War drums and identity

ONCE again, the beat of war drums has Pakistanis marching in unison. Since Adm Mike Mullen hinted at the possibility of US action against militant safe havens within Pakistan, the cacophony that normally defines Pakistani public discourse has distilled into glorious harmony: ‘Go America Go’.

Religious parties, urban youth posting status updates on Facebook, the Senate Standing Committee on Defence, talk show hosts, secular politicians — the disparate elements that comprise our country now speak with a unified voice against America.

At the All-Party Conference, sworn enemies joined hands to champion Pakistani sovereignty, and, in the words of our
information minister, “the majority consensus … turned into a unanimous consensus”. Across print and electronic media, there have been calls for bickering politicians to give it a rest so that Pakistan can unite under the glorious banner of jihad. We have beaten our chests and the dull ache that remains is meant to be a sorry substitute for nationalism.

At other times, we are Sindhis, Mohajirs, Baloch or Pakhtuns. We are Sunni, Ahl-e-Hadith, Ahmedi or Christian. Secularists or Islamists. Pipliyas or Noon-Leaguers. Burgers or UMTs. It is only when an outsider supposedly poses an existential threat that we become Pakistanis. The madness that normally defines us is channelled into a mad love for the country.

Rather than spare a thought for what Pakistan represents, we obsess over which external enemy wants to break it apart. For years, that enemy has been India. This past week, it has been the US. Sometimes, it’s a strange combination of the two. And if you’re an adherent of Zaid Hamid’s, it’s the unlikely trifecta of India, the US and Israel coming together with nothing better to do than destabilise Pakistan. The more threats we face from the big bad world, the more easily we are distracted from our divisive politics.

After 1947, Pakistan had to define itself as ‘not India’. That definition necessitated demonising India and constructing our national identity as a process of negation: we are not Indians; we are not Hindus; we are not South Asians. What are we then?

The answer to that question should have been: ‘we are Pakistani’. But the early failure to articulate that national identity, along with its values, aspirations and reach, led to a more feeble response. Instead of grappling with the difficult question of identity, we opted for the most obvious, most coherent label: ‘we are Muslims’.

From the start, a religious identity has been a poor substitute for a national identity, as demonstrated by the anti-Ahmedi riots of the 1950s, the independence of East Pakistan, the public protests against the Hudood Ordinances. In recent years, extremists have further devastated the rationale of using Islam as the glue that binds Pakistan. Muslim suicide bombers kill Muslims at prayer; Muslim-majority sectarian groups kill Muslim minorities; Muslim state security forces kill Muslim separatists; Muslim bodyguards kill Muslim governors; and other Muslim countries like Kuwait want to have nothing to do with us as they issue blanket visa bans for Pakistanis.

Just as our national identity was coming up for review, just as we were being forced by the spiralling situation to assess the basis of our national identity and reconsider what we mean by Pakistani, we have found another external enemy. No longer do we need to consider what we stand for, what we collectively believe in, or what we jointly pursue as a polity. We now know that being Pakistani means being anti-American, united in the cause of jihad against US boots on the ground.

Pakistan’s need to define itself against external enemies has been previously recognised, but its implications for democracy are less understood. The repeated failure of democracy in Pakistan does not only stem from the lack of education and incurable corruption of politicos. To a large extent, democracy fails because Pakistanis do not know what they are voting for when they go to the polls. Democracy thrives when a population subscribes to the idea of a nation and believes that its collective values and aspirations are worth pursuing. Democracy is proactive — you take the initiative to vote because you want to claim a stake in the dream that your national identity offers. ‘India Shining’. Brazil’s ‘Order and Progress’. Indonesia’s ‘Together We Can’. ‘America’s ‘Yes We Can’.

Enshrined in these clichéd political slogans are collective goals — higher literacy rates, economic development, innovation, Olympic gold medals, space programmes. These are examples of nationalism founded on recognition of what is wrong with a country and what could be better. ‘Pakistan Khappay’ doesn’t quite have the same ring, especially since it is imbued with the irony of meaning radically different things in the ethnic languages spoken across Pakistan.

Without a coherent national identity — a joint vision or goal — you cannot inspire the activism that democracy necessitates.

You cannot vote simply to hate an external enemy. You cannot vote for war. You cannot vote for what you are not. In the absence of the activism of democracy, you are left with the fatalism of patronage. A nation that obsesses over external threats is one that values patronage, because patronage means protection from what may come. Valuing patronage is in some ways the antithesis of voting in a democracy: rather than shape your future, you seek protection from it. Ironically, patronage also nullifies the future possibility of democracy because it reiterates the importance of that which is local — kinship, ethnicity, language, sect — over what is national. As long as we seek protection from an external enemy, we will seek patrons, even if they come in uniform —and it is thus that history readies to repeat itself.

The writer is a freelance journalist.