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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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