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Questioning national meta-narratives

By Saad Hafiz:

The national meta-narratives include the ideological and moral foundation of the nation being formed, and they represent its ethos as well as the legitimacy of, and justification for, its establishment and existence. Furthermore, grand narratives are laid down and maintained by political structures that seek to subordinate physical and natural laws to any given ideology. The history of things is chiselled accordingly. Concepts and opinions are presented as facts. The sheer diversity of human experience is discarded in favour of one monolithic ideology. Organised religion, established folklore, national histories, social experiments and myth of progress via science all fall under the auspices of grand narratives.

A meta-narrative is a super or grand-story; it is the holistic, hierarchical framework that embraces the national narratives and creates and feeds them, while the national narratives revive, reinforce, and feed the meta-narrative. The recurring and repeated story of the meta-narrative is intended not only to establish the people’s belief system, but primarily to infuse these beliefs with emotions that motivate action of the sort that is needed for defence of the people and the homeland: admiration, identification, aspiration to emulate, and a powerful motivation to belong to the community and to adopt its values. From this follow the sanctity and authority of the meta-narrative and the resistance to, and difficulty of, questioning or changing it.

It has been one of the hallmarks of postmodernism to consciously break up all meta-narratives to see them as inherently bad. This ‘incredulity’ or disbelief towards grand narrative was articulated by the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard in his seminal document The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979). Lyotard viewed the construction, existence and influence of grand narratives as limiting and reductive, the critique of which is definitive of the postmodern discourse. Postmodernism sees experience as fundamentally random, disorganised and ambiguous, while strongly resisting all influences that might threaten to bring order, continuity and explanation to bear on the particulars of our world. Modernism displaces memory generally, and national memory specifically, in favour of imagination, creativity, sobriety and criticism. Orthodox reiteration of narratives from the past is considered old-fashioned and reactionary. Modernism and postmodernism meet in the realm of doubt, which seeks to question existing truths and undermine them, whether in order to find a new truth (modernism), or to show that there is no absolute truth (postmodernism). The further along that societies progress from modernism to postmodernism, the less willing they are to exalt the stories of the past, and thus their doubt about the truth of these stories grows.

In the US for example, the decline in the effectiveness of meta-narratives in the second half of the 20th century can be attributed to a number of factors, including unfavourable public opinion about the Vietnam War; the Watergate scandal; an increased awareness of racial, political, economic, and gender diversity; a lingering post-nuclear distrust of science and militaristic machinery in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and distrust bred by cold war paranoia. The 9/11 events appear to have revitalised meta-narratives in American popular culture.

In contrast, the Pakistani grand narrative is studiously inculcated into the collective psyche, defining the country as the fortress of Islam. It draws strength from the historic narrative of a distinctive Islamic identity and national claims draw exclusively upon religion. Some nationalist historians have projected the Pakistan national movement “as a struggle for a separate nation right from A.D.712, when Muhammad bin Qasim entered Sind as the head of an Arab army.” The grand narrative neglects the historical legacy of loosely layered sovereignties and the prospect of imaginatively fashioning innovative political frameworks capable of reflecting not only the multiple identities of its people but also their unfulfilled socio-economic aspirations. Exclusionary communitarianism, however ingeniously packaged, is no substitute for the inclusionary nationalism that has been the sole legitimising factor of the modern nation-state’s claims to monolithic sovereignty.

The Pakistani narrative is also fused with a prescribed religious bent that, just like any other major grand ideology, insists on its own universality and absoluteness. To question the ideology amounts to heresy and is discouraged from an early stage. In addition, other variants of Islam are marginalised and even ignored, as are the non-Muslim religious ilk, in building a monolithic religious identity of Pakistan that empowers a crude majority and alienates others. The abidance to the Pakistani grand narrative absolves individuals of any wrongdoing and actively discourages self-evaluation.

It is because the country has been unable to square its assertion of monolithic sovereignty with the expectations of equal citizenship rights that religious, sectarian and regional groups are seizing the initiative to promote a deadly politics of difference. In this light, the imposing and limiting national narrative has been less than successful in representing Pakistan in its entire complex, layered and multifaceted splendour, which has done no service to the country or its people. The postmodern critique of grand, all-encompassing narratives deserves to be applied to the Pakistani model. The need for a pluralistic Pakistan is paramount more than ever, before and whatever mix of myth and wish fulfillment that worked in previous times has to be debunked.

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26 Responses to "Questioning national meta-narratives"

  1. Vijay Goel India Internet Explorer Windows says:

    The pity is that this so called grand narrative which is just a package of surmises guesses mingled with some facts is drilled as the absolute truth and nothing but the truth in school books and the students are taught not to question it. What to say questioning any missing out of small detail means a cut in your marks and then God save you. First you see the sad face of your mother then the endless search for a suitable admission in colleges.

