National Clutter


*Originally published in The News.

It’s been over a month since the dharnas came to the capital.

And although Imran Khan warns of a civil war, the political temperature has come down considerably but not after exposing the bare and weak bones of Pakistan’s make.

To start off, with rumors and fears of a coup abound earlier; a most alarming reminder has been the persisting existence of the Third Umpire on the political front. Including a counsel of restraint on both sides, advocacy for facilitation of negotiations and advising the government not to use force, Dawn’s editorial published on 2ND September spoke on this string of the army’s statements and inaction towards the protesters that attacked the Parliament despite Article 245 as:

‘The carefully constructed veneer of neutrality that the army leadership had constructed through much of the national political crisis has been torn apart.’

The fact that army had to issue these statements and later another to assert its neutrality brings out a sneering irony.  

It is obvious that redressing the civil-military imbalance is urgent and yet perilous since the Third Umpire will not be leaving a field it has dominated and played on since decades anytime soon.

Secondly, while mudslinging and uncivil rhetoric has been and is an inherent component of Pakistan’s chaotic political culture, the current developments have assisted their swift mainstream resurgence; lest we forget Imran Khan’s volley of countless allegations and accusations against the sitting prime minister, ministers, parliamentarians, judiciary, police, journalists, bureaucrats and the media; and his free and open use of “oye”, “main choroon ga nahi” to “geeli shalwars”. The on-going rumpus has assisted and promoted the crude rhetoric of violence and slander in Pakistan’s political culture and discourse to once again rear its ugly head.

More importantly, a tweet by Mosharraf Zaidi on Imran Khan’s audacious release of his workers arrested by the police accentuates a disquieting issue:

‘One can blame PM Sharif to a certain extent, but delegitimization of the state machinery is now the unwitting PTI project. Disturbing.’

This act of Imran Khan’s may be hailed as bravado by his supporters, who condemn and decry Anjum Aqeel in the same breath, but since its declaration of civil disobedience, promotion of hundi; attempts to storm state buildings with PAT and this forceful release of arrested workers, PTI and its workers have certainly pursued a path of delegitimizing state apparatuses by way of blatantly defying the law.

With such a course of action, PTI has helped muddle up the distinction between the state and the government; attacking the former to shake the latter.

This is but a dangerous phenomenon in a country struggling for stability and security; adding a political plane to the constant challenges to the writ of the state by a plethora of groups including the TTP.

In the domain of the government, the consequences of ignoring political protests, as PML-N initially did with Imran Khan’s, have been dramatically revealed. Governments, especially that of parties like N which conveniently adopt smug complacency when in power, can no longer afford to be dismissive of opponents’ demands or perform sluggishly.

Moving on, as with every national occurrence, the media’s role has been of vital significance amid the inquilabi and tabdeeli mayhem. With fear-mongering, misinformation and sensationalism media houses flagrantly picked stances and sides. This glaring functioning of Pakistan’s media as propaganda houses for political parties with little room for impartiality and responsibility has been unfortunate. Media coverage has also been concentrated on the capital, with hardly any slot for the plight of the IDPs and later, the flood victims. All of this has once again lent weight to the idea that Pakistan possesses a vibrant, free media but a fledgling one not free from biases, unethical practices and oblivious to responsible, meaningful journalism.

Public discourse has also been affected, albeit with the curse of intense polarisation. With each lot sticking to its viewpoint and party loyalties with charged political self-righteousness, little room has been left for debate and discussion, let alone poor old nuance. All who oppose PTI’s politics are now ‘jahil nooras’ and all those who criticise PML-N ‘youthias’. And with debate and discussion shut off like this, this only strengthens the intolerance that is already embedded in Pakistan’s society and national mindset.

Another societal characteristic emerged amidst the dharnas, namely misogyny and hypocrisy. Appropriated into mainstream political discussion thanks to Maulana Fazul-ur-Rehman invoking the infamous fahashi narrative inside the Parliament, the dancing by women at Imran Khan’s dharna became a part of the political salvo against him.

A non-issue with no political weight or ramification, it is, as columnist and writer Abdul Majeed Abid, wrote:

‘One can disagree with the ‘dharnistas’ on dozens of accounts, without any mention of the term ‘vulgarity’….. this is important only in bigoted, misogynist societies such as Pakistan.’

It is astounding how women and men dancing at rallies can be an issue when there is a war being fought at home and a million Pakistanis are displaced from their homes, left for destitution.

This is a fine encapsulation of the clutter Pakistan is in today.

