Silencing Pakistan

Published: June 4, 2011
The writer is the author of two novels, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and Moth Smoke (2000)

The writer is the author of two novels, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and Moth Smoke (2000)

Just before moving back to Pakistan a year and a half ago, I wrote a short story called “A Beheading”. It was about the imaginary kidnapping and beheading of a nameless Pakistani writer, told from that doomed and terrified man’s own point of view. I wrote it not because such events are commonplace in Pakistan, or typical of life in our country. I wrote it because it expressed a pernicious fear, a fear that gives rise to self-censorship. I thought in writing it I would become, if not braver, then at least more questioning of my silences and those of others.

I’ve long tried to be an optimist about Pakistan. The reason isn’t that I believe things here are fine. They’re a mess. But I’ve always believed our mess is solvable.

My own set of solutions would include (as a top 10): Raising our shamefully low tax revenues; reducing the defence budget (especially money spent on shiny, imported and easily embargoed toys like F-16s); increasing the development budget (education, water and electricity, in particular); beefing up the police and lower courts; cracking down much harder on militants; phasing out American (and ideally all) aid; making more of an effort to pursue peace with India (not easy, I know); actively campaigning to end foreign meddling in Afghanistan (including our own); giving more power to the provinces; refocusing judicial reform on speedy and unbiased justice for all, rather than on the balance of power in Islamabad; and forcing political parties to become internally democratic.

Many reasonable Pakistanis might disagree with me over items on this list. Some of what I advocate could well be ill-considered. But nothing on my list cannot be done. None of it is impossible or beyond Pakistan’s capabilities. Hence, my optimism doesn’t require me to reject reality.

My optimism does, however, require that Pakistanis be somewhat free to speak. Only by expressing themselves can Pakistanis articulate their own lists of national priorities, debate them and call for them to be implemented. When a speeding train is hurtling down the wrong track towards a cliff, optimism lies in the hope that passengers will raise an alarm in time for a conductor to pull the brake.

Silence kills that hope. It kills optimism.

And lethal efforts are under way to spread silence in Pakistan.

Half a year after I moved back, over 200 people were killed or wounded in simultaneous attacks on Ahmadis in Lahore. Few politicians openly condemned the massacre. The message was clear: Those deemed to be non-Muslims can be silenced in Pakistan. Five per cent of our fellow citizens will be denied their voice.

A little over a year after my return, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was gunned down, followed weeks later by Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti. Again, public condemnations were limited. And again, the message was clear: Those who seek to change laws in ways deemed to be non-Muslim can be silenced in Pakistan. The substantial swathe of Pakistanis who are socially liberal (a tenth of our population? a fifth? a third?) will be denied their voice.

And now, a year and a half after my return, journalist Saleem Shahzad has been assassinated. He was tortured, his body left in a canal. We do not know who killed him. But we do know what he wrote in the Asia Times on May 27: That the Pakistan Navy faces infiltration by al Qaeda sympathisers, that it has purged some of these elements, that the attack on PNS Mehran was in retribution for these purges and that it was carried out with insider help.

Days later, he was dead.

What message is sent by killing a man who writes such things? Its style represents a shift. This is a communication confident (or desperate) enough to no longer seek to cloak itself in a language of Muslim and non-Muslim, of sectarian groups or of religious symbols. And its substance appears to be the following: Those who speak of sensitive security matters can be silenced in Pakistan. Hereafter, it suggests, every Pakistani will be denied their voice.

For we all speak of sensitive security matters. We speak of drones and India and terrorists and Abbottabad and America and nukes. We do it all the time. As well we should: We are being slaughtered in our thousands, over 30,000 Pakistanis in the last decade alone, and our country is grievously undermined by violence. We know things must change. And we need our journalists to help us figure out how, by telling us, underneath all the conspiracy theories and secrecy, what is actually going on.

The challenges facing Pakistan require a citizenry that is more engaged with security policy, not less, and a security establishment that is more open with and responsive to its citizenry, not less. The yawning gap between our people and our policies has allowed self-destructiveness to fester. It has made our Pakistan a blood-drenched contradiction: Taking aid, hating dependency; cooperating with drone strikes, proclaiming sovereignty; buying warplanes, drowning in floods.

We do not have a security state, we have an insecurity state.

