Pakistan and the Arab-Muslim Culture of Denial
For Osama bin Laden there was a clear and unmistakable cultural divide separating the Arab-Muslim world from the West. The idea that there is a difference, perhaps even qualitative, in terms of culture between the West and the East is considered a scandal by those who are convinced that our highly interdependent world is headed in a direction where, at some point, cultures will converge, or their significance be so diminished that cultural differences will be merely a matter of curiosity.
In our contemporary world, however, Bin Laden was right, as was Samuel Huntington, warning almost a decade before 9/11 that cultural differences matter in world politics. When political leaders and intellectual pundits in the West minimize the role and influence of cultural differences in world politics, they seem to be insensible to historical record.
The cultural trait most significant in explaining the difference between the West and the East is to be found in how people assess their place and role in history. There are those who willingly discern and identify, in history, their own responsibility for what affects them and others; and then there are those who on the contrary view history, even of their own making, fatalistically to avoid taking any responsibility for its outcome. These two opposing characteristics in general might be defined respectively as the Culture of Responsibility distinguishing the West, and the Culture of Denial, which distinguishes the East, in particular the Arab-Muslim world.
The Culture of Responsibility is partly guilt-driven; guilt born out of anxiety, in both the individual and collective mind of people, that the choices they make can be wrong and, consequently, they cannot ethically shirk the role they have played in events in which they are actors. A sense of guilt is the spur that drives people individually and collectively to set right what is, or is seen to be, wrong; in an open, democratic society, this trait becomes an important self-corrective mechanism by which society reforms itself.
The Culture of Denial is one of shame, honor and face-saving against the forces of history that push for change. In such circumstances taking responsibility for one's role in events is an admission of supporting change, for better or worse – and change, in this culture, goes against collective interests as reflected in the consensus behind age-old customs and traditions. In refusing to take responsibility, or being accountable, people in shame cultures are adept in blaming others while viewing themselves as victims of history.
The contrast between these two cultures was evident in the manner in which the events of 9/11 were understood, explained, and interpreted by people in the West, in contrast to Muslims in the East. Once the shock and the grief lessened in time, analysts in the West sought explanations for 9/11 both in the thinking of those who carried out the terrorist attacks and also by looking inwardly toward what may have been the contributing factors, if any, of the West for provoking such attacks. Among Muslims, even those who denounced the perpetrators of 9/11, there was very little effort expended to understanding how their culture might have nurtured the thinking of Muslims that led to the terrorist attacks on the U.S. followed by similar attacks in Madrid, Spain, and London, England. Instead there was the reflexive response of blaming others, Jews or Israeli intelligence, and of brandishing the sociology of victimhood to exculpate the terrorists as victims long-suffering from the West's colonialist-imperialist policies and the alleged Israeli-Zionist occupation of Arab-Muslim lands in Palestine.
Despite 9/11, many in the West have gone the extra distance to placate Muslim opinion in respect to the situation in the Middle East. There seems to be the sense of guilt, nestled inside the culture of responsibility, about the colonial-imperial history of the West in the region after World War I; that guilt raises its head when contending with, for instance, the history and politics of Arab-Muslim denial of any right of Jews to a secure homeland in Palestine. This feeling of guilt among western intellectuals has been effectively exploited by Arab and Muslim intellectuals, religious leaders, and politicians to explain away the failings of Muslim culture as the effects of the humiliations inflicted by the West. This misguided view has, unfortunately, resulted in the wrong-headed effort on the part of the West, led by Europe, the U.K., and the U.S., to appease the culture of Muslims that languishes in shame and denial.
The world of Islam is much larger than the Middle East, and Muslim culture is not confined to the Arab world. The politics and history of Muslims from outside the Middle East, however, are less distorted by the lingering guilt of Western intellectuals, or by anti-Semites masking the oldest bigotry behind their excessive zeal in support for Palestinians in the Arab-Israeli conflict. This dismissal of culpability means that the Muslim culture is rendered more transparent in revealing what Kanan Makiya described as the "cruelty and silence" which surrounded the tyrannical rule of Saddam Hussein over Iraq.
The history of Pakistan, and the genocide in Bangladesh, also provides a disclosure of the failings of Muslim culture – a history largely ignored or forgotten by the West. As a result, the embrace of Pakistan by America has contributed to strengthening those benefitting from this culture of shame and denial. There is lesson here in understanding the culture of the Muslim world without any blinkers.
