Excerpts from the essay ‘Certain Uncertainties: The Cultural Confusions of Pakistan’
Published February 20, 2022

A lengthy personal essay published last year in the book Pakistan: Here and Now, ranging over Pakistani politics, culture and society, argues that the problems of radicalisation in a country like Pakistan are intimately connected with the confusion at the heart of notions of the nature of the state. Does lack of clarity create the space for extremist thought to assert itself, perhaps because it promises a cultural certainty that is dearly missing from the state? Eos presents some excerpts from the essay…


In 1985, a Muslim sectarian organisation sprang up around the town of Jhang in central Punjab, which would go on to define not only sectarian politics in Pakistan but also influence regional extremism throughout the region, such as in Afghanistan and the disputed region of Kashmir.

Although the origins of the Anjuman-i-Sipah-i-Sahaba (Association of the Soldiers of the Companions of the Prophet [PBUH], later renamed as Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan) were in the resentments of the largely Sunni peasantry and an urbanising population against the power and influence of the area’s Shia feudal landlords, it used sectarian rhetoric to rile people up against their alleged exploiters.

The morphing of a class and socio-economic issue into a purely theocratic one not only gave it a certain cultural legitimacy in a state where the use of religion for political purposes was accepted, but made tackling it all the more difficult. It did not help, of course, that those in power at the time — the military — saw in the manufactured cultural legitimacy a way to take on secular political forces and to use it to spread its vision of religiosity within the country.

The inability of the state to tackle this hot-button religiously tinged issue led to the Sipah-i-Sahaba not only becoming a potent electoral force but also an openly violent one, leading to the massacre of many minority Muslim Shias, especially in the late 1980s and 1990s.

The Sipah-i-Sahaba and its affiliates (including breakaway factions such as the even more hardcore Lashkhar-i-Jhangvi and militant Deobandi Sunni outfits such as Jaish-e-Mohammad) also supplied many of the footsoldiers for the Afghan Taliban and for the militant uprising in India-held Kashmir — helping spread the reach and influence for the jihadists — until they were banned as terrorist organisations by the Government of Pakistan in 2003.

However, the Sipah-i-Sahaba basically changed names (Millat i-Islamia, Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat, etc.) and continued as before. Even today, the Sipah-i-Sahaba continues to operate as a legitimate political party (Rah-i-Haq Party) and also contested the 2018 elections and the Gilgit-Baltistan elections in 2020.

Pakistan: Here and Now, published by Rivets Learning
Pakistan: Here and Now, published by Rivets Learning

The hardline outlook of this virulently sectarian party does not only have an impact on Pakistan’s politics and security; it has an outsized impact on Pakistan’s popular culture as well.

Its creed often goes unchallenged in the media or in general open discourse, and seeps into discussions in other matters as well. When any dissent with them can be misinterpreted and lead to charges of blasphemy (which carries a death sentence in Pakistan since the 1980s) or even a violent death at the hands of a vigilante mob, most people will prefer to self-preserve and keep quiet.

In addition, the exigencies of the powerful military’s jihadist doctrine in the region often preclude any decisive action against it. The end result is that extremist positions are circulated without challenge and more space is created for similarly extremist positions.

Most people of my age, and certainly those older, will recall how Pakistan was a very different — certainly more pluralistic and perhaps more tolerant — country before the 1980s. There may be disagreement, of course, about what the turning point was, but one thing is quite clear: the culture of a country is not static; that it can be changed over time.

Sometimes that change is organic, for example through urbanisation, through change in material circumstances, through demographics and connectivity through increasing globalisation. But sometimes that change can also be fashioned, through state patronage and/or the inability or unwillingness of the state to intervene when an existing culture comes under assault.

This, of course, leads to the question of how is culture, and more specifically Pakistani culture, defined.



The most significant attempt to define Pakistani culture was in 1968 through what became known as the Faiz Culture Report. It was, in fact, the report of the Standing Committee on Art and Culture, set up by the Ministry of Education under the government of Gen Ayub Khan and chaired by noted poet and intellectual, Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Among its other members were the poet and one of the founders of the Pakistan Writers Guild, Jamiluddin Aali, Professor Munir Chaudhry of Dhaka University’s Department of Bengali, Salahuddin Mohammad who chaired the Pakistan Features Syndicate, and writer Bano Qudsia. Rukia Kabir of the Eden Girls College in Dhaka was also part of the original committee but was later on replaced by Qamrul Hassan, Chief Designer of the East Pakistan Small Industries Corporation.

