Culture, Nationality and Religion – 2

By Anjum Altaf


In the previous post in this series I had argued in favor of the proposition that economic interest has the dominant influence on what we do in life; even culture, nationality and religion are often treated as impediments to economic advancement and sacrificed for its sake. In this post, I aim to see how well the contrary case can be argued.

The key point I intend to stress is that the argument of the last post embodied a superficial perspective on the trade-off between economic gain and these attributes (culture, nationality, religion) making the classic error of mistaking form for content.

In thinking through my argument, a very old and remarkable film song from 1955 came to mind. (Now that I look at it anew I am amazed how it anticipated globalization almost a half-century before globalization itself became a household word.)

Mera joota hai Japani
Yeh patloon Inglistani
Sar pe laal topi Roosi
Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani



My shoes are Japanese
These trousers are English
The red hat on my head is Russian
But even so, my heart is Indian

And that’s the point — when all is said and done, the heart remains as “Hindustani” as it was on the day one was born.

Culture is never so static that one can talk in terms of giving it up. It is constantly and imperceptibly evolving, adapting and changing in response to myriads of internal and external influences. How much does the culture of England today have in common with the culture of the Victorian era? Not all the changes can be attributed to the desire for economic gain. Science, education, suffrage, conquest, immigration — many things have gone into the transformation. And yet, a certain Englishness remains that distinguishes the English from the French or the Italians or the Germans.

On the other side, there are numerous examples of cultural resistance even at the cost of economic gains. The Sikhs fought tenaciously to retain their turbans in England some decades ago, filing and winning costly job-discrimination suits. And Muslims are fighting the ban on headscarves in Europe with just as much fervor, willing to sacrifice better education opportunities for the sake of retaining what they claim is a symbol of their identity.

As for nationality, one needs to look beyond the color of the passport at how individuals interpret the exchange. It does not say anywhere that loyalty or patriotism requires one to live forever where one was born. After all, people migrate within a country (from village to town, from one city to another) all the time without their loyalties being questioned. So what’s wrong with migration across national borders? And if a piece of paper makes life easier in the new location, why reject that?

What is more relevant is that at heart people believe (granted they may be deluding themselves) they remain what they always were. And not just the emigrants! Why else were Japanese-Americans interred in California during the Second World War? And is that not the reason why after 9/11 if you look Asian you are Asian no matter what the color of the passport you carry? A change of passports, at the time of the switch, has virtually no impact on how people feel about themselves or their relationship to their places of birth.

As a matter of fact, migrants often turn more conservative than the people they leave behind, clinging to traditions and recreating their old world in the new environment. They are the major supporters of preserving the values they feel are being lost in their places of origin.

In the case of religion, mass conversions are events that take place once in many centuries. Most of the time there is hardly any change over the life of any one individual. The fact (sad, to some) is that one is what one learns at the knee of one’s mother, right or wrong. If mother told me that sect A, sub-sect B was the best in the world, chances are that is what I would end my life believing. That is no doubt the reason why every page of the public school curriculum in many countries is often contested so fiercely. (For an interesting twist on this in the US see the recent law adopted in Arizona to curb ethnic studies.)

The reported response to the Zakat deduction on bank accounts in Pakistan, mentioned in the previous post, if true, only points to a tit-for-tat maneuver to get around what many thought was a cynical, arbitrary and stupid tax. I would bet that not a single actual conversion ever took place. A similar motivation, to cash in on a foolish offer, would govern any response to the hypothetical proposal of the Canadian government (citizenship for change of religion). The faith one subscribes to remains a matter of one’s private conscience independent of revealed behavior.

Be that as it may, it is ironical that having contested the earlier arguments I cannot help but share their conclusions. People do make too much of culture, nationality and religion. These are attributes we acquire by accident of birth. We can choose to be happy at our good fortune but these are not things one can be proud of. One can only be proud of things that one achieves through one’s own efforts or learning or ingenuity.

This is a slightly modified version of an article that appeared first in the Daily News, Lahore, in July 2004. It is reproduced with permission of the author.


