Let’s see how this works.
Pakistan is a troubled state; the country has multiple fault-lines which are deepening; it has suffered from, and continues to, a civil-military imbalance; its political parties are weak and the political actors are only beginning to evolve some rules of the game through trial and error (often, as Karachi tells us, violently); its literacy rate, human development indices and human rights record are bad to abysmal; the state’s writ does not extend to many areas in a physical sense and many more areas in other terms of governance (see, e.g., the low tax to GDP ratio); its economy is poor and is likely to remain so for several reasons including poor human capital; it has a military that, despite its professionalism, has done more harm than good; its intelligence agencies are reviled by its citizens; it has developed an ideology which is poisonous, exclusionary and supra-state and now threatens the very existence of the state by destroying its legal-normative framework; and, it is being attacked by terrorist groups that have claimed more than 40,000 lives, both civilians and soldiers.
I could go on and list many other problems. After all, we have just seen that the judge who sentenced Mumtaz Qadri has had to go into hiding for applying the law. We have just seen multiple sectarian attacks on the law-abiding, nonviolent Hazaras by that absolutely bestial terrorist organisation, Lashkar-e Jhangvi.
Of course we are not the only state that is troubled. All states, to some degree, have their share of problems. But when a state becomes incapable of governing and protecting the lives of its citizens, it comes perilously close to keeling over the brink.
But why do I write this?
I write this because in addition to the problems I have listed, we now have another one which, like Yeats’ description of decrepit age, is tied to us as to a dog’s tail: the penchant of trolls, ideologues and partisans, not necessarily separate categories, for branding people, kicking the player rather than the ball, ignoring the issues and trying to find some sinister motive. And far from feeling any sense of shame, they celebrate their idiocies, cowardice and grotesqueries.
For several days now I have been subjected to a string of calumnious emails that describe Najam Sethi, long-time friend and one of the best editors I have worked with, as an American agent. It has been said that Najam is presenting some ideas which are against Pakistan’s national interest and he is doing this because he wants to become an American citizen.
I have no interest in what Najam might be seeking, if at all, because I know nothing about that. I am interested in his arguments. When I worked with Najam I often disagreed with him. At the same time, I know of no other chief editor who would have let someone write as freely as I did. If there is one thing which I am certain of, it is this: Najam is a patriot through and through; certainly more patriotic than those who have chosen to mount low attacks on his person and his family.
And pray, what is national interest? As a realist I have one concept of the national interest; neoliberals or idealists have different concepts. Sometimes there are fundamental differences; oft times there are only nuances. Nothing is sacrosanct. Those who want to make discussion and debate on certain institutions and ideas taboo are out of touch with reality.
Let me give another example: Iftikhar Ahmed, a seasoned journalist, does an audience-based programme. A recent programme looked into Pakistan’s defence spending — should Pakistan spend more on defence? By the end of it, 81 per cent audience voted against more defence spending. For all his pains, Ahmed got abusive phone-calls. The callers said he was an Indian agent; he should not have touched this topic; he wanted India to walk over Pakistan etcetera.
I don’t like black-and-white propositions. The reality of what Pakistan should spend on defence is a complex one. But no one, I repeat no one, has the right to abuse or prevent the airing of ideas. The extremes in this country, both on the right and on the left, are the biggest threats to this state. As I wrote in this space, we don’t have a robust centre and that now presents a huge problem.
If one takes a centrist, realist position, one is an agent for the Pakistan Army or the ISI; if one is being a neoliberal or an idealist one is either an American or an India agent. The problem is that the issues confronting us defy linear causality. Hanlon’s Razor says that one should never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. But there are others who indulge in this game not because they are stupid but because they are outright malicious. They are not looking for debate, though they would, like all charlatans, cover their malice in the garb of the democratic principle of debate.
Should we debate issues like the civil-military imbalance, security sector reform, the role of the ISI, the conduct of the political parties, the idea of the national interest and where it is situated, the idea of the state itself? Absolutely. Yes, we can and should debate these and much more. Should anyone going against the dominant discourse be branded a traitor? Absolutely not. Can a Pakistani working in the US say some of our laws are foul and we need to change them? Yes. Should we reject what he says and brand him a traitor because he is based in the US? Hell no.
I have said all this; there’s much more to be said. Does this make me an American agent or a traitor? I proudly hold the green passport. That is my identity. But it is precisely this that would make me, and many others, say these things. As we say in Punjabi, we don’t need maamas to tell us what is good or bad for this country.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2011.