The report was presented to the government towards the end of 1968 but, before it could be taken up for consideration, political upheaval within the country meant it ‘never saw the light of day, nor was it officially accepted or rejected’ (Faiz Ahmed Faiz, letter, April 14, 1975). Parts of the report were finally used as input in 1975 to draft the country’s first culture policy under the government of PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

In a later interview to the historian Ahmad Salim, Faiz summarised the basic finding of report as this:

Our popular culture is in actuality the very basis of our national culture.

What is ironic is that the idea of ‘popular culture’ defining national culture still raises hackles among many of the intelligentsia and bureaucracy trying to dictate a cultural direction for Pakistan. It is often considered beneath the exalted level Pakistani culture should be placed at.

Furthermore, any of the shared culture of the Subcontinent is often denounced as an unwanted import, to be stripped away to arrive at a supposedly pure Pakistani culture that traces its roots elsewhere.

It is instructive to read some of the extracts of the report, written primarily by Faiz, not only because of its clarity but also because so little seems to have changed since its words were penned 52 years ago.

In attempting to define the idea of culture, the Report states:

a. Culture, unlike the arts, is not created by a few individuals but is ‘lived’ and evolved by a whole community. The arts thus are abstract or symbolic manifestations of what is lived by the community.

b. Since every culture relates to a specific human society and since every human society lives in time and space, every culture must be both historical and territorial, although its ideological components may include extra territorial and supra-temporal elements. For instance, Muslim societies, in spite of racial, linguistic and other differences, have many cultural traits in common.

c. Since the way of life of a community is conditioned by the social organisation or system under which it lives, the culture of this community must be similarly conditioned. Any change in the cultural patterns of this community, therefore, must be accompanied by corresponding changes in its social conditions of existence. Obversely, when these social conditions change, the culture of a community must change accordingly.

d. Since culture is a way of life and not merely a way of thought, its quality and complexion are determined more by what is actually practised and not so much by what is merely professed. It is not inconceivable that a particular society may strongly believe in one set of values and actually practice, out of material considerations, values which are totally different.

Faiz’s Culture Report was presented to the government towards the end of 1968 but, before it could be taken up for consideration, political upheaval within the country meant it ‘never saw the light of day, nor was it officially accepted or rejected’ (Faiz Ahmed Faiz, letter, April 14, 1975).

On the role of art in a society, the Report states:

Art… has an important dual political role. Internally, it holds up the mirror to a nation or society and helps it to discover its own image and its own personality. The consciousness of this personality helps a nation to bring about a closer and harmonious integration among its component elements. It is thus a powerful agent for national integration.

A still from Sarmad Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha, now slotted for a March 2022 release
A still from Sarmad Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha, now slotted for a March 2022 release

Externally, it provides the most potent means to establish the identity of a nation in the international confraternity.

Art, thus, is an important medium of national projection and interpretation of national thought.

[The Report] reserves special scorn for the hypocrisy of the state which has never squarely addressed the anti-culture and anti-arts school.

It is ironic that the sections who are most vociferous against this deliberate perversion of our national cultural, ethical and ideological values, are the same who have, at least partially, and perhaps unintentionally, made this subversion possible by their unqualified hostility to the promotion of our own national arts and to the evolution of serious public standards of moral and aesthetic judgement.

The Report warns that the delegation "to individual functionaries of the State to lay down the law for the artist and cultural worker without any policy sanction except his own personal preferences and prejudices" has led to a situation where there is "a feeling among many public officials that art and culture are rather risky things to play around with and are better left alone."



Film has long been a sufferer at the hands of a confused state in Pakistan. Although Jinnah himself desired that cinema should be promoted in the new country, the development of film in Pakistan even in the early years was beset by a lack of any state policy regarding the development of cinema and social disapproval of the people who worked in the industry.

The latter largely had to do with the class background of those who ventured into a medium that many on the religious right viewed as against the teachings of Islam. Because of a perception of the industry as loose-moralled and as an allegedly licentious place, women from so-called ‘good families’ particularly did not venture into it. This resulted in many, if not most, of the early female actors being drawn from the areas perceived to be ‘red light areas’.

The combination of religious disapproval (particularly since Pakistani film drew on the traditions of Subcontinental cinema which placed a heavy focus on song and dance) and a social marginalisation of its professionals by conservatives and even the intelligentsia (which, with a few exceptions, often viewed them as shallow, uncultured and interested only in frivolous entertainment), meant that, even as Pakistani cinema scaled new heights of popularity within the country in the 1960s and early 1970s, its relationship with the state remained very ambivalent.

