yet submits in its awakening" Khalil Gibran

    آرزو اوّل تو پیدا ہو نہیں سکتی کہیں
    ہو کہیں پیدا تو مر جاتی ہے یا رہتی ہے خام

    We all dream at night. But those who dream while awake are the ones who make one hell of a difference. Dreaming is a creative process which constructs situations, scenarios, solutions and outcomes without any logical criticism or consideration of plausibility. It is an effective tool to visualize out-of-the-box solutions to real problems. Dreaming is not merely an escape from reality but could well serve as a window to a profoundly new world. A dreamer tends to focus on the potential rather than the current and more constrained reality. Hope and intense positive emotions which are often an outcome of an imaginative dream, may release the “steam” of motivation, powerful enough to initiate the process of positive change.

    Most great inventors and discoverers were mocked as fools as they passionately dreamed about the possibilities that were profoundly different from the “realities” of their times.

    If we want to move ahead as a people, we must take the risk of being reckoned as a fool. The shackles of status quo cannot be broken without powerful imagination and day dreaming. So dream!

  17. Children require parental attention round-the-clock

    Parents who think that way need counseling from a nearby psychologist. Overprotective parents hamper child development. In Pakistan, parents often act and feel like "owners" rather than mentors of their offspring. They steer their kids like soldiers. Others love their children “too much” and tend to keep them under their wings all the time.

    Children in many ways, think and act like a scientist. They like to form assumptions about things they come across, explore and examine objects that have never been experienced, play around or experiment to have a deeper understanding about phenomena. In the process they make mistakes, just like an experienced scientist, most of whose experiments simply fail to give desired or anticipated results. After all, that’s what learning is all about.

    In an overly controlled environment, children tend to lose initiative, interest and motivation to learn. Consequently, learning becomes a bland experience rather than an exciting activity.

    So if you want your child to grow up to his full potential, give him a break!

  18. Seeking wealth and seeking God are mutually exclusive desires

    Such compartmentalization does not exist in Islam. Though holding this perspective is not a new phenomenon, but the pervasiveness of the outlook amongst “religious minded” community is a reflection of corruption in Islamic thought. Distancing oneself from worldly success is like abandoning the domain in favour of the opposing ideals. Such attitude cannot be validated from any logic and is completely false from a historical perspective. This tendency represents an introvert faith. Islam in its true form has never assumed an introvert outlook. It is essentially a social system and not merely a psychological experience. How can a system known for vigorously challenging social evil, exploitation myths and false gods, choose to adopt such a passive life attitude? Confronting and withdrawing are mutually exclusive positions and thus cannot coexist.

  19. Technology is the grand route to advancement

    We tend to overemphasise new technology as the wonder drug to fight backwardness. We thus frame policies which are founded on the assumption, that acquisition of new technology would automatically rid ourselves of the our ills and make us advance as a society. It wouldn't. Why? Because we are a grossly uneducated society - a huge mass of underdeveloped minds ill-equipped to think, analyze and solve problems; and face plethora of social issues that challenge our very existence. We need to work on the foundation before we build tall structures. We need to educate our people, and seriously begin to address our core social issues before it's too late. Our first priority therefore, is education; to develop the capacity to think, inquire, question and solve problems. And we should invest in disciplines that are designed to develop these human faculties, e.g. history, social sciences and natural sciences, language and literature.

    By focusing on technology, we have become a society of technicians. We can use tools, repair equipment and operate machines and systems. And we are good at it. Irrespective of the level of education, our minds are programmed as workers, serving other societies (where these skills are highly demanded) and solving “their” problems, efficiently and effectively. That’s what we do in software, IT, textiles and other industrial setups. Unfortunately, we are not developed to use technology to solve our own problems. We are good workers but not problem solvers. To be able to solve our own problems, we need to be deeply aware of ourselves, our environment and the issues at hand. And that awareness does not come with technology.

  20. Strong Army, strong Pakistan

    What is the primary function of an Army? Security?

    Now, don't we have a great army (both in size and quality)? Isn't it strong enough? Don't we spend much of our budget feeding it?

    Now let's get back to the core function of army. If security is the primary function and if our army is a great army (which it is of course), then we must be an exceptionally secure society. Well, are we? As a matter of fact, at this point, we feel like one of the most insecure and vulnerable societies on the planet.

    The core strength of any society comes primarily from its culture and people. You cannot outsource strength; it must come from within.

  21. The obsession for national security

    We have been raped of our rights and resources in the name of national security for too long. Our culture has been tampered with by military dictators and minds been indoctrinated (through education and media, again by military regimes). Our national priorities have been messed up leading to gross underdevelopment and deprivation.

    If feeding the military (a few hundred thousand men) remains our top priority, soon, we may not have a dime to feed the people that constitute Pakistan.

    Normally, institutions are established to serve the people. Here, millions have been serving and feeding an institution, that too for six decades, and to no avail (who's secure today? are you? I'm not).

    In the name of national security, let's shift our focus from security to people. They are our fundamental asset and deserve maximum attention. That's the only secure way ahead.

  22. The myth that we are a nation

    We could be but have never made a serious attempt

  23. Businesses are profit making machines - society and business interests collide
  24. Theory and practice are two poles apart
  25. Debate and argument is a threat to unity and social harmony
  26. Autonomy of units would disintegrate Pakistan
  27. Constitution is fantasy, law is reality
  28. The letter is heavier than the spirit
  29. Values are fairy tales that must be violated to make pragmatic decisions in the best of national interest
  30. Individuality is synonymous to selfishness
  31. Tradition is religion
  32. Pakistan is fragile in essence – challenging the corrupt establishment (civil and military) would disintegrate Pakistan
  33. Parents have a moral right to dictate their offspring and make their life choices (even through adulthood)
  34. Public institutions back the strong and crush the weak
  35. Truth in politics (both civil and military) is gross stupidity and naivety
  36. Ends justify means – lies for the sake of national interests
  37. National debate on any major issue would weaken Pakistan
  38. Citizenry is not mature enough to know the truth – thus shut up!
  39. Pakistan is a strategic ally of America. Or America is a friend of Pakistan
  40. Conflict is a curse
  41. People are not mature enough to be autonomous in any sphere. They need to be closely monitored and controlled
  42. Failure is a curse – thus don’t try!
  43. We fight in the name of Allah - all our wars are Jihad
  44. Military is the strongest and the most mature institution in Pakistan

    Imagine an institution of hundreds and thousands of armed men, hijacked every other decade by one unarmed man – the General - in gross violation of the constitutional, legal and ethical provisions. This indeed is height of institutional strength and maturity!

  45. The military is more patriotic than the politicians. Or the politicians are more corrupt than the military
  46. The shackles of "the system" are too strong to be broken – the status quo cannot be undone
  47. "What can I do?"
  48. Problems are solved "by" resources. We don't have resources, thus we cannot solve the problems
  49. There must be a way out of our social evils without the "mess" of direct confrontation and sacrifice
  50. Learnt helplessness
  51. Honesty is foolishness and dishonesty wisdom (especially in public affairs)
  52. Firefighting and quick fixes
  53. Widespread tendency for quick, yet short-term gains
  54. Readily self-satisfied and self-contended souls (qanaa't)
  55. Historic resistance to change and innovation
  56. Time is plenty and tomorrow is another day
  57. The Trickle-down Effect
  58. Propensity to "solve" problems by crushing the symptoms

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"Force always attracts men of low morality."

[Albert Einstein]