At the end, it is palpable that the political confrontation which began in mid-August sparked off a tense interaction between Pakistan’s politics, institutions, society and culture; the results of which are unsettling. A close to the current events may be uncertain but what is certain is that as a country aspiring for democracy, stability and prosperity, Pakistan has a long and difficult path to tread if it is ever to move forward.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

No Country for Nuance


*Originally posted on the Dawn Blog, posting the unedited version here:

As yet another political crisis brews in Pakistan, political discussion and arguments steam through it.

Emotions are high, and arguments equally heated and intense.

It is often assumed to be the case among Pakistanis that any existing political support must encompass all aspects of a party regardless of personal agreement or disagreement. In other words, support has to be uncritical or it doesn’t fit the definition. If figure, institution or idea has to be supported, all that comprises them has to be backed; and whoever or whatever is to be opposed, must have the hate whole.

This is no country for nuance.

However, the problem is not limited to Pakistan, as Turkish writer and journalist Mustafa Akyol writes on Al-Monitor regarding the discourse on Erdogan in the country:

As Bekir Agirdir, the director of a polling company and a political commentator, noted, it has become impossible to reasonably discuss even Istanbul’s water problem, because Erdogan supporters will deny it, whereas Erdogan opponents will exaggerate it.

With the political turmoil pitting PTI right against the PML-N, any argument seems to define opposition to Imran Khan’s politics as ‘Noora’ support for Nawaz Sharif; and any support for PML-N, the institution of government and the state as support for a corrupt Pakistan. Any acknowledgement of Asif Zardari’s political genius and success of Machiavellian politics is taken as jiyala praise for PPP’s lacklustre performance.

Independent political opinions or thoughts are now refused to be seen without suspicion of political affiliation and loyalty lurking beneath to dictate them; and allegiance is expected to be, as aforementioned, complete, uncritical and whole.

Similarly, the dichotomy of discourse has monstrously grown to swallow all civility.

The bitter and brash assertion and argument of opinions has taken over discussions and conversations completely with derogatory words among which are jahil, noora, noony, anti-Pakistan and beghairat. Relations are publicly souring on social-media platforms and in lounges and drawing rooms, as respect is being trampled by charged political self-righteousness.

Any support for a party must be based on solid, logical reasons and if it indulges in socially, ethically or politically reprehensible pursuits; it must be condemned. Pakistan’s interest, not personality cults, must direct party support.

But in the current atmosphere no word against the holy saints of Raiwind and Bani Gala is brooked.

Social media-user and activist Meera Ceder pertinently points out:

‘Blind following or blind allegiance to anything makes one truly blind. I hate the fact that everything is seen from a black and white lens. Everything is an either or and if you choose to condemn two wrongs then you are “clearly” taking sides. Not everything can or should be seen in binaries.’

It is either this or that, with us or against us, black or white. Binaries are the order of the day.

Socially, any sign of broad-mindedness that challenges redundant conservatism on issues such as female education, attire, careers is characterised as ‘modern’ or ‘liberal’ with negative connotations. Religiously, General Zia’s toxic legacy of Islamization reigns as people consider any interpretation of Islam apart from their own to be heretical. This has been a polarisation that has had bloody effects by physical demonstration in the form of terror groups and extremism having slaughtered 50,000 Pakistanis till now.

The ideological textbook propaganda found in Pak Studies on the creation of Pakistan, its culture and religion does also not help by its distortions of history and the truth. These have been so well-indoctrinated by now that they not only, unfortunately, shape much of Pakistani national and political discourse even today, but any attempt to challenge them is undermined, ignored or thrown to the bin of numerous Pakistani pejoratives that include liberal-fascist, anti-Pakistan, RAW agent etc.

All of this spells our penchant for polarisation.

Polarisation is not merely a disappointing national phenomenon, it is a dangerous one. After all, it is polarisation which breeds intolerance and a parochial mentality by shunning debate and discussion. Being cut off from debate and a diverse range of different and dissimilar views has the effect of intellectual insulation and isolation; plus a lack of respect for opposing opinions. This creates a hostile, suffocating environment for all people to be heard, understood and respect. This might explain why many segments of the nation such as the Baloch, the Pashtuns, and the religious minorities et al are misunderstood. They are either never heard, lent an ear to be heard or their voices are hushed.

Debate, civil argument and discussion are keys to a more pluralistic, open, tolerant society; and the very heart of democracy itself, which is why polarisation is the cancer at the heart of Pakistan.

As the state transitions through challenges, so must the people by developing a pluralistic rather than a polarising environment, discourse and attitude – if Pakistan is ever to move forward.

