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In search of common humanity

September 26, 2011

I woke up this morning to the news that Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, had directly accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of supporting the insurgents who attacked the US Embassy in Kabul last week.

The New York Times called it “the most serious charge that the United States has leveled against Pakistan in the decade that America has been at war in Afghanistan.”

The geopolitics of such matters are analysed ad nauseum by Very Intelligent People in think tanks from Washington to Islamabad. The careerist participants in that debate are largely talking past each other, because each of them starts from the tendentious premise that the state that represents his or her society is the one that’s in the right. I don’t intend to contribute to that tedious and largely pointless conversation. I intend to do an end run around it, by reminding myself and anyone who might read this of our shared humanity.

Part of the problem is that both Pakistan and America are hyper-political cultures that, for historical and ideological reasons, both suffer from a damaging tendency to conflate the society with the state. Hence the unexamined terms “the United States” and “Pakistan” – the impoverished vocabulary of conventional journalism – in the quote above from the New York Times.

What is “the United States”? What is “Pakistan”? To what version of these notional entities do I, as an American, or you, as a Pakistani, owe allegiance? Am I, as an American, or you, as a Pakistani, required or entitled to make excuses for things “the United States” or “Pakistan” do that we know to be wrong? Are we required always to support and excuse “us” against “them,” as though societies were necessarily rivals, like football teams?

This sort of thing has gotten much worse, and the stakes much higher, in recent years, but in truth it’s nothing new.

Read the full article here.

Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip. He can be reached at and

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.