PITY the Nation is a book on Lebanon by renowned journalist Robert Fisk. However, these days many articles on or reports from Pakistan seem to have similar titles.
Although Pakistan is obviously in the grip of a serious tumult, I do dislike pitying ‘nations’. Some weeks ago, I visited the country for the second time for a TV programme, but my main motive was not hardcore reporting peppered with sensational pictures and some clever analysis.
In fact, I am a political commentator/columnist for two daily newspapers and an academic, and my vocation combines the two aspects. Yet, I have never felt comfortable with the requirements of my occupation. I know a little about Pakistan’s history and am somewhat aware of Pakistan’s problems as any other observer and reader of politics would be and could come up with my piece of analysis on the recent crises as the culmination of historical problems that began with the creation of the country. Besides, the use of literature on ‘nation states’, in vogue for the last few decades, is of great help when it comes to commenting on Pakistan.
For instance, if the story and history of nation states is all about ‘imagined communities’, Pakistan is perhaps one of the finest products of a rather ‘wild imagination’. I think, apart from the impact of history, Pakistan’s founding ideology, which attempted to create a modern nation with reference to religious identity, well deserves to be defined as ‘wild imagination’. But, after all, the history of humanity is replete with manifestations of a wild imagination — the French Revolution was no less costly, let alone the Russian Revolution of 1917. And it is not only revolutions; the emergence of all nation states has come at a very high price.
For that matter, it is rather unfair to define the hardships of ‘non-western’ societies as examples of ‘failures’. It is reasonable to try and analyse political and historical backgrounds to be able to understand recent dilemmas and more than necessary to condemn the failures of decision-makers. Nevertheless, there is a delicate line not to be crossed between the efforts of understanding (or of struggling with ills) and adopting a rather accusing tone for such societies based on their hardships.
‘Non-western’ societies have intellectuals who blame the evil of imperialism and foreign threats and interference for all ills. There is no doubt that this state of mind hinders ‘the politics of the possible’. Yet, the other extreme involves putting all blame on the shoulders of ‘unsuccessful’ states and societies. And finally, this attitude is of no help to those who are already plagued with predicaments. Now, this is the case with Pakistan.
In fact, it is no longer relevant to discuss the problematic nature of the founding myth or the raison d’etre of Pakistan. As a citizen of a somewhat similar society and state, I know the useless vicious cycle of discussions and analyses on the causes of such issues. And, when I visited the country, it was this feeling that dominated my impression of Pakistan.
Abstractions like ‘nation state’ are imperfect tools to measure a society with all its complexities and facets; even terms like ‘ethnic divisions’ and ‘sectarian conflicts’ are limited. This is what I feel each time I attempt to write on such countries for Turkish readers. The Turks see Pakistan as a war zone and most political analyses somehow validate and support this terrible picture. In fact, this is not peculiar to Turkey as in general its average citizens are more inclined to think of only their own life as real, reducing other societies to pure abstractions. Strangely, the intellectuals are no better; the only difference is that, in their case, they believe that other societies are a combination of abstractions such as ‘ethnicity’, ‘sectarianism’, ‘Bhutto supporters’, ‘tribal forces’ and others.
I am not at all an individualist or sceptical about intellectual reasoning. Far from it. I am just terribly disturbed by the total detachment from human suffering. The information age provides better tools to hear and read the news from all over the world, yet enforces detachment through ‘analyses’. Moreover, the ways of presentation of ‘non-western’ societies almost confirm the image that they deserve.
In the modern world, the media had long presented the ‘beautiful people’ of poor countries and dismissed poverty and other complex problems and then the trend was reversed. As for Pakistan, especially today, we only see desperate refugees and Pakistanis caught in a conflict. These pictures no longer enforce ‘awareness’ but detachment. For this reason, I needed to underline the various aspects and the rich mixture of Pakistani lives to convince the Turks that war and fighting are far from natural to the denizens of this beleaguered country. They are much more than just Punjabis or Sindhis, Shias or Sunnis, fundamentalists or liberals, and fighting with each other is not all that they do.
The Turkish minister of foreign affairs who visited Pakistan recently must feel the same way and I hope his efforts will contribute to the well-being of all Pakistanis. Nation states may be illusions in the beginning but the lives of millions are bound to their survival. They may be old fashioned but most of humanity is not equipped to live up to new standards.
The writer is a columnist based in Turkey and an associate professor of political science at the Istanbul University.