Orientalism lite

June 27, 2014


The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

AFTER a week acclaiming it as the ‘final solution to terrorism,’ everyone is now clambering to highlight the fallouts of the North Waziristan operation. The government, opposition, and everyone else in between have suddenly woken up to the fact that hundreds of thousands of local people have been forced to flee the bombing zone. The plight of the so-called ‘IDPs’ has, in rather quick time, become the most significant public interest concern in the country.

Odd, is it not, that it requires us to see images of men, women and children strewn out across the plains of Bannu with nowhere to go before we realise that the ‘wipe out the Taliban’ celebrations will have to be put on hold? Indeed, one can only wonder whether we are completely devoid of collective memory given that this story has played itself out for millions from Swat, Bajaur, South Wazir­istan and Khyber — to name but a few — on numerous occasions over the past decade.

Or maybe we just like grappling with ‘disasters’ and ‘conflict zones’ that require development interventions? Perhaps we want to make the thousands of reports written by government, donors and consultants using such terminology actually seem relevant?

I, for one, still have a hard time digesting the term ‘IDP’. Devoid of any political and historical content whatsoever, it is the epitome of 21st century development-speak that is increasingly dominant in journalism, academia and popular culture.

Waziristanis are far better equipped to come up with a ‘final solution to terrorism’ than us armchair experts.

We are supposed to feel sympathy for IDPs because they have been ‘displaced’ through no fault of their own. We are encouraged to set up relief camps to alleviate their suffering. We are reminded time and again that the IDPs are suffering for the greater common good. But we are not allowed to ask critical questions about this supposed greater common good, who frames it, and why dropping bombs on the people of this country is unavoidable.

The usual suspects are predictably laying into government for not making proper arrangements for the more than half a million people that have been forced to leave their homes. But let us not forget that camps set up in the past were beset by a plethora of problems. There is no ‘right’ way to be a refugee; it is unbearable under virtually all conditions.

Let alone the authorities, a wide cross-section of the urban, educated classes remain completely ignorant about the lives and social practices of the people who are conveniently all lumped together under the bracket ‘tribal’. Indeed, there is a barely disguised orientalism at work in urban Pakistan when it comes to the people of the peripheries. It is thus that — in the case of North Waziristan at least — we vacillate between perceiving all ‘tribal’ Pakhtuns as extremists and then obsessing about the dismal conditions to which they are subjected as IDPs.

Accordingly we find it difficult to move beyond false choices such as ‘operation versus peace talks’, and ‘state versus extremists’. We urgently need to recognise that, while people in warzones are often victims, they are also conscious agents, aware both of their own history, and able, if we are so gracious as to allow them, to chart out their own future.

Notwithstanding Waziristan’s geographical location and its deliberate and sustained segregation from the settled areas, a large number of people from the region have been exposed to, and participate in, the same Pakistan as the rest of us. As students, merchants, transporters, and government employees, Waziristanis form political opinions about their condition like anyone else, and are, in fact, far better equipped to come up with a ‘final solution to terrorism’ than us armchair experts.

Rest assured, such a solution would involve a look back into history, at least as far back as British colonialism when the ‘tribal’ polity as we know it was created. It would also involve introspection, because there is little question that religion — including the idiom of jihad — has been a potent ideological and political force in local society over a long period of time. Finally, it would involve recognition that neither is everyone in Waziristan a Taliban sympathiser nor committed to resisting the right-wing onslaught. In short, a solution would involve nothing less than dismantling and substituting a political economy of war fashioned over four decades.

Of course the state has actively prevented those outside the regions that it considers its strategic backwater from going into and learning about them. But this does not excuse the ignorance of those who consider themselves progressives. It is not just colonial perspectives on Waziristan — and the rest of Fata — that many of us have internalised; many other regions, including ‘feudal’ Sindh and ‘sardar-dominated’ Balochistan are also, in our imagination, suspended in the medieval era.

Crying hoarse over IDPs after actively asking for them to be bombed is not good enough. Would we feel so charitable if a military operation was launched in Muridke?

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2014