Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Social identities are not natural, according to A.C. Okolie in International Journal of Theory and Research, November 12, 2009. They are largely engineered to form ‘the self’. But such identities have little meaning without ‘the other’ — ie social identities form ‘the self’ in relation to ‘the other’. This is not about biological differences between the two. It is about social, racial, economic, ethnic and religious differences. Mostly abstract.

Social identities emerge through engagement between humans. One adjusts or readjusts his/her behaviour according to the reaction of another person during an engagement. A reaction that conforms to the ideas of a person, makes that person feel that the one reacting is like him or her. They become part of a larger self. If not, then the one reacting is slotted as ‘the other’. So, one can say, ‘the other’ creates ‘the self’ or, as mentioned, social identity is formed in relation to the other.

Social identities began to emerge when humans started to form tribes to defend their economic interests from other tribes. The tribes formulated identities for themselves in relation to other tribes. Such identity formations then began to be defined by regions, religions, race, ethnicity and nations.

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Each time, ‘the self’ was created in relation to ‘the other’. ‘The other’ is seen as being different and often described as an enemy. It affirms and reinforces the socially constructed ‘self’. The attributes given to ‘the other’ are social constructs as well.

Convinced by the recently ousted PM Khan’s now worn-out cliches of ‘the self’, his supporters have acquired a new political entity that requires the demonisation of the ‘other’

Such constructs are largely based on myths, rumours and outright lies. Many independent-minded women in pre-modern Europe were denounced as being ‘witches’. The Hindus and Muslims of India explained the British colonialists as people who didn’t take baths and were unclean. European colonialists often described Africans as ‘savages’, some of whom partook in rituals of human sacrifice. For long, many Kashmiri Sunni Muslims claimed that Shia Muslims mixed the blood of Sunnis in their food (T.R. Mir in Free Press Kashmir, September 22, 2017). There are many examples.

But perhaps the most infamous example of a socially constructed ‘self’ creating ‘the other’ to strengthen its own construction, is the manner in which Jewish people were treated in Nazi Germany. The Nazi self was constructed through myths and pseudoscience which claimed that Germans were a superior race, but whose superiority was being conspired against by Jews through communism, capitalism, democracy, liberalism, etc.

The more this ‘self’ demonised the Jewish other, the more it was able to embed itself in the minds of people reeling from an economic and political crisis in Germany. The ‘self’ embraced paranoia towards ‘the other’. In fact, this paranoiac disposition became an important ingredient of the social identity formed by the Nazis. The same ingredient can be found in the social identity that began to be formed by the state of Pakistan after the erstwhile East Pakistan broke away in 1971.

For example, through textbooks, students were encouraged to uncritically embrace a narrative that explained Pakistan as a ‘fortress of Islam’, surrounded by anti-Islam/anti-Pakistan enemies, not only outside its borders, but also within (R. Saigol in Re-Thinking Pakistan: A 21st Century Perspective, 2019).

The enemies outside the border included the US, the Soviet Union and, of course, India. Meanwhile, to the Indian self, Pakistanis are ‘the other’, and now the Muslims of India as well. The list of the enemies or ‘the other’ inside Pakistan began with the Ahmadiyya and ethno-nationalists, then added the Shia and, eventually, the ‘liberals’ and ‘corrupt politicians’.

The social identity emerging from the creation of this set of ‘the other’ has become a web of excuses that ‘the self’ often continues to use to explain away its political, economic and social failures. Whatever goes wrong is either the fault of ‘corrupt politicians’, ‘liberals’, US conspiracies, or the Ahmadiyya.

The military establishment has played a large role in proliferating this — even though, one can also say that the establishment too has become ‘the other’ of sorts to many failing politicians. It’s become a national habit of a collective social self that understands itself as a grand entity, but which those on the list of ‘the other’ are out to dismantle.

There is now enough evidence to suggest that the country’s major political parties and the establishment are looking for ways to undo the perils of this paranoid self. But this is easier said than done. The recently ousted PM of Pakistan, Imran Khan, though shown the door through a no-confidence motion, has re-energised the paranoid self by accusing the US, ‘corrupt politicians’, the judiciary and the military establishment of planning his ouster.

Whereas ‘the self’ created after 1971 has been eroding among the majority — I believe — it has been embraced with renewed vigour by Khan’s urban middle and upper-middle income supporters. These economic groups were once largely apolitical and, therefore, the now worn-out cliches of ‘the self’ that Khan is regurgitating, actually sound unique and very convincing to them.

The state and the new government have their work cut out because these are the so-called ‘educated classes’. They’ve suddenly been given a political identity, but one that requires the demonisation of ‘the other’.

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 15th, 2022

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