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Paradoxical patterns

Publication Date : 06-05-2012


Thinking patterns in Pakistan do not appear to be monolithic. Rather they are mutually contrary to a point where their paradoxical nature is the prominent feature.

Osama bin Laden’s neighbours in Abbottabad still do not believe that the world’s most wanted man had been living among them for years. It’s a belief that the majority in Pakistan shares with them. Another popular perception is that Bin Laden and his men were not involved in the 9/11 attacks, which they consider were a conspiracy hatched by the American or the Jews.

Simplicity is a key advantage for any narrative but behind oversimplifications there often are manifestations of certain protective behaviours to counter collective fears. Every society and nation has certain moral, ideological and social values, which shape collective pride. Any action that hurts a collective sense of pride stimulates protective sensors, which manifest themselves in paradoxical narratives.

In many cases, the individual and the group know that a certain type of behaviour is potentially harmful and self-deluding but still they persist with it, much like a smoker who knows the hazards of the habit but still persists even as he flirts with the idea of quitting.

Similarly, a state may realise the consequences of indulging in armed conflict but paradoxically remains engrossed in it. Clear thinking and wisdom are among the first casualties when collective ego rears its head.

The US is not an exception when it comes to the war, and has apparently given little thought to how it will cope with human rights issues, of which it claims to be a custodian.

Moreover, its approach on the war on terror has sought to legitimise what is clearly outlawed under international law and shown the way to other states whose aggression against violent or non-violent non-state actors outside their territories include Israel’s invasion of the West Bank.

The victim states generally lack comparable military muscle and try to respond by citing sovereignty, though that also generates paradoxical tendencies. Paradoxical approaches can be found in the notion of good and bad Taliban in Pakistan and in the establishment’s behaviour towards Baloch separatists in comparison with the so-called jihadi forces, who are responsible for bleeding Pakistan.

These are international and security paradigms of paradoxical practices, which have adjusted to the challenges through diplomacy, political engagement and frameworks of mutual interest. The real issue is the people’s paradoxical thinking patterns, which are more challenging and countering them is more complex.

The average Pakistani wants to be progressive in a conservative framework. He is caught between two competing narratives: the one which is primarily grounded in religion and is now championed by militant groups makes him want to see his religion triumph; the other, usually put forward by the government and sections of the media, is geared towards making people realise the significance of progressing in the world.

These paradoxical thinking patterns can be summed up thus: a desire for Pakistan to be a politically sovereign and assertive state, with all the benefits of international engagement without any compulsion or reciprocity; economic self-reliance with the advantages of globalisation; individual freedom and choice but at the societal level ‘piousness’ and conservatism; ideologically less receptive to new ideas; emotionally reactive and inclined to put the burden on others.

Everyone in Pakistan experiences these paradoxes in their daily lives, with slight variations. The popular slogan of the moderate majority has nothing to do with the ground realities. Many studies conducted by Pakistani and foreign scholars and research institutions also endorse that the space for moderate discourse is shrinking in Pakistan and paradoxical thinking patterns prevail.

Most of these studies indicate that religion is an issue of identity for the average Pakistani but that he is confused on whether he should seek guidance from it for solutions to all his problems. This is demonstrated by a large proportion of respondents in a survey by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies supporting the country’s hybrid legal system in which the Sharia is not the only source of law.

However, in the same survey a fairly large percentage also thought that democracy would not make a difference in dealing with the challenges facing them. The same confusion can be seen in society overall.

At a historical level, it may be argued that two factors played an important role in developing such a state of mind in Pakistan. The first pertained to the departure of the country from its non-Muslim heritage, culture and roots that created an identity crisis. The second was a conscious alignment with the Islamic world as an extension of the first factor, but this has proved to be a fatal exercise.

At the behavioural level, it shaped a majority mindset. The fear of failure was at the core of the experiment. The majority mindset snubbed every voice that attempted to challenge it. It triggered a process of marginalisation and exclusion at the ideological level that brought ethnic and sectarian minorities into its fold of exclusion.

Interestingly, the numbers and ratio of marginalised voices has increased to a level where the majority seems too puzzled to reconcile with new realities. Punjab has become the majority symbol and the custodian of ideological and political discourse in the province.

A compensative approach started when major ethnic communities, mainly the Pakhtuns of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Urdu-speaking in Sindh got economic and political incentives but on the condition they adopt the majority’s norms. The process has not been completed and though it does not seem peculiar in the societal expansion
discourse the majority has failed to evolve any ideological compensative approach which has nurtured paradoxical behaviour.

Evolving a more balanced approach is an uphill task but a number of studies suggest avenues that are worth trying. The key drivers that can help rationalise behaviour patterns are media, the curriculum and religious clergy in addition to the state’s direct intervention.

The writer is editor of the quarterly research journal Conflict and Peace Studies.


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