By Manzar Zaidi

Jun 2, 2014

Pakistani CollectivismIn many Pakistani cities and also in a large number of the villages in the countryside, such kinship groupings are ascendant. Anatol Lieven has aptly described the dilemma when he explains that perhaps too much democracy is not too good for an evolving Pakistan. Comparing Pakistan with renaissance Europe, he draws the analogy that feudal elite in medieval Europe was largely able to get away with the reformation because they did not need to consult the largely ill educated masses about governance, and thus eventually force their ideologies through. Unfortunately in Pakistan democratic politics is carried on the shoulders of a kinship or group based political structure and mindset, and once elected, even the most modern minded of the parliamentarian must cater to his largely rural minded constituency or be vanquished politically or even literally. The former was seen in the case of Salman Taseer, the modern governor of Punjab, who attempted to reform the draconian blasphemy law which is commonly used a as tool to persecute minorities. He was executed by his own bodyguard near a modern café in Islamabad.

In order to understand Pakistan, one has to understand that Pakistan as a society is a collectivist society. It is perhaps necessary to cite examples of individualist societies to get the sense of contrast. Individualist societies like Europe and the West generally (though by no means all) lay greater emphasis on decision making about his or her own life by the individual. Hence, when children are growing past their teens, they may decide to take a decision to move to of their parent’s home and essentially start a life of their own, getting a job, marrying or whatever. Parental support may not totally disappear, but people usually act to fulfill individual goals. The need for family connection is still there, but in the western individualist society the efforts needed to fulfill this need for connection is much greater. In a collectivist society like Pakistan in contrast, there is emphasis on fulfilling loosely defined or sometimes undefined goals of a group whose membership one attains by either being born into, or by passing a threshold of entry. Thus, one can be born into a political life, or get into it after attaining a certain amount of wealth and influence so as to make the desired connections possible. Once in the group or family or ethnicity or tribe, the individuals may subsume their identities to the group, and may act not only to serve their own purposes, but also their family, tribe or group. In such a collectivist society, rules are sometimes stringent so as to provide a desirable outcome of the group. The connections of relating to family or kin are much easier, but conversely the efforts to fulfill autonomy or take decisions by self are that much more difficult. However, it is well documented that closely knit groups come to aid of a troubled member in hard times, such as when families rally around relatives with problems, or when the biradri culture assists a less affluent member in achieving his/her goals.  This also has a down side in sometimes lending rigidity to group structures. We know the fate of many women in Pakistan who ‘betray’ group norms by exercising their choice of marriage, and face the wrath of sometimes an entre biradri or group. The archetypical example of a group in Pakistan is that of the biradri and the tribe in case of (but not exclusively limited to) Pashtun tribes in FATA especially.

Another value offered by such collectivist group membership is that members gain a sense of security. Since the perception of being alone is not just a burden but an alienating feeling at odds with the culture in a collectivist society, people will seek membership to rectify that feeling. Difficult living conditions can intensify that perception, and a person having little in life can at least be content in the knowledge of belonging to a biradri or extended family. Families or groups may actually come to the aid of such a person sometimes, which is also a benefit sought subconsciously. Since individuality may not be of much value in collectivist societies, what psychologists call “secondary control” comes in handy. This is exercised when the people in groups join or identify with important, influential people or groups which hold value in that particular society. As is discussed later, group memberships can also cause people to veer into extremist trajectories through a complex interplay of different factors.

Some sociologists have talked of a sense of loss of social contract among Pakistanis, which impedes attempts to develop a sense of publicly committed citizenship.  Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi for instance maintains that a sense of self centeredness was evident in Pakistan’s ethos soon after independence. This he says can be explained in great part by the collectivism which has pervaded Pakistan’s social structure at the expense of individualism, whereby family or personal or group interest and status take precedence over public good in Pakistan.  On an even more negative angle, there is a concentric circle which makes groups isolate themselves from the society as well. Consider the example of person born into a seemingly intractable circle of poverty, surrounded by a group of people in similar circumstances such as family, nuclear or extended, or even a poor area. An example of such an area would be South Waziristan Agency (SWA), where a youth unemployment rate of 80% or more has been reported. Taking this example forward, a youth born in SWA is surrounded by a similar youth cohort group who are all unemployed like him, and seemingly don’t have a future. This group may bond together, since their circumstances are the same; they face the same bleak prospects every day, and thus start relating to each other. They may perceive the ‘other’ groups in similar terms as well, for example the other ‘Pakistanis’ seemingly living self indulgent lives outside SWA, wherever they may be. Expanding the ‘group worldview’ circle nationally, there is the potential for the masses in Pakistan to have perceptions of security based on similar worldview. For the western mind not attuned to such ideas, it may seem strange that the millions of teeming masses may have perceptions of security (or lack of it) based largely on group relationships, but then the average “westerner’ has not experience extreme power shortages insecurity, acute unemployment etc. in such measures that Pakistanis have. Of course, it is arguable that many of the evils that ail Pakistan are simply a result of mal governance, a topic which I touch upon later, but that still needs to explain how Pakistani policy makers and the masses perceive security in a collectivist worldview. Collectivism entails groups, and groups have members, which can even be goaded into violence or violent thinking by peer or group pressure. Such persons may subconsciously self indict themselves into a psycho social group born from resentment and hostility, that attracts them to movements that are destructive from the start.  Such destructive thinking groups are usually composed of persons who share hostility against some other group, such as the unemployed , relatively less educated  poor SWA youth cohort having an intrinsic enmity towards a vaguely defined group of the perceived slobbish, self indulgent Pakistanis.  Such extremist groups arise from a perceived group need to bring about social changes, to enhance the rights, opportunities, and material well-being of their less privileged group. For example, this is true for the Sunnis majority peasant groups in Punjab who created the militant sectarian entity Sipah Sahaba Pakistan in Jhang in 1986, ostensibly to break the Shia landowning class’s hegemony. However, as commonly happens, such movements later turn violent not only to target class differences, but sometimes society as a whole. Similarly, violence by a mob (also a group) is also often initiated by grievances and attempts to address them that receive no response. Thus, seemingly isolated patterns of violence can sometimes be coherently explained in context of group membership. Perceptions of security can also be explained in great part by such dynamics; of course these explanations would both be exhaustive but would have an interplay of various tangential factors.

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