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Pity the nation that pities itself

August 14, 2012

A TELEVISION show doesn’t fulfil the pious code of clerics, and out come statements expressing sorrow at the death of the Quaid’s Pakistan.

One man claims he can run a car on water and consequently Pakistanis on the whole are condemned as inhabitants of the age of jahiliya. When an honourable judge seeks to reflect on the state of the nation, he chooses to lace his prose with reasons why Pakistanis should pity themselves.

This is where the debate is stuck on the 65th anniversary of Independence. The rest is tit-for-tat.

It is the Rohingyas who occupy the minds of Pakistanis right now. Brutal taunts have flown in the direction of those who are lumped together as liberals over their ‘failure’ to condemn violence against Muslims in Myanmar.

‘Drones cannot be written against. Taliban are the villains. The West is the role model, and your paymasters do not allow you to condemn the killing of persecuted Muslims…’ So goes the refrain of the ‘right-wingers’ or the ‘Islamists’.

These ‘conservatives’, when they are not rallying for the Rohingyas, must typically appear to be defending the petition against televised ‘vulgarity’.

They are the spokesmen who are forever asked to elaborate ‘Taliban Khan’s’ ideology and they could be occasionally forced to justify the battles the Supreme Court declares on the government — a government which has lost all legitimacy in the eyes of its detractors not simply because of its failure to deliver but because of its unpardonable sins.

Those who are happy to own the loose liberal title, have, in turn, retorted against their critics with passion.

‘If Rohingyas are so worthy of sympathy,’ the liberals ask their rival countrymen, ‘what stops you from standing up when Shias are killed in Pakistan? What stops you from condemning the murderous Taliban or from accepting Hindus as equal Pakistani citizens and persuading them to not cross over to India? Why can’t you speak out against the hypocrisy in the country, even when the religion you never tire of flaunting tells you to reject hypocrites of all types? Why isn’t the mullah’s decency pricked by the humiliation of women in the streets of Muzaffargarh?’

It is only after they have completed the ritual of lambasting their rivals that the liberals are able to do what they could have done promptly and without any prior qualifications: condemn the cleansing going on wherever.

With all its tones, undertones and nuances, the discussion about the Rohingyas is a simple example of the strong biases that have come to define the thinking of Pakistanis. The discourse has been held hostage by a long taunt and its long riposte. There is no framework for debate.

Worse, the effort for finding a framework is stalled — if mostly by faith, sometimes also by a passionate indifference to what is seen, more than a socially evolved expression, as an imposed ‘religious explanation’. What takes place here is mutual score-settling, not debate.

For a debate to take shape, the various Pakistans will first have to recognise each other as homegrown realities and shun their escapes in ridiculing the other.

For the moment, the sides remain immersed in the effort to paint the other as foreign to the Pakistani land. Just as liberals are condemned by their vocal rivals as a western implant ill-suited to the local soil, fundamentalism or religious militancy is routinely, and dangerously, dismissed as an outside invasion.

It is as if fundamentalism — or westernisation for that matter — will disappear the moment the foreign connections are cut.

This will never happen since what may have once been foreign we have long adopted as our own. The foreign has taken deep roots locally. There is little use taking refuge in times when religious sects happily coexisted — if ever there were such times. There can be no going back to the pure indigenous model of life — if such a model was ever possible or it ever existed. The labels must be dropped and evolving Pakistani realities seen in all their ‘good’ and ‘bad’ colours in the interest of a dialogue that rises above mere name-calling.

Now this may sound preposterous to the followers of extreme labels. To some liberal friends, including the truly liberal and the more tolerant, it may be tantamount to bowing to the extremists — in the manner of the repeated surrenders against the Taliban and the deal with Fazlullah in Swat.

Far from it. It is about the interaction among people this side of militants and about the unbridled use of one formula, a typical response for all situations.

The issue is whether Pakistanis in general have the ability to come out of the convenient mode where all they are required to do is to typecast — by belief or by applying the logical formula.

They are free to go to their chosen forum but they must also be free from the compulsions of demonising or ridiculing everyone else and every other lifestyle. Never has a reminder about this basic rule been as needed as it is today.

The divergent schools do have one thing in common, though. When it comes to mourning the country that could have been, each one of us can be equally sweeping in our denouncement of the nation.

The mullah is offended by the naive inquiry because in his book, unlike that of Bulleh Shah, a person is either ‘Musa’ or ‘Firaun’.

The enlightened teacher is too frustrated by the circumstances to let the ‘water car’ pass with a gentle reminder about the existing laws of physics. He feels compelled to offer the final word on science. The anger in judgments passed on the nation has just the opposite effect: it demoralises.

Pity the people who can do no more than ridicule. Pity the nation that pities itself.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.