Thursday, September 16, 2010

Transmission of the culture of corruption in Pakistan

Repeatedly shocked at the height and extent of corruption among Pakistanis I have wondered whether it had become genetic in some way. With the concept of memes (pronounced like dreams) my ruminations may well be founded in emerging sociological theory.

In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene British scientist Richard Dawkins coined the term meme as a unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures or other imitable phenomena. The origin of the word meme is from the Greek word mimema which means something imitated. Supporters of the concept of memes regard them as the cultural analogues of genes, in that they self-replicate and respond to selective pressures.

Dawkins coined the word meme as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Simply stated he considered a meme as a unit of cultural transmission. Examples of memes in the book are melodies, catch-phrases, beliefs (especially religious beliefs) and fashion. Detractors do not believe that culture can be understood in such discrete units.

Gene replication causes information transmission vertically from parent to child. Virus replication does this horizontally. But memes are able to transmit information horizontally and vertically; perhaps this is why the corruption meme of Pakistanis is now so entrenched.

Tales of corruption by Pakistanis both within the country and expatriate are numerous, long and sordid. A recent one that takes the cake is of course the corrupt betrayal of the Pakistan cricket team and the incredible videos of the money-filled brief-cases.

Nepotism knows no bounds in the case of the appointment of Adnan Khwaja as the new OGDC chief. Inexperience, lack of education and jail-time were not able to outweigh the most important qualifier: crony of the Prime Minister.

Another deeply embarrassing tale is that of the antics of the officers of the New York Consulate General when the New York Stock Exchange, touched by the enormity of the floods in Pakistan donated the Times Square screen for one hour for an appeal for the flood victims. $5-10 million could have been raised with ease if an appeal for flood aid had been made. But Consul General Babar Hashmi and commercial counselor Muhammad Amer portrayed “welcome to New York” and photos of themselves and the Pakistan flag instead. Watching a video of this travesty makes it even more incomprehensible. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureishi has promised an investigation but the prognosis for stemming corruption in Pakistan remains guarded at best.

And why would it not be? It has permeated Pakistani society like a termite that need hide no more. Time was that it was devious and under the table. It is now a badge of honor, a kind of recognition, a rite of passage. Time was that people whispered about and avoided the corrupt and sneered at their ways. I remember my father, God bless his soul, alternately laugh and complain about corruption within the civil service with stories of “donoan haathoan sey khaya hai” (they have eaten with both hands). But now it is a given.

In the expatriate Pakistani world more than money, it is power and its hunger that corrupt absolutely.

And that is where the meme theory applies to Pakistanis: in the corruption meme. Some of it is the imitation aspect of the meme theory and some of it is survival-if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em, like the Americans say. Some of it is the role models our society offers. In the highly visible tripartite branches of government, the executive, the legislative and the judiciary corruption rules.

As much as a fan of the democratic process that I am I was benumbed that the nation chose a man with a deeply suspect past as its president. By the very process of election to such an office we are essentially condoning unfathomable corruption and the theft of wealth that if returned to Pakistan, where it rightfully belongs, could yank it out of its misery in an a hurry. Feudal politicians that hold Pakistan in the vice of abuse and essential slavery outdo each other in their nauseating antics of corruption.

In 2009 Transparency International reported the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) which measures the perceived level of public corruption in 180 countries. The scale is 0 (perceived to be highly corrupt) to 10 (perceived to have low levels of corruption). New Zealand was least corrupt with a CPI of 9.4. The most corrupt was Somalia at 1.1. Pakistan hit spot number 139 with a CPI of 2.4.

“Stemming corruption requires strong oversight by parliaments, a well performing judiciary, independent and properly resourced audit and anti-corruption agencies, vigorous law enforcement, transparency in public budgets, revenue and aid flows, as well as space for independent media and a vibrant civil society,” said Huguette Labelle, Chair Transparency International. This in current day Pakistan seems like wanting the stars and the moon.

So is all hope lost and are we all helplessly addicted to corruption? If one considers the meme theory again it appears that meme evolution follows the laws of natural selection. Dawkins notes that as various ideas pass from generation to generation, they either enhance or reduce the survival of the host or influence the survival of the ideas themselves. So it seems that all of us have not been hit by the meme of Pakistani corruption. Will it take a few good people to buoy a drowning nation?

We are a fickle nation and tire of rulers quickly. Although it seems to be a meme to be disciplined by the army, when it rules we fatigue with dictatorship. Civilian rule is subverted by corruption labels, forgetting that the army is no Sufi bunch. For really, the corruption meme appears to be an equal opportunity employer in Pakistan.

Like there is no force in religion (Quran 2: 256) there can be no force in eliminating the evil of corruption. We need to change the Pakistani corruption meme and make absolute, invincible honesty its fashionable replacement.

My addiction patients are only successful in recovery when they have hit rock bottom and the desire for sobriety comes from within. Pakistanis have to feel that we have hit rock bottom; we have to want to erase corruption at the personal level so it extrapolates to the national level.

Allama Iqbal paraphrased the Quranic verse (13:11) beautifully: khuda ney aaj tak us qaum ki halat nahin badli na ho jis ko shuoor khud apni halat key badalney ka. (God does not change the condition of a nation which has no desire to change itself)

Mahjabeen Islam is a columnist, family physician and addictionist. She can be reached at