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On 16 December 2013, Pakistan's National Assembly in Islamabad adopted a resolution by a majority vote condemning the execution of Abdul Quader Molla four days earlier in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The motion stated, "This House expresses deep concern on hanging of a veteran politician of Jamaat-i-Islami [JI] Bangladesh for supporting Pakistan in 1971." The motion was moved by a member of the Pakistani JI in the Assembly; and, speaking on a point of order, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the Interior Minister, stated that Molla's hanging was "a judicial murder for supporting a united Pakistan in 1971."
As pointed out in "Genocide and Justice in Bangladesh", Molla was hanged for war crimes and crimes against humanity that he committed as a collaborator with the Pakistani army, which was responsible for perpetrating genocide in 1971 in what was then East Pakistan. Molla's trial, as well as the trials of others similarly indicted for committing crimes and collaborating with the Pakistani army, were the prerogative of an independent sovereign people, and of a democratically elected government to arrange for such trials.
For Pakistanis, outrage over these trials in Bangladesh was itself an outrage; an inconceivable expression of denial as if, for instance, Germans had protested the trials of indicted German war criminals long after the Second World War had ended. What bothered the JI and others in Pakistan is, "How dare any Muslim, in this instance Bangladeshis, declare their soul-mates to be guilty and then hang one of them!"
But the Pakistan's National Assembly in adopting a resolution condemning Bangladesh for hanging Molla – and on the forty-second anniversary of its army's surrender in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to the commanders of the Indian army and representatives of Bangladeshi "Mukti Bahini" [freedom fighters] – was a remarkable display of the collective denial of its own sordid history. In the intervening years, most Pakistanis had turned their backs on the events of 1971, and refused to learn any lesson from a political-military disaster that broke their country apart. Instead they readily suppressed the memory of the events, and constructed a narrative of victimhood portraying Pakistan betrayed and destroyed by Bengalis (or Bangladeshis) with the assistance of its archenemy, India.
In Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) the JI is remembered as the party that openly collaborated with the Pakistani army in 1971. The JI had supported a united Pakistan, but against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the people in East Pakistan that it become a free and independent country.
Ironically, former East Pakistan was the more populous half of Pakistan, yet it was pushed to secede by the oppressive dominance of the minority non-Bengali population overwhelmingly represented in the military, administrative and business elites of the country. By the time the Pakistani army started its campaign against the people of East Pakistan in March 1971, there remained very little in common between the two halves of the country, physically separated by India in the middle.
The banner of Islam unfurled by the JI on the plea of unity was a travesty. Islam was the sectarian argument marshaled in 1947 by a segment of Indian Muslims to partition India. In 1971 the JI and its allies, to legitimate Muslim-on-Muslim violence, raised the banner of Islam to maintain the status quo, which meant East Pakistan would remain a satellite of West Pakistan.
The events of 1971, with genocide in East Pakistan resulting in the breaking apart of Pakistan, demolished the country's founding narrative or rationale for the partitioning of India in August 1947 on the basis of Islam, to separate all Muslims, in a unified way, from India's Hindus. The wider significance of this history is what it reveals about the Islamist culture in general. Since 9/11, it is seen to be synonymous with violence, misogyny, and a pathological hatred for others, and, ironically, it has made Muslims themselves its most numerous victims.
The argument advanced by Mohammed Ali Jinnah (1876-1948) and the Muslim League in the 1940s for dividing British India, was that Indian Muslims, as a result of their religion and culture, constituted a nation deserving a separate state of its own. This was the "two-nations" theory that insisted India, as a subcontinent, was comprised of two distinct, even hostile, "nations" – the majority Hindus and the minority Muslims. Jinnah's argument was a repudiation of the idea of "composite nationalism" – India as a land of diverse ethnicities, religions, and languages – favored by the Indian National Congress under Mahatma Gandhi's leadership. An independent post-colonial India that was visualized by Gandhi and others – including a wide segment of Muslims, led by formidable individuals such as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958), as the president of the Congress during this period, and the Pathan or Pushtun leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988) with his legion of supporters known as Khudai-Khidmatgars ["Servants of God"] – was one of unity within diversity, and of a federation knit together by shared history governed democratically.
Jinnah's argument, however, was turned into the battle cry – "We will fight to take Pakistan" ["lar ke leng e Pakistan"] – of the Muslim League, and it inflamed with bigotry the politics of partitioning India along a religious divide. The "two-nations" theory cemented the notion among Jinnah's supporters that Muslims as a minority in an undivided India could not live securely amidst a Hindu majority. The result was a horrendously painful tearing apart of British India in 1947, and a massive transfer of population that further embittered the relationship between the two peoples of India and Pakistan. Yet there remained behind, in post-1947 India, a substantial Muslim population, at present about the same size as that of Pakistan's – and a continuing reminder of why Jinnah's "two-nations" theory that Muslims of India constitute a "nation" and deserves a separate state of their own was absurd.