  • Vinod
    Posted at 08:40h, 09 July Reply

    One can only be proud of things that one achieves through one’s own efforts or learning or ingenuity

    The reason people take pride in their cultural/ethnic etc identities is that there is a presumption operating that anything that has survived the test of time, through the generations, must have something in it worthy of being proud. It is hard for people to shift their sources of pride to the achievements of one’s efforts or learning or ingenuity because they have no assurance of it standing the test of time. There is something to the idea of permanence in tradition that seduces our imagination. We tend to crawl back into the security of these ideas and customs in a very fast changing world where ideas get constantly challenged, bettered and discarded.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:42h, 10 July Reply

      Vinod: This line of argument does not resonate with my observations. Take the presumption that “anything that has survived the test of time, through the generations, must have something in it worthy of being proud.” Anything that survives that long must surely be a mixed bag – it must also include things to be truly ashamed of. Just look at the recent scandal about priests in the Roman Catholic Church or the Inquisition at an earlier time. You will find similar things in all religions.

      Nor do I find it convincing that one’s own achievements or learning will not stand the test of time – what can take away the achievements of Tendulkar or Gavaskar or the learning of Tagore? We still talk about the achievements of Socrates and Plato and Aristotle.

      There has to be some other reason why people take such chauvinistic pride in their traditions. I feel it is often nothing more than the inverse of parochialism. It is fine to celebrate one’s ways recognizing that they are a mixture of good and bad like that of everyone else. But one can only claim credit for something that is the outcome of one’s own efforts.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 05:03h, 12 July Reply

      SA, I have tried to offer a descriptive hypothesis, not a prescriptive one. I mentioned the presumption as a mental attitude that exists. Whether it ought to or not, whether that is right or not, was not my concern when I made the post. There will always be only an exceptional few who can derive pride from their efforts and ingenity. Most people are stuck in work and obligations of various kinds that they do not like and their existence is mostly a mechanical grind. For them, taking pride from traditions is one important way of salvaging any self-esteem. It is tiring and exhausting to keep questioning traditions, givent he volume of traditions and the intellectual and emotional effort required in questioning them. The mere fact of their longivity of continuation allows for most people to take them as worthy as a source of pride, without having to parse the specifics of the morality of each individual tradition. This is what brings intertia and resistance to change to traditions. I’m merely pointing out what is at work when thinking about traditions. The emotional battle against traditions for anyone seeking and willing to do so is akin to a steep mountain climb.

      • SouthAsian
        Posted at 12:12h, 12 July Reply

        Vinod: The point at issue is whether the descriptive hypothesis can be supported by evidence. If this were indeed the case how would one account for the sea change that occurs in the traditions of societies – for example, from the Victorian to modern values in England as mentioned in the post? Who in India today sticks to or takes pride in sati or child marriage or large families or social segregation? One sees before one’s eyes individuals forsaking or challenging traditions for the sake of economic gain or government subsidies or love. How would these be accounted for in your characterization?

      • Vinod
        Posted at 01:58h, 13 July Reply

        SA, I want to classify the changes in traditons you mention in two categories.

        (i) those that entail no bodily harm or death – eg – large families, segregation

        the changes in such traditions were NOT brought about by individual choices. Changes in such traditions require a sea of changes in the economy and social structure of a society to a point where the practice of the tradition eats into the basic requirement of survival – a bread and butter matter. This point is true of large families. Large families became unsustainable as land reform laws were enforced and government development policies placed bread and butter in the hands of nuclear families settled in cities. Traditions sometimes fails to provide the basic calories we need. In such circumstances the tradition does not necessarily die without a trace. It may metamorphose. For eg – the tradition of keeping large wedding/death rituals where the extended family is invited.

        (ii) those that entail bodily harm.

        Here are included traditions like sati and honour killings. Such traditions are actually quite fragile and uneasily accepted in a society. They directly impinge on the individuals’ conscience. It is only a powerful few who continue to peddle the tradition using fear as a way to suppress any resentment. Given a little bit of external help, these traditions can easily be wiped out. I agree that such traditions can indeed be changed by individuals.

        My descriptive hypothesis was directed more towards the cateorgy (i) traditions.

        • SouthAsian
          Posted at 07:38h, 13 July Reply

          Vinod: I wish to contest these claims at a number of levels:

          1. I am not convinced that this categorization of traditions is particularly robust. For example, large families definitely cause bodily harm to the mothers many of whom die in childbirth. Similarly social segregation leads to violence and often to death by suicide or homicide as witnessed in the cases of honor killings.

