Recent revelations from the otherwise dormant Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah made the entire country undergo a cognitive dissonance of sorts. Well-educated militants are behind high-profile attacks, Shah proclaimed in a press conference from Nawabshah. IBA graduate, Saad Aziz, was said to be the mastermind of rights activist Sabeen Mahmud’s murder, and the main accused in the Safoora incident. Muhammad Azhar Ishrat, an electronics engineer from Sir Syed University of Engineering and Technology was allegedly engaged in terror activities since 2011. Hafiz Nasir, who had a Masters in Islamic Studies from the University of Karachi, held expertise in brainwashing and motivating people to undertake ‘jihadi’ activities.
The oxymoronic phrasing of headlines, where words ‘well educated’ and ‘militant’ were inked side by side, left many at unease. Till now, the figure of the militant in the popular imaginary had been a madrassa-going, illiterate, poverty-stricken, tribal man. This time, the militant went to a prestigious university for higher education, his father worked for a multinational and some of us had mutual friends with him on Facebook. The militant was among ‘us’. Prime time television shows turned to analysts to probe further into this alarming and rather uncomfortable disclosure. In one such interview, writer and journalist Mohammed Hanif correctly dissected the polemic. Showing no astonishment, Hanif in his casual but cogent style said, “The problem lies with the Pakistani narrative, which exists everywhere,” Hanif said. “It is present in the madrassa, in schools, in colleges and in our institutions.”
The narrative on which Pakistan has predicated its identity is based on an exceptionalist self-understanding where Pakistan assumes itself as the sole protectorate of a singular version of religion. Over the course of 60 odd years, our state has tried and tested every version of religiosity on the spectrum: from staunch Islamisation to Enlightened Moderation. Each time, however, Pakistani identity has become insular and systematically more right-wing. We are the saviours of Palestine and Kashmir, liberating our oppressed Muslim brothers from our sworn enemies, which morph sometimes into India, other times into Israel or ‘the West’.
Hanif rightly pointed out that since we can attain none of the ‘holy’ aspirations — wiping Israel off the map of the world, for instance — we find ways to extinguish alternative viewpoints within Pakistan that question its exceptionalism or just putting an end to those deemed different from how we perceive ‘us’. This is a form of nationalist-chauvinism, constantly embroiled in an internal strife. Therefore in Pakistan, scores of academics and rights activists termed ‘anti-state’ are gunned down when troubling conversations take place in spaces promoting healthy questioning and dialogue. Similarly, sectarian strife is rampant for any belief system other than ‘ours’ and needs to be crushed. These heinous crimes are carried out by none other than those whose breeding is embedded in a narrative structured around an insular version of Pakistan and what it means to be Pakistani.
Currently, the Supreme Court’s larger bench is struggling to answer an important question concerning 18th and 21st amendments: can they be struck down by the courts? In the efforts to unravel this legal puzzle, the Supreme Court’s 17-judge bench has raised some pertinent questions and issues regarding the basic structure of the Constitution in particular and how it impacts Pakistan’s self-perception. In one proceeding, Chief Justice Nasirul Mulk questioned how the country would go about declaring itself a secular state if there is a popular demand for change. The bench deliberated if such an amendment can be passed through a constituent assembly and whether it can be formed at this stage or is there a need for a referendum.
In another hearing, a member of the bench argued that the word ‘sect’ was not included in the original 1973 Constitution but was added later by a military dictator in 1985 to Article 227. In this particular hearing, it was also argued that accepting certain features of the Objectives Resolution may lead to the destruction of the other provisions of the Constitution. The counsel for the federal government has also pointed out to the Supreme Court that the 1973 Constitution was an “uneasy marriage between socialism and Islam”, which could never be successful.
These court proceedings are in essence a walk through the constitutional history of Pakistan, demonstrating how the state has itself tampered with the country’s self-perception. It sheds light on how religion became inseparable from the Pakistani identity and took on a sectarian nature. Even though our judiciary has a history of passing conservative and problematic judgments, at the very least, as this particular case suggests, it is debating. It is engaged in a conversation Pakistan should be having given the number of lives lost in a warfare that is part sectarian and part an attempt to crush meaningful dissent. The debate in the Supreme Court is important and necessary, yet it is restricted to this elite institution and barely trickles down to the masses.
In a country where a university “intentionally promotes sectarian doctrine” or a higher education department distributes a circular taking notice of “anti-culture and anti-Pakistan” research, prompting the academia to play a constructive role in nurturing nationalism, why then are we surprised if the militant is ‘well educated’? Our places of learning are preaching the same myopic narrative that led to where we are today. Further, our state is not only providing protection but giving radical elements like the Jamaatud Dawa and the Ahl-e-Sunnat wal Jamaat a free hand to induct and indoctrinate men into exceptionalist ideologies that sow the seeds of discord.
No state in the world is free from injustices and Pakistan is no exception. Even the Western, European secular state turns violent and often takes on a religious character, striking hard at its ‘own’ people deemed ‘different’. For Pakistan, to seek an end to militancy and sectarianism, questioning and confrontation of our own normalised beliefs is the need of the hour. If this debate currently exists on an abstract level of the Constitution, at a removed platform like the Supreme Court, it needs to be made accessible to everybody. This can only be done if we look at our history with a critical eye with a reassessment of 1947, 1971, the 1980s, and post-9/11 — each time period the state has been complicit in distorting our understanding of the past.
It has been one month to Sabeen Mahmud’s murder, approximately five to the Peshawar school attack. Over the course of the year, we have lost many Shia lives, Ismaili lives, Bohra lives, Christian lives, Ahmadi lives, Baloch lives — the list goes on. To avoid a repeat of the past, to avoid the emergence of more militants, to avoid the loss of lives, the present narrative needs to be resisted, reimagined and renewed for a truly transformative existence.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 26th, 2015.