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Dude, where’s my flag?

June 21, 2012

Protesters burning the American flag is one of the most ubiquitous sights around the world.

A lot of American flags go up in flames in Pakistan as well.

I have directly experienced this phenomenon first-hand on at least three occasions. The interesting thing is the experiences have been more about glaring ironies than anything revolutionary as such.

My first experience in this respect arrived in 1986. I was an intermediate student at a state-owned college in Karachi where I was also a member of a progressive student organisation and a frequent participant at many anti-Ziaul Haq rallies.

During one such rally held against the support the Zia dictatorship was getting from the United States for its anti-Soviet manoeuvres in Afghanistan, the student organisation decided to burn an American flag.

An activist of the Communist Mazdoor Kisaan Party.

We were weary about the cops who had started to gather outside the college gates, and expected the usual barrage of tear-gas. But just as a group of radicals from the organisation torched the American flag, instead of the cops, we were confronted by members of the student wing of a well known politico-religious party.

They said that they would not allow the burning of the American flag because the US was a friendly country that was aiding a jihad against the atheistic Soviets.

I won’t go into the details of the jaw-breaking and head-bashing clash that followed, but today whenever I see televised pictures showing members of the same politico-religious student party torching American flags, I am flattened by the irony of it all.

An American flag goes up in flames during a Jamat-i-Islami/IJT rally.

The power of the American Dollar. When it is flowing your way, the giver is given the status of a glorious partner to be praised and hailed, and those opposing it are to be denounced as ‘anti-Islam’ and anti-Pakistan.

But when the flow is diverted or stopped, the same glorious partner then becomes the political manifestation of Satan, ‘murdering innocent Muslims everywhere.’ Then people like me from being ‘KGB agents’ become ‘US agents.’

Today, most anti-American punters and protesters have become unintentional self-parodies. They are conveniently incapable of grasping the irony (if not the downright hypocrisy) of their actions, especially when it comes to burning the American flag.

They have become so intellectually and politically bankrupt that to fill the gaping existentialist holes in their whole thinking, they have created the US as a bogey to beat their bony chests about and obsessively blame.

They have given the concept of midlife crises an ideological twist. Albeit, not a very convincing one.

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My second experience in this respect came a year later (1987) at the same college.

A group of Sindhi and Baloch nationalist students within the progressive students’ alliance I was part of wanted to torch a Pakistani flag during a demonstration.

Some of us thought that it was not such a good idea because the Zia regime would then get a bigger excuse to crackdown on the organisation with even more brute a force.

I remember one Baloch student (who later went on to join a Baloch nationalist party), reacted by calling us hypocrites: ‘So, being a Marxist means one can only burn an American flag?’ He asked. ‘What’s so not imperialistic and oppressive about the Pakistani establishment?’

A video grab of a Pakistani flag being torched.

In a meeting at the college canteen, we reached a consensus that two flags would be burned (‘to strike a balance’): The Pakistani and the American flags.

But some members (including myself) disagreed. We suggested that instead of flags we should torch pictures of Ziaul Haq and the American President Ronald Reagan along with those of some Afghan militants, such as Gulbaddin Hikmatyar (who was close to our politico-religious opponents at the college).

Our suggestion was vetoed until a fourth option was put forward: Why not torch American, Pakistani and Indian flags!

I have no memory left of exactly who raised this option and why, but I do remember we finally poured out of the canteen and moved towards the college’s common-room outside which the rally was to be held.

Yes, pictures of Zia and Reagan were torched, slogans raised and the cops stationed outside the college taunted. But, alas, out came a Pakistani flag. I thought that was it.

But the feisty Baloch instead of torching it rolled it up and announced that he now had a snake in his hand that would dance. He suddenly ran towards the cops, screeched and broke into this amazing Balochi boogie! It was awesome.

Nevertheless, some students of the opposing party complained to the college administration that we had insulted the Pakistani flag.

But, Lo and behold! As the administration was gazing its collective navel trying to determine what to do with ‘traitors’ like us, an incident took place at the college.

Some girl students were rudely teased by a group of idiots. The girls’ parents arrived and asked the administration to take action against the teasers. An inquiry was launched and four students were found to be the culprits. Guess who they were?

They were the same patriotic and God-fearing lot who had denounced us as being traitors for ‘desecrating the Pakistani flag.’

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The third experience occurred two years ago in Karachi.

Coming out from the Karachi Press Club after having lunch with a friend, we saw a number of young men belonging to the Shia sect burning the American flag.

A Shia protest rally in Karachi.

They were protesting against a bomb attack on their community in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by the Tehreek-e-Taliban.

My friend (who also belonged to the Shia sect) managed to get hold of one of the protesters.

"You are protesting against the Taliban suicide attack, right?" my friend asked.

"Yes," the protester answered.

"Then why is that man burning an American flag?" he inquired.

"Because America is against Muslims!" The protester proudly announced.

"I see", said my friend, chuckling. "But it was the Taliban who attacked your people, and Taliban are Muslims, no?”

"No, they are terrorists! They are not Muslims!" The protester charged.

“But they are not American either, are they?” my friend smilingly mocked. “Shouldn't you be torching something belonging to the Taliban instead?"

The protester answered by shouting out the name of Iran’s revolutionary leader, late Imam Khomeini: “Imam Khomeini was anti-America!"

"Fine," my friend replied. "But America did not bomb the people you are protesting for!"

"Taliban did!" said the protester.

"Yes, I know, but why are you guys burning the American flag then?" my friend asked.

"Because we are followers of Khomeini!" The protester reiterated, this time looking a tad frustrated.

"Of course. Very good. Well done," my friend chuckled again, exasperated.  Then condescendingly patting the protester on the back, we returned to the Press Club for another round of chicken shashlik and fresh lime.

‘The next bunch of Shias that will be slaughtered by sectarian organisations or the Taliban,’ the friend explained, ‘these fools will again come out and this time burn the Israeli flag!’

I laughed, but my friend, shaking his head, did not say a word about the incident during our (second) lunch. Sarcasm had given way to disgust.


Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com


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.