Changing Narrative! Is the State ready to do that?

By Misbah Azam, Ph.D.

khurram zaki

The cold blooded assassination of Khurram Zaki raises the question that why the agencies are unable or unwilling to protect those intellectual elites who are accepted as custodians of liberal and progressive agendas in any country. Zaki was a journalist, research scholar, blogger, human rights and rights activist, and editor of the Pakistani blog and news website “Let Us Build Pakistan” (LUBP), who’s stated aim, is to “spread liberal religious views and condemn extremism in all forms”. On Saturday midnight, in the northern part of Karachi, Zaki was attacked by four unidentified gunmen killing him and injuring his friend and a bystander according to Dawn News. Zaki was a strong voice in the campaign against Maulana Abdul Aziz of Red Mosque in Islamabad and recently he filed a complaint against Maulana with a video attached, in which Maulana was instigating people against Shiite Muslims. In Pakistan, from 2011, rights activists and lawyers like Naeem Sabir Baluch, Advocate Malik Jarar, Perveen Rehman, Rashid Rehman, Mohammed Zaman Mehsud, Sabeen Memud and now Zaki, lost their lives by the hands of “unidentified gunmen” while Raza Rumi and Hamid Mir barely survived in the lethal gun attack. Political analysts believe that chances are that Zaki’s murder – like previous once – will not be resolved and add to the list of another mystery.

Zaki’s killing, once again raised the question if the State has failed to impose its writ over the militant groups or the State is simply not willing to take on those terrorist factions which were built, grown and nurtured by the State itself so that they can be used as lethal tools in their vision of foreign policy. According to South Asia Terrorism Portal, from 2002 to 2014, there were 19,886 civilians in Pakistan were killed by these militants and according to a report by US Institute of Peace, published in May 2015, authored by Raza Rumi — a Pakistani journalist, political analyst, activist and former bureaucrat, who moved to the United States after an assassination attempt in 2014 — that besides civilians, militants have killed an additional 6,015 security personnel, including four gen¬eral officers. Although, the military operation in the tribal areas reduced the militancy significantly, but the incidents against the right activists, who are constantly attacked and killed in mysterious ways by the militants and sometimes by “unknown” gunmen, are not reduced. Question is if these incidents are happening because of the incompetency or deliberate ignorance of the agencies. Although if one believes that the State narrative – which was supportive of the militants for last 30 years – has changed, the fact of the matter is that the security establishment – as a policy — does not see these rights activists as their respectful trustworthy allies. Largely, the high and low ranking individuals belong to security agencies believe that these activists are the followers of foreign agenda against Pakistan. Brig. Asad Munir – retired operative of Pakistan military intelligence agency ISI — insists that even until now lots of security institutions follow the same pro-militant narrative which was built during the time of General Ziaul Haq. Those who are involved in such crimes can get away without too much problem because they are protected by the top notches of intelligence agencies. The reason why the agencies went behind the TTP militants was that the TTP became a bigger problem and crossing their limits which was not their “mandate” and became the threat to the military and to the country. These militants time to time silence some of these voices and create a fear among the liberal and progressive class so that they will not come out and educate people. These militant factions are having public meetings without any restrictions, and recently they attacked on federal properties but the civilian authorities did not have the courage to charge them because the civilian authorities know that these groups are supported by the security agencies and heavy handedness against them might bruise civilian government’s floundering relations with the Army.

The main problem in Pakistan is that the deep State controls everything including the definitions of patriotism, national interest and even the rules of civil society. It’s not the 300 elected members of parliament but the 13 Corps Commanders and 3 and 4 star Generals, who make future plans for the country and decide which direction it should proceed. The national narrative is defined by the same group of people. If any political leader try to assert itself, either he/she would be murdered in the farce Judicial trial, killed in the bomb blast or simply banished for unlimited time period, or, simply pushed and squished by their pawns in the private media and in the political parties. It’s becoming a cliché that Army has changed its doctrine and now it is trying to make Pakistan a moderate welfare State. If it is true than why the intellectual elites like Khurram Zaki, Rashed Rehman, Raza Rumi, Perveen Rehman, Sabeen Mehmud etc. are not safe in Pakistan? Why those “unidentified” gunmen get away after killing or attacking them.

Owen Flanagan of Duke University, a leading consciousness researcher, writes that “Evidence strongly suggests that humans in all cultures come to cast their own identity in some sort of narrative form.” The societies which are engaged in the debate of identity, and are ready to die for their views, cannot build a unique narrative. Pakistani society in general is somewhat lost in such debate about what they really stand for. There are different national narratives which are not only conflicting but hostile to each other. Large number of people in Pakistan follow the ultra-conservative narrative. They are proud to attach their roots to the so-called period of Muslim glory and consider Muslim invaders like Ghaznavi, Ghori, Qasim etc. the heroes and messiahs. This narrative is largely imposed on the people by the successive military dictators and now it is defended by the security establishment. They used it to create and nurture the militant groups to use them as their foreign policy tools in India and Afghanistan. After the 9/11 incident, although the military dictator declared an “enlightened moderation” doctrine but actually, he did it to buy time and now he confessed that to counter the “pro-India” attitude of Afghan President Hamid Karazai, he supported the Afghan militants. The other narrative comes from the other extreme of pendulum cycle; from the group of people who call themselves liberals, although, their appearance and their world views are not consistent with Pakistani society. The champions of conservative narrative consider the liberals as the tools of Western powers to impose their agenda on Pakistan and totally overlook all the hard work some of the NGOs perform during the natural disasters and for the poverty alleviation. The self-declared custodians – at the other hand – of liberal views insist that all the military can only bring bad stuff to the country and give examples of 1971 defeat, Kargil adventure etc. ignoring the contribution and manipulation of civilian leadership and all the sacrifices military men are giving to remove the terrorism from the country.
At one hand, the security establishment in Pakistan must understand that the public intellectuals are actually the real assets of any society. They are the one who work at the grass root level and spread the narrative for the progressive and tolerant societies so they must be protected by the State apparatus. If they will be silenced by the so-called “resources” of the State — who, so far only a brought destruction and embarrassment to the country — one day the country will have to brace for the wrath of the international community, which is already losing its patience over the selective approach of top military leadership in tackling the terrorists. At the other hand, the group with liberal narrative must understand that the Army bashing is valid only until the spot where its role in politics is under consideration. The common criticism of Army officers is about the lands the officers get. It must be understood that most of the officers had to pay for the properties they get over their entire time served in the military services. Although it is a long shot, but the stakeholders must sit and talk and unite people on one narrative which is the “Pakistani nationalism”. But to do that both extremes have to be tolerant and agree to disagree instead of declaring each other the children of lesser gods.

Joel Migdal, Professor of International Studies in the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, talked about his generative work, Strong Societies and Weak States, “For those of us in the West, the state has been part of our natural landscape. Its presence, its authority, its place behind so many rules that fashion the minutiae of our lives, have all been so pervasive that it is difficult for us to imagine the situation being otherwise.” Knowing that, the state might occupy a privileged place in West’s collective rational, its reality in large parts of the world – especially in the third world nations — is much more complex. So Migdal very rightly cautioned: “What may seem as much a part of the natural order as the rivers and the mountains around us is, in fact, an artifact of a small segment of human history.”