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Knowledge, power and Pakistan

Knowledge, power and Pakistan

Perhaps it was not expected that any Somali would have a response. In February 2015, the Somaliland Journal of African Studies was launched as a means to further academic inquiry and knowledge about Somalia.

The inaugural issue, however, did not contain a single essay about Somalia; it focused instead on Kenya, South Africa and Sierra Leone.

The fact came to the notice of young PhD student Safia Aidid, a Somali studying African history at Harvard.

She launched a Twitter campaign criticising the journal project and pointing out that in addition to not having any Somali content, the journal also did not have any Somali editors or any Somalis on its advisory board. In simple terms, the project was defined by a largely European and white leadership.

The controversy would have ended there; many academic journals are dominated by white and European scholars.

Actual participation by those belonging to the countries which they study is considered largely irrelevant to their project.

In this case, however, one of the professors on the advisory board of this particular journal did respond.

What he said fired up the controversy further; he accused Somalis both native and those living in the United States as failing to produce quality academic work, lacking interest in the social sciences as well as the commitment to sit around “for eight hours a day and read and write for months to get a single piece of text out”.

White and Western scholars, therefore, had to pick up the slack imposed by lazy, uncommitted Somalis who were not interested in devoting their lives to the pursuit of academic knowledge.

The absence of Somali representation in the journal’s scholarship and leadership was not the fault of the white European scholars leading the endeavour but a problem with Somalis and their failure to prioritise a commitment to producing knowledge.

The question of who defines knowledge about a country, its customs, culture and various aspects of its existence applies just as much to Pakistan as to Somalia.

Academic knowledge about Pakistan is also largely defined by Western academics and is in this sense influenced by the frames of colonisation that marked the West’s entry into the subcontinent.

As this most recent controversy indicates, the construction of knowledge, who counts as an expert and what sort of knowledge is important, are hence not the product of Somali or Pakistani laziness on the issue.

They are instead born out of the prioritisation of certain kinds of knowledge as superior to others. Native knowledge, informal and un-categorised and lacking the colonial form of documentation, is considered inferior and hence useless.

Colonial knowledge, unsurprisingly, is intended to create an image of the colony by those who conquered it, rather than those who inhabited it. If the new knowledge could be made more powerful than old knowledge, then it could also gain supremacy.

Unlike Somali studies, this denigration of native knowledge in South Asian studies has been recorded by post-colonial scholars.

Read: Negative views

In his book Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge, Bernard Cohn lays out how this was done. In the first chapter, ‘The command of language and the language of command’, Cohn traces the shift from Persian, which was the official language of the Mughal court, to Urdu/Hindustani as a means of controlling access to information, record-keeping and displacing the courtly elite and its forms of existing knowledge.

In other chapters, he examines the highlighting of the practice of sati as a way of establishing the moral superiority of the conquering culture, and the transformation of Indian objects into ‘art’ as a means of later brandishing them as symbols of conquest.

Evidence of this last practice (and the lack of embarrassment for it) is still in view in the main audience hall of Windsor Castle, which features Tipu Sultan’s imperial robes, turban and sword along with similar trophies from other British colonial expeditions. Conquest, after all, is no use at all unless the spoils of domination can be paraded before a world public.

Sixty-odd years after the British exit, Pakistan is still perturbed about its construction in the global imagination (and probably in ours as well).

In a recent piece entitled ‘Negative views’, policy analyst Moeed Yusuf discusses this very issue, focusing on the dominance of Afghan experts running the discourse on Pakistan and seeing the country “through an Afghan lens”.

It is this lack of real ‘expertise’, a robust body of knowledge on the country rather than any organised ‘scheme’, that is behind the negative perception of Pakistan in the US and consequently in the Western world.

His thesis is correct.

However, it points to the symptoms and not to the core problems. For this, we can return to the critique of the newly released Somali studies discussion.

The colonial tropes that determined domination in the British era have been reincarnated in today’s neo-imperial context. In this sense, the knowledge of Pakistan that the US does not have, one that would treat it as something more than Afghanistan’s irritating neighbour or South Asia’s rogue nuclear power, is knowledge that it does not want.

On the other hand, the furthering of knowledge that substantiates these existing images is promoted.

Notable among these instruments is the proliferation of indices that situate Pakistan among “failed states” or “the most dangerous place in the world” or a “haven for terrorists”.

All these constructs, like those of the British, are erected on grains of truth, furthering the strategic positioning of Pakistan as a country forever in need of imperial disciplining, a virus that can only be controlled by Western intervention. Knowledge as we all know is power, and to construct knowledge and its value to suit strategic purposes, domination and conquest is a tactic more insidious than the usual weapons of war.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

[email protected]

Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2015

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