Imran Khan has a great deal to say about the canker of Pakistan’s colonial legacy; the cultural divide that separates the class of brown sahibs and the great mass of Pakistanis who remain anchored in their history and traditions; and the new American masters this class has served since the departure of the British.
He also writes about his own struggles to overcome the Orientalist culture into which he was born, the culture of the brown sahibs, their sneering contempt for Islam, their denigration of the ‘natives’ and their culture. He describes his long and distinguished career in cricket that reveals a perfectionist and a man undaunted by failures. He shares with the readers his personal discovery of God, about growing spiritually through his own struggles in cricket and his charity work; finding inspiration in Islam’s great thinkers, poets and sages – most of all the great Islamic poet, visionary and philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal – but also seeking the blessings of nameless sufis, who prefer to live in obscurity and poverty despite their spiritual gifts. This review can only look at some of these issues; to accompany Imran Khan on his life journey, to walk through the many stages of his life, to explore his personal narrative of Pakistan’s political failures you have to read his Pakistan: A Personal History.
Quite rightly, Imran Khan blames the brown sahibs – a few thousand of the most powerful military officers, bureaucrats, and influential landed families – for never giving Pakistan the chance to develop into a self-respecting, sovereign and prosperous country. This class had retained or acquired its social rank, wealth and power during the colonial era by rendering loyal service to the British rulers; demonstrating their servility to their foreign masters by adopting their dress, mimicking their life style and mannerisms, and gaining familiarity with the history of British royalty, British place names, and British writers. They turned to jaundiced Orientalists for their knowledge of Islam, the history of Muslims and of India; and from them they acquired their deep contempt for Islam, the Muslims and their languages and traditions. Like their British masters, they interacted with the ‘natives’ – those who did not speak English or spoke it with a native accent – only as social inferiors, as clerks, peons, servants, peasants, low-ranking military officers and nameless jawans in the army.
Imran Khan provides several vignette from the social life of these brown sahibs in Pakistan. “In the Gymkhana and the Punjab Club in Lahore,” he writes, “Pakistanis pretended to be English. Everyone spoke English including the waiters; the men dressed in suits; we, the members’ children, watched English films while the grown-ups danced to Western music on a Saturday night (43).” At Aitchison College, where the sons of Punjab’s landed elites were trained to become brown sahibs, boys “caught speaking in Urdu during school hours were fined, despite it being the official language of Pakistan (47).” Elsewhere, he writes, “When I was a boy I remember one of my uncles asking a cousin of mine, who was wearing shalwar kameez, why he was dressed like a servant (49-50).” Asked if he could speak Urdu – I can recall – the son of leading civil servant who served during General Ayub Khan’s tenure, shot back, “Only a little, when talking to the servants.”
Led by Iqbal, Jinnah and a small band of dedicated leaders – from the various provinces of British India – the struggles and sacrifices of ordinary Muslims had created a country they had hoped would make them proud, a country that would be guided by the highest Islamic ideals of justice, a country where they would be safe, where they could prosper, a country that would be a source of strength for the Muslims they had left behind in India, a country that would offer inspiration and leadership to the Islamicate. This was not to be. Within a few years of gaining independence, the brown sahibs in Pakistan seized control over the affairs of the country. That was the beginning of Pakistan’s descent into a shameless kleptocracy in the service of foreign powers.
“Far from shaking off colonialism,” writes Imran Khan, “our ruling elite slipped into its shoes (43-44).” Our brown sahibs made no significant changes to the colonial structures developed by the British to keep their Indian subjects on a tight leash. This omission was deliberate: the intent was to keep the ‘natives’ down, to continue to smother their long-suppressed energies, to stifle their creativity. As a result, the economy that Pakistan’s elites promoted soon became dependent on foreign loans; its capitalist class built its wealth on defaulted loans; its manufacturing sector could not move too far beyond processing raw materials; the educational standards at state institutions were allowed to deteriorate so that quality education was confined to the rich; and sixty years after independence more than half the population remains illiterate.
Over time, the emerging middle classes too began to mould themselves in the image of the brown sahibs. Since Urdu or the regional languages would get them nowhere in Pakistan’s private or public sectors, they began sending their children to English schools. Under colonial rule, the Muslim middle classes had abandoned Arabic and Persian, thus losing contact with the classics of their civilization; in the sixty years since gaining nominal independence, the new generations that attended English schools have become strangers to Urdu as well. Were it not for the logic of audience ratings – most viewers do not understand English – that forced the proliferating television channels to run their programs in Urdu, spoken Urdu too would be on its way out. Nevertheless, many of the actors who play lead roles in the Urdu serials can scarcely carry on a conversation in Urdu; the credits for these serials too are often presented in English. A growing number of commercial billboards in the cities also display their Urdu slogans and jingles in Roman letters.