It was the events of 1971 that drove the stake through the heart of Jinnah's "two-nations" theory and the rationale behind the making of Pakistan – a name chosen for the independent Muslim state, meaning, in Urdu "the land [or home] of the pure." The subliminal message was that for Muslims to maintain the purity of their faith, it was necessary for them to separate themselves from those who were "impure": the infidels, or Hindus. It was a highly bigoted message, and a manifest lie given the complexity of shared history in India of Hindus, other non-Muslims (Buddhists, Jains, Parsis or Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians), and Muslims for over a millennium before the making of the British Raj. In that process a composite culture had emerged, in which the commonality of language, music, fine arts, poetry, cuisine, and dress had outweighed the differences in religions and religious customs. But Jinnah's message was to turn its back on the concrete reality of this shared history, to deny that such inter-mixing had taken place or that more of it needed to be nurtured, to refute the past reality and the future potential of Muslim and non-Muslim peaceful co-existence, and to select, instead, a Utopia of "the land of the pure."
The choice for Indian Muslims upon which Jinnah insisted had relevance far beyond the confines of the subcontinent. Marshall Hodgson (1922-68), the author of the magisterial 3-volume study, The Venture of Islam, observed, "in the world as a whole the Muslims are, as in the more local case of India, distributed among a non-Muslim majority. The problem of the Muslims of India was in the end the problem of the Muslims in the world." In other words, in a world ever-shrinking through technological innovations, made increasingly inter-dependent in a globalized economy and drawn closer by the shared imperatives for peace, the test for Muslims is to show they can co-exist peacefully with the non-Muslim global majority.
Jinnah's choice meant rejecting this test for Muslims, which was first and most urgently presented in India at the end of the Second World War. His choice was also a poisoned pill: once taken, there would be no avoiding its lethal consequences. These have come in spades. In "the land of the pure," those suspected of impurity needed to be cleansed, purged, or driven out. At first, non-Muslims, feeling insecure, gradually departed from the western half of Pakistan, although in the eastern half a substantial number of Hindus remained.
Eventually political differences came to be viewed, by the measure of Islam, in terms of the "purity" and "impurity" of people. "Impure," or non-authentic Muslims, meant those whose Islam had been weakened by un-Islamic or non-Islamic values imported from the West, or contaminated by the Hindu culture of India, or who were measurably distant in terms of language, custom or ethnicity, from those more proximate to the physical center of Islam in the Middle East. In this sliding scale of "pure-impure," those Muslims farthest from the center, or too closely connected to a culture considered un-Islamic, were suspect in the eyes of other Muslims who considered themselves authentic or pure, as did the partisans of the JI.
By the time political tensions reached the breaking point in 1971, Muslims in West Pakistan increasingly viewed Muslims in East Pakistan as less pure, or inauthentic. Bengali Muslims were seen to be in language and culture more proximate to the Hindus of eastern India than to Muslims in West Pakistan, who were viewed as more refined or "pure," as they were geographically closer to the Middle Eastern or the Arab center of Islam. The logic of Jinnah's "two nations" theory reached its terminal point when it was felt by Pakistan's ruling elite that, to keep secure "the land of the pure," military action against those whose Islam was less "pure" was imperative. It was this mentality of the military-bureaucratic elite, and widely shared by people in what is contemporary Pakistan that precipitated the genocide in what is now Bangladesh.
The elimination of those who were regarded as "impure," as if they were infidels, became a religious obligation as much as a national security responsibility. In the end, Pakistan was broken apart, the military humiliated in defeat, the officers and soldiers taken to India as prisoners of war – and yet there was no soul-searching among those responsible as to why their politics failed so catastrophically. There was instead a deliberate suppression of the records, as well as a collective evasion of responsibility and an unwillingness publicly to examine and critically account for a history that had gone terribly wrong. There was no remorse, no apology made to those who were grievously wronged and, instead of guilt, there was an overwhelming sense of collective shame due to the military debacle that demanded, instead, erasure.
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The Muslim culture of denial and shame, when stripped of the rhetoric of Islamic piety, is the result of a tribal grounding. The Pakistani military, setting forth to eliminate, by murder and rape, Bengali Muslim opposition in 1971 was not new in Muslim history. The savage war against the people of Darfur waged by Omar al-Bashir's regime in Sudan; the genocidal slaughter of Armenians by Turks in 1915; the Jews driven out forcefully from Arab states after the establishment of Israel; the cruel destruction of the Kurdish people by the Iraqis under the rule of Saddam Hussein; the sectarian conflicts in post-Saddam Iraq; in Syria ruled by the Assad family; in Lebanon; across North and West Africa; in the brutal occupation of East Timor by Indonesia; in the destruction of the Christian communities across the Middle East, and in the unending cycle of ethno-tribal violence in Afghanistan; these are just few of the randomly identified conflicts that have raged across the Muslim world in the period since World War I.
