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The Zia generation

Published Apr 21, 2017 01:20am


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WHEN I insist before my students that they are part of the ‘Zia generation’, some of them cringe. But it is true. Ours is a country in which the vast majority of the population — there are approximately 120 million Pakistanis under the age of 30 — was born into a society that had been transformed by 11 years of brutal dictatorship.

Religion has been instrumentalised by all of Pakistan’s rulers — even before the inception of the country. But the Zia years marked a politicisation of religion without precedent. The ‘Zia generation’ grew up in a heavily ‘Islamised’ world in which most progressive traditions were pushed completely to the margins of society.

When the events of 9/11 forced Pakistani officialdom to publicly renege on its long-term policy of patronising religiously inspired militancy, the societal contradictions to which this policy had given rise were laid bare. Hatred and (structural) violence is today commonplace. Mashal Khan’s brutal lynching at the hands of his fellow students was only the latest example of how pervasive Zia’s legacy is.

Mashal’s lynching is the latest example of how pervasive Zia’s legacy is.

On the surface, responses have been consistent across the mainstream political spectrum. Everyone from the opposition parties to the prime minister to the chief justice added to the consensus that the lynching was intolerable. The religious right has been less forthcoming, but that is hardly surprising. Indeed, I think the conservative lobby on the whole is quite content with the state of affairs.

Here’s why.

Mashal’s killers were not indoctrinated madressah students who too many of us love to blame exclusively for being ‘terrorism’s’ foot-soldiers. The mob was made up of youth educated in public (and possibly some private) schools. They are ‘ordinary’ kids whose minds have been shaped by their school curricula, the media, the home and other ‘ordinary’ sites of social learning.

In short, they are at least somewhat representative of a significant majority of the 120m young people mentioned at the outset.

Yes, Mashal was also from amongst this demographic, and the fact that there are many Mashals across the country is cause for cautious optimism. But that is only a very small silver lining because the bigots have the power of a hegemonic discourse on their side.

Which is to say that most of this country’s young people are at best highly conservative, and at worst downright reactionary (and here I mean mostly boys and young men but murder in broad daylight by three sisters in Sialkot confirms that the virus of bigotry has spread across the gender divide).

It may be hard to accept but it is absolutely essential that we come to terms with this reality, because without recognition of the scale of the crisis we face, we have no chance of mounting a sustained effort to build a more progressive future.

For the best part of 15 years, collective ‘wisdom’ has hinged on short cuts to address the phenomenon of ‘terrorism’. The evidence makes clear that countless military operations and convictions in military courts have done little to reduce the ideological appeal of political Islam. In fact it can be reasonably argued that the prevailing approach has actually reinforced rather than helped ease society’s internal contradictions.

The fact that no explicit steps have been taken to understand and then address the institutional settings in which young minds are shaped is damning. Mashal’s lynching understandably precipitated calls for ‘exemplary justice’ to be meted out to the immediate perpetrators. But will everyone who was part of the mob be caught and tried? More importantly, what of the millions who celebrated the killing from a distance as a great victory? Is there any way we can round up all of them?

The answer, of course, is no, we cannot. We cannot drop bombs on destructive ideas. We can only confront such ideas with other ideas that are inclusive and tolerant, even while they challenge orthodoxies. It is through our curriculum, on the media, in our homes and workplaces and in many other settings that ideas are propagated in society. The propagation of ideas that killed Mashal has been deliberately facilitated by the state for decades. If anyone is serious about bringing ‘Zia’s generation’ back from the precipice, progressive ideas must be allowed to proliferate in place of destructive ones.

Perhaps the cruellest irony of the Mashal murder is that it took place in a university bearing the name of a son of Badshah Khan, the great Pakhtun nationalist whose entire political philosophy was based on non-violence. That students in such a setting can so effortlessly resort to violence against a peer whose crime was to disassociate with his own upbringing as a member of the ‘Zia generation’ is an indication of the long fight we must wage if we want this and subsequent generations of young people to emerge from the abyss that is right-wing bigotry.

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

Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2017


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (39)

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omar qureshi Apr 21, 2017 01:35am

well said.... I have always found this generational argument to be true. have noticed that most people born in the 70s and later are much more conservative as a cohort than their older counterparts who will start dying off or getting much older now. The culture created in the Zia years has nto been attempted to be reformed either so its becoming more pervasive instead of being reversed. Even if its reverse now it will take a generation or two to fix the country. Does not bode very well for the country's future.

