Pakistan's Woes And The Long Divergence

Pakistan's Woes And The Long Divergence
Some Pakistanis lament that everybody knows the problems of Pakistan. They don’t want to read more about the problems and just want the solutions. But here’s the thing: they neither acknowledge the problems nor the solutions. For instance, when I wrote a column addressing when we would see Pakistani CEOs of companies like Twitter, Google, IBM, and Microsoft, a commenter expressed scorn equivalent to the laughing emoji on Facebook. The column was based on my reading of European economic history and Timur Kuran’s work on Islamic Economics. The principal idea is that we need to replace a stifling religious discourse with cultural mores and institutions that prize free expression and innovation.

Consider the recent case of the pig-to-human heart transplant. The team of researchers was headed by Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin. In the U.S., with institutions of free inquiry, he was unfettered by the extreme debates over halal and haram that often consume the attention of faithful Pakistani consumers of religious discourse, which includes the recent videos titled: “insani jism main suwar ka dill” (pig’s heart in the body of a human). Additionally, his personal beliefs were irrelevant in his heading the team of American researchers. This institution of free expression and innovation is absent in Pakistan. This is why Pakistanis sidelined their first Nobel Laureate, Abdus Salam, and relatively recently, eminent economist Atif Mian, for their personal Ahmadi beliefs. Imagine, if both had been granted freedom of religious expression to work in Pakistan. The Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste might have been in Pakistan, and we would have been one of the world leaders in scientific research. And Mian would have been mentoring the younger generation of Pakistani economists with cutting edge research.

While such an idea evokes horror from many prejudiced Pakistanis, such was not the case for successful Muslim leaders like Salahuddin Ayubi, whose personal physician was the well-regarded Jewish philosopher Maimonides, or Akbar with his close circle of talented personnel including Birbal (minister), Todar Mal (finance minister), and Man Singh (chief of staff). It is by respecting talent and merit that such Muslim leaders were able to reign supreme. And this is precisely why the U.S. has been able to maintain its hegemony, that is, by securing worldwide talent. If anything will bring the U.S. down, it will be its own prejudiced white supremacists, and the educated ignorant including the anti-vaxxers, whose education only cements their bigotry and who buy into conspiracy theories, much like their Pakistani counterparts. The U.S. has come close to combusting under Trump. Fortunately, it was the strength of the American institutions and cultural norm of free expression that allowed them to overturn the Trump nightmare. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Pakistan.

Atif Mian recently composed a twitter thread on the core problems of the Pakistani economy. He delved into the ill-thought arrangements of securing expensive oil-based energy, and the exaggerated emphasis on the dead-end real estate sector that contributes less to productivity and more to speculation. With proper critique and scrutiny such schemes could have been called out, and this is why prizing free expression without fear of retribution is so very important. Mian summarised in his tweets that:

“Transitioning to a growth trajectory when things have been bad for this long is very hard. Systems and institutions have to [be] built almost from scratch … This is the key responsibility of political leadership that comes to power: to select the most capable and delegate authority to them - yes, hold them accountable, but let them work […] Ask anyone who has built successful institutions or companies - what's the most important thing? It is appointing strong competent individuals to key positions, and then delegating authority to them.”

Mian emphasises institutions and personnel, just as Salahuddin Ayubi and Akbar did in the past.

Similarly, Kuran mentioned in his work on Islam and underdevelopment that Ottoman rulers hired Westerners to guide military modernisation but paid little attention to Western economic practices and institutions (much like Pakistan). He adds that inefficient social structures remain if people do not express criticism out of fear of punishment. In short, he sidelines private religious practice and focuses on the lack of proper institutions and lack of free expression and innovation as significant drivers of the decline of Ottoman and Muslim rule.

By contrast, instead of focusing on institutions, free expression and innovation, PM Imran Khan focuses on corruption and sex crimes as the main social evils. He chases foreigners to help solve Pakistani issues while ignoring brilliant Pakistani expertise from Hameed, Mian, Khwaja, Ghamidi, Zaheer and Saleem. This tells Pakistanis that the PM wants a feel-good foreign pat on the back than critical feedback from Pakistani and Pakistani origin expertise.

But such shallow approaches to addressing problems have become a hallmark of the PM’s legacy. Columnist Abdul Sattar has written an excellent article on how the PM railed against corrupt politicians only to welcome “unconscientious feudals, tribal lords and money-makers” in his ranks. He adds that the PM claimed to provide “free and quality medical treatment” but then allowed “pharmaceutical companies to make an exponential increase in the prices of medicines.” He continues that where the PM railed against nepotism, he “appeased the traditional influential classes in Pakistani society like textile, stock exchanges, car imports and other lobbies.” Finally, where the PM offered the rhetoric on uplifting the poor masses, he announced “a Rs 1,200 billion relief for the rich during the pandemic, allocating a meagre Rs 150 billion for the people from the bottom layer of social stratification, who were worst hit by the contagion.”

In conclusion, many columnists and thinkers have emphasised the significance of institutions and cultural mores of free expression and innovation, which were upheld by successful leaders like Salahuddin Ayubi and Akbar. Timur Kuran emphasises institutions just as Atif Mian underscores qualified personnel. But the PM is less interested in critical Pakistani feedback and more interested in a foreign pat on the back. The blind support from his supporters only perpetuates the ill designed and self-serving measures he has put in place. Unfortunately, many educated Pakistanis haven given in to hero worship and identity politics, refuse to acknowledge the problems and reject solutions with snarky remarks and laughing emojis. This is reminiscent of those Muslims from the past who refused to face uncomfortable truths. But they stagnated with their prejudice and the last laugh was at their expense.