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A country led by moral Pied Pipers

Pakistan International Airlines’ sartorial advisory to its staff (asking them to wear undergarments) has attracted global attention and inquiries asking if it was fake.


Pakistan International Airlines’ sartorial advisory to its staff (asking them to wear undergarments) has attracted global attention and inquiries asking if it was fake. Even if fake, the incident is not an aberration in the new Pakistan where discourse is now almost entirely moral. Politicians are assessed not on competence but on whether they are truthful and righteous. Judges appeal to virtue and loyalty instead of legality and precedent to rule whether members of a party can disagree with their leaders. This worldview is now considered acceptable by all.

This was not always the case. Jinnah was accepted as the leader of Muslims despite some transgressions. No one raised ‘sadiq’ and ‘ameen’ issues about leaders of the early years nor was there much concern about their private lives. Nightclubs were common, liquor easily available, and Egyptian belly dancers were a great attraction. At the more quotidian level, music was taught in schools and girls biked to college. The discourse was about the development of Pakistan in competition with South Korea. This era, now considered so obviously immoral, lasted till almost the end of the Bhutto years. The sea change, in which everyday dialogue began shifting from development to virtue, commenced under Zia in the late 1970s. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution both occurred in 1979. It was an opportune moment for Zia’s Islamisation of education and the patronage of seminaries whose number rose steeply with foreign funds.

Coincidentally, major advances in connectivity occurred around the same time. These enabled small-city elites to relocate to provincial capitals and still operate their businesses remotely with periodic visits. This was the constituency most invested in the economic development of their cities. Its departure left a vacuum that was filled by moral elites with different interests. The new elites were centred around seminaries that grew in small cities where they drew less attention. Analysts were alerted to this phenomenon by the rise of fundamentalist movements from small cities. Seminaries began graduating an increasing number of entrants to the labour force with no marketable skills except rhetoric.

The pressure began to mould job descriptions to place more weight on moral qualifications. Over time, this change percolated upwards — Article 62(1)(f) was inserted into the Constitution stating that a person cannot be elected or chosen for a seat in parliament “unless — he is sagacious, righteous, non-profligate, honest and ameen, there being no declaration to the contrary by a court of law.” Morality displaced economic development to become the dominant discourse, starting from smaller cities before permeating the entire social fabric. It has been over 40 years since Zia’s Islamisation of education, the entry of seminary graduates into the job market, and the glorification of morally motivated wars.

With over three-fourths of the country below the age of 40, this moral idiom is the only one ever encountered by the majority. Hence the worldview that determines how politicians are assessed, how judicial judgements are crafted, and also how airline service staff are directed to dress. It is often asked why Pakistan’s leaders who have benefited from better education at home and abroad subscribe to the same mindset that is the lot of helpless graduates of public schools and seminaries. This overlooks the reality that in vote-dependent systems, the political narrative is driven by what appeals to the majority.

Cynical machinations for short-term gains inflict long-term damage on the country. Take the case of Oxford- and Harvard-educated leaders responsible for the Single National Curriculum (SNC) that goes way beyond the Islamisation of education under Ziaul Haq. (As an aside, Ziaul Haq too was a graduate of St Stephen’s, reputedly amongst the most liberal colleges in India.) For an overview of the SNC, take a look at just the first unit in the Grade-4 English textbook which is accessible online on the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board website.

Look in particular at the exercises in critical thinking, analytical reading, and creative writing. I refrain from reproducing them because we have now entered an age where adults are scared of mentioning text that is being made freely available to children. This kind of teaching cannot be dismissed as accidental; the authors of many of the textbooks claim diplomas from the Harvard School of Education and should know good pedagogy from bad. This is not a dynamic that can be easily arrested. We are now trapped in a competition where the aim is to prove one is more Muslim than one’s opponents.

Even the SNC is not considered sufficient by the new government for the education of citizens. In August, a new subject, ‘Translation of the Holy Quran’, was arbitrarily added to the curriculum under The Punjab Compulsory Teaching of the Holy Quran Act of 2018 (amended in 2021). Education in Pakistan continues to hurtle in the direction of morality, contrary to the trend in almost every other country where tools to understand and survive in the 21st century engage the attention of educators.

Notwithstanding the above, the civil elite remains unconcerned because elite education remains unaffected by these impositions. However, it overlooks the fact that it is the dominant narrative that shapes the social milieu in which the elite has to survive. One can witness the confusions this narrative has caused in the very understanding of the democratic process. Leaders clamour for elections while simultaneously labelling representatives chosen by the same electorate as robbers.

The journey to the riasat of Madina is promised in logic and language difficult to associate with the sanctity of Madina. In this scenario, PIA’s focus on undergarments is par for the course. It may regret the language of its advisory, itself an outcome of the kind of English instruction that comprises the Grade-4 textbook, but its concern is full of conviction and outraged morality. The country is now led and directed by ultra-moral Pied Pipers. Where, and how far, they will take it is not difficult to predict. Meanwhile, South Korea has delivered immense gains to its citizens.