The style of education at Aitchison College – the elite boarding school that he attended – Imran Khan writes, transformed Pakistani students “into cheap imitations of English public school boys.” These students adopted Western sportsmen, actors and pop stars as their role models. Only much later did Imran Khan come to understand how much this “education dislocated our sense of ourselves as a nation.” A generation later, this cultural dislocation is being reproduced on a much larger scale in dozens of elite schools – all run as profit-making enterprises – that prepare their students for the Cambridge O-level and A-level exams. As a result, writes Imran Khan, “Today our English-language schools produce ‘Desi Americans’ – young kids who, though they have never been out of Pakistan, have not only perfected the American twang but all the mannerisms (including the tilt of the baseball cap) just by watching Hollywood films.” In imitation, poorer children too are deserting the state-run Urdu schools to attend poorly staffed English medium schools run out of apartments but carrying exotic labels. Some are named after Catholic saints, in a tawdry attempt to bask in the prestige of Christian missionary schools. Others carry more hilarious names. One school, less inclined to borrow the halo of Catholic saints, calls itself, Oxford and Cambridge Islamic English-Medium School. I am aware that this faux Anglicization is being driven by global forces as well, but – in the Islamic world alone – Turkey, Iran and Indonesia continue to give primacy to their national languages.
A slavish Westernization among the elites has forced Pakistan into intellectual sterility. Over the past century, these Westernized classes have produced little world-class scholarship on the country’s history or social and economic structures; their scientific production too remains mostly meager and mediocre, if not worse. Nearly all the great Muslim thinkers and writers of the previous hundred and fifty years in South Asia had received their early education in wholly or partly traditional setting; and this includes Ghalib, Hali, Syed Ahmad Khan, Muhammad Iqbal, Abul Kalam Azad, Shibli Nu’mani, Syed Sulaiman Nadvi, Syed Abul ‘Ala Maududi, Saleemuzzaman Siddiqui, and Faiz, to name only a few illustrious figures from that period. Yet the growing cohorts of Western-educated Muslims since the 1900s have produced scarce any thinker or writer who could stand comparison with their predecessors. As the middle classes too increasingly submit themselves to the same shallow Westernization, this has deepened the poverty of Muslim intellect in South Asia. As the shift towards Western education has drained the Madrasas of its recruits from the middle classes, this has produced another deleterious effect: the coarsening of the Islamic discourse that flows from the madrasas. Imran Khan is deeply cognizant of this intellectual malaise. “If our Westernized classes started to study Islam,” writes Imran Khan, “not only would it be able to project the dynamic spirit of Islam but also help our society fight sectarianism and extremism…How can the group that is in the best position to project Islam do so when it sees Islam through Western eyes? The most damaging aspect of the gulf between the two sections of our society is that it has stopped the evolution of both religion and culture in Pakistan (340-1).”
The coarsening of religious discourse in the West too flows in large part from similar causes: the abandonment and denigration of religion and its mystical traditions by the intellectual classes. In the West this process began with the Renaissance and the Reformation, gained strength with the Enlightenment, and reached its apogee in the nineteenth century with the launching of Darwinian evolutionalism. As a result, over the past three centuries, Christianity has increasingly adopted hard fundamentalist positions – especially in the United States – that draw their inspiration from the conquest narratives of the Old Testament not the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. Over the past half century, especially, the more fundamentalist variants of Christianity have become the refuge of whites who have been marginalized by the rapid economic and social changes in the United States. They vent their anger at immigrants, blacks and Muslims, at women who take charge of their bodies, and – paradoxically – at ‘big’ government, the only institution that could help reverse their economic marginalization. Increasingly also, they have been led by Christian Zionism and Israel’s military successes to identify with Jewish colonization of Palestine. In their commitment to Israeli expansionism, these messianic Christians are more intransigent than the Israelis themselves.
Imran Khan blames the Westernized elites for the Pakistan’s deepening problems. Quite early on, these elites ensured that independence would merely exchange one set of white masters for another: the Americans for the British. Unlike the British, the Americans would rule over Pakistan through local surrogates; the brown faces of these surrogates would maintain the happy illusion that Pakistanis were in control of their destiny.
Although this neocolonial relationship has seen some ups and downs, starting in the 1990s, the top echelons of Pakistan’s governments have been appointed by Washington and, accordingly, their activities are monitored and supervised by the US ambassador in Islamabad. In turn, the Pakistani rulers and their cronies use the government to capture rent, much of which is transferred to foreign bank accounts. Pakistan’s subordination to the US reached new lows after the 9-11 attacks as the rulers – civilian and military – rented the country’s ports, highways, airspace, air bases, and, soon, its military to the US for moneys that have largely gone into private coffers.