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Wake up Pakistan ! Presently the Muslim societies are in a state of ideological confusion and flux. Materialism, terrorism,...

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Modernity and national narratives

The idea of what is meant by Pakistan as a modern nation state and how it is represented in the national narrative were discussed at the LLF in two different sessions.

The first one, aptly titled ‘Pakistan, a Modern Country?’ had journalist Owen Bennett-Jones as the moderator and the panel consisted of historians Ayesha Jalal and Francis Robinson and journalist and writer Tariq Ali. Though it is difficult to share a stage with an orator as intimidating as Ali, Jalal’s impressive knowledge and historical approach were great additions to Ali’s sociopolitical analyses.

Bennett-Jones opened the discussion by highlighting the topic’s varied interpretations. Robinson talked in detail about what the modern state as an idea means in political theory. According to him, to be called modern, a state must exercise three powers: coercive power within its boundaries, which means it should be able to reach each individual and remove any intervening party between the state and individual, in addition to defending its boundaries; the power to protect its minorities; and the power to collect taxes. He said that despite Pakistan’s difficulties with these functions, he has been very impressed with the rise of the middle class over the last 30 years. Population, according to him, is one of the most pressing challenges for Pakistan.

Ali opined that some people consider the possession of nuclear weapons an aspect of modernity, which he does not agree with. The provision of some rudimentary education, welfare and health are the important aspects of a modern state, he said, adding that “the bulk of those who created Pakistan did not want an Islamist republic”. He gave the example of the Khilafat movement — deemed important in the anti-imperialist struggle — which many Muslim leaders were not happy with. “Religion should not be part of the functioning of the state,” he stressed.

Jalal, however, emphasised that religion in some cases has a necessary place in government as democracy comes in many forms. For her, it is neutrality, rather than the absence of religion, that is the defining feature of a modern state. She further explained that many problems are strategic in nature, not religious. Over the years “state has lost that narrative it itself created.” She also dwelled upon Pakistan’s postcolonial legacy which has “modern problems”. It inherited many structural problems, like that of sovereignty, from its colonial rulers. Ali discussed middle-class religious movements which are very modern in nature. However, “such movements are not political movements in a direct sense but largely cultural and attract a lot of people,” he said, adding that “the problem is once these genies are out of the bottle they can never be put back.”

In response to a question concerning how a modern society can survive in a country which isn’t modern, Ali responded that the hope is that Pakistan does survive as being a nuclear power it is hard to imagine otherwise.

When the panellists were asked which politician they would vote for in the next election, Ali was the only one who responded seriously: “I will vote for Imran Khan. If he gets elected — and that’s a huge if — and implements even half of what is being promised.”

The session ‘National Narrative’ also had Bennett-Jones, but this time along with journalists Basharat Peer and Sarah Singh and historian Urvashi Butalia. Khaled Ahmed, who was the moderator, couldn’t arrive on time and 15 minutes after the session was supposed to start Bennett-Jones took matters into his own hands and asked the speakers about their thoughts on the topic. Singh started the discussion by saying that “the topic can be interpreted in two ways: in one sense a nation has many narratives but a narrative can have many nations.” Peer highlighted the exclusive nature of a monolithic idea, such as that of a national narrative, which ignores those parts of a nation that are inconvenient to talk about. Butalia pertinently mused: “It’s strange that there’s a panel on national narratives in Lahore and you have three Indians sitting on it.”

Ahmed then joined the discussion and explained what a national narrative means in theory: a discourse created by the state to create uniformity. Pakistan, according to him, is living under three narratives: the first is external, based on facts; the second is pan-Islamic and opposes the first narrative; and the third sees the world through an Indian prism. However, there could be alternative narratives too, he said. When Bennett-Jones expressed his doubts about Ahmed’s idea of alternative narratives, he said such narratives are possible to create under democracy with freedom of speech. Butalia interjected with the comment that “both India and Pakistan want to present a linear national narrative and history.” Peer also highlighted the pertinent issue of the plight of minorities, saying that “we need to extend our solidarities beyond borders.”


‘The Holy Warrior and the Enemy (1958-2008): Film, Newsmedia, and Music in Frontline Pakistan’ was one of the most intriguing sessions at the LLF. Journalist and film-maker Hasan Zaidi started the talk by explaining the reason behind having a session on cinema in a literary festival. He said that it was important to look at mediums other than books and that cinema is a unique medium — combing the art of seeing, writing and singing — that has never been taken seriously in Pakistan, which is why there hasn’t been any contextualised reading of cinema as a significant genre that reflects our collective memory.

Zaidi was joined by Hameed Haroon of the Dawn Media Group and a Q&A between the two followed along with a presentation of clips from different Pakistani films, jihadi videos and electronic-media programmes. Haroon discussed the theme of the holy warrior in Pakistani cinema in a historical context, saying that the disillusionment of living in a postcolonial society led to the search for a messiah figure in early films. Film creators captured the general discontent in society and most early films in Pakistan talked indirectly about social and political issues. For instance, Khalil Qaiser’s film Shaheed was apparently about oil imperialism as well as about Pakistani society at the time.

There were attempts at promoting the image of a soldier messiah in the reign of Ayub Khan when songs by Noorjehan and Naseem Begum further strengthened the nationalist sentiments. However, the emotions of these singers were genuine and should not be confused with the state’s promotion of a certain ideology, Haroon argued. For the army to be the holy warrior they need an enemy like India. In 1965, Lakhon Main Ek was released, showing a Hindu-Kashmiri girl falling in love with a Muslim-Kashmiri boy.

In Ziaul Haq’s era, religious imagery was strengthened and a clip from the movie The Blood of Hussain was shown to corroborate that point. Zaidi and Haroon also discussed the film International Gorilay, which shows the protagonists (holy warriors) in the heightened religious context of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

Next, two films about Daniel Pearl’s murder, The Journalist and the Jihadi (a documentary) and Infinite Justice (a much better film than the Hollywood one starring Angelina Jolie, in Haroon’s opinion) were discussed to analyse the post-9/11 concept of the holy warrior. The transition is complete as the holy warrior has become a ruthless executioner as shown in the first film, whereas he is portrayed as much more nuanced and doubtful, but an executioner nonetheless, in the latter.

The next part of the session focused on the electronic media in the last years of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s regime and on two state-supported films, Jamil Dehlavi’s Jinnah and Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Kay Liay, which were attempts to salvage the idea of the messiah from the extremist jihadis. In answer to a question from the audience regarding the future of cinema in Pakistan, Haroon said he is quite pessimistic as it seems that jihadi execution footage has replaced film. He also expressed his reservations about the potential of the news media and the improbability of television (TV drama, in particular) replacing film as a genre.

—    Ammara Khan

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