Pakistan’s phoenix effect

It’s unhealthy to believe that there is an international conspiracy where everyone is out there to get us.


M Bilal Lakhani July 17, 2013
The writer is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and currently teaches journalism at SZABIST in Karachi

If Pakistan was a person, could it rise from the ashes of total failure and soar towards its unfulfilled destiny?

Knowingly or unknowingly, Pakistanis are big believers in what is dubbed as the “phoenix effect” in popular culture. In Greek mythology, a phoenix is a bird that is cyclically regenerated or reborn. Associated with the sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. Recently, the electrifying rallying cry of a naya Pakistan, rising from the ashes of the old Pakistan, is a sign of how deeply entrenched the “phoenix effect” mentality is in Pakistani society.

In many ways, this is classic Pakistani escapism playing its usual tricks. The romanticism of a magic cure-all for our problems is seductive in its simplicity and speed. Most critics of classic Pakistani escapism argue that the phoenix effect is hogwash and part of our favourite national pastime that involves burying our heads in the sand to deny our problems as the world moves on to bigger and better things. But what if the truth lies somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, i.e., blind faith in the phoenix effect and a complete denial of the phoenix effect?

What if a quick turnaround of fortunes for Pakistan is possible but we’re looking in all the wrong places for solutions to our problems? What if we were to reimagine the phoenix effect, not as a function of hope in a magic cure-all solution (think political tsunamis, running cars on water, etc.), but as an action plan that is firmly rooted in ground realities and seeks to genuinely solve our problems rather than simply hoping for the best?

After all, Pakistan is experiencing somewhat of a phoenix effect as we speak when it comes to the strength of democracy in the country. Look across the Muslim world and you’ll find that Pakistan is increasingly one of the more stable democracies. Take the events in Egypt or even Turkey recently where people’s power on the street threatens, or in some cases, even topples elected governments (in the case of Egypt, with the help of the military). In sharp contradistinction to the struggles of the Arab Spring, the Pakistani people reasserted their rights to elect and fire political leaders in the country on May 11, 2013, giving birth to a “new” Pakistani democratic culture that has risen from the ashes of the “old” democratic culture. This is nothing short of phenomenal even as we under-celebrate the long-term dividends of this institution building on account of the lack of tangible results they produce in the short run.

How did Pakistan turn around its hapless democracy? The first enabler was a broad-based consensus across civil society, as well as institutions, such as the judiciary and the press that democracy needs to be given a genuine, sustained chance in Pakistan. Second, political actors sacrificed their own short-term self-interest for the sake of long-term democratic stability in the country. This is uncharacteristic of politicians from anywhere in the world but is especially true in the case of Pakistan. Taking painful hits in the short term for long-term institution building is a sign of political maturity, even if most of us currently dismiss such sacrifices on account of the little impact they make in our “real” day-to-day lives.

As a country, we can reapply these principles to resolve the key national crises on energy, the economy as well as extremism. But there is another key enabler to resolving these issues in addition to broad-based political consensus and short-term sacrifices. If the countries of the world behaved like children in a high school lunchroom, Pakistan would be the misunderstood kid who sits in the corner and eats his lunch alone.

A deep-rooted mistrust of the outside world, particularly Western countries, has disproportionately influenced Pakistan’s public policy choices, resulting in suboptimal relations with other nations. It’s unhealthy for us to believe that there is an international conspiracy in which everyone in the world is out there to get us into trouble.

In the final analysis, an inward looking approach to identifying the root causes of our problems and an inclusive, outward looking approach to solving our problems hold the key to unlocking Pakistan’s real promise.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 18th, 2013.

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COMMENTS (19)

Anand Kumar | 7 years ago | Reply

" Look across the Muslim world and you’ll find that Pakistan is increasingly one of the more stable democracies. Take the events in Egypt or even Turkey recently where people’s power on the street threatens, or in some cases, even topples elected governments (in the case of Egypt, with the help of the military)......"

Nothing but unadulterated hogwash! The recent events that occured in Egypt are actuallly a turn for the better. The Muslim brotherhood would in fact feel at home in Pakistan, because the majority of Pakistanis are cut from the same cloth. The anti-Morsi group are actually fighting for limiting religion in the public sphere, protecting women's and minority rights! Unlike Pakistan. The young Turks are also fighting for limiting religion in the public sphere. In Pakistan extremism is the main stream. In Pakistan fundamentalism is the normal.

Strategic Asset | 7 years ago | Reply

Does the author mean what he wrote? A phoenix bursts into flames in its dying moments and is reborn as a young chick. This cycle repeats itself during the life (and death) of the phoenix.

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