Dhruv Rathee is a young Indian YouTuber who makes educational videos on a wide variety of topics that range from economics to climate change to current affairs. I am quite impressed by his videos even if I disagree with his take on Jinnah. His video on Brain Drain is particularly impressive, as he not only showcases the many Indian CEOs of foreign companies but also questions the nepotism in India and the closed cultures of Asian economies. He lists Parag Agarwal, the CEO of Twitter, Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, Shantanu Narayen, the CEO of Adobe, Arvind Krishna, the CEO of IBM, Anjali Sood, the CEO of Vimeo, and many more names. It made me think of when we’ll see more Pakistanis as CEOs of global companies.
There are several reasons including the abysmally low expenditure on education and high inequality that explain the situation for Pakistan. However, one key factor is based on cultural mores and institutions that prize free expression and innovation. Indeed, Indian talent does not arise from vacuum but emerges from institutions that prize intellectual excellence. The fact that Rathee is openly able to question nepotism, anti-black racism, casteism, and communalism in India, and critique the BJP and Hindutva politics, is particularly noteworthy. Rathee is not alone in making educational videos for there are many other Indian YouTubers who make similar videos, teach mathematics, or discuss topics related to financial issues and current affairs. On religion, Rathee simply distills all of Hinduism through the Upanishad phrase vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family).
Again, despite the rise of Hindutva in India, there are youth like Rathee and so many other Indians whose lives are not consumed by religion and who focus more on economics, finance, the environment, and other pressing issues of our times.
In contrast, the priorities of Pakistani youth seem to be less academic and more religious. They are consumed by the dictates of ancient texts, the festering issues of Kashmir and Palestine, and the excommunication of Ahmadis. Religion and religious discourse trumps everything else in Pakistan. Free thinking youth are usually caricatured as ‘liberals’, whose space is confined lest they should invoke the wrath of vigilante peers, as in the case of the murder of Mashal Khan on university campus.
Of course, not all Pakistanis engage in mob violence, but a vast majority is consumed by ancient texts and gives precedence to religious discourse in every sphere of life. For instance, Pakistani actor, Hamza Ali Abbasi, finds recourse in the ideas of Islamic scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, to address his existential angst. He turns to Ghamidi, just as other Pakistanis turn to Engineer Muhammad Ali Mirza or Maulana Tariq Jameel. This phenomenon is not new, as ashraf (elite) Muslim youth turned to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in the 19th century, or as Muslim youth turned to Maulana Maududi in the 20th century. In all such cases, Muslim youth jumped towards the available modern religious discourse of their times.
However, this pressing obsession with having a religious discourse in every aspect of life can be stifling for it restricts free expression and innovation. Consider for instance, the recent lynching of Priyantha Kumara in Sialkot. When Maulana Tariq Jameel (MTJ) finally spoke out openly on the issue, it was too little, too late. He had to go back to the textual tradition that forbids killing someone with fire (for that prerogative belongs to Allah alone) and make his case against the dastardly act. But here’s the thing, texts exist that indicate that Abu Bakr burned an apostate or that Ali burned the zindiqs (heretics). Even if there are efforts to downplay such texts as inauthentic, many people keep regurgitating such texts in emotional theatrics against homosexuality or conduct that offends their sensibilities. This means there is a limit to which people like MTJ can condemn mob lynching without ifs and buts.
Similarly, Engineer Muhammad Ali Mirza opens up a Pandora’s box in responding to slogans that young boys are being indoctrinated with. These include ghustakhe nabi ki aik hi saza – sar tan se juda, sar tan se juda (behead the blasphemer) or man sabban nabiyan faqtaluhu (kill the blasphemer). Like MTJ, Engineer is limited in his condemnation of mob lynching, despite his command of the textual tradition. Indeed, when he opens up the textual tradition, he has to confront texts that depict the Companions ready to murder for the Prophet’s honour, only to be stopped by the Prophet himself. Therefore, he has to contextualise these texts and limit their application in time and space, based on the existential threat faced by the nascent Muslim community. The best he can do is limit the blasphemy law with the Hanafi stipulation of forgiveness. In other words, like MTJ, he cannot reject blasphemy laws but qualify them with the conditions of ifs and buts.
All of this means that Pakistanis, as confessional as MTJ or as logic appealing as engineer, cannot overcome the binding restraints of religion and religious discourse. Similarly, their followers remain intellectually shackled, and therefore cultural mores or institutions do not arise that could push Pakistani youth towards free expression and innovation. And this is why we do not see more Pakistani CEOs of global companies. Our actors, academics, psychologists, and other professionals, all remain shackled by ancient texts and the religious discourse where fornication is deemed worse than murder, where blasphemy trumps innovation, and where the hereafter takes precedence of the here and now.
The need of the hour, as has been true for decades — and as has been argued ad infinitum — is for a shift in cultural mores and institutions away from stifling religious discourse and towards supporting free expression and innovation. And this is possible when like Hinduism, we distill Islam through a lens akin to vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family), so that we take away time and energy from excommunication and blasphemy towards the pressing economic, financial, and environmental issues of our times. This is feasible if we shift the focus away from MTJ, Engineer and even Ghamidi, and flock behind the simple statement of Abdul Sattar Edhi that “no religion is higher than humanity”. We may have to revisit the Hadith: “Work for this world as if you will never die, and work for the hereafter as if you will die tomorrow”. In essence, we have to return balance to our lives away from the current obsession with the hereafter at the expense of this world. Perhaps then we will see more Pakistani CEOs of global companies across the world.