KP Apr 21, 2017 02:14am

This is a great article. Eye opener and relevant across borders. I discussed too can take a lesson here.

Morehamhead Apr 21, 2017 02:18am

The truth hurts, brilliant article, sadly I can't see what will change the path we have been led dn.

Nownow Apr 21, 2017 03:34am

Wow, great writing. Unless we accept reality first we will not be able to address it and correctly pointed out that it needs to be communicated from and at educational institutions, media, work places, social places and everywhere again and again exactly the way these religious fantism was propagated in the first place.

Fazal Karim Apr 21, 2017 05:00am

We talk too much but do not want to go to root of the problem. From which literature and books these bigot inspiration? Government powerful institution has to point out contradictions in these books with respect to SUPREME BOOK.

Nahrad Muni Apr 21, 2017 09:10am

Fantastic article. Thank you DAWN and the Author.

Sun Tzu Apr 21, 2017 09:40am

brilliant article.

Farooq Osmani Apr 21, 2017 09:59am

We have been so polarised as a society over the last 15 years during this so called 'war on terror' that we are not even prepared to listen to any argument that is contrary to ours. It is not what happened 20-30 years ago. It's Pervez Musharraf to blame and not Gen Zia, therefore.

Secular Pathan Apr 21, 2017 10:10am

Excellent Article. Now the Zia era people are coming into power, what will they do with this country, I don't know. Our education system is a serious let down, we suppress critical thinking, encourage propagandist and dogmatic thinking. Young people need to be exposed to the developed world to see what they are doing and how the civilised world is working.

shoaib Apr 21, 2017 11:26am

To put it lightly.... A generation of fanatics.....

Meelu Apr 21, 2017 11:52am

Very well articulated article on the core issue of society, which is resting upon perfunctory slogans of anti-extremism. It is rihht time for society is to prepare violentless,progressive young minds and souls.

Jamil Apr 21, 2017 11:53am

True to the hilt.All and sundry must make effort to fight the scourge of bigotry.To begin with let start it from individual family level.

Nadeem Apr 21, 2017 11:59am

The lynchers were just the sharp point of a huge dagger prepared by Zia, and which is wielded by the entire society today - to be used on this person or that. This giant dagger needs to be first taken out of the hand of the society, and then dismantled into such small pieces that no future opportunist can reassemble it. Reforms in school education and in public policy are the starting points for this long road. Something that took generations to build will take at least a generation or two to dismantle.

Imtiaz Piracha Apr 21, 2017 12:27pm

I think Zia's influence has been overplayed in our country. Religiosity did not begin with him; he only exploited it for his own political motives. However, decades have passed since his demise, what have the subsequent governments or the people in general done to rectify the damage? Nothing.

Our education and literacy has not improved nor the budget allocation on mind building of the people. If we cling to an erroneous diagnosis, we are never going to come out of our difficulties. We need to be more incisive to discover our faults and work harder for the uplift of our society and country.

khaled Apr 21, 2017 12:39pm

A very good analysis.

BNJ Apr 21, 2017 12:47pm

Beautifully written !Very good article.

AKB Apr 21, 2017 01:35pm

So true word by word. Thanks Dawn and thanks Aasim Sajjad Akhtar.

mUMTAZ SHAH Apr 21, 2017 02:23pm

Great article. But question is how to neutralise Zia generations mind sett which has been designed over 3 decades. The biggest reason to this situation now it is relegious emotionalism over all in the society . Faith gives you the permission to debate issues but so called relegious scholars try to stop the possibility of openness in the society. Let the common man decide and think themselves on faith related issues and stop the interference from volatile Mullas from dictating and directing us how to live. Reform the Schools and the curriculum. Muslims have to use their heads not emotions.

