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Dr. Manzoor Ahmed (Pakistan)

1 The present state of civil society
in Pakistan & India

Dr S V Raju | Dr. Manzoor Ahmad | Dr. Sri Ram Khanna | Mr. Abdullah J. Memon | Dr. Hamza Alvi | DISCUSSION | SESSION CONTENTS | HOME

Session ContentsSPEAKER'S QUOTE

Why does the west have civil societies whereas we, in the East, have failed to develop them?

Ideologies are coercive. If you want to develop societies please for God’s sake in so far as the state is concerned try to avoid ideologies.

Civil society cannot develop if you have a basically feudal structure in a country.

This population shift [from villages to cities] has made it possible for people to speak about issues related to civil society.

Number of voluntary groups working in Pakistan is amazing. And also the number of good voluntary groups is amazing. And the type of sacrifices they are making.

I always differentiate between theologies and Islam and religion.

If intellectual activity does not start in countries like India and Pakistan then civil society does not have any future.

In a country like Pakistan when the feudals and the bureaucrats join hands together then that is the worst kind of despotism.

Dr. Manzoor Ahmad presented a backdrop to the civil society in Pakistan, more from a "conceptual" milieu than a "descriptive" one.

Even though the word "civil society" is of a more recent origin – some people say Hegel used it for the first time – nevertheless it can be dated back to the time of the Greek philosophy, where it was used basically to distinguish between different types of governments, such as the despotic government, monarchy and democracy. For instance, in a despotic government the gap between the ruler and the people is too wide and the despot rules by fiat rather than by any rule: the public is under the direct gaze of the despot. Democracies, on the other hand, are said to be the type of government where there is a middle buffer – the civil society.

Dr. Manzoor expressed reservations about some of the differences listed by other scholars between the East and the West. For instance, Edward Saeed, in Orientalism, states that the difference between the Oriental and the Occidental (Western) thinking is that the West is rational, while the East is lazy. Others have stated that the Eastern societies were "hydraulic societies" – arid areas require water management that can best be achieved through strong centralised governments. Civil societies, on the contrary, have developed mostly in bourgeoisie set-ups as a crucial requirement of those economies. According to the views presented by Max Weber, religion would be counted as one of the impediments for the development of civil societies in areas like Pakistan.

Dr. Manzoor’s basic disagreement with such theories is that "when they include Islam in the Orient they make a mistake." The role Islam played in Spain and the Mediterranean regions brings it out as an occidental religion rather than an oriental one. Christianity, on the other hand, can more easily be classified as an oriental religion that only in its later phase developed ideas like Protestantism, etc., which helped development of the free individual and the civil society.

The central question asked by Dr. Manzoor is this: How come that a country like Pakistan – basically a Muslim country – and other Islamic countries could not develop a civil society? The implication is that Islam being an occidental religion, the Muslim societies should have followed a similar course as the Western societies (Edward Saeed says that the clearest differentiation mark between the lazy Oriental thinking and the rational Occidental thinking is the growth of civil societies under the latter.)

One possible reason is provided by certain scholars: Muslim rule could not develop legitimate opposition. Morally it was correct to say a brave word before the monarch but theological it wasn’t very correct unless you were sure you would be able to change the society and bring order. That was a tall demand and no opposition could legitimately undertake to fulfil it.

When one comes to the situation in Pakistan, there is a peculiar syndrome to be observed. Dr. Ahmad describes it through the following parameters:

  1. Any state that is desired to be established on an ideology is likely to become coercive and intolerant, no matter what that ideology is. Even if you take democracy as an ideology it would becomes coercive and intolerant because you start looking at the world from your perspective. Then you may start movements in those countries that are doing very well – you may start insurgencies in those countries, as is happening in the world today.
  2. "Theology, when it makes goodness in a society dependant on a fiat or an order, is another reason for the non-development of civil societies in countries like Pakistan." In Islamic history a particular modality, a particular type of theology was adopted that Dr. Ahmad calls "the theology of command and obedience – that a particular thing is good because it has been commanded and another thing is unlawful or not good because it has not been commanded." (It is an old question: somebody asks in a dialogue of Plato whether something is good because God has commanded it or whether God has commended it because it is good.)
  3. Certain elements of the local society (essentially Oriental) found their way to Islam when that Occidental religion came to the regions now known Pakistan and India. The local Oriental society "was a society in which there was a caste system and the Brahmin was the ruling class." It was very conducive to the Muslim governors to adopt this feature of the local society so that they could replace the Brahmin whom every one naturally obeyed. Another Oriental aspect that Islam borrowed from the local society was mysticism. While it has its positive values it has nevertheless at least two elements that are not conducive to the development of civil society: (a) master-disciple paradigm, where the disciple has to obey whatever the master says ("You have to dip the prayer-mat in wine if the master says so"), and (b) a tendency towards inactivity, mostly through a belief in fate: if fate decides all, and if fate is inevitable, then there is no sense in organised effort to change anything.
  4. A particular type of feudalism, where the feudals were placed in their position for particular reasons. "The feudalism we have here is totally anti-democratic, anti-education, anti-everything – quite unlike the one that they had in the Britain in the good old days which, in fact, caused the industrial revolution." Micheal Foucault makes an interesting observation: power and knowledge combine together. Since knowledge is also a tool for power, especially in the modern world, the groups in power in countries like Pakistan acquire sophisticated knowledge but keep the public deprived of knowledge in order to keep them powerless. In this manner even democracies can become "very, very coercive. And coercion in democracy comes through the bureaucracy."

On the positive side, Dr. Ahmad pointed out certain things happening in India and Pakistan that auger well for the development of civil society:

  1. Demographic structures are changing. In 1947, the population ratio between villages and cities was approximately 80 : 20. Now cities contain more than 50% of the total population. Two positive results of this phenomenon are (a) an increased awareness of the issues related to the civil society, and (b) the possibility to exercise the freedom of vote.
  2. The numbers of NGOs that have come up to solve various problems is so huge that even if 70% of them could be proven corrupt there would still be a great number of the honest ones left behind.
  3. Dr. Ahmad sees judicial activism as a positive development that may contribute to the development of a strong civil society.
  4. The hold of the feudals is weakening.
  5. Dr. Ahmad points out that after the marginalisation of religious parties, a serious attempt is being made for deconstruction of theologies. Looking back at the history of the West, we notice that intellectual activity was a major factor that supported the rise of civil society. The increase in intellectual activity (symbiotic with the deconstruction of theologies) is a very strong point.

Privatisation, which is happening rapidly, may have its good and bad sides but it promises one great blessing: the replacement of bureaucratic culture with trade and industrial activities. Remembering that bureaucracy is the major channel through which coercion seeps into a democratic set-up, the importance of privatisation can hardly be exaggerated.

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