The decline of reason

July 12, 2020

Rational thought has been deliberately suppressed in Pakistan

Dear All,

It’s not just Pakistan where the forces of irrationality are taking over. With the rise of right-wing nationalism and religion across the globe has come an oratory of ‘unreason’. And this lack of rational thought has fed into the propagation of fake news and lies.

These days lies no longer seem to be shocking to people: it is absolutely amazing to see how governments and leaders now get away with telling lies, lies and more lies. A politician will make a statement which will be broadcast and replayed ad nauseum but then the same person and his devotees will insist “that’s not what he said”. So if Imran Khan calls Osama Bin Laden a shaheed in a speech in parliament, his spokespeople will insist that’s not what happened and when Boris Johnson blames care homes for the spread of coronavirus in the homes (actually caused because elderly patients weren’t tested for the virus before being sent back from hospital), his ministers insist that’s not what he said or if it is then so what if it’s not factually accurate? When an advisor breaks lockdown rules he gets away with it despite all the inconsistencies in his story, when a minister lies in parliament he just carries on insisting he’s right.

The inability to apply logic or reason to any argument or report is now all too prevalent in Pakistan. If one attempts to establish facts and logistics during any conversation one is invariably met with irritation and suspicion. This is all the more so when the topic involves political rumour or religious reference. You simply are not supposed to query either or to use any degree of common sense to sift through the information.

This is not unusual to conservative societies which are grounded in religious and social tradition, but Pakistan has been unable to evolve intellectually despite all the progressive currents of the twentieth century. The process has been deliberately halted and reversed several times, most notably by military rulers using religion and religious groups to further their ambitions. The Zia era, eleven years of oppressive rule by a military dictator intent on making Pakistan an Islamic state rather than a Muslim country, were especially decisive in this muzzling of reason, logic and fact-based argument or scholarship.

Religion was used to divide, persecute and silence, and it was used in a variety of bizarre ways to illustrate the superiority and infallibility of religion. One such way was the encouragement of something called ‘Islamic science’. This did not involve, as you would logically think, the work of the great Muslim scientists (such as Ibn Sina, Al Battani, Al Khwarizimi or Al Razi) undertaken in Muslim empires but rather a series of projects and discussions that had nothing to do with science or the scientific method. This absurd trend, patronised and encouraged by the government, was documented by Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy in an article published in The Herald in 1987 (and elaborated on in a paper and then a book on the same subject). One of the ‘scientific’ projects suggested the harnessing of djinns in order to solve the country’s energy problems. Now the question of djinns, what they are made of, and their existence or the folklore around them is indeed an interesting topic in terms of paranormal activity and the spirit world. However, in terms of science there just isn’t enough observable and documentable evidence.

Religion is based on what we or our forebears choose to believe in for irrational reasons, science is built on what we see evidence of. Science is not blasphemy; it is actually what we have built the modern world on: science and observation have built up modern medicine and have advanced technology; scientific observation and method is what has given us the classification of the elements and a knowledge of the solar system and the natural sciences.

Logic allows one to make sense of material and to analyse and organise information, yet it is discouraged because of the perception that it threatens the old order. Thus, we have come to the present-day situation where people are unable to sift fact from fiction and where fake news and wild rumours are embraced as ‘truth’ according to one’s political affiliations. The group that could once call this out i.e. the media has been neutralized and instead of providing clarity creates more confusion. Part of the reason for this degradation of the media is the sidelining of informed and aware editors and the shifting of the middle ground to right of centre. There is, of course, the coercion and pressures on the press from ‘the powers that be’ but the fact of the matter is that many journalists are now unable to see glaring contradictions in the stories they report.

Another key factor is the undermining of education and the hijacking of the curriculum. This has been contaminated by hate-filled histories and insular approaches in every subject. Civics for example is no longer a subject considered important perhaps because the idea of a social contract and citizens’ rights and responsibilities veers too much towards the realm of contemporary politics.

A mushrooming of private educational institutions does not indicate that educational standards have risen. It just means that lots of people are making lots of money selling degrees and qualifications. And quality education is not the aim: the case of Dr Hoodbhoy is telling. He says he was forced out of Forman Christian College University because certain faculty were unhappy with his attempts to provide students with a high quality of online education during lockdown as well as his organising and encouraging of student activities and forums. If this is indeed the case (FCCU didn’t respond to my requests for their version), it illustrates the priorities of higher educational institutions in the country; conformity and mediocrity are more highly valued than academic excellence or student wellbeing and development. Dr Hoodbhoy, a world renown nuclear physicist and peace activist, was not the only academic ‘let go’ by the FCCI, the services of Dr Ammar Ali Jan, another professor with impressive credentials, were also dispensed with. Dr Jan also has been an activist for civil society and an advocate for a fairer, more socialist society.

As if it were not enough to deprive young people of the opportunity to be taught by two highly qualified and intellectually able professors, a cranky old Lahori bigot who is regularly given screen time by TV channels proceeded to accuse both professors publicly of being foreign agents and working against the state. The old bigot insisted that they worked for both India and America, and that Professor Jan was anti-state because he had been supportive of groups and movements made up mostly of non-Punjabi youth. These ludicrous allegations have been injected like poison into the mainstream narrative. The matter may or may not come go before a court but the problem is that most people will not use any measure of reason to assess the matter.

Logic and reason can carry you forward and help you make sense of the world we live in but alas, the more Pakistan progresses technologically, the less it seems to be advancing intellectually. It’s the same trend across the world but in Pakistan this has been, and continues to be, a very deliberate process.

           Best wishes

        Umber Khairi

The decline of reason