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The convenient curtain of myth

November 14, 2009

Recently, I met some jihadis who have been in the business of holy war since the 1990s. I was surprised to hear that even though they were in support of the jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir, they were opposed to the idea of destabilising Pakistan itself. When asked who was responsible for the suicide bombings and target killings they had an overarching theory to explain the tricky business. According to them, India, the United States, and Israel had colluded resources to create a super-agency to dishevel this entire region. Though they admitted that convincing a hardened jihadi that the government of Pakistan was also part of the enemy collaborative wasn't too much of a stretch, they also added that a true jihadi would not be involved in the killing of innocent people.

Surprisingly enough, this whole India-US-Israel theory has a lot of popular currency these days in Pakistan, a country whose national sports should be lounge room politics and conspiracy theorising instead of cricket and hockey. The myriad of television talk-shows on every news channel are heavily relying on this theory of a triangulated axis of evil out to destroy Islam and Pakistan with one nifty stone's throw of insurgent terror.

I don't mean to dampen Pakistan's highly built up superiority complex laced with self pity at the whole world’s always being out to get us, but has anyone ever thought of questioning why we always situate Pakistan at the centre of our world view? It is true that Pakistan is in the news a lot these days, and that the location of our borders in terms of resources and trade routes present significant geopolitical interests. But isn't it a bit much to consider the current conflict in terms of issues that lie beyond the immediately obvious uses of Pakistan's soil, and therefore hurl the current conflict in to the realm of myth and conspiracy?

Islamic mythology has obviously played a huge role in the formation of our national identity. It is telling that the history books we're taught in school start from Mohenjodaro and Harappa, jump to the life of the Prophet in pagan Arabia, and then an interlude of early Islamic history until the likes of Muhammad bin Qasim finally brings Islam to the subcontinent. After that, the Muslim personalities involved in South Asian politics are closely followed up until the creation of Pakistan as a homeland for the Muslims.

Given this strange mix of religious indoctrination and nationalist propaganda, it isn't a shock that our national identity is hopelessly intertwined with religion. The great ups and downs of our history are also then viewed though the mirror image of early Islamic Arabian history, starting with the Partition of 1947 where the oppressed Muslims in the land of infidels partake in a hijrah-like migration to greener pastures. This is also responsible for similar coinages as mohajir's for people who migrated from the other side of the border, and of course the Muttahida Quami Movement as well. Looking across the border with the same deeply rooted scepticism through which we historically view pagan Mecca also comes with the national identity combo-meal.

After two wars with our neighbour that have been cloaked in the same historical-identity mirror as jihads which the Prophet Muhammad participated in – the 1965 war, where a small number of Muslims beat a larger threatening army of infidels akin to the scenario in Jang-e-Badar, and the 1971 war being similar to Jang-e-Uhad, where the Muslims suffered heavy losses owing to their greed and indiscipline. Kargil would then be seen as the Battle of the Trench, had it not ended with such a national disaster.

The idea of martyrdom has been historically very close to these times of crisis when national unity is a must. The list of the dozen or so shaheeds who gave their life for the country is also present in every textbook. Unfortunately, the idea of the martyr as a member of Pakistan's armed forces has become one that is hotly contested in recent times, as the right to declare a martyr isn’t the sole prerogative of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The ISPR's version of a shaheed in Waziristan is diametrically opposed to that of the TTP's version of shaheed.

The same mujahids who valiantly fought in Kashmir and Afghanistan for Islam and Pakistan, seem to have turned on the Islamic Republic as the very fabric of propaganda which binds Islam with Pakistan is ruptured beyond repair. With the popularly elected government being portrayed as infidel rule propped up by the Americans, and the culture of the modern, westernised elites is labeled as shamelessness and excessive debauchery, it seems we're caught in the middle of a storm where the hero can no longer be told apart from the enemy.

For decades, the enemy image coined in our heads has been that of the Islam-hating, darker-skinned Hindu at the eastern edge of our border. One can imagine how much violence the average Pakistanis' worldview must have been subjected to when the heroic mujahid suddenly became the enemy, in less than a decade. A painful readjustment of the conventional enemy image is needed in order to re-galvanize the nation behind these destroyers of the idea of Pakistan.

This interesting transposition was evident in an armed forces award ceremony in which shaheeds from the current conflict were inducted into the ranks of those martyred in Pakistan's conventional wars. The reenacted footage telegraphing each incident showed a mysterious tribal as the concealed enemy. The army also seems to be relying on foreigners being involved in the tribal areas as a way to distance the conflict from civil strife. The circulation of reports of large containers of alcohol belonging to Uzbek militants also seems to be a way of distancing Islam from the enemy.

However, it appears that instead of reevaluating things through a more rational approach, we've stuck to our patchwork quilt of mythological identity through a couple of quick-and-easy adjustments. As a matter of convenience for our security establishment, the principal enemy obviously remains India. But those polygamous infidels couldn't possibly be the solely responsible for such an ingenious plan that redirects our tactics against them and literally brings the country to its knees? No, that's not possible. So who could they possibly be in cahoots with?

Once again the answer is conveniently available from early Islamic Arabia, where the Meccan pagans were conspiring with scheming Jewish tribes. A simple transposition of the historical onto our mythological identity yields the result of India and Israel collaborating for the destruction of Pakistan, with the US sitting on the fringes like the Holy Roman Empire.

I think it's time we quit hiding behind the convenient curtain of myth, and take the bitter pill of reality. For once, for that might help us frame this conflict in more rational terms and possibly lead us closer to a solution, rather than further feeding propaganda to the conflict. If the present reasoning of global evils out to destroy Islam and Pakistan continues, then the only answer is the apocalyptic war which is talked about in fringe mythologies related to the arrival of the Antichrist.

The last thing we want is for this to be a self-fulfilling prophecy! We need to step away from viewing this as a clash of civilisations, in terms of Islam versus the West. This is a misinformed dichotomy, since the West is not a religion, and Islam isn't a geographical location. The more hopelessly intertwined our nationality becomes with a faux mythology, the more susceptible it becomes to being hijacked by those wishing to extract temporary gains from this vulnerability.

asifakhtar80x80
Lahore-based Asif Akhtar is interested in critical social discourse as well as the expressive facets of reactive art and is one of the schizophrenic narrators of a graphic novel. He blogs at http://e-scape-artist.blogspot.com/ and tweets at http://twitter.com/e_scape_artist.

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