Coming home

Updated 11 May 2017


THE Panama case verdict made righteous heads nod doubtfully. Taint seemed present at the highest level in the country. That taint was endemic was not considered. The relevance of corruption inevitably diminishes when one looks at its sheer scope.

The demand that important heads roll is slightly excessive. That would merely divert attention from what is far more relevant: the frequent incidents of terror and the overall lawlessness — and instability — in the country.

It was not ‘extremism’ alone that was, for instance, responsible for the murder of Mashal Khan but a blood-lust that has come to typify us. We cannot, under the circumstances, avoid focusing on what is surely central: our persistent identity crisis.

Concerns over identity continue to dog us.

The quest for identity dates back to 1971 and before. Ethnicity was then — and still is, provincial autonomy notwithstanding — an issue. But then so is terror which looms large on the national horizon, having become, like corruption, almost a way of life.

The same can be said of the sudden outbursts of violence against innocent citizens. These are all part of the national experience if not — quite — of the national identity.

There was, for example, a disquieting degree of contagion about the pious gloating of Qadri over the murder of Salmaan Taseer. Qadri became a source of inspiration and role model to many.

There must similarly be quite a number who are sympathetic to the killers of Mashal Khan. They remain anonymous. That is a chilling statement about who we are — and where we are heading.

Concerns over identity continue to dog us. At the same time, there has been a sea change in the last few years. The stakes today are different.

Our sense of identity does not suffer the buffetings it once did. The reason seems plain. We are all today part of a globalised ethos — and also, in effect, of a world at war.

The change also partly has to do with the mass migrations that have lately taken place, with the borders of different countries — Germany, Hungary, Greece, Italy — suddenly becoming porous.

Asylum-seeking necessarily has certain implications. The concept of nationality comes into question. Identity becomes open-ended. The construct of nationhood falls apart. The nation-state itself becomes, at least for those concerned, something of a chimera or a thing of the past.

Nationalism may have reared its head in the UK and US and also currently in France. But the EU obviously speaks of something else: a communalisation, a subordination of national to common, intra-national interest. Saarc was motivated by similar impulses even if it failed to bear fruit.

The US and UK and the apparent wave of populism in the West — and India — notwithstanding, there is something bigger at work in the world today which, for people if not for states, tends to undercut territorial differences.

There is, in any case, properly speaking, no such thing as a territorial identity. That would seem, rather, to be a construct of the state which feels bound, for its own reasons, to seek to preserve it.

Civil space is necessarily different from the space of the state. It has its own centre and is rooted in a kind of psychical belonging.

This is commonly thought of as ‘home’. It is where the idea of a homeland comes from. That idea, sadly, is today slightly dated. It has to contend both with the failure of the modern state to provide a credible home for its citizens and the resultant diasporic forces historically — and contemporaneously — at play.

By this we mean not just war-affected refugees but those in search of a sustainable livelihood outside their own native space. This applies equally to the dissidents and prisoners of conscience who find themselves irrevocably displaced.

There are those such as Edward Snowden who fell out with the state on account of what he saw as its intrusions on civil space. The point that he was trying to make was that civil — or in fact personal — space had a sanctity that the state was bound to respect.

The question of individual space in society is one which thinkers such as Hannah Arendt have carefully examined but which the totalitarian state, in whatever form or guise, has obviously not.

Britain appears, despite security constraints, to have struck the most perfect balance between state control and individual liberty that we see in the world today. There is an explicit concern with preserving civil liberty, whatever the odds.

Pakistan’s situation is peculiar to it. State controls may have decreased and more freedoms are in evidence with the onset of democracy. But the individual conscience and personal identity continue to be — at times terrifyingly — under threat. That surely needs revisiting.

The writer is the founder chairman of Dialogue: Pakistan, a local think tank.

Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2017