More and Less of Imran Khan

This post continues the series initiated by Imran Khan’s observations on the differences between West and East (Why the West Craves Materialism and Why the East Sticks to Religion) but it is more about the issues and less about Imran Khan.

In particular it addresses the points raised by Tahir in his four comments on the earlier post. These points cover so many areas that it is best to deal with them in a separate post.

To start with, it is useful to separate the various strands in the comments and respond to them one at a time. For example, it would help to separate the political and the religious dimensions. There is little doubt that the US has exploited many countries including Pakistan. But this has very little to do with religion.

The fact is that throughout history those with power have used it to exploit those without power. Many examples can be cited not only those involving Western countries. The case of Japan (in China, Manchuria, and Korea) and of Pakistani governments (in East Pakistan and Balochistan) can be cited. Buddhists and Muslims, respectively, carried out these abuses of power.

Human beings, whatever their religion, have not found a way to impose any kind of morality on the use of power – naked self-interest always seems to triumph. Therefore the issue of politics and religion should not be mixed together. Rather, the challenge is to understand why this continues to be the case and to propose mechanisms to restrain future abuses of power.

Second, the issue of materialism also needs to be separated from religion. Tahir has mentioned that even in Pakistan urban areas are more “materialistic” than rural areas. Therefore it is a useful hypothesis to explore whether urbanization contributes to an increase in materialism.  If so, one can explain greater materialism in the US simply because it is much more urbanized. But, surely, no one will recommend keeping Pakistani society forever rural in order to preserve its asserted lack of materialism.

However, before exploring such a hypothesis, one would have to define what one means by materialism. Urban areas are much more dominated by a market economy compared to rural areas and household incomes are also higher. In a market economy no one makes everything they consume; rather, they buy the things they need from the market. This need to buy things due to the different nature of the market cannot be labeled materialism and considered bad.

Without a definition with which to measure materialism, comparative statements like “Eastern society was never materialistic” do not carry much conviction and can only be treated as assertions in need of proof. Also, a statement that “to the people of the East, life is not just about earning money” needs substantiation. The ranking of Pakistan on the Transparency International Corruption Index is among the highest in the world. This would need to be explained if making money is not important. Similarly, the incidence of charitable giving and volunteerism in the West is very high. Why would a totally materialistic society subscribe to such practices? This too would need to be explained in a more complete framework.

Third, there is a need to separate ethics and religion. Tahir mentions that sectarianism and theft were common in the West till the 19th century. This means that if sectarianism and theft have significantly decreased in the West despite (as claimed) an equally significant decline in religious belief, the two are perhaps unrelated. And the fact that the East sticks to religion and yet has a high incidence of sectarianism and theft points to the same conclusion. Becoming more religious does not look like solving these problems. In fact, Pakistan is much more religiously oriented today than it was in the 1960s and yet corruption has greatly increased.

Fourth, the point about indigenous institutions is also independent of religion. It does make sense to build modern institutions on the foundation of familiar inherited traditions after their deficiencies have been remedied. But these, like the jirga, are cultural traditions that have little to do with religion.

Fifth, it is a weak argument to attribute our failings to the fact that religion is not being followed in the true sense. There is a contradiction here. If the West has overcome these problems without religion why does the East need even more religion than it now has? In fact, this argument opens up a very difficult question: Why can’t people in the East follow their own religion? Who is stopping them from behaving ethically in their personal lives? What’s the point of having a great religion if nobody follows it unless intimidated through the brutal use of force?

By bringing in religion into every issue and getting sidetracked into attempts to prove that “our” religion is better than “their” religion, the solution of problems that are important to ordinary people are indefinitely delayed. One can only deplore the fact that even in the 21st century half the population of Pakistan is illiterate and significant percentages denied basic human rights and services like clean water. True religion may not deliver these because some group will always claim that the religion we have is not the true one. Politics usually hides behind the veil of religion and inevitably power would be used to resolve such disputes just as the Deobandis and Barelvis are doing today.