We will only get better if we close this gap, and we will only close this gap if we speak. So we must urgently ask why journalists who write on security issues are dying, and who is killing them. We must demand that it stop. We must reject an enforced national silence that encourages our country to continue on its present trajectory, ever downhill, ever faster, towards the cliff, to the despair of those of us who, despite everything, still love Pakistan, and to the misfortune of all who call this wounded land of tremendous potential home.

We must also persevere in looking for reasons for optimism. They exist. Courageous journalists are raising their voices. The media is disseminating information ever more widely. It may be that the balance of power in our state is finally, slowly, shifting towards our people. The outcome is uncertain, but silencing Pakistan has yet to succeed.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 4th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (44)

  • Anwar
    Jun 4, 2011 - 12:38AM

    Pakistan has been overrun by the extremists. The internet users (us) are just watching and not doing anything. The one and only solution is to educate the people and hope the situation will be better in 20 years. There is no short term solutions and no other solution than education. India took the right path 20-30 years ago and now the results are showing. It still has a lot of problems but at least it is on the right track.

    I can only hope and pray for Pakistan but I feel Allah has abandoned us. Allah will only help us if we help ourselves otherwise he will continue to ignore us. I do not see any signs that we Pakistanis are doing anything to improve our situation. Recommend

  • shayan
    Jun 4, 2011 - 12:39AM

    hey mohsin hamid! I really luved the scene in moth smoke when mumtaz gives a ‘job’ to daru.damn it was arousing!Recommend

  • Jun 4, 2011 - 12:50AM

    An excellent read, but optimism alone is unfortunately not going to get this country much farther, after all its the only thing that’s carried it thus far. As long as people on our payroll (taxes) look down on us “civilians” (that is to say, those of us who they don’t torture and kill) and feel they’re better than us, there will be no room for improvement.
    When ‘they’ finally realise that their infallible foreign policy planners (or should i say hijackers since FP is the duty of the ELECTED government) are in fact stupendous failures, we might have a real hope.
    If they end their affair with the terrorists and start protecting the people instead of murdering them, we might have a chance. Till this epiphany comes to the brass, we are better off silent and alive than risking meeting Salim Shahzad’s fate.Recommend

  • Star
    Jun 4, 2011 - 12:51AM

    The Day the Pakistani Military and the brainwashed Pakistani population stop seeing Grandiose dreams of “Islamic World Domination”,,,, The country might, just might, pull itself together. On it’s current trajectory, the biggest threat will come from within when Pakistan becomes the 4th largest populace country in the world. How will you support this population? Are you going to threaten the world with Nuclear weapons in exchange of food??? What???

    Whose is going to save Pakistan from itself?Recommend

  • Babloo
    Jun 4, 2011 - 1:07AM

    I liked his 10 point solution. Reasonable and do-able.Recommend

  • Aziz Akmad
    Jun 4, 2011 - 1:08AM

    This is what Rabbi Joachim Prinz said about silence when he spoke just before Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I have a dream …” speech, in 1963, during the civil rights movement’s March on Washington:

    “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”Recommend

  • faraz
    Jun 4, 2011 - 1:18AM

    The existence of the army depends upon the continuation of the security state. Turning Pakistan into a welfare state by reducing the defense expenditure would mean virtual suicide for the army. And no other force in the country can make that happen. We didn’t learn from the Dhaka fall which was a bigger national catastrophe than terrorism. I have no hope whatsoever.Recommend

  • Jun 4, 2011 - 1:50AM

    An excellent piece of objective, pragmatic expression of opinion …… nothing controversial about it ……. we need more sane, cool minded, and genuinely concerned thoughts like these, rather than the skeptical, cynical, ‘resigned to the state of affairs’ grumblings that, among other consequences, lead to people fleeing the country. My objective here is not only to commend the writer, but to also say that we have suffered a substantial brain drain ….. we need the brightest of the bright sitting abroad, contributing to the well being of foreign nations (no doubt their remittances back home are appreciable), to return and rectify matters here! I’ve seen more or less of the same sorry state of affairs here in all my 35 years …… can’t just sit back and say ‘lets wait it out … we are still a young nation!) ……. my best complements to the writer! Recommend

  • Bundersnatch
    Jun 4, 2011 - 2:02AM

    “The outcome is uncertain, but silencing Pakistan has yet to succeed.”

    DITTO for silencing boring op-ed windbags.Recommend

  • Bundersnatch
    Jun 4, 2011 - 2:06AM

    “…but silencing Pakistan has yet to succeed.”