This ambivalence was put into stark words during the regime of Gen Ziaul Haq, who had toppled an elected prime minister of Pakistan with the express vow of Islamicising the country. As personally related by broadcaster, former Pakistan Television (PTV) Managing Director and former head of the Pakistani National Council of the Arts (PNCA) Agha Nasir, in a meeting to address the issues of the Pakistani film industry, Gen Zia had questioned (in front of him and a few others present) why he should ‘be expected to do anything for fornicators.’ This was while Pakistani cinema faced real challenges of technological advances from home video and television, the unbridled piracy of foreign films, a stifling censorship regime and changes in urban cinema-going culture caused partly by the state’s own policies.

Understandably, nothing came out of the meeting and the stringent censorship put in place under Gen Zia’s regime — which proscribed anything deemed socially subversive and questioning of state authority as well as ‘liberal’ in terms of human relations — was responsible not only in further sinking a flailing industry but also, ironically, led to the emergence of a new kind of cinema in Pakistan — one that relied on sensationalist violence, usually set within a rural/feudal world, and implied salaciousness to attract only one particular kind of cinema-goer. This was the single working class man, often living a migrant life in the city.

Many, many years later, when I was on the board of the newly established Sindh Board for Film Certification (also referred to as the Sindh Censor Board), I was part of the members of the board who decided that the 2013 film, Waar (Strike), considered military-backed by many, should receive an adult certification for its graphic depiction of violence and its coarse language.

This certification meant that children under 18 would not be allowed to see the film. This was not taken kindly to by the film’s backers, who sought to have the certification changed to a universal rating, allowing all audiences — including children — to watch the film. I was told privately by the then chair of the board that I ‘should stay out of it [i.e. not contest the change] because the backers wanted to use the film as a recruiting tool, and its target audience includes boys 15 or 16 years of age.’

Faiz Ahmed Faiz | White Star Archives
Faiz Ahmed Faiz | White Star Archives

In one of the review meetings, when I pointed out that some of the visuals showed terrorists literally blowing people’s brains out and were therefore unsuitable for kids, I was told, matter-of-factly, by another member who had been corralled into supporting the change of certification, that ‘this is normal and no big deal.’

The issue in our culturally diverse societies is not simply ‘liberal’ vs ‘conservative’, ‘religious’ vs ‘secular’, or ‘Sufi’ vs ‘Salafi’ to name just a few of the binaries thrown around. These are imposed binaries that do not reflect the complexity of the lived reality of Pakistan.

He was partly right, of course — over the years, graphic violence had been ‘normalised’ in Pakistani cinema, even as questioning of dominant narratives, depictions of romantic love and nuance had been restricted or stamped out.

For their part, periodically, filmmakers would also attempt to ingratiate themselves with the state’s power centres by making jingoistic, ‘patriotic’ films that they hoped would bolster their credentials as promoting ‘the ideology of Pakistan’, although this has yet to be defined.

Unfortunately, I have been a first-hand witness to the results of the devolution of arbitrary authority to individual state functionaries both as a filmmaker and during the time I helped run the KaraFilm Festival (the Karachi International Film Festival) from 2001-2014, as well as during my time serving on the Sindh Film Censor Board (2013-2016). I have also reported on media censorship as a journalist.

The stipulations against what is potentially not allowed to be depicted in film or displayed on screen under the country’s film code are so vague and arbitrary, and can be interpreted so widely, that no filmmaker is ever sure about what may or may not run into problems. In fact, it is my considered opinion that, were the law to be interpreted as widely as is possible, no half-decent, non-banal film could potentially ever be made in Pakistan.

With restrictions on anything that could potentially be seen as disparaging or questioning any aspect of national security, religion, ethnic harmony and foreign policy, as well as anything deemed vulgar or obscene (the definition being left unspecified and open to individual interpretation), there is little left to explore for filmmakers beyond domestic dramas and ‘safe’ romances or slapstick comedy.

In most cases, filmmakers will self-censor any potentially troublesome content rather than run the risk of seeing their investment go down the drain or get stuck in interminable bureaucracy.

The results of a passive acceptance of this state of affairs (despite many attempts, no government has attempted to address the vagaries of the censorship rules or managed to rehaul the policies around film in a meaningful manner) are around us.

Multiple factors have contributed to the decline of cinema in the country but it would be remiss not to look at the stringent and arbitrary censorship that has driven many filmmakers away from becoming part of the film industry.

From a country listed as among the top 10 film producing countries in the world until the 1970s, Pakistan has been talking about its dying cinema industry at least for the past 25 years. At one point, in the early 1980s, Pakistan produced over 100 feature films in a year. Today, despite a small revival post-2013, it produces under 25.