A more useful benchmark to measure the success of a society is to see what it has been able to provide for the bottom twenty percent of its population. On that criterion some countries in the East have failed miserably. And when one uses an objective indicator like that, it ceases to matter who might be lying or telling the truth. The results speak for themselves.


  • tahir
    Posted at 10:57h, 30 June Reply

    History has witnessed that USA has always felt insecure of Islam and Socialism or Communism.USA’s war against Vietnam is a clear proof of the fact that USA had conisdered a communist state as threat.USA’s criticism against Russia and China often comes in media and America played great role along with many other factors in the downfall of USSR.
    The reason behind US feeling insecure of Islam and Communism is the system both Islam and Communism offer doesn’t suit US interests as it would lead to the downfall of USA.
    We here are not discussing abuse of power by different people or countries,what we are discussing here is ‘America’s abuse of power against Pakistan and other Muslim countries’.

    Materialism in West and East
    Materialism is defined as the belief that having money and possessions is the most important thing in life.I must write down that majority of the people in west are materialistic while a minority does exist which is not materialistic.So overall trend of western society makes it materialistic.
    Life of any ordinary person in West revolves around getting education and then finding a good job.Any westerner would work hard for having five star house in a posh locality, and mercedeze.Shopping cosmetics and nice but expensive clothes is an essence of their life.
    Thnigs are changing is east too but the pace is quite slow.A small minority in our society does have the mentality like majority in west.

    Evils in the society
    yes,you are factually right that corruption in pakistan is far more than any western country,let alone USA.Why is it so?Malpractices like corruption exist in our society because there is no law.Everyone in the society can not have the character of Imran Khan,so law has to play its role to inculcate fear among masses that crime would lead them to be punished.Poor law is the real cause behind these things.
    In 1999 when light went off in New York,crimes like theft and rape broke all records in the history of USA.It clearly shows that law keeps the people away from corruption and other evils.

    To me the differnce between right and wrong comes from Islam.That’s why I can not put religion at side while understanding any issue.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:34h, 30 June

      US AND ISLAM: I look upon this in a different perspective. As I mentioned before, there is no morality in politics. At the global level, different systems have always been in contention for dominance and control of resources. In the 20th century, the main contest was between capitalism and communism and capitalism was victorious. The case of Islam is different – it is not a global power in contention with capitalism or of which the US needs to be afraid. The Muslim countries are so weak and divided that if there is a conventional war they would be crushed in no time. The apparent conflict of the US with Islam is the result of a geological accident – it just so happens that Muslim countries are located on the major sources of oil. Just as the US intervened in Christian Latin American countries in an earlier era for business reasons, it is doing so in Muslim countries for control of oil. This is not a reaction of fear nor has it anything to do with religion. If the control of oil had been in Christian hands, the nature of the conflict would have remained the same. This fight over global resources is being given a religious color to fool the people on both sides.

      MATERIALISM: This definition seems to define the common condition of the modern world. The life of an ordinary person in Pakistan also revolves around getting an education, a job, transportation and a house. Most people work hard for these things just as in the West but many more try to take shortcuts. If things are moving in the same direction in the East, it means that religion has little to do with the development – it may simply be urbanization. If so, thinking the East superior to the West because it is less materialistic does not make sense. All it means is that the East is relatively underdeveloped.

      EVILS IN SOCIETY: The real question here is why there is no law in Pakistan despite the advantages of much less materialism and much more religious belief? If the West has become a much more law abiding society while giving up religion does it not suggest that religion is not what is needed for this purpose. Religion is very important in life for many reasons but on the evidence it does not seem necessary for obedience to law.

      The issue of the need of fear for this purpose also needs more discussion. The more profound question is that in Islam, God has laid down the law which is being constantly violated in Pakistan. So, if Muslims are not even afraid of God, how can we expect them to be afraid of any temporal authority? It is very distressing to consider that Muslims can only become law abiding if they are intimidated by force. Something is wrong in this line of thinking. We have to study and explore other ways to make Pakistan a more law-abiding society.