  2. hari India Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Pakistan could be created only with the help of many many islam-glorifying and hindu-hating lies (=deceits and self-deceits) and hence today it is necessary to keep up these lies and also invent new ones to “bolster” the old ones.

    Islam = submision (in arabic)
    Submissivity needs lies and especially self-deceit.
    The dictator has to lie and the underdog too has to lie.
    Submissivity has to avoid honesty.

    This meta-analysis sums up everything about the islamic paradise of Pakistan – its past, present and future.

  3. hari India Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    small correction:

    …and hence today it is necessary FOR THE PAKISTANIS AND MUSLIMS to keep up these lies and also invent new ones to “bolster” the old ones.

  4. Pankaj India Google Chrome Windows says:

    Dear Sir
    .
    You have written about NARRATIVES
    .
    But Pakistan’s problem is more fundamental
    .
    It is about PERSPECTIVE Or More specifically
    The Hindu Hating Perspective
    .
    And Please just dont Blame Zia ul Haq
    .
    This Anti Hindu perspective was DRILLED into The
    Minds of South Asian Muslims by
    The following people in a sequential manner
    .
    1. Shah Waliullah
    .
    2 Syed Ahmed Khan
    .
    3 Allama Iqbal
    .
    4 Mohammad Ali Jinnah

  5. hari India Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    to pankaj

    ..not just hindu-hating but also glorifying all those who attacked, robbed, killed and raped hindus,
    and the very meaning of the word hindu was perverted by the muslims for their aims,

    earlier the word hindu meant one who lives in the Sindhu river basin

    but
    after muslims ruled the word came to have a very insulting meaning.

    Pakistanis are the real hindus but fascist-pervert islam has taught them to hate every thing hindu and instead glorify arabs, turks and hindu-killers.

    Muslims have done many mischiefs against hindus to get Pakistan.

  6. Maggu India Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    “The grand narrative neglects the historical legacy of loosely layered sovereignties and the prospect of imaginatively fashioning innovative political frameworks capable of reflecting not only the multiple identities of its people but also their unfulfilled socio-economic aspirations. Exclusionary communitarianism, however ingeniously packaged, is no substitute for the inclusionary nationalism that has been the sole legitimising factor of the modern nation-state’s claims to monolithic sovereignty.”
    .
    The US was built on the premise of immigrants creating a society away from a far off ruling rentier. Equivalent meta narrative for Pakistan would be a nation created as a refuge for a minority that felt persecuted. A serious problem emerges with that narrative (though that narrative is fundamental to the existence of Pakistan). The Pakistani nation, due to this genesis, should then be sympathetic to minorities who feel persecuted and yearn for a secure homeland. The first act in that play has concluded with the birth of Bangladesh.
    .
    Hopefully, as the Pakistani nation matures it will evolve into many secure enclaves for its minorities thus fulfilling its destiny as a haven for persecuted minorities.

  7. Maggu India Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    “The grand narrative neglects the historical legacy of loosely layered sovereignties and the prospect of imaginatively fashioning innovative political frameworks capable of reflecting not only the multiple identities of its people but also their unfulfilled socio-economic aspirations. Exclusionary communitarianism, however ingeniously packaged, is no substitute for the inclusionary nationalism that has been the sole legitimising factor of the modern nation-state’s claims to monolithic sovereignty.”
    .
    Historical precedent shows that when the meta narratives are redefined the idea of nationhood changes in terms of geography, linguistic identity etc. Examples being the two Koreas, China/Taiwan, USSR/New states, Yugoslavia/Bosnia, Croatia, An emerging new Iraq et al.
    .
    Changing the Pakistan narrative as you propose:” innovative political frameworks capable of reflecting not only the multiple identities of its people but also their unfulfilled socio-economic aspirations” may not be easy without fulfilling the tryst with destiny of the narrative of genesis of Pakistan.

  8. saad Cayman Islands Google Chrome Windows says:

    Maggu: Perhaps not easy but national narratives, however, entrenched can change. Germany/Japan after WW2 and others that you mention with or without changes in geography,linguistic identity etc..

  9. Maggu India Safari iPad says:

    SAAD: after making that brave statement I was looking for examples but couldn’t find any. Germany had to be divided and a new narrative emerged after reunification. Japan had to submit to a US dictated constitution and bases on its territory. So both examples given by you are not quite apt. I have not been able to find a new national narrative with the geographical/linguistic continuity

  10. saad Cayman Islands Google Chrome Windows says:

    Maggu: The fascist and imperialist meta-narrative was reconsidered in undivided Germany and Japan after WW2 granted under duress and exceptional circumstances.

  11. Maggu India Safari iPad says:

    Such has happened at each discontinuity in all countries. I couldn’t find one example to the contrary

  12. saad Cayman Islands Google Chrome Windows says:

    Agreed not apt and extreme but it need not be the case in Pakistan. People like me who remember 1971 thought that discontinuity would result in a change or at least review of the national meta-narrative but the promising signs of that did not last for long.

