A scholar and a gentleman

By Zubeida Mustafa

Has Pakistan been reduced to such a hopeless state that even the most creative and prolific of intellectuals have run out of ideas on how the country can be redeemed? Hopefully not. But a meeting with Professor Khalid Bin Sayeed provided no reassuring answers. It left me wondering how Pakistan will be saved from certain disaster and who will play the role of the savior.

A Professor Emeritus of Political Studies at Queens University, Kingston, Canada, Khalid bin Sayeed has been following Pakistan’s political/constitutional history for over four decades. His first book, Pakistan; The Formative Phase, became compulsory reading – the bible for students of political science – soon after it was published in 1960. He has now come a long way from the position he initially adopted. When he set out on the road to scholarship he was a secularist–cum-Marxist who was nearly expelled from Madras University for declaring in a debate that religion is the opium of the people. Today he is advocating a return to the dynamic principles of Islam.

I met him recently in Karachi where he had stopped on his way to Islamabad to attend the Overseas Pakistanis’ conference. Khalid bin Sayeed, who lives in Canada, retired some years ago from Queens after 30 years of teaching. He said he was struck by the sense of despair and hopelessness he found among the Pakistani people on this occasion. (When I interviewed him the political crisis in Islamabad had already begun though it was later that it reached its denouement.) He attributes this to a dearth of ideas which could serve as guiding principles in national life.

In such a scenario, he feels, Islam can provide that inspiration to the people which they badly need. “But the full potential of religion has not been explored. Islam is a dynamic faith. Unfortunately Muslims the world over have failed to realize its dynamism.”

Khalid bin Sayeed complains that we tend to adopt the mullah’s interpretation of Islam. Even scholars and educated people when they speak of Islam show an intellectual insensitivity to its dynamism. For instance, when it comes to science, Muslims opt only for applied  sciences and avoid pure sciences such as Physics and Mathematics. What upsets the professor more is that the ulema’s version of Islam has failed to produce a gentle and caring society. It has failed to focus on issues like social justice which would ensure decent housing, education and health care to every citizen.

When I questioned him about the sea change in his approach, he was quite clear that personally he had no problem with secularism, the main constraint he feels is that our people are not willing to accept a secular approach. “If I talk to them about the American Constitution they are not interested. It means nothing to them and I want to talk to them in a language they understand, which will stir them into action. I am a social scientist and not a social philosopher. My job is to change conditions and improve people’s lives,” he remarks.

He sounds too idealistic and theoretical for my satisfaction. In the conditions prevailing here, Khalid bin Sayeed in not clear how the dynamic interpretation of Islam will be adopted and by whom. He complains of policy makers sitting in air-conditioned offices and making policies which have little relevance to the realities on the ground. But to me he himself seems to be detached from society as well. He fails to provide convincing answers to how his ideas can be implemented. As he rambles on he speaks of “movement to change conditions.” But he has no answer to the question who will launch and lead the movement? Given the calibre on the existing leadership which Professor Sayeed himself berates for having surrendered to the mullahs, it is not all clear who will launch this movement to give a decent life to the people.

He gropes around for an answer. He has advised Nawaz Sharif, he says, to reorganize his party into two wings, with the parliamentary group working on the political front while the cadres fan out in the country to work with the masses – to build schools, hospitals and arrange for literacy classes. But he fails to conceal his disappointment at the ruling party’s performance.

In one respect, Professor Sayeed still adheres to his old ideological leanings. He is as fiercely nationalistic and anti-imperialistic as before. He speaks with regret of the reactionary ideas of the Pakistanis in North America. He recalls how one of them told President Clinton when he met him after his election that the Pakistanis should thank Allah that the American Administration is now on the side of Pakistan. The expatriates openly support the US-Pakistan military pacts and describe them as having been in Pakistan’s interest. Now even the Americans do not attempt to justify the defence treaties, he declares vehemently. It is what he calls the “slavish mentality” of the Pakistanis vis-à-vis the Americans that irks Khalid bin Sayeed. He is very emphatic that the country should adopt a self-reliant stance. “If the Americans do not want you, why should you go begging to them?” he says.

It is this context that he is not all pleased with the “soft power’ the United States has developed to dominate other countries. This does not involve military strength. The government uses cultural and economic influence to control the course of events all over the world. The underpinning for this soft power is provided by the information revolution pioneered by the Americans. By manipulating the information channels, the United States sells its lifestyle and politico-economic systems as the model to be emulated. If thus promotes consumerism and market democracy as the ideals. As a result, what we have is a consumption culture which creates economic and social inequities leading to wholesale corruption.

In the absence of alternative ideas, people succumb to America’s soft power. Islam could help stop this onslaught. But going back to our starting point, Professor Sayeed believes that it is the dynamic dimension of Islam which can serve as a counterweight to the invasion of American ideas. But that aspect has been neglected badly and Professor Sayeed has himself meticulously traced the failure of Islam to resist American dominance in his last book Western Dominance and Political Islam published in 1995.

Source: Dawn 28 Dec 1997