Purity and Danger: The View from Pakistan*

Tpakistan_longhe somewhat mysterious title of this offering can be traced to a book written by the anthropologist Mary Douglas in 1966. The equally mysterious subtitle of the book was “an exploration of the concepts of pollution and taboo”– which in anthrospeak means the customs adopted by groups and societies that create a sense of wellbeing and general healthfulness, as opposed to practices that lead to a feeling of general despair and corruption—“sin” in religious terms. Douglas’s own situation as a Catholic in 1940’s Oxford, a woman academic in the Congo, an independent voice in an age of anthropological orthodoxy (centering on the work of Robertson Smith and Sir James Frazer)—created her interest in looking at the structure of societies, what rituals reinforced their identity, and what practices created anxiety, marginalization and a sense of threat. Tempted to believe, as she began to ponder these things, that “pollution” is a problem for primitive societies and not for ours, she came gradually to realize several things about modernity:

1. In the study of religion, evolutionary approaches to behavior (a la Frazer) are mistaken; we do not progress by stages from magic (primitive) to religion (less primitive) and to science (fully modern) as degrees of knowledge and sophistication.
2. Ritual is not an exclusive trademark of “primitive” societies; social rituals create a reality which may or may not be religious but which cannot be sustained without it: “Money is only an extreme and specialized form of ritual.”
3. Early and modern cultures, religious and otherwise, create ways to protect their system of ritual from skepticism (or contradiction), for example, by asking the community to believe in a “Them” who are planning to destroy the community, or telling the community that its lack of success is a trial, the passing of which will restore the community to health or grace.

Douglas found examples of these ritual attributes in societies stretching as far back as ancient Israel (her chapter on the origins of the “abominations” –ritual taboos– listed in the book of Leviticus stands is a classic in its own right) to the wealth/poverty divide of modern society. After reading her, you will never think of the words “us” and “them” in quite the same way, and you will never feel comfortable talking about ”inferior” cultures and primitive religion.

Which brings me, quite literally, to Pakistan. In December 2008 I was appointed Visiting Professor of History at LUMS, the Lahore University of Management Sciences, sometimes seen as a kind of hybrid Harvard and MIT of South Asia. The rankings bear out the legend. LUMS faculty are trained at the leading research universities in the world, the tone is studiously Ivy-Oxbridge, and in recent years the privately endowed institution, despite all odds and economic downturns, has managed to attract prominent Pakistanis away from senior positions in the UK and US as well as a respectable number of international faculty. LUMS symbolizes for its over-achieving students what a certain segment of Pakistanis want to be: modern, slightly if not wholly secular (on the Turkish model), well-spoken, business savvy, scientifically and socially current, and at least competitive with the traditional “enemy” to the south, India, whose ancient heritage overlaps with Pakistan’s own story.

The word heard most often in progressive circles like this is “Identity” and the sentiment I hear voiced most often by ordinary Pakistanis is that the promise of Pakistan at the time of independence (partition from India in 1947), whosever it was to keep, has not been kept. The local English medium TV station, suggestively named Dawn TV, uses the motto “Restore the Identity.” The sense that something has been lost, or squandered is a part of every conversation. Only the religious zealots feel that there is nothing to be recaptured since for them a static, timeless ideology rather than space, history and culture define what identity means. It is sufficient for them to label any activity of which they do not approve, including cricket and the education of women, as Unislamic. Whatever other motives fuel the seemingly unstoppable Taliban in their quest for power and dominion, the quest for purity and the fear of contamination from Unislamic enemies is prevalent.

The American view of Pakistan, to the extent Americans pay attention to anything beyond their continental borders, has been self-referring. Estimates range from the country being a failing (even a failed) state, a haven for terrorists, or a potentially indispensable ally in the war on “terror.” Except for military personnel perched on the border with Afghanistan in the Northwest tribal Frontier, a few stray diplomats and the odd (mainly European or Canadian) academic visitor or thrill-seeker, Pakistan is not bustling with tourists. The recent hotel blasts in Islamabad and Peshawar were designed to underscore the contempt for strangers that that religious zealots instinctively feel.

To the chagrin of its intellectuals and mainstream policy-makers, Pakistan has been made a “them” in global political terms. Since September 11, 2001 it has been a reluctant but not a natural ally of the United States, reluctant in the same way any state with a rich cultural legacy and independent streak would be hesitant to find its validity in its value as a buffer zone between religious lunacy and secular democracy.

Not that Pakistan’s troubled history hasn’t contributed to its in-between-ness. Its story is now a sixty year history of not coming together, a period equivalent in historical terms to the end of the American War of Independence in 1783 and the presidency of James Knox Polk. The analogy while completely inappropriate is made even more inexact because the contradictions, paradoxes and contrarieties of Pakistan society have now become ritualized, defining features of a country waiting to be born but still somehow only able to evince the pangs of labor. But the analogy is still a nagging one because post-Revolutionary America while still dominated by English values and Christian virtues like hard work and frugality was already becoming pluralized while Pakistan began its life as a nation that placed a premium on its Islamic identity, on depluralization, a place where Muslims could be safe from the predations of religious majorities to the east. Pakistan in one sense is a postcolonial concoction: the name is an acronym of its original areas, Punjab, Afghania (Frontier Province), Kashmir, Sindh, and Baluchistan) but the acronym had its own appeal: in Urdu the name means “land of the pure.”

In a country that within a period of twelve weeks since my arrival saw an independent judiciary restored by impressive civil action on the streets of Lahore, Sri Lankan cricketers assaulted by gunmen for reasons mired in uncertainty and confusion, and the Government’s surrender, then subsequent recapture  of the Swat Valley, once Pakistan’s premier tourist destination (“the Switzerland of Pakistan with its high mountains, green meadows, and clear lakes,” the old brochures read) to the forces of the radical operator Maulana Fazlullah—anything is possible.

As I write that last sentence, I can’t help thinking how differently it would scan if we applied it to the generally optimistic view that North Americans and Europeans have of the future: “Anything is possible” is usually taken to mean that even things that aren’t quite right will improve with a little time, a bit of imagination, luck, and effort.

In the case of Pakistan, the phrase means “Who knows?” The reality of a troubled history, the growth of religious fanaticism in society and education, fundamental disagreements over whether concession and containment will appease or only tantalize the Pure into broader escapades and adventures. No one knows, least of all the experts. Beyond all this, it is relatively easy for all Pakistanis to point a finger of blame outward toward former colonial masters, toward its manipulation by outsiders during the cold war, at India, at the Soviet Union, at the United States, at homegrown but ideologically foreign fanatics like the Taliban. The tendency until very recently has been for the West, in particular, to say roll up your sleeves and save yourselves.

But now even the West is beginning to realize how disproportionate a burden Pakistan has had to share in the power mongering of the last sixty years, and how the slogans of the war on terror breathe a sordid promise of more of the same.

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