Stuck in the middle – The Express Tribune
I’m fashionable about being unfashionable. I usually stop listening to bands once they go mainstream and I only adopt clothing styles once they’re ‘so last year’. I refuse to quote Manto when surrounded by literary types and I leave my Che Guevara T-shirt at home when I hang out with the surkhas. If I had been at Woodstock, I’d probably have been the clean-shaven guy in the crewcut. Thus, I feel no embarrassment at all in saying that, in these polarised times, I define myself as a moderate. After all, moderation, or centrism if you prefer, is terribly unfashionable.
The physical balkanisation of Pakistan may well take place, but we’ve already seen a balkanisation of the mind. We define ourselves in terms of our beliefs, and then we seek out others with matching beliefs and form little intellectual ghettos. The liberals will hang out with other liberals and the right-wingers will find their own humkhayals. The conversation in both camps is simply for the purpose of validating, reinforcing, and strengthening already deeply-held beliefs. When they engage with each other, if such a term can be used for what is usually an exchange of insults, they talk at, and not to, their opposites. If you need an example, just take a look at the tiny echo chamber that is Pakistani Twitter.
One group will cite Voltaire and the universality of human rights, while the other will quote Sahih Bukhari and give examples from Islamic history. Interestingly, what similarities the two groups may share are lost in what becomes a game of one-upmanship, rather than a genuine attempt at dialogue. But then, dialogue isn’t what either party are looking for, because all that they really want to is to score points that they can then use to shore up their credentials with their own cosy little support groups. Like all good cults, both right and left have certain canons that, it seems, have to be subscribed to in their entirety if you want membership in their respective little clubs.
For the left, there is the belief that each and every one of our current problems can be traced to General Ziaul Haq, whose legacy is being perpetuated by the omnipresent and omnipotent establishment. There is also the belief that only Pakistan’s agencies are capable of dirty tricks while the rest of the world’s shadow-masters are somehow benign. In this paradigm, the civilian governments are hapless puppets who are buffeted by the waves of deep state-sponsored extremists and are to be pitied, rather than pilloried. In the right hand corner, there is the conviction that every member of the nebulous ‘West’ (Israel and India being honorary members) goes to sleep thinking of ways to destroy Pakistan and then wakes up only to implement those plans. There is also no such thing as domestic terrorism in Pakistan and all acts that can be ascribed to such are, in fact, due to enemy agents. Democracy is a failure and the only way forward is to turn back towards an imagined, and largely imaginary, golden age. The list goes on, but you get the idea.
Now, this leaves people like me (I’m hoping I’m not the only one here) in something of a dilemma. I categorically support the right of women to wear what they want, but I also extend that right to those women who, of their own will, choose to wear an abaya. I won’t even qualify that with a “but of course, she’s internalised the patriarchal mores of society”. BS. If she says it’s her decision, that’s good enough for me. Where does this place me on the left-right spectrum? I don’t think Pakistan should unilaterally denuclearise in the pursuit of some illusory moral high ground, nor do I think that disbanding the army will lead to anything but foreign invasion. However, I do also feel that peace with India is the only sustainable way to proceed to a mutually prosperous future. Does that make me a Hawk or a Dove? Or does it just make me hard to pigeonhole?
When it comes to Balochistan, for example, I fully acknowledge that the state has played a historical role in bringing matters to the low ebb that they are at now, but I also believe that foreign powers are absolutely pouring petrol over the flames. I condemn those killings that the state, deep or otherwise, is responsible for, but I condemn the atrocities being carried out by the insurgents as well. Sadly, I’ve seen that very few from the left will do so, simply because it runs counter to their narrative of state: Bad, everyone else: Good. That just doesn’t cut it. Good is Good and Bad is Bad, it doesn’t matter if your favourites-of-the-day are carrying out the killing; murder remains murder. The same applies for rightist apologists who say that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan are ‘misguided’ and will simply lay down their arms once the war on terror concludes. They won’t. Don’t fool yourselves.
But I digress. One does that when one stands in the middle because there really isn’t much company. So here’s what I want to say: the left needs to acknowledge that the mainstream discourse is a largely conservative one because, like it or not, this is a conservative nation. Practically, this means that while you don’t have to throw away your Proust, you may just want to read the translated Quran and some commentaries as well. It won’t hurt and you just may get some new ammunition for your humanistic arguments. For the religious right, well you guys also need to understand that history didn’t begin with the Hijri. There’s a whole world out there and most of it is not your enemy. And to both of you, I have an appeal: take the middle road. It’s one that some of the greatest minds this world has been blessed with have repeatedly urged us to do. And one of them, who was born about 1,400 years ago in the Arabian desert, was more humane and spiritual than all of us combined.