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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Why Pakistan needs to rethink its role at UNESCO

The Government of Pakistan recognizes UNESCO as a long-term strategic partner in support of achieving Pakistan’s national development plans and priorities but Dr. Baber Chohan, a seasoned officer from the CSS cadre raises an interesting point about how Pakistan needs to rethink its contribution to UNESCO in light of recent events.

The withdrawal of US forces and the recent Taliban takeover in Afghanistan will have far-reaching cultural and educational implications for Pakistan. Some Western countries allege that the Taliban’s audacious triumph was not possible without Pakistan’s tacit support to them. Even if it is true, Pakistan reserves the right to safeguard its cultural and ideological identities and geographical boundaries in self-defense.

This approach is tersely in consonance with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) vision aiming to build peace through the intellectual and moral solidarity of humanity. Furthermore, Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1976, read with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, also recognizes the right of all peoples to pursue their cultural, economic, and social goals alongside determining their political status.

Read more: UNESCO declares Lahore the City of Literature

Why does Pakistan need to adopt a new approach towards UNESCO?

In the context of the post-Taliban takeover, the cultural and educational ramifications are extremely crucial to Pakistan’s long-term strategic interests in the region and beyond. Against this backdrop, Pakistan needs to rethink its role at UNESCO and other intergovernmental organizations with a view to promote de novo educational and cultural narratives at international levels.

In the first place, a steep understanding of the poignant challenges on the cultural and educational fronts is of paramount significance for Pakistan. In the wake of the 9/11 incident, the US invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, seems to be a result of suspicion and mistrust between the peoples through which their differences broke into long wars. The UNESCO constitution not only corroborates this dimension but also underlines ‘the denial of the democratic principles of the dignity, equality, and mutual respect of men, and by the propagation, in their place, through ignorance and prejudice, of the doctrine of the inequality of men and races’ as the blatant causes of long wars.

The educational superiority of the West is one of the rudimentary factors that define the ideological and cultural boundaries of the doctrine of inequality of men and races causing wars. The seeds of hatred, ignorance and prejudice are, therefore, sown by such ideological superiorities treating other peoples and cultures as inferior. The same reasons may not allow superior powers to accept the Taliban as the new rulers of Afghanistan because of their educational inferiority.

Read more: Pakistan re-elected to UNESCO’s executive board in Paris

Identifying the gaps

Edward Said, a noted Palestinian-American professor, highlights the causes of gaps in cultural, educational and political understanding between the Western world and the Eastern world. In his 1978 book Orientalism, he juxtaposes how the educational and cultural superiority of the West treats the Eastern values, cultures and educational endeavors. As a cultural critic, he coins the notions of Orient and Occident roughly referring to ‘culturally inferior people of the East’ and ‘culturally superior people of the West’ respectively.

Superiority in education remains the defining criteria that demarcate a cultural boundary between an Orient and an Occident. Although controversial, Edward Said’s work has created a new cultural discourse and a different perspective responsible for long wars based on suspicion and mistrust between the peoples. In line with Edward’s framework, the Occident views Pakistan and Afghanistan, with similar cultural and religious identities, as educationally backward.

The UNESCO’s constitution, however, clearly emphasizes ‘that the wide diffusion of culture and the education of humanity for justice and liberty and peace are indispensable to the dignity of man and constitute a sacred duty which all the nations must fulfill in a spirit of mutual assistance and concern’. This suggests that a therapeutic understanding of academic narratives and associated discourses is necessary for bridging the educational gap that creates suspicion and mistrust between peoples ultimately causing wars.

Understanding educational challenges faced by Pakistan

Prime Minister Imran Khan in his article ‘Why the West craves materialism and the East sticks to religion?’ also reflects revived educational challenges faced by Pakistan. He seems to explain how deep Western narratives pose cultural and educational challenges for Pakistan. Referring to his own educational experience in Pakistan, he highlights the circumstances in which studying Shakespeare was fine but not Allama Iqbal – Pakistan’s national poet. Similarly, despite shouting ‘Long-live Pakistan’ slogans in school functions, he considered his own culture backward and religion outdated. It was primarily due to Western secular narratives in which religion was treated as a symbol of backwardness.

Read more: Vibrant Lahore Declared ‘City of Literature’ by UNESCO

According to Edward, ‘subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo–Islamic peoples and their culture which originates from Western culture’s long tradition of false, romanticized images of Asia, in general, and the Middle East in particular. Such cultural representations have served, and continue to serve, as implicit justifications for the colonial and imperial ambitions of the European powers and of the U.S’. To what extent Edward’s observations are correct is another question, the real issue is to overcome the educational and cultural challenges faced by Pakistan at various intergovernmental organizations such as UNESCO.

Against this backdrop, the role of Permanent and Deputy Permanent Delegates of Pakistan to UNESCO is not just bureaucratic but strategic and scholarly in nature. The government may encourage career diplomats and bureaucrats to pursue higher degrees such as Postdoc and Ph.D. before assigning them such responsibilities. There is a need to intellectually understand the textual and visual importance of our cultural heritage, educational achievements and scientific accomplishments at the international level. Pakistan is home to the world’s second-largest natural juniper forest in Ziarat which is crucial for global carbon sequestration.

Pakistan: A country rich in cultural heritage

It has got several world heritage properties such as the ruins of Moenjodaro, Takht-i-bahi, Shalamar Gardens, historical monuments at Makli, Taxila, and Rohtas Fort. There is a need to discursively promote these cultural identities through textual and visual tools. On the scientific front, the country is the recipient of the Noble Prize in physics. Similarly, Pakistan’s premier educational institutions, such as Lahore University of Management Sciences, Institute of Business Administration Karachi, and other high-ranking universities need to be promoted internationally through similar discursive approaches. Let’s not forget that perception is power.

Read more: Looking back at the Lahore Development Authority Act of 1975

It is time to change the world’s perception by highlighting Pakistan’s cultural, educational, and scientific achievements through a well-informed discursive policy. If done successfully, Pakistan’s policy on Afghanistan will be better understood globally. A change in perception will change stagnant storylines about Pakistan. The victory of the Afghan Taliban has already changed some long-held storylines about Pakistan’s defense.

It is time to further strengthen them on cultural, educational, and scientific fronts so that studying Allama Iqbal, like Shakespeare, becomes a new normal at the international level. It is possible only by espousing counter-discourses against the long-held international beliefs about the culture, education, and religion of the people of Pakistan. This is the way to make Pakistan a regional economic power and UNESCO remains the best platform for this purpose.

Dr. Babar is a seasoned officer from the CSS cadre. He holds a Ph.D. in Economic Planning from Massey University, New Zealand, and M.A from ISS, Erasmus University, Netherlands. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.