    And silencing the boring op-ed windbags will be a tougher job still.Recommend

  • Jun 4, 2011 - 2:10AM

    We do not have a security state, we have an insecurity state.

    Very well said.

    The Military can do anything if it wants to. It can even take measures to implement the 10 solutions that you give, only if it wants to. It can choose to transfer the powers from the barracks to the parliament, only military can decide whether it should or it should not. The elected government, or the judiciary, do not appear to have the power to even demand such a power shift. May be a sane group generals understand what you are saying, and for the sake of the country and it’s people, they decide to do what needs to be done. But again, by the time a 2nd Lieutenant becomes a General, he is very likely to develop a liking for power in the barracks. It is like, a catch-22 situation. May be schools should educate students of what actually has been done to this country, and then infiltrate the military academy with an aim to reach the higher ranks over the years, and then shift the power to the elected government. Recommend

  • Tasawar ul Karim Baig
    Jun 4, 2011 - 2:13AM

    Thanks for very nice piece Mohsin. Society become so desensitize and depoliticized over last decade, I agree with your notion of aloof and despondency. As we blame everyone in this situation. Nations get a new sense of direction in crisis, whereas we have serious deficit in leadership. Not a single Pakistani can denied with your list, but, it could be only possible be true and sincere leadership. Media is so powerful and so accessible, which wasn’t before. But Media spread despondancy and fighting for rating system, who cares, if we lost lives of innocent people, we will have talk show and article in newspaper. But, What will happen when there will be no country. I hope our civil society get their sense of responsibility to create a momentum for the people of Pakistan. We should focus on Pakistanism than any other ISM to get rid of these problems.Recommend

  • Independent from UK
    Jun 4, 2011 - 2:27AM

    ‘My own set of solutions would include (as a top 10): Raising our shamefully low tax revenues; reducing the defence budget (especially money spent on shiny, imported and easily embargoed toys like F-16s); increasing the development budget (education, water and electricity, in particular); beefing up the police and lower courts;’

    I agree with these ideas for bringing the country on road to progrss.
    The military had more than enough of share. The money spent on them is obviously wasted because in return we got

    Military rule for nearly life of the country
    OBL debacle
    PNS Mehran debacle
    Alleged murder of Salim Shehzad


  • Jun 4, 2011 - 4:10AM

    This post has the ability to reach out to the people. I really appreciate your effort specifically aimed at awakening the conscience of Pakistanis. Please keep it up.Recommend

  • Maulana Diesel
    Jun 4, 2011 - 4:56AM

    We have to unite — all of us Pakistanis have to stand united and fight this terror. These terrorists cannot be more than 100,000 — against 180million people they are nothing. We should take ownership of our neighbourhoods and not expect that the state to save us. We have to save the Pakistani state. If we dont stand up now we will all be cut up and killed like the 30,000 Pakistanis who have been killed and many more maimed. For once we have to forget our ethnicity; let there be no Pukhtuns, no Punjabis, no Sindhis and no Baluch — only Pakistanis!Recommend

  • Noor Nabi
    Jun 4, 2011 - 5:23AM

    This piece is a refreshingly thoughtful expression by a distinguished member of the younger generation that opened its eyes soon before or after the Dhaka debacle in 1971. It is encouraging see the note of optimism expressed therein and one prays that circumstances to follow will validate that spirit.

    Pakistan was never a citadel of Islamo-fascism; the trend began to take root with Zia whoring the nation in return for services to fulfill the agenda of the Salafist movement. The land of Iqbal and Faiz will, over the long run, repel mullahism as the latter is not in its DNA. Whether it can be done before more serious damage is caused to Pakistan remains to be seen and is cause of extreme angst. Recommend

  • Ahmed
    Jun 4, 2011 - 6:03AM

    Bravo.. Excellent article. Reduce defence budget, stop Imran Talbian and other ISI backed leaders, spend money on education, peace with India and spend money on infrastructure so that we can be a global export machine.Recommend

  • Jun 4, 2011 - 6:30AM

    Consecutive governments in pakistan have been playing the Islamist card and giving jahil village mullahs more and more power.