      There are two issues with the last point. The difference between right and wrong comes from which sect or school within Islam? Invariably there would be conflict over this issue just as there was in Europe after which European society was forced to make religion a personal issue. And second, as we have argued, many issues do not involve religion. So they might be better addressed on their own terms. For example, if materialism is related to urbanization it would only confuse the issue by making it a conflict between Islam and Christianity.

    • tahir
      Posted at 12:49h, 02 July

      US And Islam:
      There has to be morality in politics.If morality is not practiced then how you can expect a safe world.keeping morality out of daily dealings can only create hatred in the minds of oppressed against oppressor,and this is what has been happening in the world.promoting equality is the basic requirement for sustainable peace and love.

      There is a certainly differnce between a common person in east and that in west.In East,religion is an active part of lives of ordinary people and it goes hand in hand with other things like making money or getting education.I see a lot of doctors and eginners who say prayers regularly five times a day.I have seen a lot of people devoting their own life for their faimly.Such things are quite rare in West and are missing in the lives of our elites too.
      Making money is not harmful,what harmful is making money more than required.When billions of people all over the world are dying with hunger,it’s realy ridiculous to have billionires in the society.That’s why Islam has come with an idea of ‘Zakat’.A common person may give money in charity but billionires don’t take part in such activities.

      Evils in Society
      It is a well established fact that those who have been ruling pakistan are materialistic(that’s why they make money through illegal ways), and the silent majority which is less materialistic are not involved in corruption.Getting rid of corruption requires education,honest leadership and implementation of law.
      Our society is deprived of all the basic requirements which can stop people from taking part in malpractices.

      In case of any religion,God has given choices(both good and bad) to human beings.For keeping the followers away from bad deeds,Islam has defined three principles:
      1-build character
      2-Implementation of law
      3-Set example through Punishment.
      In pakistan,as I wrote down earlier islam is not being followed in true sense as these three steps are not practiced at all.It’s almost impossible to have every citizens with great character,so the system has to resort on law and defined punishment from stopping the people getting involved in any crime.Punishment sets example in the society that no one should commit crime as there is defined punishment for that.
      As far as west is concerned,they have their own system and that is fundamentally based on these three steps with a little difference.In west people keep themselves away from crime to have a peaceful and prosperous society whereas Muslims have to keep away from these crimes for making God happy and have a peaceful and prosperous society.The relationship between man and God differentaites Islamic society with an unislamic one.

  • Buddha
    Posted at 09:33h, 01 July Reply

    SouthAsian is 100% correct.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:02h, 01 July

      B: This is the way I read the historical evidence at this time. Other interpretations are possible. My hope is that on this blog we subject each hypothesis and each claim to the test of logic and make sure that there are no contradictory claims in our arguments. That way we would advance to robust conclusions and all will learn in the process. Nobody has a lock on wisdom – we have to keep an open mind and help each other to a better understanding of a very complex world. All this has to be done with respect for the other. I hope we can keep up the tradition.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 18:45h, 01 July Reply

    Another, quite different, perspective on East/West comparisons, materialism, religion, and the ownership of truth. Quite useful to look at the same issues from different angles:

    Hanif Kureishi talking about his novel The Black Album.

    “Just as the west has generated fantasies of the east for its own purposes, the east… will do the same, ensuring a complete disjunction.”

    “At the same time Islamic societies, far from being “spiritual”, are – because of years of deprivation and envy – among the most materialistic on earth. Shopping and the mosque have no trouble in getting along.”

  • Usama Khawar
    Posted at 11:42h, 09 November Reply

    Just found out about this blog. Really excited. Who is the author of this post?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 23:07h, 09 November

      Usama: Welcome to the blog where issues matter more than personalities or identities or loyalties. It is all about the why-questions, not the who-questions.

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