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Damn the Search for Purity

by Feisal Naqvi

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Pakistan ignores its rich multicultural heritage at its own peril.

If you drop some ink into water, you know what to expect. The ink will slowly disperse throughout the water, which will take on the same color as the ink. The explanation for why the ink does not stay as separate, concentrated drops of color comes from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which can be explained thus: “Over time, closed systems will become more similar, eventually reaching systemic equilibrium. It is not a question of if a system will reach equilibrium; it is only a question of when a system will reach equilibrium.”

Arif Ali—AFP

Arif Ali—AFP

Pakistan in 1947 was a country whose culture was the product of a thousand different ones. Like multiple, colorful streams, each of these cultures had slowly entered the Indian subcontinent at different points and then diffused across its length and breadth. But since then, non-Muslim cultural influences in present-day Pakistan have been progressively minimized in a misguided search for religious purity. This “purification” has been accomplished in two ways. First: through the deliberate minimization of all interaction with India; and second: through the deliberate opening of our doors to our allegedly more religiously pure brethren in Saudi Arabia.

The net result of this “closed system” in Pakistan has been the gradual dilution of all our multicultural influences and their replacement through gradual infusion by jihadist Salafism. The streams which earlier flowed in have been damned. Pakistan’s water is fetid, and has started to stink. Pretty soon, it will become incapable of supporting life. The answer to our predicament is obvious: overpower the sewer flowing into our system by streaming in the blocked currents.

While Pakistan has no control over its western border, its eastern border with India is an impenetrable wall. What we need is the exact opposite. We need to wall off our Afghan brethren of the Taliban and we need to open our borders to visitors from the East. People-to-people contacts change individual perceptions more effectively than anything else. If you have never met the enemy, it is easy to believe they are inhuman. But if you have broken bread with them, if you have danced at their weddings, if you have cheered on the same side in cricket, then the enemy is no longer a faceless monster.

Given our national-security framework—or more precisely, given our national-security neuroses—opening borders with India is not going to be easy. Our security thinkers are still caught in the simple trap of believing that opposition to India’s political ambitions necessarily requires defining ourselves as India’s ideological opposite. And I have stopped believing that those thinkers will ever grow up.

What’s left then? If we can’t open our physical borders, at least we can open our electronic borders. And that is where the opposition to YouTube comes into play. It’s a long-proven fact that people process information in visual terms far more easily than if they read about the same thing. When the Taliban took over Swat, reporter after reporter filed stories about the horrors which followed. But in the end, what actually swung public opinion against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan was a grainy cellphone video of a teenage girl being thrashed for the sin of leaving her house. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this video is worth a book.

What people don’t understand is that the Salafi deluge is an abomination against Islamic history, which does not end with the four caliphs. Muslims are heirs to 1,400 years of tumultuous history. In this time, there have been thousands of famous poets and historians and scientists who were proud to call themselves Muslims and also some—such as Maimonides—who were proud to be patronized by Muslims. All of them have been erased from the pages of our official history. It is as if out of all the colors in the spectrum the only shade we are being shown is black.

Every few months, I get a copy of Saudi Aramco World, a beautifully produced magazine intended to broaden “knowledge of the cultures, history and geography of the Arab and Muslim worlds and their connections with the West.” The latest issue contains articles about growing saffron in Morocco, Verdi’s opera set in Egypt (Aida), and the salt farmers of the Rann of Kutch. What I find scary about the magazine, though, are its back pages which contain a list of current and future events such as exhibitions of Mughal art. With very few exceptions, every single event is set outside the Muslim world. The cities which most often play host to the finest gems of our “Islamic” history are the atheist playgrounds of the decadent West: London, Paris, New York, Boston. I have yet to see a reference to any exhibition in Pakistan.

This broader view of history matters because it is not just enough to say We Are Not That; we must also remember all that we have been. Our history is a mosaic, a living, breathing carpet of wonders. We ignore those wonders at our peril.

There is an old story about a group of Parsis looking to move to a new city. When they reached the gates of the city, they were met by a delegate holding a bowl filled to the brim with milk. The point of the gesture was to show the visitors that there was no room for them. Legend has it that their leader put a spoonful of sugar in the milk and sent it back. Legend also has it that the king was wise—and he promptly let them in.

Naqvi is a senior lawyer based in Lahore. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely his in his individual capacity.

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tARIQ October 31, 2013 - 2:09 pm

sO are you saying we should chnage the name of our country?

Ahmed Ali Paracha October 31, 2013 - 8:02 pm

I couldn’t have said it better! Well written and very informative piece

Ali S November 7, 2013 - 8:28 pm

Honestly, I think it’s too late. I’d advise any young person with modern ambitions and a decent education to try his luck abroad if he can. Those who have made the choice to stay here – or have to – can live in little elite bubbles of normalcy if they can afford to or, at best, can hope that at least our major cities keep the currents of diversity and tolerance open. As a whole, this nation is beyond repair.

J P Ranjan November 21, 2013 - 1:27 pm

Good article with very positive attitude…and i think its very doable.


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