Abid Khan Apr 21, 2017 02:27pm

The ages of most of the students who were the culprits of this crime ranges from 20-22, meaning they were born around 1997, more than 10 years after Zia's regime. Similarly, again keeping the ages of these students in mind, the age when they started education, started grasping things and form opinion is mid-2000s when they were 5 or so (in which most of the Zia's policies had already been reversed by Musharraf regime and its Enlightened moderation). So, should they not be called the Musharraf's generation and the product of his forced secularization

IndianVIP Apr 21, 2017 03:13pm

Well written article. This applies in Indian universities too. The extreme right and the left indoctrinated youth are crazy enough to kill each other on campus. Example being the Gurmehar issue in Delhi. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that youth are intemperate and cannot accept other ideas easily. They will moderate out with age. But I also blame the left both in India and Pakistan for promoting cronyism, corruption, and weak administration. This has given the extreme right to come to power. Take Turkey as an example. In India, lets see if Modi leaves the same legacy as Zia did.

irfan Apr 21, 2017 03:42pm

Well done. The summary is curriculum should be changed and tolerant ideas should be propogated.

Hassan Apr 21, 2017 04:15pm

@IndianVIP : Well said. Completely agree with your comments.

UKumar Apr 21, 2017 04:17pm

Author clearly enunciated the problem. Many others have said the same. Author clearly describes the steps needed to reform the society. It starts from education and curriculum. It will take a generation. But who is listening?

UKumar Apr 21, 2017 04:17pm

@omar qureshi Well said

UKumar Apr 21, 2017 04:24pm

@Imtiaz Piracha You are right . Zia started it but other leaders could have corrected it. Zia's generation has not seen the what Pakistan was and could be. Every one who does not raise their voice and vote for right leaders, are also complicit.

UKumar Apr 21, 2017 04:26pm

@IndianVIP Turkey is no longer an example. Secular democracy has been destroyed. Turkey is following the footstep of Zia. Future does not look good.

kaliraja thangamani Apr 21, 2017 05:03pm

I will say " Pakistani inteligencia is struggling like anything to find an inclusive narrative to the Pakistani society, but there is no light up to the end of the horizon just now, let us hope better."

Moth Apr 21, 2017 05:28pm

Amazing article and great analysis. Brain is a highly complex organ. Our religious people and politicians do not understand it. Brain and mind grow together. Every image that a child see, every voice that a child heard, every behaviour that AC child observes, every smells that a child feels, every touch that a child feels creates information channels in the brain. That information and those channels remain their for rest of their lives. So the damage done by Gen Zia is irreversible.

Saeeds Apr 21, 2017 05:54pm

Mr. Akhtar has hit the nail on the head. Again we see it today in Chitral. Zia was the real culprit, the real menace.

Kumar Apr 21, 2017 07:06pm

Heartwarming article.As pointed out in the article the comments below definitely shows that silver lining of optimism among the largely rabid elements.

Amit sharma Apr 21, 2017 07:18pm

Religion whether Hindu or Muslim cannot be the sole unifying factor for the country. Extremism and ultra religious thinking is creating these bigots on both sides of the border. Good Education can be only saviour for us. We must know and understand religion and political ambitions should never be mixed.

Mike Tonio Apr 21, 2017 08:08pm

Check out the video of Mashal's brutal inhuman beating at the hands of his fellow students, then weep at the state of the country's future. This video is circulating in every democratic country in the world, and Pakistani origin people hang their heads in shame.

PranitA Apr 21, 2017 08:24pm

Excellent article. Direct and to the point. The lesson on politicization of religion is relevant to even India. Even I find the new generation in India to be more conservative and hypocritical.

Salman haider Zaidi Apr 22, 2017 12:35am

An excellent piece of writing and eye-opener for many. Well done Aasim.

Helloall Apr 22, 2017 01:14am

Brilliant analysis by Mr. Akhtar! The horrifying fact is that the religious fundamental lunacy has already taken Pakistan to a point of no return. You just can't go back from here pre- 1970s, just can't. May be.. may be .. if you look eastwards to India, People of Pakistan will see & learn from Indian Muslims, being Muslim and still can find balance between faith, tolerance and more importantly, acceptance of other points of view/faiths. Too much to ask?

Zafar Dahir Apr 22, 2017 10:39am

Zia had no political philosphy at all rather his regime imported the fanatics paradigms n anti pakistan societal culture from his coterie known to every Pakistani. His regime has proved to be the cementing force to the politically orphaned and socially deprived segment of the society n now that clan is devastating our own children n future builders of this nation.

Zeeshan Apr 22, 2017 10:42am

Very well articulated observations. I hope these small drops will one day become ocean.

kensam59 Apr 23, 2017 05:28am

Amazing that South Asians born during the Raj were and are more progressive than the successor generations. World upside down?

Rana Apr 23, 2017 02:11pm

@Abid Khan Brilliant point