Between colonialism and extremism, Pakistan continues to exist in the shadows

Pakistan seems to be split into a minority of two extremes — the liberals and the conservative — whose voices are the loudest. In the meantime, no one knows what the vast majority of Pakistan wants, because no one is listening.
Published April 17, 2024

I have a long-time acquaintance who moved to Pakistan from Malaysia when he was almost an adult. For the sake of his privacy, let’s call him Junaid. He is a globe-trotting critic — the kind of acquaintance you can’t shake off, no matter how hard you try. He swapped the palm-fringed shores of Malaysia for the bustling streets of Pakistan, bringing along more than just his luggage; he brought his opinions too, and boy, does he love to share them.

Having also lived a few years in Saudi Arabia, he’s now busy comparing us to a country that could buy and sell us as a side project, and still telling us how terrible this country is. From bashing Pakistan to praising the latest country he’s set foot in, Junaid’s commentary is as consistent as the sunrise.

Fast forward to our latest encounter right after the elections — Junaid, unable to cast his own vote because he couldn’t get himself a CNIC from Nadra for unknown reasons — found joy in ridiculing those who did. He laughed about how ‘stupid’ PTI supporters were for thinking that voting was going to change the country.

Now, this is an obnoxious man, so I take his comments with a pinch of salt. But he’s not alone in his disdain. A journalist in Islamabad, alongside a Twitter columnist, joined the chorus, labelling PTI supporters as everything from ‘uninformed’ and ‘ignorant’ to ‘over-zealous ideologues’ and ‘fanatics’.

But Pakistan isn’t just a battleground for political debates. It’s a free-for-all where everyone is itching to tell you how to live, how to pray, and even how to think. There’s a Junaid in every corner, ready to school you on the “correct” way to practice Islam or why your political views are outdated, leaving no room for alternative voices — not in politics, not in religion, and not even in culture.

Pakistan seems to be split into a minority of two extremes — the liberals and the religious — whose voices are the loudest. In the meantime, no one knows what the vast majority of Pakistan wants, because no one is listening. Most of us are stuck in the middle, drowned out by the roar of extremism on both ends, silently wondering: “What about us?”

Unaffected by global events

In the global spotlight, there’s a dialogue we’re missing out on. While Israel ramps up its genocidal assault on Palestine (because let’s not forget the escalating violence by the Israelis in the West Bank, despite our focus on Gaza), a new cognisance about colonialism has taken hold.

In their efforts to bring their cause to light, Palestinian voices in the diaspora are leading the charge, exposing colonialism for the ugly truth that it is. Through decades of patient campaigning and organising, Palestinian civil society has raised an awareness across the Global South of the devastation colonialism wrought, its lasting scars and its modern-day manifestations.

In Pakistan, we have also recognised this, but we seem unable to emerge from that looming shadow. Our leaders are both deeply embedded in the neo-colonial capitalist structures and snake pits of the Global North — more concerned with their own pockets than their country. Their collective visions of Pakistan’s future are borrowed from the Middle East or the West, while our intellectual class remains fixated on India. Our leaders completely abrogate any responsibility while the majority of Pakistanis are left to fend for themselves, trapped in poverty, illiteracy, and injustice.

Small sections of civil society are helping to alleviate some of these issues, but unless they can scale up at a phenomenal rate, there is little chance that they’ll do more than apply band-aids to the seething wounds inflicted upon us. Meanwhile, if there is some semblance of organisation within society, some spark of engagement and participatory citizenship — however you may dislike how they participate — we are quick to shut it down with contempt, derision, and indifference.

This is the same contempt a feudal feels for his serfs. The same contempt I’ve seen middle-class women hold for their domestic staff. The same contempt a school owner in a Katchi Abadi in Karachi has for his students (“Why give them parathas when all they’re used to are rotis?”). This isn’t just a lack of empathy; it’s a legacy of colonialism ingrained in our society. It’s the language of the British Raj internalised, absorbed, and well-padded with expensive foreign educations in neo-colonial USA or through Saudi Arabia’s deliberate attempt to spread Salafism.

Divide et Impera

Just as we continue to battle the quest for ‘fair skin’ — our deep-seated gora complex — and the drive to bury our native languages in favour of English, we should recognise that we’ve inherited this attitude of contempt from our oppressors.

