The hegemonic ‘Islamic’ narrative was thrust onto Pakistan on July 5, 1977, when we heard the military usurper snarling over the media about what he called ‘an Islamic system’. The institutions he promoted and the retrograde educational systems he erected have polluted the intellectual atmosphere of the land and given birth to today’s bigoted, obscurantist political culture and its poisonous fallouts of violent insurgency, terrorism and cold-blooded mass murder.
For us Pakistanis, both the social order and the stable survival of the state are at serious risk.
We live in a country bristling with guns and bulging with bombs — as it were, a massive national suicide jacket.
In a real sense, we live in a State of Terror·
by Salman Tarik Kureshi
For us Pakistanis, both the social order and the stable survival of the state are at serious risk. We live in a country bristling with guns and bulging with bombs — as it were, a massive national suicide jacket. In a real sense, we live in a State of Terror
Where does one begin to grieve? Sarfraz Shah, Saleem Shahzad, Shahbaz Bhatti, Salmaan Taseer, Benazir Bhutto, Akbar Bugti? The daily toll of the dead and the missing in Balochistan? In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa? The unending ‘targeted’ bloodletting of my fellow Karachiites? Another 35,000 Pakistani men, women and children murdered? Where will the grieving end?
But, it will be argued, these are not victims of the same sets of murderers. The killers, their motives, are all different. In response, I will assert that all these tragic victims (and so many others, unmentioned and unnamed, alongside these and prior to these) are all victims of the same set of circumstances. For they died because they (and we, dear reader) do not live in a normal country. Let’s face it: we live in a State of Terror.
Ours has for long been seen as a special kind of political confection. A ‘normal’ state, for whatever reason it may have been formed, its purpose is nothing more and nothing less than the freedom and well being of its citizens. But we Pakistanis, it is asserted by those who have assumed authority over us, have a special destiny. We live in an ideological state and our sovereignty, as defended by our armed forces with such skills as we have witnessed, has ideological, not geographic, borders.
This ideological state needed, first, to establish its intellectual raison d’être. Mr. Jinnah’s formulations were not good enough. Our feckless, incompetent early politicos had little interest in statecraft beyond flying flags on their havelis (mansions) and being given a chair to sit on when visiting the local tehsildar (revenue official). The tasks of government were in fact fulfilled by the civilian and military bureaucrats of the day.
Now, what was feared most by both the civil and military babus (bureaucrats) as well as the landed political gentry, was open democratic contention with the likes of the intellectually more sophisticated middle-class Bengali leadership and the ethnically self-conscious Pakhtun and Sindhi dissidents, not to mention the literate Left in both Karachi and Punjab. Therefore, an ‘Islamic’ narrative was contrived by the establishment of the time, which, it was felt, would overcome Pakistan’s inherent ethnic, regional and class particularities. Jinnah’s liberal, inclusive vision was converted into a faux Islamic exclusivism. Conformity was imposed on the pluralism prized by Jinnah and a unitary state, belying his crusades for provincial autonomy, was created.
As history was to show, this simply did not work. Bengal seceded as Bangladesh and the ethnic entities in what is left of Pakistan have remained as restless and as self-conscious as ever.
But our establishment cannot be accused of failing to repeat its most egregious follies. The uprisings of 1968-69 and the Bhutto interregnum of 1972-77 had brought another disturbing set of ideas to the table, which threatened the basic class nature of Pakistani society: Socialism. Therefore, after Bhutto’s overthrow, the failed Islamist narrative was revived in a still more vigorous and forceful manner.
The philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who witnessed the rise of fascism in his native Italy, identified two quite distinct forms of political control: domination, which referred to direct physical coercion by the police and armed forces, and hegemony, which referred to ideological control and, more crucially, consent. By hegemony, Gramsci meant the permeation throughout society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs and morality that has the effect of supporting the status quo in power relations.
The hegemonic ‘Islamic’ narrative was again thrust onto Pakistan on July 5, 1977, when we heard the military usurper snarling over the media about what he called ‘an Islamic system’. The institutions he promoted and the retrograde educational systems he erected have polluted the intellectual atmosphere of the land and given birth to today’s bigoted, obscurantist political culture and its poisonous fallouts of violent insurgency, terrorism and cold-blooded mass murder.
To make matters far, far worse, this usurper sought to expand his malign influence even beyond Pakistan’s geographical borders. In the east, he dabbled in the violent politics of Indian Punjab, bringing the two countries almost to the brink of war. More dangerously, from June 1979 he began to enable and encourage the Mujahideen guerrilla raids into Afghanistan. Training camps were created for these warriors and expensive weaponry provided to them, with the clandestine assistance of the Americans and the Saudis, leading to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of December 1979.
Some of the weaponry that was to flood into the land over the next few years was sold into the hands of ethnic and sectarian extremists and dacoits and, in our biggest city, also of turf gangs. The consequences have included a generalised collapse of law and order and, in the complex environment of Karachi, a self-feeding spiral of ‘targeted’ turf violence.
The further consequence was even more deadly. As anyone who has read any history knows, if a state is to remain a state and not ‘fail’, if a society is to remain functional, the organs of the state under the government’s control — the military, paramilitaries and police — must establish and assert monopolistic control over serious weaponry. Gun power, if set loose and released from the control of the state, is a power for the anarchic destruction of the state that has unleashed it. These destructive forces were unleashed in Pakistan when the retrograde Zia regime distributed guns to the Mujahideen and across the land. Zia’s successors to date have maintained these policies. The Taliban were subsequent beneficiaries of this by now established largesse. The wolves of al Qaeda, smelling the blood to be shed, also arrived at the feast.
For us Pakistanis, both the social order and the stable survival of the state are at serious risk. We live in a country bristling with guns and bulging with bombs — as it were, a massive national suicide jacket. In a real sense, we live in a State of Terror — both internally, for the citizens of this country, and externally, for what could be thrown out of here at the citizens of other lands.
Thus, the pseudo-Islamic narrative spawned by this country’s real rulers not only failed to hold it together when it came to the test. In its revived, more formidable form, it is, as the police term goes, “armed and dangerous”.
Can this deep-seated malignancy be excised and removed by our own surgery? It has to be. For, otherwise, there are those both outside and within who will carry out their own bloody, terminal butchery.
The writer is a marketing consultant based in Karachi. He is also a poet.
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