WHILE all eyes are focused on the humiliating defeat of the US military in neighbouring Afghanistan, there is something else that has been largely ignored by Pakistani social and political commentators: the jubilation that the current events have caused across most sections of Pakistani society. Granted that the defeat of an imperial state like the US is always a thing to cherish for most oppressed and poor nations; however, I suspect a fantasmatic aspect to this jubilation.
There is a striking similarity between two sets of visual stories that most Pakistanis have watched on their television screens in recent years and were instant hits: the Taliban takeover and Dirilis: Ertugrul. The similarity between the two sets of moving images is also hard to miss: the beards and the bravery; and the resounding success this ‘visual combo’ leads to against the forces of evil. The guns and the swords that the bearded men hold in their hands and the bullet belts and armour that they wear on their bodies are the visual markers that translate the masculinity, religiosity and bravery into ‘real-life’ effects.
There is a deep connection between these images and the collective psyche of our nation: whenever men take arms in their hands and fight valiantly against much stronger and mightier enemies in military combat, miracles happen. And a miracle is what our nation desires; a nation that has heard stories about their glorious past and is living a life of defeats and shattered dreams on a daily basis. Being thrown into the grey list of FATF and the red list of UK travel, Pakistanis often find themselves on the wrong end of the prestige spectrum.
Similarities between the Taliban and ‘Dirilis: Ertugrul’ are hard to miss.
The search for miracles, like finding a large enough oil reserve, which will change the fortunes of the country within days, and for which the prime minister of the country is asking his nation to pray, should hardly surprise anyone.
However, this seductively powerful imagery of bearded, brave men producing miracles also cause a few things to go out of frame: science, education, human development and of course, women. These ‘things’ become unimportant for success; almost as unimportant as the literal meaning of the word ‘Taliban’ in the success of the militant movement; hence can be justifiably relegated to the peripheries. The role of women, doctors and teachers, for example, in such visual stories is, at best, those of ‘atmospherics’, who provide comfort, medical care or preliminary education to the male protagonists, who are doing the main job: fighting the battles.
The effect of such stories in terms of the fantasies they draw from and feed into, go far deeper than the fears of export of ‘jihad’ into the tribal areas of Pakistan, that some of our analysts are rightly concerned with. The stories have the potential to form the collective unconscious of the nation and (re)draw the order of a nation’s priorities. They lead to a wrong prognosis of an ailing nation that has been facing failure and indignation for a few centuries.
The metaphorically beautiful prioritisation of ‘shamsheer’ and ‘sana’ over ‘taoos’ and ‘rabab’ for nation-building gets translated into an ugly literality where art, poetry and other forms of cultural expression are smothered through the power of the guns. It took people like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan years to explain to their countrymen that lack of military might is the symptom and not the root cause of their nation’s problems. It is the intellectual, social, and moral decay that has brought the Muslims to the depths that we are facing today and no amount of swordsmanship or shooting expertise can alter the situation in a jiffy, as most of us fantasise.
Contrary to the story told by Dirilis: Ertugrul and the conquest of Kabul by the Afghan Taliban, the rise and fall of a nation depends on the years spent in the schools, labs, and workplaces, by both men and women, acquiring knowledge, skills and morality, and putting them into practice. The intellectual, cultural, and moral capital thus acquired provides a nation with a sustained basis for financial and military domination.
The brave Taliban warriors are taking triumphant selfies with Japanese mobile phones, sitting in the cockpits of American aircraft (that they probably can’t fly), holding Russian AK-47s in their hands. We need to broaden our frame to see the superficiality and temporariness of this victory; something that the current fantasy frame is not allowing our nation to see. Once the dust of momentary successes and failures is settled in a few days, we will have to face the stark reality: the US is still the most powerful nation in the world, and Afghanistan, still sitting on 169th position in the human development index out of 189 countries.
The writer is associate professor, Suleman Dawood School of Business, Lums.
Published in Dawn, September 5th, 2021