VIEW: The argumentative Pakistani —Saleem H Ali
Clerics continue to spill vitriol and conspiracy theories about the West while the secular elite spare no opportunity to resurrect orientalist visions of mediaeval morality — a self-fulfilling myth. The situation is perhaps more acute in Pakistan than in India because moderate opinions are far more easily labelled as “CIA plot” by the mullahs or “fundo talk” by the secularists
Economist Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate, continues to inspire writers beyond his field with works such as his landmark treatise The Argumentative Indian. In this sweeping review of sub-continental culture and history, Sen proposes ways of reinterpreting our identities by synthesising themes of our common humanity. His keenest insights include how divergent views about self-denial and discipline might be reconciled between cultures and his challenging of the notion that the West has been the originator of the so-called “liberal” values.
Regrettably, these lessons continue to elude most Indians and Pakistanis. In both countries the tone of argument between the secular elite and the masses who continue to populate the mosques and temples is highly polarising. On one hand the intelligentsia, feeling liberated by the West, disparage or caricature their own cultural roots and on the other the fanatical traditionalists are increasingly entrenched in their dogmas. Both sides reinforce each other’s worst stereotypes and feed off the distortions they label their perceived opponents with. Healthy self-criticism is supplanted with self-hatred by one, self-glorification by the other.
Clerics continue to spill vitriol and conspiracy theories about the West while the secular elite spare no opportunity to resurrect orientalist visions of mediaeval morality — a self-fulfilling myth. The situation is perhaps more acute in Pakistan than in India because moderate opinions are far more easily labelled as “CIA plot” by the mullahs or “fundo talk” by the secularists. The militarisation of our culture has contributed to this polarisation.
How then are we to have cogent and reasoned arguments on public forums? I was heartened, initially, by the efforts of some private TV channels to foster public debate across the country. However, it is still unclear what and how much various sides are learning from such debates. In many debates between clerics and secularist academics that I have watched on these channels, both sides continued to talk past each other. The civil tone, so essential to a useful exchange, cannot be guaranteed. In some cases an occasional insult ensuing from such an encounter ends up ruining any vestige of positive relations that might have existed prior to the conversation.
As a conflict resolution practitioner and professional mediator in environmental conflicts, I am often asked how one can “respect” opponents while fervently believing that they are delusional? My response is to state that most conflicts arise primarily because we assume too much about an opponent and rarely question our own assumptions. For example, land-use conflicts between Native Americans and miners become extremely spiteful when some tribal group suggests that a particular mountain is “sacred” and hence cannot be mined. Mining companies may consider such a claim to be delusional but there are laws which protect such sites simply because beliefs, no matter how far-fetched they sound to some, cannot be trampled without care. In many cases the term “sacred” reveals complex environmental interactions the community might have with the landscape rather than just a theological belief. On the other hand, cultural practices that violate basic human rights tenets, which are now globally accepted norms, should be confronted head-on. In such matters there can be no compromise and good leadership can emerge from both secular and sacred sources.
While I have criticised several contemporary Muslim practices, I do not feel obliged to disavow tradition or traditional practices or recognise such denial as a prerequisite for being “educated”. For this I was once accused by a secular friend of “running with the hare and hunting with the hound”. But if being conciliatory towards age-old belief systems and willing to embrace multiple identities, as proposed by Amartya Sen, amounts to being on both ends of the food chain, I am proud of my ambivalence.
Finally, the most significant feature of fruitful public debate is to pursue it for collective learning rather than convincing the other side. Unlike a court of law where there is often a polar verdict, public discourse can lead to complex solutions that can often please many constituents. In this regard, secular commentators are correct in pointing out that many religious systems have barred their followers from even engaging in such experiences. However, this can often change and evolve with different religious traditions. The Bahai community, for example, has been particularly astute in developing a workable confluence of such processes. Larger religious groups are struggling with such norms but voices of dissent are now being heard with greater clarity. Due to potent radicalisation of Muslim communities resulting from territorial conflicts, the transition may take longer in Islam than in other faiths. However, notable Muslim initiatives such as the Zaytuna Academy in California, profiled recently by the New York Times, are hopeful signs that the inertia of imams is being overcome.
Arguments are what animate our lives and make us most human. Framing them in constructive ways is an essential endeavour. In the words of another great champion of positive civic engagement, Dr Martin Luther King, we can certainly all learn “to disagree without being violently disagreeable”.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org