Shackles of stupidity – Mosharraf Zaidi

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The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan is a profoundly dangerous development. This is true regardless of how angry you may be about the way the United States has treated Pakistan. It is true no matter how wicked and evil India’s support of terrorist groups like the TTP is. And it is true, no matter how excited the Muslim teenager in you is about the virtues of the simple and pure Taliban warriors that have taken over Afghanistan is.

There are many reasons that the Taliban takeover is so profoundly dangerous, but the most important reason is that the new regime in Afghanistan, much like its predecessor, will be incapable of addressing the two most critical elements that distinguish successful nations from those that are accused of failing.

The first element is dealt with in ‘Why Nations Fail’, where Daren Acemoglu and James Robinson detail the importance of politics and institutions that foster innovation and boost investment in a society. The second element is explained in ‘Outliers’, as Malcolm Gladwell lays out the importance of work ethic and culture, as informants of a society’s ability to improve its rate of capitalization – or the number of people that achieve their human potential. I use these two iconic books in 21st century popular culture to draw the attention of reasonable people that may be victims of false hope as far as the Taliban are concerned very deliberately.

The problem is, those that think the Taliban can succeed in producing and sustaining peace in Afghanistan are also vulnerable to thinking that Prime Minister Imran Khan can deliver on his promises of a truly Naya Pakistan. Both sets of optimisms are a product of poorly conceived and poorly constructed notions of what it will take for Muslims to claw back the dignity and glory that PM Khan so badly wants to restore to Muslims, here at home in Pakistan and more widely across the world.

In various recent speeches, PM Khan has alluded to the problematic impact of colonization on Pakistani identity. He is not wrong to be concerned about the absence of a wholly organic and truly enlightened knowledge-generation and innovation-driving Pakistani culture. From his two decades of political engagement, we know his diagnosis of Pakistan’s problems is not so simplistic or linear as to be restricted to English-medium education – but because he is prone to cross referencing themes and issues in his otherwise well delivered speeches, he consistently says things that would leave any reasonable person with doubts about exactly what PM Khan wants to do to Pakistan to make it ‘Naya’.

Let’s take the Single National Curriculum (SNC). Here is a public policy product whose core intent or purpose is PM Khan’s desire to raise the overall standard of education, by setting benchmarks that all Pakistani students can meet – no matter where they were born, how well off their parents are, and what language they speak at home. In other words, to PM Khan’s mind, the SNC will elevate the learning levels of those born on the wrong side of the tracks in Pakistan. What could be better than this?

But when PM Khan speaks about the SNC, he is prone to link it to many other political ideas and themes. And because he sees himself as a true reformer, these themes are all interchangeable. So the SNC is not just a tool for improved learning outcomes, but also for the enhanced self-confidence and gravitas of Pakistani identity. And since any identity should be rooted in fierce independence, PM Khan is comfortably making the parallel between his promotion of the SNC and the recent takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban.

PM Khan’s hardcore supporters don’t care much for reason, history, science, or logic. For them, nothing the PM says can be criticised. On the other end of the spectrum, the PM’s legions of critics find everything he says worthy of being treated with derision – so when such derision is well deserved, it gets buried under the deluge of partisanship that drives the political discourse.

If the prime minister of Pakistan says, out loud, in a formal speech, televised live, during the inauguration ceremony for an already controversial Single National Curriculum, that the Taliban of Afghanistan represent a force that restores freedom, by breaking the shackles of slavery – then the larger problem may not be the PM. It may be the politics, the institutions, and the culture in which such a sentence can be uttered. There is only one accurate descriptor for this culture, and it is the word stupid. A public discourse must have become utterly, irrefutably and irreconcilably stupid in order to end up at the strategic cul de sac of the Taliban (a violent extremist group) being feted as liberators of a nation that has been (and will remain) at war for four decades.

The source of this stupidity is not one individual or one party. And it is not manifest only in discussions about Afghanistan or the SNC. Reports from Kabul suggest that the Taliban will allow higher education for women, but only in all-female universities. In Pakistan, PM Khan illegally fired the Higher Education Commission chairperson, leaving a leadership vacuum that is being filled with rent seekers and labour unions that seek only more funds, and more jobs.

In both countries, serious discourse about the importance of world class universities is almost non-existent. What is evident however is that we seem to want to persecute and harass the best mathematicians and physicists out of the newspapers (and out of country), and somehow in doing so, also seek to restore the glory of Muslim identity on the pages of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. What is clouding our collective judgement that the discordance here seems to evade us entirely? It is stupidity, plain and simple. How else can one explain wanting kudos for the knowledge-seeking and peaceful Pakistani ethos, whilst celebrating the violent and extreme Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan?

There is nothing wrong with wanting to restore Muslim glory, and certainly nothing wrong with wanting to establish organic political and institutional frameworks that free a post-colonial society of its imperial baggage. But one must turn on the GPS and know exactly where one stands before making rash pronouncements – no matter how popular they may make us on the airwaves or the streets.

The problem of oversimplifications in the Pakistani public discourse is that they create unnecessary and avoidable contradictions and crises. The easiest oversimplification to avoid is the notion that the English language or British-era relics in Pakistan’s political and institutional landscape are the reason Pakistan has fallen far behind the rest of the world in maternal and neonatal health, scientific discovery, economic growth and generic ‘glory’.

The most important institutional frameworks that Pakistan owes to British rule over the Subcontinent are the civil services, parliamentary democracy, and the armed forces. All three have had their share of challenges, and have been the source of many social, political and economic problems – but all three essentially anchor Pakistan’s relative normalcy as a nation-state in the 21st century.

Take away the likes of the Pakistan Administrative Service, the Police Service of Pakistan, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, the Senate of Pakistan, the Internal Revenue Service, the Balochistan Assembly, and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex at Kamra, and what do you get? You get Afghanistan.

Pakistani leaders should not be mixing metaphors to win a few more likes and RTs here and there. They should be seized with relentlessly seeking reform and renewal of the country’s sources of actual glory: its hospitals, its civil services, its taxation regime, its counterintelligence capabilities, its law enforcement, and most of all, its schools, colleges and universities.

To achieve true glory, one must break free of the shackles of stupidity. Muslim glory will not be found in the feelings inspired by speeches on YouTube videos. It will be found in algorithms and laboratories.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.