    Now we have an immense unproductive population who have been drinking radicalised Kool Aid who have no value for Pakistan let alone modern world – pakistan and pakistanis are becoming more despised yet we Pakistanis continue to be our worst enemies calling into question every violent attack against innocents as done by outside forces and by calling into question our nations future as a viable mature nation

    Its time to educate and skill the masses and get rid of the madrassas and the mullahs stranglehold on the peopleRecommend

  • SharifL
    Jun 4, 2011 - 10:43AM

    Silence kills hope. It kills optimism.
    Well said.I agree. It reminds me f Faiz: Bol ke lab Azaad hein tere…:
    “Speak, for your lips are free;

    Speak, your tongue is still your own;

    This straight body still is yours,

    Speak, your life is still your ownRecommend

  • Jun 4, 2011 - 11:02AM

    it is indeed a master piece.i have read book of this writer and i feel proud that our country has the capacity to produce such young talented brains. i totally agree with the desired steps of writer.we as a nation should learn to live peacefully with our neighbours.imagine how many people can get clean drinking water with the money that we spend on purchasing F-16.Recommend

  • Rao Amjad Ali
    Jun 4, 2011 - 11:49AM

    In my view peace with India and a rationalised tax collection regime can accelerate Pakistan’s economic growth and that is where the country ought to concentrate its energies, much else will automatically fall into place, especially when such services as state sector education, health care and police receive more funding.

    While Mr. Saleem Shahzad’s gruesome murder is deplorable, connecting his write-up in the Asia Times to it is a wreckless dash to judgment and poor journalism. Free of reprisals, Pakistani journalists in both print and electronic media regularly put out far more stinging and direct attacks on the “agencies” for their alleged involvement in all kinds of nefarious activities, including terrorism. Mr. Shahzad’s kidnapping and ghastly torture to death seem more a result of personal vendetta than anything else. Recommend

  • leila
    Jun 4, 2011 - 12:24PM

    Everyday people are killed in Baluchistan for speaking their minds….no Pakistani journalist mentions those incidents…how much media attention has the assination of Prof. Dashtiyari received by the so-called Pakistani social liberals?? I’m really upset by the brutal killing of Shahzad – but people should know that this type of brutal incidents are everyday stories in Baluchistan. When will the liberal elite acknowledge that? Recommend

  • Tahir
    Jun 4, 2011 - 12:33PM

    You write: “But nothing on my list cannot be done.” I can’t believe such a clunky sentence made it through your editor. Surely what you meant was But nothing’s on my list that can’t be done.Recommend

  • ArifQ
    Jun 4, 2011 - 12:46PM

    “When a speeding train is hurtling down the wrong track towards a cliff, optimism lies in the hope that passengers will raise an alarm in time for a conductor to pull the brake.”

    But what if the passengers long for the after life? Desire to be freed of this material world? Ecstasy of martyrdom? Lure of 72 Houries? Mohsin Sahib, passengers on the meat train you speak of have a very different world view, to expect change without acknowledging their belief system is not going to produce the desired results. I totally agree with your tax reforms agenda but find contradiction in the need to fight terrorists yet reduce the defense budget unless the implication here is that resources to be reallocated to local police. That too under the present circumstances can be construed as throwing good money at bad investment ideas, we all know of corruption in local departments, political patronage, nexus with extremists and the generally poor standards of personnel selection. Wish you well in your endeavors. Recommend

  • Salman toor
    Jun 4, 2011 - 1:06PM

    A breath of fresh air. Especially after the dreary headlines today. Recommend

  • Concerned
    Jun 4, 2011 - 1:17PM

    So how does the average citizen stop these dark forces in their tracks?
    There are too many vested interests and the fabric of national character has become moth eaten and weak.
    Honour, self esteem and integrity are old fashioned and do not pay the bills.
    It is not enough to do the job you are paid for. Your job is just a position which you must leverage to maximise your undeclared cash revenues.
    So where does one start to make the changes you have listed?
    Thank you Mohsin.Recommend

  • Mahmood
    Jun 4, 2011 - 2:27PM

    Very well written piece, Mohsin. I wish your article could be translated to Urdu so it could be shared with a wider audience. Besides breaking our silence, we need to think creatively about the kinds of systems that can be used to mobilize the masses. The country’s mind-set is ingrained in the history of it’s imperial past and subjugation – hence, it explains why when the few who do speak up are quickly silenced without so much as a cry from the public. People need to be taught how to raise their voice and the value of raising it.Recommend

  • Saad H
    Jun 4, 2011 - 2:36PM

    Mohsin, your articles are always so well written, you’re one of the few sane voices left in Pakistan. But I would suggest that this article gets published in an Urdu newspaper.Recommend

  • Zareen
    Jun 4, 2011 - 4:29PM

    Mohsin, great article and analysis… 10 points plan is very good, reasonable and certainly doable. One very important thing to do anything is ‘Political Will’ and that is glaringly missing. We need sincere leadership to pursue such plans.

