Apparently there is a cricket match on today? Yes, unless you have been living in deepest, darkest Mongolia you’ll be aware that there is a group of 22 men playing with balls and bats somewhere in India. It has transfixed the subcontinent. In Pakistan, little else has been talked about since India defeated Australia last week. People are going around with silly grins on their faces saying things like ‘This is THE World Cup Final’! ‘Boom Boom’ T-shirts have been offered for free to those who turn up at certain shops. Imran Khan’s failings as politician have quickly been forgotten, as people once again evoke the spirit of 1992’s cornered tigers and their captain. This was before even the politicians joined the fray.
All this brings to mind the famous quote by Bill Shankly, the great Liverpool manager, who said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”. Yes, for most of Pakistan, this is how this match feels.
However, let’s not get caught up in the hyperbolic hysteria. The reality is, it is just a game. Whether we win or lose, the excitement will fade. Then what? Where does that leave Pakistan? We’ll go back to being nations at war with each other.
For too long, we have been a nation divided; divided by ethnicity, language, class and creed. In the last credible census in 1981, only 8 per cent of the population considered Urdu their mother tongue. We are all too aware of our bloody sectarian divide. Whether it is the implementation of the 1974 Constitution or the upholding of the blasphemy laws, the Pakistani state has persecuted its religious minorities. The reality is that the only time we unite as a nation is at times of war, or cricket matches, against India; a reflex carefully manipulated and designed by our political establishment. The state has been good at defining what we are not (India, Hindu), but not as good at defining who we are. What does it mean to be a Pakistani?
There has been a lot of talk recently about a new Pakistani nationalism that is emerging; a nationalism that is said to be driven by the budding urban middle class which celebrates Pakistan’s pluralism. Some commentators have argued that the Pakistani identity has gone beyond the narrow confines established by our political establishment of Muslim, Islamic, anti-Indian, anti-Hindu. I am not so sure. Presently, I don’t see this newfangled middle class; a middle class that is accepting of a secular, pluralist society. Instead, the emerging middle class is predominately conservative and Islamic in outlook. It appears that some commentators are projecting their (worthy) aspirations onto the bourgeoisie. However, the reality is different.
Since 1971, we have been a nation in search of an identity. The idea that Pakistan was a nation designed as a political home for the Muslims of the subcontinent abruptly evaporated overnight. The two-state solution was dead. We suddenly had to ask ourselves what we stood for as a nation. What did it mean to be a Pakistani? There was very little soul-searching after 1971. We still barely acknowledge the event in our state history books. It has been airbrushed from history. Instead of a national dialogue, successive governments clumsily attempted to shoehorn their perceived notions of Pakistani national identity into the vacuum created after 1971. As a result, we had Bhutto’s pan-Islamic nationalism, Zia’s Islamisation, Musharraf’s enlightened moderation — whatever that was. None have filled the void. The identity deficit has also allowed others to encroach into Pakistan. The Saudis, the US, as well as non-state actors have all exploited this discrepancy for their own gain.
I wish the Pakistani team all the best today. But a win will not resolve our problems. Instead, whether we win or lose, we should take this opportunity for some collective soul-searching about our identity. What does Pakistan stand for today? What does it mean to be Pakistani at the beginning of the 21st century? We can no longer be reactively defined by what we are not — Indian. We need to find out who we are. We need to fill the void.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 30th, 2011.