By Saad Hafiz:
An expatriate friend after one of his frequent visits, described living in Pakistan as living in an Orwellian funhouse on its way to becoming a dystopian society. Dystopian societies feature different kinds of repressive social control systems and practice various forms of active and passive coercion. They are also often imagined as police states with unlimited power over their citizens, using terror and propaganda as part of ‘supervision’ and the ‘seduction’ techniques to retain absolute control. It is a bit like the fictional state described in Suzanne Collins’ best-selling trilogy, The Hunger Games, which is set in a nation, Panem, in which everything is televised. A fragmented post-apocalyptic society is ruled by the fascistic Capitol, keeping the masses quiet by feeding them reality war games featuring teenagers who must fight to the last one standing. Certainly not a description that applies to Pakistan, which on the surface is a functioning democracy, with an increasingly independent superior judiciary and a generally free thriving media, which one commonly associates with a free society, and certainly not a Taliban Afghanistan in the making. While we might perhaps agree that there is no imminent danger of Pakistan turning into an ‘outpost of tyranny’ (our Baloch brothers will certainly disagree), it may be worth examining any dystopian trends that could upset the status quo.
As has been reported, Pakistan is considered among the most unsafe places for journalists to work in with 11 journalists killed last year, including the unsolved murder of Saleem Shahzad. It is true that under the guise of ‘national security’, the state historically has played hardball with individuals and groups who appear to threaten the entrenched interests of the armed forces and the powerful civilian elite. This phenomenon has not been restricted to attacks on journalists but also applied to political dissenters; notable cases include the brutal torture and murder of communist leader Hasan Nasir in the Lahore Fort in 1960, and the disappearance of activist Johnny Dass during the Baloch uprising in the 1970s. To many Pakistanis, the officially sanctioned mass murder and rape that accompanied the creation of Bangladesh is an unpleasant memory best forgotten. This trend has continued in the present day with the many cases of torture and thousands of ‘disappeared’ in the ongoing ‘war on terror’ and the current Balochistan insurgency. The point is that an authoritarian apparatus, intolerant of any criticism and practising state-sponsored violence against dissidents while the general population looks on in silent acquiescence, can still drag a country into a dystopian era.
The other concern is that the ideological blowback from the decade’s long state policies aimed at coddling extremist Islam has made the general populace more receptive to restrictions on freedom of religion and expression, which has fostered sectarianism and is causing suffering to many citizens from the minorities. This warped mindset has probably led to the recent torture and burning of a ‘mentally unstable’ man for alleged blasphemy by a frenzied mob in southern Punjab. Another consequence of this repressive thinking is that many Pakistani women are forced to remain within the four walls of their houses as ‘prisoners’, which in itself is a crime against humanity. There is also growing evidence that a minority has become enamoured with the establishment of a totalitarian theocracy that seeks to replace a ‘secular’ and ‘godless’ government tainted with corruption and accused of selling out to foreign powers. Certainly, there are pockets in the country like Swat before it was cleared, and FATA, where terror and propaganda play a role in maintaining a ‘parallel’ government, which in effect co-opts state power as people lose confidence in democracy. This anti-state trend may have dangerous consequences if it spreads to other parts of the country. The use of Islam by the state as a convenient substitute for nation-state building, and the failure of domestic economic and social policies have done much to alienate the population and push them towards religion, which has historically found fertile ground where oppressive circumstances are present. To reverse this trend, the mainstream political parties have to start delivering on their development promises and improving living conditions, and their candidates have to improve upon their performance and image of consistent incompetence, nepotism, and corruption.
The best protection against emerging totalitarianism is a working pluralistic democratic system and the practice of a tolerant Islam. The great Spanish writer, Blasco Ibáñez in Dans l’Ombre de La Cathédrale described Muslim rule in Spain as a ‘civilisational expedition’ coming from the south rather than a conquest. To Ibáñez, it was not an invasion imposing itself by arms, but a new society whose vigorous roots were sprouting from everywhere. Describing the conquering Muslims, he says, “The principle of freedom of conscience, cornerstone of the greatness of nations, was dear to them. In the cities they ruled, they accepted the church of the Christian and the synagogue of the Jew.” While this writer has always been troubled by a description of any conquest or conquerors as ‘civilisational’ (just ask the conquered!), a return to a tolerant Islam described by Ibáñez would certainly be welcome.