  13. Romain United States Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Saad sb,

    could you please explain “political Islam”.Its roots and whether it is santified.

    thanks

  14. Maggu India Safari iPad says:

    Saad: any alternative narrative but that of unity for Islam will probably not work with the public. It can’t now be a secular federal polity.

  15. Madhav Singh India Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Saad Sahib,

    Very educative and informative article indeed. However, is there a serious contingency in Pakistani power structure to deliberate such fundamental issues or not, you must be knowing more.

    What is seen again and again with monotonous regularity is something very ominous and destructive in this context.

    The Resolution by the National Assembly of Pakistan to glory and support acts of terror by an Indian Terrorist, condemn the-due process of law in India, does point to same old story. The resolution in fact very clearly define and irrevocably reinforce, what Meta Narrative is held in high esteem by law makers of Pakistan.

  16. saad Canada Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Maggu: you are probably right but allow some of us to dream and write about it!

    Singh sahib: Many thanks, my latest response to Maggu is where we stand. As you know, change in the thinking of any entrenched power structure takes a lot of time. The Pakistan-India thing has a lot to do with political posturing so I do not pay much attention to the countless silly resolutions and pronoucements!

  17. saad Canada Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Romain sb:

    Regret the delay and I certainly do not claim to be an authority on political islam much less anything else!

    Generally speaking, firstly political Islamists define themselves as the Islamic movement, secondly they call for an Islamic state ruled in accordance with Sharia and finally they organise themselves for the purpose of achieving these goals. Political Islamists believe in the sovereinty of God over the state.

    Most theories hold that political islam is a reaction to relative deprivation, especially social inequality and political oppression. Alternative theories seek the answer to the Islamist revival within the confines of religion itself and the powerful, evocative potential of religious symbolism.

    Islam as a political ideology has pre-twentieth century roots. The caliphate and the Shia imamate were the religiously legitimated institutions of rule for the early Muslim empire or sections of it. The period during and following the Wests domination of the Middle East and the Islamic world saw Islam reborn as a political ideology.

  18. Maggu India Safari iPad says:

    I am sure all us wish a robust and viable inward looking alternative emerges resulting in a peaceful Pakistan

  19. tajender United Arab Emirates Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Maggu says:
    March 18, 2013 at 8:08 pm
    I am sure all us wish a robust and viable inward looking alternative emerges resulting in a peaceful Pakistan

    i am totally with you

  20. tajender United Arab Emirates Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Maggu says:
    March 18, 2013 at 12:23 pm
    Saad: any alternative narrative but that of unity for Islam will probably not work with the public. It can’t now be a secular federal polity

    it was for 800 years in india.aurangzeb had 36%minister from highcaste hindus.

  21. Maggu India Google Chrome  GT-N7100 Build/JZO54K) AppleWebKit/535.19 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/18.0.1025.166 Mobile Safari/535.19 says:

    sorry,i meant in present day pakistan

  22. frank India Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Muslims conveniently forget the violent aggressions and imperialisms, marauderies and rapes which they have carried out against non-arabs and non-muslims during the past 1400 years and try to present themselves as the victims only.
    Every muslim child grows up with this lie implanted in his mind and soul.
    Islam makes honesty impossible for the muslims.

    -

    Presently the muslims are heavily engaged in carrying out territorial infiltration and demographic aggression against non-muslims all over the world.

    Muslims are misusing the lenient, generous and humane laws of the non-muslims to infiltrate into non-muslim lands.

    Muslims are misusing their pregnant women and new-born children as instruments of aggression against non-muslims.
    -

    Muslims are not innocent.

  23. kaalchakra United States Google Chrome Windows says:

    Saad, good work. Post-Modernists have made a real contribution. Still, in rhetorical exchanges, one point gets lost: the questioner must be questioned too. For, meta narratives are not necessarily any greater and ‘worse’ myths than the counter-narratives that may question them. In general, we don’t want to muzzle dissent, but all dissent is not necessarily ‘good’ or ‘true’. The right to be different is not the same as the right to be respected. We can only make those judgments on a case by case basis.

  24. saad Canada Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Thanks Kaal. I agree we should maintain a balance. Although, I do struggle in finding merit in fascist, imperialist and totalitarian meta-narratives even on a case by case basis but maybe that is my problem!

  25. dte India Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    to saad

    “…fascist, imperialist and totalitarian meta-narratives…”

    That is what islam (=submission=mental slavery) is all about since 1400 years. And it has intensified recently.

    Other religions and ideologies are getting out of that rut slowly, through honesty and self-criticism – but islam/muslims are worsening themselves.

  26. dte India Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    If muslims take to the path of honesty then islam and its narratives and meta-narratives will all collapse. Muslim leaders know this. Ordinary muslims are hence kept foolish and ignorant in such matters. They only have to obey their leaders. If the muslim leader says lie then the ordinary muslim lies, if the leader says kill then he kills. This is so since the times of Mohammad who took much advantage out of this.

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