What image is summoned to mind when you hear the words ‘aam admi’, ‘common man’ or the ‘average’ Pakistani and various lazy permutations? Admittedly, one uniform sentiment would be that he is impoverished and downtrodden. However other than that, is he a Punjabi or Sindhi, a Muslim or a Hindu, a Sunni or Shia, etc.? I am aware that I can be accused of being fatuous here since a monolith uniform national identity is very rare in almost any country of significant size. Still, because of the intensity and the frequency with which the common man is referred to in evening chat shows, it might be useful to have a semblance of an idea about his identity. It is a shame that we can’t find him and ask him directly. At this point, raising the objection of what about the ‘common woman’ might come across to some as being unnecessary nitpicking.
There may be a variety of easy and over-capacious answers to the question of our national identity, but when stripped of the fairly spurious reasoning, in essence the singular defining feature remains that we are Muslims. In an order of priority, we as a nation are first Muslims and then Pakistanis. An almost natural corollary of this is that we ascribe a vaguely divine mandate to the creation of this country.
In recent times, there has been a lot of talk about the creation of a separate Seraiki province. Most major political parties agree to the idea in principle, and all of them agree that it should be done on administrative ground and under no circumstances on ‘ethnic’ grounds. The terms, ‘ethnic’ and ‘ethnicity’ are mentioned cautiously almost as if they were foul words. The ostensible reason for that is that a Seraiki and a Hazara province on ethnic grounds will increase polarisation and provincialism, as opposed to a united national front of solidarity. However, as I have said earlier, we have very little idea of what precisely is that united national front, apart from the fact that all of us are supposed to be Muslims. Uniformity is overrated, and on most occasions undesirable, and at any rate is impossible in our case. Once one concedes the cold, hard fact most of the parameters of this fortress of Islam have been decided not by any direct divine intervention, at least none susceptible to empirical scrutiny, but by a British lawyer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, it might be easier to be open to the possibility of changing these lines.
However, we are fair in our use of imprecise terms; ‘minorities’ is a term which does not refer to the numeric strength of a community, but often used as a blanket term for all those outside the fold of Islam. Muslim in Pakistan does not have a fixed connotation either, as the Ahmadis know too well. I think now it would take a fantastic level of ignorance or stubbornness to deny that the Hazara community in particular and the Shias in general in Pakistan are being murdered through an orchestrated scheme. In public discourse barring a few fanatical religious party leaders, nobody goes so far as saying that the Shias are a ‘minority’, at least not yet. I say this without any in-depth information, but they are being targeted because they do not fit the image of the ‘average’ or model Pakistani, which at the risk of generalisation it seems is now the image of a Sunni, Punjabi male. It has to be a cause of alarm when in the middle of this mayhem a party named Sunni Tehreek enters into mainstream electoral politics. As far as the Punjabi part, some of you might have noticed that any grievance coming outside of Punjab is always a ‘game’ or a ‘card’.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay Réflexions sur la question juive on “Anti-Semite and Jew” should be read and re-read in Pakistan to understand our reaction to the Shia genocide. The most arresting and prescient are the passages regarding the liberal democrat’s attitude towards anti-Semitism. The democrat, unlike the fanatic, does not hate the Jew and is driven by good faith. However, in his quest to view things from an objective and universal point of view he refuses to acknowledge the individual existence of the Jew and ends up being as Sartre puts it “feeble protector”. The democrat says, “There are no Jews”, and he says, “‘there is no Jewish question’. This means that he wants to separate the Jew from his re¬ligion, from his family, from his ethnic community, in order to plunge him into the democratic crucible whence he will emerge naked and alone, an individual and solitary particle like all the other particles”. This display of almost metaphysical amorality is piercingly relevant to us again, for the Shia, for the Baloch, the Seraiki. The reluctance to recognise the possibility of a fight for self-determination in Balochistan and the desire of the Seraiki people to want recognition of their own and the genocidal proportions of violence against the Hazara Shia are almost driven by the same sentiment. The crucible we seek to plunge individual identities into is that of a national, one dimensional Pakistani identity, based rather flimsily on notions of the two-nation theory. Hence, I in no way attribute maliciousness on the part of our intelligentsia, yet clarity in language and thought become considerably more significant in causes such as these. The line between silence and complicity becomes indiscernible after a certain point, and that point has long passed.
Does all of this mean that a Pakistani identity or even Pakistan is not important enough to fight for? Absolutely not, precisely the opposite. As is often the case, the people who most mistrust the sustainability of our nation are those who shriek the hoarsest about the ideology of Pakistan. The desire for everyone to be like everyone else is a petty one, and whose ambition is to be like a clone anyways. Diversity and even some degree of polarisation are not to be feared and are even necessary if we are to evolve a shared identity.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 22nd, 2012.