~ Hafsa Khawaja

The Breeze Amid Political Heat


*Originally published in The News.

Since the past one month, the political temperature has been rising by the day. Attacks against the government have grown only to culminate as an intentioned final blow in the form of marches to the capital to unseat the PML-N government.

Imran Khan’s PTI and Tahir-ul-Qadri’s PAT are driving their respective marches and inquilabs.

Any political crisis is inevitably a breeding ground for opportunism, point-scoring, mud-slinging, propaganda, vendettas and agendas. The case hasn’t been dissimilar in Pakistan where the two-seater Chaudhrys of Gujrat, and the lone-parliamentarian Sheikh Rasheed have been hanging on inquilabi coattails.

However, amid the political chaos and uncertainty has been a positive development.

From JI, PPP, JUI-F, ANP to MQM, there has been a perceptible manifestation of political maturity. Having placed their own political agendas, differences and issues on the second rung of priority, they have come together in their advocacy for political dialogue; advice of negotiation, concession, flexibility and reconciliation to the government; and in the process, palpably demonstrated the spirit of democracy.

Publicly speaking on the dangers posed to Pakistan, its nascent democracy and hopes for a democratic future by current developments and the government’s response to them, many notable members and leaders of these parties such as Khurshid Shah, Raza Rabbani, Aitzaz Ahsan, Qamar-uz-Zaman Kaira, Mehmood Achakzai, Hasil Bizenjo, Zahid Khan and Afrasiab Khattak have emerged.

With separate visits made by these parties to the ruling government’s leaders and members, imparting advice and help to them in dealing with the marchers; this political engagement has been a welcome occurrence.

The government’s decision to allow passage to both marches was a prudent abandonment of the jitters and edginess it had been demonstrating by the placement of containers, barriers and other measures that were characteristic of its tendency to overreact and create crises; and making monsters of minions.

In Hamid Mir’s recent show of Capital Talk, Federal Minister Saad Rafique revealed that the government’s decision to allow passage to Tahir-ul-Qadri for his march was reached in consultation with the PPP.

It seems that the parties have learned from their mistakes and the lessons of the past which dictate that political infighting, politicking and the politics of destabilization only benefit and strengthen the forces against democracy at not just their cost but of the country too. 

It is also quite remarkable how JI has emerged as the voice of sanity and sense in the prevailing political chaos; a credit that clearly goes to Siraj-ul-Haq for practising his political leadership responsibly, thereby bringing the party to the forefront of the battle against potential destabilization in Pakistan.

Adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in America, Arif Rafiq agrees by saying:

 “Siraj-ul-Haq has been playing a solid role despite being in a tricky situation [coalition partner in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa]. They have a long way to go on the rights of women and minorities. But change on that front isn’t impossible.”

Political unity and maturity augurs well for Pakistan.

In the current crisis, it has attempted to function as a conduit between an obstinate opposition party and a sluggish government. Provided success at the end in the form of a deal out of this political pandemonium, this is sure to set a solid precedent as solution to future political tangles. Previously, it was witnessed in the signing of the historic 18th Amendment under the PPP government which effectively defanged the president by removal of the infamous 58(2)b that long stifled Pakistan’s democratic sprouts in the 90s; and enhanced political autonomy – all of which was a stride in Pakistan’s transition to a proper parliamentary republic.

Similar was the case during Tahir-ul-Qadri’s ‘inquilab 2013’ in Islamabad, which was deflated by the PPP government’s shrewd and sensible handling in cooperation with fellow political actors.

The late Eqbal Ahmad wrote in one of his articles that military intervention in politics only ends when ‘the legitimacy of the civilian system of power is established over a period of time.’  However, he went onto reason the unending military intervention and interference in Pakistani politics as, ‘We have been lacking both the political framework and leaders capable of investing the civilian system of government with authority, and taming the warrior class.’

Democratic continuity is the root of this much-needed establishment of legitimacy of the civilian system of power, a cause for which some of the prominent political parties have now been seen to be standing up for amid current political problems through active engagement with the government; PTI and PAT.

Therefore, if it flourishes, this political solidarity, maturity and sagacity can strengthen, empower and invest the civilian system of government with the power, will and dynamism it sorely lacks to face challenges and set Pakistan on the road to prosperity.

Political unity, maturity and sagacity are undoubtedly essential complements to Pakistan’s democratic evolution.

And one hopes they prevail at the end of the current political turmoil; and democracy triumphs.

~ Hafsa Khawaja