Friday, 28 December 2007

Essentialising Culture

There is a very good post at the 'Kings of War' blog run by the King's College War Studies Dept. called 'The Trojan horse of culture'. The author is writing in relation to Counter-Insurgency Operations, but what he highlights is part of a broader trend of 'essentialising' culture - in other words thinking of some kind of idealized view of a society's culture as essential to its nature and the all-directing force behind the behaviour of its individuals. The author rightly describes the risks of this kind of view. In its most simplistic forms, it is little more than a form of racism and is about as useful in understanding the people it attempts to describe.

Its interesting that here in Pakistan, the military [and indeed many people in the society] tend to essentialize culture as well. In many ways this is a hold over of colonial thinking, soundly internalized by the army brass and bureaucratic elite in colonial educational and training institutions. This kind of thinking has had numberless harmful effects in Pakistani military [and therefore foreign policy] thinking.

One example can be found in the 1965 war. Raised on the colonial British myth of Punjabis and Pathans being a 'martial race', very different in essence to the 'effiminate' peoples of eastern and southern India, the military rushed into its foolhardy 'Operation Gibraltar' in 1965 with confident assertions that 'Hindu' India would be too cowardly to risk an all out war, and that, even if all our war came, in the words of Zulfiqar Bhutto, one Muslim soldier would be worth ten Hindu soldiers. History bears witness to the fact that the Indians not only did not flee in abject terror of the Pakistani army, but inflicted serious reversals on it. By the time the ceasefire was signed, the Pakistani position was desperate. The 1971 war was an even bigger military disaster.

But still the essentializing myths persist. Citing the repeated conquests and plundering raids of India by a variety of Muslim adventurers from Mohammad Bin Qasim in the 8th century to Ahmed Shah Abdali in the 18th, all part and parcel of a national narrative of martial prowess, Pakistanis still insist on the inherent inferiority of Indians when it comes to war. The myth is also deployed in other ways. Most political commentators who insist that Islamist militants should be given free reign in the tribal areas, and that the army should not oppose them, tend to reverse this myth of martial prowess and insist on the inherent superiority of the Pathan and Afghan as a fighter, as well as their inherently 'Islamic' nature. Thus the Taliban are presented as fighting to preserve their culture and Islamic identity against foreigners and the desultory efforts and rubbish performance of the Pakistani army in battling militants explained as the natural outcome of trying to oppose militants who have inherent fighting prowess ingrained by their culture.

Needless to say, once you have excuses like these, few feel the need to try to understand what is happening in a more detailed and intelligent manner. That the socio-economic and political environment of the tribal areas in 2007 is very different from 2000 is not understood. Nor that in 2000 it was very different from 1975, before the area was flooded with weapons, cash and drugs. The fact that culture is neither monolithic nor immutable does not occur to these people and therefore the response to militancy and extremism becomes circumscribed, banal and ultimately ineffective.

1 comment:

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