    Keep it up!! Recommend

  • prince
    Jun 4, 2011 - 5:37PM

    how long will Pakistan continue to play pawn in the hands of America. had such number of casualties occurred to them what would have been the result, God Knows better. so the people of Pakistan should realize it and more than that the authorities have to wake up now.
    how can they be Marshals and mukbirs at the same time. Recommend

  • Champak Bhoomia
    Jun 4, 2011 - 6:48PM

    It is too much good article ok.Recommend

  • Naseem Rasmalai
    Jun 4, 2011 - 6:55PM

    it is good articleRecommend

  • Champak Bhoomia
    Jun 4, 2011 - 6:57PM

    It is too much good article okRecommend

  • Zee
    Jun 4, 2011 - 10:00PM

    Excellent article…but I don’t know how to make a significant difference. My question to Mohsin Hamid is what should the expatriates do to help Pakistan. We donate financially and physically by arranging fund raisers, garage sales etc. We discuss Pakistan’s situation on social media and at dinners with friends. We try to improve Pakistan’s and Muslim’s image by example and by educating the masses….but what else? Recommend

  • Aba
    Jun 5, 2011 - 1:11AM

    Like do you ever fail to disappoint?Recommend

  • Jun 5, 2011 - 1:37AM

    I am sick of people talking about “not talking”. Infect i believe Pakistan is one of those countries where any media outlet can publish any thing , any blogger can articulate any obituary , any twitter user spread any kind of conspiracy without being answerable. Infect, Pakistan’s often cited failures might have caused because of too much speaking and less doing. Everybody here loves to “talk” rather then do some action and my dear writer is not an exception.
    I have seen many twitter friends around who blow so much hot air about pakistan without ever facing the ground realities. I have been living in London and travelled all over the europe and know how harsh it becomes to write so much openly and publish whatever you like because you have to prove your words and many examples shows that even twitter is not an exception (not that i am liking that exceptions).
    Infect free speech is very debatable concept in itself. no country can allow debates without any boundaries (infect there are many laws and quite few popular ones). I can keep going on explaining my point but i know it will be in vain as we love to criticise , however never allow anyone to let us evaluate ourselves.Recommend

  • Malik
    Jun 5, 2011 - 4:31AM

    Dear Author, After reading this post, I must say, I am a fan!

    I have very rarely seen such balanced articles by our journalists. Keep writing good stuff and stay optimistic. We will be on the right track very soon inshaAllah.Recommend

  • Rehmat
    Jun 5, 2011 - 3:10PM

    @Independent from UK:
    You gorgot to mentiont the genocide in Bengal and consequent fall of Ghacca as gifts also.Recommend

  • Jun 5, 2011 - 7:35PM

    How does it relate to topic?Recommend

  • Jun 6, 2011 - 12:59AM

    For too long we have played the proxy fighter role. We have nurtured mercenaries so now we are stuck with them being used against us. Now we have no choice left but to face the music and until someone very strong as a leader or a group / party with moral courage comes forward and asks from themselves and of the people of the nation some tough questions its impossible to get out of this mess.

    We the quiet educated class know the solutions but we don’t have access to power and here its not just talking or chatter that can help. That is a strategy where there is enforcement and rule of law and the check and balance is working to harmonize the system. Since that is missing raising the voice alone will not help stop the downward trail. I have been an optimist for long but the future looks bleak from here!Recommend

  • Jun 6, 2011 - 7:28AM

    @Usman Bashir:
    I honestly tried to hold myself back from this but, my will is weak.

    “Infect” means to contaminate something like a disease.
    “In fact” on the other hand, are the words you’re looking for.Recommend

  • hanya
    Jun 6, 2011 - 1:07PM

    @ Mark : I bet your Urdu is not half as good as Usman’s English. In fact you probably can’t even pronounce his name properly so leave out the patronising vocab corrections.Recommend

  • dude
    Jun 6, 2011 - 6:39PM

    Pakistan needs strong civil society activist like Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdeo and a strong opposition.Recommend

  • raza
    Jun 8, 2011 - 12:15PM

    Excellent! Now if we can figure out how to share this with a few million youngsters and make them understand why one has to write all this – maybe they will feel like being optimistic too. Recommend

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