Pervez Hoodbhoy Published December 25, 2021
RECEP Erdogan, president of Turkey, says his faith in Islam stops him from raising bank interest rates. His hard-line position sent the lira tumbling from one low to another; in the past three months it has lost half its value. In spite of a partial recovery, Turks are still saddled with an inflation rate so high that supermarket employees are barely able to keep up with changing labels. But Erdogan has not budged: “As a Muslim, I will continue doing what our religion tells us. This is the command.”
Command? Dear Mr President, surely as one who aspires to be a Muslim hero you have read the Quran. Therein stands the clear injunction: “Allah has permitted trade and has forbidden interest/usury” (2:275). “Forbidden” here does not mean negotiating what is low or middle or high — forbidden means zero, exactly zero. Haram is haram. This is why all early Muslim scholars rejected interest.
Many scholars still do today, particularly Arabs and Pakistanis. In 2014, the top ulema of Pakistan belonging to the Fiqhi Majlis said that even the so-called Sharia-compliant Islamic banking merely renames interest as profit and, as such, is deception. All banking, they concluded, is haram. Historically, banking was absent in Muslim countries until the 18th century because nothing except zero interest can be allowed.
Recep Erdogan and Imran Khan have given the driving seat to emotion and the back seat to reason.
The Ottoman rulers of Turkey were, however, not ideologues. As pragmatists who ran an empire, they broke the ban on banking because they well knew that no banking meant no trading. This Western innovation had to be adopted come what may. But, to be safe, they first looked around for muftis who could justify European banking — and found some. One can endlessly debate whether these justifications are genuine or manufactured.
But in Erdogan’s Turkey, state and religion have been joined together; ideology has trumped pragmatism. Still, puzzles remain: how come an interest rate of six per cent is somehow un-Islamic but a 4pc rate is okay? What about 5pc? Erdogan is untroubled by such questions because he is an Ertugrul-like figure in his own imagination, convinced of his absolute wisdom. He recently lashed out at Turkish businessmen who are unimpressed by his faith-driven economic policies. After chairing a cabinet meeting on the falling lira, he accused them of “scheming to topple the government” and said their hopes would be in vain.
Erdogan is just one example where ideology — whether religious or secular — gives the driving seat to emotion and the back seat to reason. Turkey is in trouble, but the United States is in still deeper waters. Even in the post-Trump era many elected officials — both in the Senate and Congress — are ideologically charged, radical, right-wing crackpots who deny climate change and conflate gun-control with a communist takeover. Some lawmakers tacitly or openly supported the Capitol’s takeover by a mob. Will dysfunctional America get back on the rails? The world is watching.
Pakistan’s misfortune is to have the soul brother of Erdogan in power today. Forget the falling rupee — it will surely make some small recoveries soon and, for a while, everyone will be satisfied again. Much more serious is that our schools are producing hordes of ignorant, bigoted, hyper-religious Sialkot-type lynchers who are totally skill-deficient. This will get far worse when the ideologically motivated Single National Curriculum (SNC), the brainchild of PM Imran Khan — becomes fully operational.
The SNC conjoins regular schools with madressahs. Across the country, regular schools are being dragged down and turned into seminaries. The pre-SNC situation was bad enough with abysmally low achievement levels in reading, writing and reasoning. SNC, by making the rote-learning system still stronger, will deal the death blow. On the one hand children will memorise vastly greater amounts of religious materials. On the other hand, only a single official textbook is specified for each subject. A student memorising selected parts of that book can get full marks.
On a global level, Pakistani children presently stand at the bottom of achievement levels. Inferior to their counterparts in Iran, India and Bangladesh, they are almost always absent from competitions like the international science and mathematics Olympiads. When they do compete, they perform poorly. The solitary exception is invariably an O-A level or IB student linked to a foreign examination system.
This under-achievement kills the possibility of Pakistan doing well in science and technology even into the 22nd century. Lacking scientists, engineers, and technicians of quality, Pakistan has reached a dead end. CPEC’s billions failed to ignite industrial, engineering, scientific, or business activity. The country has no space programme, no biotech labs turning out new products, and no significant indigenous hi-tech industry in any domain. Last year, Pakistan’s software exports — a measure of brain power — stood at barely $2 billion (India’s were $148bn).
On the academic front, Pakistani professors churn out thousands of so-called research papers every year but these are mostly worthless. Today, the Pakistan Academy of Science is stuffed with persons having fake credentials; its office-bearers have the highest national honours but they stand exposed by international organisations as cheaters and plagiarists. The continuing revelations of one such organisation, Retraction Watch, are like water off a duck’s back. None in the PAS so much as bat an eyelid at the exposés — fraud and bluster has become a way of life.
These grim problems can be overcome if there is a desire to be ruthlessly honest. But when aggressive self-righteous zealots grab the reins of power, the chances decrease. Such dogmatists make reform impossible by asserting that they — and they alone — know the truth. Their moral absolutes lead to strong emotions, diminished reasoning capacity and dysfunction in governance.
Buoyed up by Pakistan’s victory in Afghanistan, on many occasions PM Khan — who greatly admires Erdogan — has gleefully lauded the Taliban as a liberating force. He has lauded the Pakistani madrassahs that produced the Taliban and showered funds upon them. Now he wants our regular schools to emulate Taliban-style education — hence SNC. By official notification dated Dec 21, co-education in Punjab’s schools will be phased out. In fulfilling PM Khan’s ideological fantasies, Pakistan will pay a terrible price.
The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist and writer.
Published in Dawn, December 25th, 2021