By 1980, Pakistan boasted over 1200 cinemas. When the KaraFilm Festival began in 2001, a film could only release on a maximum of 16 screens throughout the country. Today, despite the rise of multiplexes (a policy lobbied for by KaraFilm), it still has fewer than 125 screens.

The problem is a continued lack of consistency in policy and an inability of the state to separate actions based on objective realities from short-term ideology. The small revival of film in Pakistan in the 2010s, for example, was largely driven by the lifting in 2007 of a 45-year-old ban on the public exhibition of Indian films. This had also been lobbied for since 2002 by the KaraFilm Festival, which had argued that the short-term losses that the Pakistani film industry would suffer would be offset by the longer term gains to be made by it in terms of a pumping of much-needed finances to the cinema industry in Pakistan.

This is exactly what happened. After an initial period of loss for Pakistani cinema, the money flowing through the theatres led to the construction of more multiplexes and funding for better quality Pakistani films that audiences (crucially young people and women) actually wanted to watch. There was rekindled hope that, as the number of Pakistani films increased in number, Pakistani filmmakers would also expand beyond the usual box office-safe masala fare and attempt to tackle important issues.

A few instances of such kinds of films, rare as they were, did indeed indicate the process was underway. But once again, without understanding the dynamics at play, the state imposed a ban on all Indian films (for a few months in 2016-2017, and then again in 2019).

The result of this short-sighted policy has been a disastrous dip in the business of cinemas (at the time of the ban coming into force, 70 percent of revenues were still being generated by Bollywood films) and, consequently, a stalling of the expansion of the cinema circuit and production of Pakistani content as well. Couple this with a renewed stringency regarding censorship or the inability of the state to exert its will against extremist thought and some of the most explorative cinema finds itself locked out from public exhibition.

An interesting recent example is the film Zindagi Tamasha (Circus of Life) which, despite receiving a clearance multiple times from the country’s censor boards and even — redundantly — from a specially constituted Senate committee, finds itself blocked from release because of threats of an extremist religious outfit, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). The TLP, without having actually seen the film, has assumed that the film is an attack on religious sentiments and the clergy. The film’s director and producer have denied this strenuously but, once again, the state has proved itself too weak to challenge the religious right. The situation has become absurd in that the film has already been feted at international festivals and has been nominated as Pakistan’s entry for the Oscars, without ever having been officially screened in Pakistan. [The film has finally been slotted for a March 2022 release since this essay was written.]

Instead, state support is generously extended only to simplistic narratives. Recently, one of the biggest hits on television has been a dubbed Turkish series about the father of the first Ottoman sultan, who lived in the 13th century. It has received backing from even the Pakistan prime minister as something that reflects and teaches ‘Islamic history’, even though the series’ Turkish writer has publicly admitted that most of the ‘facts’ of the story are completely made up.

In fact, there is no historical evidence even whether the protagonist of the story, the nomadic warrior chieftain Ertugrul, in fact followed the Muslim faith or a local pagan one.

Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

This has not stopped the series Ertugrul Ghazi from becoming a cultural force throughout Pakistan. Multiple businesses from Peshawar down to Karachi have adopted the name and young men emulate the clothing and styling from the series with great enthusiasm on social media postings.

This is only the latest adoption of the glorified past/strongman/warrior trope that may seem harmless fantasy on the surface, but which continues to capture the imagination of Pakistanis in the absence of any alternative sources of cultural mooring. In fact, I would argue that such simplistic narratives and tropes, without any counter, help prime mass audiences for the simplistic certainties peddled by purveyors of extremism.

Simplistic narratives about strongmen saviours are not the domain of only one side of the political spectrum. In the 2013 film Waar, the villains were extremists and terrorists who had brought terrible violence to Pakistan. However, in a sleight of hand, the film showed them as being entirely controlled by a foreign (read Indian) agent who controlled not only their purse strings but who also plotted all their actions. The strategy was clearly to tar the extremists in the eyes of the average Pakistani as tools of a foreign power.

The problem, of course, is that, unless you are able to take on the extremist mindset on its own terms, it is unlikely that the state will be able to clearly identify the real villains. Instead, it would always be chasing ghosts and offering apologia for its positions.

It would be all too easy for an intelligent extremist to use ideological arguments to undercut the state narrative. In that, the 2007 military-backed film Khuda Ke Liye (For God’s Sake), though not as slick a production as Waar, had far more clarity about the issue it was setting out to tackle. That film at least attempted to grapple with the real issue of cultural confusion among ordinary Pakistanis and how it can lead to young men playing into the hands of extremists.

