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State of cognitive dissonance

December 20, 2012

ASSUMING the Mayan prediction about Armageddon is proved wrong and the world does not end today, we can look forward to a brand new beginning on Sunday.

Or at least that is what we have been promised over the past few weeks in the form of an astonishing propaganda campaign advertising the ‘siasat nahin, riasat bachao’ rally of Tahir-ul-Qadri.

The story is a typically dramatic one. The (would-be) prodigal son is returning from self-imposed exile to embark on a historic mission to save Pakistan. The media has gone out of its way to assure us all of Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri’s unquestionable credentials. The chattering classes’ are starting to believe that all of their chattering may not be in vain after all.

All of this is well and good but who is actually running the Qadri campaign? No actually existing political organisation, let alone the Minhaj-ul-Quran International (MQI), is capable of putting up so many posters, banners and chalking so many walls. And how is it that a man who has been a political non-entity for at least half a decade has so dramatically emerged as our last great hope?

Even for a country such as this one in which politics is so vilified and saviours of the beleaguered homeland of Muslims burst into the spotlight at regular intervals, the past year has been somewhat exceptional. Imran Khan, the Difa-i-Pakistan Council and now Tahir-ul-Qadri. And as if this esteemed cast of characters was not enough, there are the growing whispers that general elections will not be held on schedule.

It is pointless to speculate on who is choreographing this latest act of political theatre. It is not as if the list of possible nominees is all that long in any case. What matters is that democracy — with its innumerable flaws — still appears to be unpalatable for the powers-that-be.

This is despite the fact that, five years later, the democratic transition hardly has the permanent state apparatus shaking in its boots. The PPP government’s motto of ‘conciliation’ has precluded it from ruffling too many important feathers. Evidently, simply existing and negotiating the choppy waters of imperialism, the religious right and the military establishment invites trouble in this land of the pure.

And what a pure land it is. Women administering polio drops to children are killed for un-Islamic acts. Airports, mosques and bazaars infested with infidels are bombed to make us safe. And sect upon sect turns upon one another to ensure the victory of ‘true’ Islam.

Yet it is important to bear in mind that all of the above are only symptoms of a much deeper malaise. Put differently, the never-ending struggle for purity is not waged by renegades here and there. Commoners only fight the battles. It is the state that is at the frontline of the war.

From the top military and judicial posts to the federal and provincial bureaucrats, the refrain appears the same: Pakistan is an ideological state and will remain so. Islam is our raison d’être and we must do everything in our power to protect it from the evil gaze of the infidel.

For most, the explanation for all forms of violence is simple: No Muslim could possibly commit such heinous acts of violence against innocents. And when the state (regularly) turns its guns on its own people, an exception is quickly converted into a norm by asserting that those in the firing line are agents of the enemies of Pakistan.

Indeed if there is one card that can always be played in Pakistan, it is that of the ‘foreign hand’. The functionaries of the state never cease to remind us that the country is passing through a ‘nazuk daur’, and that our nemeses are always looking to exploit opportunities to undermine us.

Over the past few days, a plethora of articles have appeared in both the Urdu and English press reminding all patriotic Pakistanis about the ‘facts’ of East Pakistan’s secession in 1971. This happens every year on and around Dec 16, just as every act of ‘terrorism’ is followed by swift reminders of the conspiracies perpetually being hatched by the Hindu-Jew-Christian triumvirate.

The sad reality of the Pakistani state — and the Pakistani condition more generally — is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Islam, and the state of Islam — Pakistan — is always likely to be in danger, and the heroic functionaries of the state will always be convinced of the righteousness of their attempts to stave off the threats of the infidels.

The only thing that remains to be established is what is in store for us this time around. I am tempted to suggest, almost in spite of myself, that those of us waiting for a saviour to descend from the skies (or Canada) to save us from democracy are likely to be disappointed. Siasat will not be banished to the dustbin of history, and the riasat will continue to survive, notwithstanding our morbid obsession with getting rid of the former and sacrificing ourselves to the cause of the latter.

Then again, reading between the lines it becomes obvious that very few of us — or at least the well-to-do readers of this newspaper — are willing to give much up at all in the interests of the actually existing state (as opposed to the figment of imagination in our mind called The State).

In fact, we could care less about what is happening to the public sector. We have simply turned our backs upon it because we can afford to turn to the private sector to meet all of our needs, not to mention our wants.

And as for the politics we so love to hate: here again we live in a state of (perpetual) denial inasmuch as a majority of us willingly engage in an everyday politics that consolidates existing structures of power at home, in the workplace, in our communities and within the country at large.

The contradiction between our self-perception and real practices on the ground are a microcosm of the state of Pakistan. It is truly a state of cognitive dissonance, its increasingly fantastical narratives completely at odds with both the 21st-century world and the imperatives of managing an incredibly complex society.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.