          2. I don’t find the process you outline for category 1 very plausible. In general, it is not the case that a sea change occurs first and then individuals respond to it. It is an intertwined process in which changes on the margin influence the individual decisions of people who as role models have a feedback effect on the individual decisions of others. It is the cumulative process that results in social changes. An example would be the adjustment of individuals to urbanization – urbanization as a sea change cannot occur unless individual decisions make it happen. I qualified the statement because exceptions are possible – I would consider the discovery of the birth control pill as one such exception.

          3. It is even less plausible to argue that traditions that do cause bodily harm are quite fragile and uneasily accepted in society and can be easily wiped out with a little bit of external help. Fragile and uneasily accepted traditions cannot last for centuries. Slavery is just one example. Thomas Jefferson evinced no moral doubts when he wrote “All men are created equal” while excluding slaves from the list. Neither did Aristotle in his model of the rights and duties of citizens.

        • Vinod
          Posted at 01:54h, 14 July Reply

          SA, I am refining and remaking my hypothesis as I dialogue with you. I hope you will bear with me as you find my stance changing, sometimes in detail and sometimes on the overall.

          To recap what we’re discussing – can my descriptive hypothesis explain changes in tradition. My hypothesis in my first comment to this post really was about why there is rest-inertia in traditions. I have tried to say that it is not just parochialism at work. Traditions by virtue of their antiquity provide some sort of security to the existential angsts of people. Traditions thus play a more fundamental function in human and social psyche.

          I don’t think I have claimed in my hypothesis that traditions cannot change. When you asked me whether my hypothesis covered changes in traditions I tried extending it to do so through a rough categorization and change process hypothesis and, I must confess, I failed miserably. I can only explain why traditions have the intertia. The point is to recognize that traditions have an important function and when talking about deviating from it or changing it one has to tread carefully and not be dismissive about it. I think the positive and critical function of tradition often goes unmentioned and unrecognized. I was trying to fill that gap.

          • SouthAsian
            Posted at 05:38h, 14 July

            Vinod: Dialogue and conversation are among the most effective ways to advance mutual learning so we can keep the process going till such time as we are satisfied with the outcome.

            I don’t think that the role of traditions or their value is under challenge in this discussion. There is little doubt that traditions emerge to fulfill some functional need. But there is also little doubt that that many traditions become outmoded as circumstances change – they become like fetters and individuals forsake them or challenge them. This is an evolutionary process in which traditions change, adapt, or are abandoned. To take a simple example, many rural traditions are out of place in an urban environment.

            If we take this perspective, it should be reasonable to argue that we can’t make a fetish of traditions. If they are there to fulfill a functional need than they should change as needs change. It is in this perspective that I find Arun Pillai’s formulation very exciting. We are used to thinking of traditions as constraints but there is no necessity to do so. We could just as well see traditions as facilitators and if we do so we would begin to interact with them differently.

          • Vinod
            Posted at 07:51h, 14 July

            SA, I may now sound like a broken record. But looking at traditions as serving functional needs or frameworks for solutions is not going deep enough into the significance of traditions. They serve something deeper than all that – they address some basic existential needs of the people who follow those traditions. They are not merely tools or implements. They are something that the people are emotionally immersed in. That is what I’ve been trying to highlight.

          • SouthAsian
            Posted at 10:00h, 14 July

            Vinod: Given your interest, we should shift the focus of the discussion to the emergence of traditions. In your opinion how do traditions come into being? Clearly they cannot precede society. And then, if they serve some basic existential need and people are emotionally immersed in them (which is undoubtedly true) how do some traditions get discarded? Let us work with a concrete example, let us say the tradition of child marriage.

            Perhaps this paragraph from the Wikipedia entry on traditions can provide a starting point:

            Traditions are often presumed to be ancient, unalterable, and deeply important, though they may sometimes be much less “natural” than is presumed. Some traditions were deliberately invented for one reason or another, often to highlight or enhance the importance of a certain institution.Traditions may also be changed to suit the needs of the day, and the changes can become accepted as a part of the ancient tradition. A book on the subject is The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger.

          • Vinod
            Posted at 13:38h, 14 July

            SA, I will send you a response to this in a few days time. It requires a lot of thought. Pls bear with me.