I saw similar confusions about the writ of the state during the time the KaraFilm Festival ran. While all sorts of pirated content, including Indian and Western mainstream cinema (and even pornography) was widely available all over Pakistan through neighbourhood video stores, illegal cable TV channels and the internet, the state’s censorship was reserved for cinemas and for the festival.

It was, in fact, KaraFilm’s blunt refusal to submit to the censorship and the particular circumstance of a military ruler being in power who wanted to see cultural events such as the international festival take place, which resulted later in the ban on Indian films being overturned and for KaraFilm to be provided an exemption from censor rules.

One of the supreme ironies of that time was that those in power often liked to cite the example of Irani arthouse cinema as something for Pakistani cinema to aspire towards, primarily because it was not Indian or Western and originated from a conservative Muslim milieu, which Pakistanis automatically assume suits our genius better. It was often questioned why Pakistani cinema could not make the kind of excellent cinema being produced in Iran.

Neither did those raising such questions understand the particular circumstances in which Irani cinema evolved and operated (often state-supported), nor did they realise that many of the Irani films receiving adulation worldwide were actually subtle critiques of the state itself. Similar films, if they could even find the funding to be made in Pakistan, would likely run into problems with the same state functionaries heaping praise on Irani films.

The few foreign-funded Pakistani films that have received critical acclaim abroad are often dubbed as conspiracies against Pakistan’s image (many Irani arthouse films also receive investment from foreign sources). All too often, those in positions of power to effect change have baulked at changing the paradigm, which is why the ‘enlightenment’ of the 2000s was short-lived and disappeared along with individuals.

As the Faiz Culture Report stated:

It must be clearly understood, however, that freedom of expression is of the very essence of [the] creative process and whatever the organisation and apparatus set up for the promotion of art and culture, it must not be allowed to deteriorate into an instrument of thoughtless regimentation or bureaucratic control.

More than 50 years ago, Faiz had also pointed out in his culture report that:

Cultural activity in a developing nation is in many ways a form of socio-political activity and it is only through this activity that a people’s full participation in nation-building can be ensured… If the State or responsible public agencies do not meet the demands of popular leisure and emotive satisfactions, these demands are bound to be supplied by other irresponsible agencies with no public or moral scruples. The goods they supply can prove even more deleterious for the mental and moral health of a nation than drugs and opiates.


When even our imagination about ourselves, about what is a source of pride for us, is so narrowly circumscribed, is it any wonder then that we are seduced by narratives that offer fantasy?

When our cultural moorings are so beset with confusion and ambivalence, is it any surprise that we are drawn towards those narratives that offer certainty, even if in highly simplistic terms? Instead of being confident about and celebrating the multiplicities of our identities, is it so unbelievable that we often try and suppress diversity and questioning?

This societal paucity of imagination is a direct result of the marginalisation we have allowed of cultural mediums such as film, music, literature, theatre and dance — mediums that, more than anything else, are important to how we perceive and fashion our own selves and which are needed to resolve the identity issues we struggle with. More than anything else, these mediums are important for the conversations we need to have amongst ourselves.

These internal conversations are important particularly because when outsiders — such as those in the West — attempt to provide input or posit a framework of thinking about dynamically changing and diverse Muslim societies, they inevitably end up dealing in binaries. The issue in our culturally diverse societies is not simply ‘liberal’ vs ‘conservative’, ‘religious’ vs ‘secular’, or ‘Sufi’ vs ‘Salafi’ to name just a few of the binaries thrown around. These are imposed binaries that do not reflect the complexity of the lived reality of Pakistan.

In fact, one of the greatest disservices in recent times to the inclusive notions of indigenous Sufi thought in Pakistan has been the perception of its co-option in the service of a Western-backed anti-extremist agenda, which has made many people look upon it with a degree of cynicism and distrust.

The Pakistani state (and its well-wishers) would have been far better off allowing an organic discourse to proceed. But for that to happen, it would have to acknowledge that freedom of thought and expression are the foremost requisites, and that it needs to facilitate them by acting decisively in its favour and acting decisively against those seeking to threaten these liberties.

The excerpts have been taken with permission from the essay ‘Certain Uncertainties: The Cultural Confusions of Pakistan’ from the book Pakistan: Here and Now, edited by Harris Khalique and Irfan Ahmed Khan and published in 2021 by Rivets Learning.

The writer is Dawn’s Editor Magazines and a filmmaker. He tweets @hyzaidi

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 20th, 2022