The great Arab historian from North Africa, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), understood the tribal characteristics of his people and culture. As a scholar of Islam, he was not deceived by the formal pieties of rulers he served. One of these was Timur or Tamerlane, the conqueror from Samarkand who relished the massacres of his fallen enemies, and from such experiences Ibn Khaldun derived his immensely insightful and seminal notion of "asabiyyah" or group solidarity that holds tribes together while warring with each other. It is "asabiyyah" that yet defines Muslim politics based on tribal or sectarian loyalties, and it is "asabiyyah" that precedes the faith of Muslims in the teachings of Islam.
Ibn Khaldun's insight provides the most penetrating understanding of Muslim history and politics. Islam's monotheism offered the tribes of Arabia the path to higher unity by renouncing tribalism, and through embracing a message of universal fraternity to set the example for others to follow.
The Qur'an states, in a verse frequently cited by Muslims, that God has "created you all out of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another." The Islamic teaching as illustrated in this verse is that everyone essentially belongs to one human family in which no one may claim racial, or tribal, or ethnic superiority over another. But this teaching – and the Prophet's repeated admonition, as reported by his companions, that man is "a God-conscious believer or a miserable sinner" and, moreover, "all people are children of Adam, and Adam was created out of dust" – was subverted at the outset of the period in Muslim history that came just after the Prophet.
The great crime at the beginning of this history was the massacre of the Prophet's immediate family with the killings of his grandson Husayn and the male members of the retinue accompanying him at Kerbala, Iraq, as a result of inter-tribal rivalry. A consequence of this tragedy – even as it was suppressed in the collective memory of Sunni Muslims or those who came to represent the majority sect in Islam – was that the pattern of tribal conduct from pre-Islamic days became the norm of Muslim culture. In other words, instead of Islam raising Arab tribes to a higher culture of universal ethics, the reverse occurred – Islam was subverted into a tribalism, which, in our time, makes its reappearance in the ideology of Islamism. Islamism is tribalism in the sense Islamists insist, as ideologues of tribes do, on the basis of their version of Islam in excluding or eliminating not only non-Muslims as enemies but also Muslims – especially Muslims, who do not agree with their version of Islam. This is what the JI did in Pakistan; what the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots practice across the Middle East, and Khomeinists or the followers of Ayatollah Khomeini do in Iran: in turning Islam into a tribal religion, they have waged their "tribal/Islamist" warfare against their opponents – who are just about everybody.
In the contemporary world, the Muslim culture of denial and shame, with its roots in tribal hubris and tribal solidarity, or "asabiyyah" in Ibn Khaldun's formulation, stands exposed and at odds with the modern values of individual freedom and the ethics of individual responsibility and accountability. This tribal culture, as Ibn Khaldun observed, regenerates through pillage and plunder; each tribe sees itself as threatened unless it dominates the other, viewed as rival tribes. Tribalism invariably sets in motion a cycle of tribal conflict that brings ruin to all; and then the cycle is re-set to be repeated.
We are witnessing in the politics of the Muslim world what Ibn Khaldun recorded and explained in his own time. In an undivided India, Jinnah and his supporters drew upon the "asabiyyah" of Muslim culture to demand a separate state for Muslims. The politics of Muslim separation from Hindu majority in order to preserve the "purity" of Muslim religious-based tribal identity soon unfolded in demanding others within Pakistan to embrace this identity by renouncing their own, and with that requirement began the exodus of non-Muslims from the country, followed by the repression of those Muslims considered heretics, such as the Ahmediyya Muslims. There then followed the genocide in Bangladesh, and yet, in what remains of Pakistan, there is no sign of an end to tribal and sectarian conflicts. Further, the example of Pakistan is writ large across the contemporary Arab-Muslim world.
The non-Muslim world cannot by fiat, or intervention, bring an end to the conflicts raging within the Muslim world. It is only Muslims who can end this, at least temporarily, through exhaustion, as it happened after the decade-long Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s; or by the decisive defeat of Muslim tribalism as it happened with Pakistan in 1971 in Bangladesh. Eventually, however, the basis of these conflicts will only end when the Muslim culture of denial and shame is replaced by the ethics of individual responsibility and accountability. The requisite for such replacement is stated explicitly in the Qur'an: "God does not change the condition of a people unless they change what is in their hearts." [Sura Ar-Ra'ad (Thunder), 13:11.] It could not be clearer or more simply stated.
 See S. P. Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations?," in Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993; also his book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.
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