          • SouthAsian
            Posted at 02:12h, 15 July

            Vinod: Take your time; there is no hurry. Meanwhile, I came across an interesting article on the sexual revolution in Russia that can be used to make some points about traditions:

            The mundane origins of some traditions: “A lack of private space, especially in the communal apartments of major cities.”
            State encouragement of some traditions: “posters of square-jawed women scything wheat.”
            The break with traditions: “a burst of licentiousness in the early 1990s, when pornography and prostitution surged through the country.”
            The lag effect of traditions: “People are still ashamed.”
            The evolution of traditions: “They do not have the prejudices that their parents had.”

            And here is something interesting on the tradition of polyandry.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 08:48h, 09 July Reply

    It is interesting that the study of ethnicities is found to be divisive in its effects in Arizona. I suspect that this may be due to the content related to the way whites treated other ethnicities in the New World after their arrival there. Can this lead to anti-white sentiments? It can, if those particular lessoons are not taught with the right perspective. What is the right perspective? In my view, it is a sufficiently detailed study of human beings all the way from pre-history. Such a view of human kind does level us in every way – no race or ethinicity is free of the guilt of genocide. Once we arrive at that cynical view of human nature and civilization, one willl find nothing too startling about what the whites did. More importantly, it raises questions about the significance of empathy for the future wellbeing of human civilization. Empathy has interesting connections with identity and the parochial-ness of it.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 05:23h, 10 July Reply

      Vinod: You have very quickly pointed this discussion in what I believe is the right direction. The real issue involves our perspective on the nature of human nature or human behavior. As you point out, if we go over human history we have to accept the conclusion that human behavior over time has been extremely exploitative – those with power have had no compunctions over screwing those without power quite irrespective of whether the latter were of the same color or not. So the question to consider is the following: If this is indeed the reality of human behavior what is to be done? There seems little point exhorting people to behave better since that has never worked before. Take the case of Pakistan – the more Islamic Studies have been introduced into the classroom the less ethical the society has become. Rather, effective constraints have to be devised to minimize exploitative or socially and economically unacceptable behavior. This links up rather well with our discussion on the interaction between the state and the tribal population in India.

      An interesting issue pertains to whether human nature and human behavior are the same or different. Human behavior can be observed while human nature is an unobservable phenomenon. Is it the case that behavior is the outcome of natural drives mediated through certain filters? If so, we can focus on what kinds of filters we can put in place that would channel the same natural drives into better behavioral outcomes. This would get us away from the virtually impossible task of changing human nature. A simple example can make this concrete: If the harassment of women (Eve-teasing) is prevalent in a community what would work best to lessen its prevalence – a stint behind bars, a heavy fine, or a lecture on the exalted place of women in theological texts?

      • Vinod
        Posted at 09:19h, 12 July Reply

        If so, we can focus on what kinds of filters we can put in place that would channel the same natural drives into better behavioral outcomes.

        SA, I believe that to an extent there has to be an effort, besides others, in reaching out to human nature itself directly. I’m talking about some kind of moral studies in classrooms. I don’t know why morality and ethics are not taught in school curriculum at all in India.

        If the harassment of women (Eve-teasing) is prevalent in a community what would work best to lessen its prevalence – a stint behind bars, a heavy fine, or a lecture on the exalted place of women in theological texts?

        I have come to understand that it is not quite the framing of the law that helps the cause for which the law was made, but it is the quality of the enforcement of the law that makes all the difference. I, therefore, am not very particular with what the law should be but would like attention to the enforcement details.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 06:52h, 10 July Reply

    Vinod: Here is a concrete situation that connects the arguments of our previous comments on this post.

    The following article on Castes, Honor and Killings in India reiterates two important questions:

    1. What is there to be proud of in this centuries old tradition?
    2. How do we minimize the negative consequences of this tradition?

  • Vikram
    Posted at 17:54h, 11 July Reply

    SA, it is very interesting to note that something becomes worthy of thought and debate as soon an American newspaper prints one article about it. The Indian media which has been shouting about this for a while now be damned.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:21h, 11 July Reply

      Vikram: It’s not really that. There are audiences that have more regular and ready access to American newspapers. On this blog, these issues have been discussed regularly quite independent of the coverage in the American media. The aim is to focus attention on an important issue and to use all available material to do so.

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