After the 1857 War of Independence (which is still referred to in the UK as the Mutiny), Lord Elphinstone wrote:

“I have long considered the subject, and I am convinced that the exact converse of this policy of assimilation is our only safe military policy in India. Divide et impera (divide and rule) was the old Roman motto, and it should be ours. The safety of the great iron steamers, which are adding so much to our military power, and which are probably destined to add still more to our commercial superiority, is greatly increased by building them in compartments. I would ensure the safety of our Indian Empire by constructing our native army on the same principle; for this purpose I would avail myself of those divisions of language and race we find ready to hand.”

Similarly, Brigadier John Coke, an officer in the North West Frontier (before it became a province of Pakistan), said:

“Our endeavour should be to uphold in full force the (fortunate for us) separation which exists between the different religions and races, and not to endeavour to amalgamate them. Divide et impera should be the principle of Indian Government.” [sic]

Years earlier, Lord Macaulay had already started the process of breaking down the subcontinent’s existing education system. Having received an extensive grant for investing in education for the ‘natives’, he was hesitant to invest in existing materials which were all in either Persian, Urdu (which he called Arabic), or Sanskrit.

He lobbied strongly to replace all oriental literature with English books, because he “never found one among them (orientalists) who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is, indeed, fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education.”

Lord Macaulay relished the idea of educating the Indian into “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”

The British wanted us divided. They also considered us unable to progress on our own without their superior intellect and help. The US feels no differently. Nor does Saudi Arabia. Both countries have continued to colonise us and divide us.

Where once we longed to be British, we now long to be American or Arab (the rich Arabs, that is. No one here yearns to be a Yemeni). We educate our children in US universities. We internalise their language and their ideologies. These children return to their home countries to bring enlightenment to us. They bring back with them not solutions to the daily struggles of a family of 10 who can’t save for their futures, but principles of capitalism, secularism, liberalism, and rationalism that only serve to crush any last vestiges of identity the population is still clinging on to.

Meanwhile, those coming from the Middle East bring with them the outward trappings of Salafism and a complete disdain for Sufism, our music, our poetry, our rituals and customs, disregarding them all as either ‘innovations’ in Islam or superstitions learned from Hindus.

And this is possibly the logic (and I can find no other logic for it) behind the division of Pakistan into two non-contiguous land masses.

A small example of this attitude is the hugely popular Coke Studio. Leaving aside the irony of a programme sponsored by a global corporation that abets apartheid in Palestine and represents the worst aspects of capitalism, the programme itself is instrumental in reminding our middle classes of the great Sufi legacy we can and should remember, revere, and tap into.

However, as one former colleague of mine put it, it’s too ‘populist’ for him. Suggesting music from Coke Studio at my previous place of work (with a select few, all of whom were educated abroad and belong to the upper crust of society) will return a turned up nose and much mocking. Salafists, on the other hand, simply dismiss music as ‘unIslamic’, and have the same reaction to the popularity of the programme.

In all cases, these segments of society view each other and the vast majority of their fellow citizens (who don’t agree with them) with complete and utter contempt.

Break open the compartments

Britain’s iron steamers left a long time ago. Whatever veneer of civilisation the Global North had has been well and truly stripped since this latest war on Gaza, along with it any notion that Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, could be the spiritual leader of the Ummah.

The United States’ own domestic affairs are in a deep divide. Evidence of the corruption of their leadership, judiciary, media, and political system is visible for the whole world to see. Its social poles keep moving further and further apart. If we must learn from empire, perhaps this is what we should be looking at: what not to do with our own societies.

It’s time we stopped scoffing at each other’s views.

It’s time we stopped dismissing the other for their desi accents or local brand of shoes.

It’s time we turned inwards in contemplation; remember that we are all, from all parts of the country, human beings whose diversity gives us strength rather than dividing us.

It’s time we moved beyond the circles of school and family that keep widening the rift between the silent majority and the vocal few.

Start by actually speaking to the people (which is something that none of the reigning political parties do either) and finding out what they really want, rather than assuming you know what is best for them. Start by listening with the respect we learned from our elders, not the crude superiority of the white man towards the brown native.