In Review Review essay

Why Pakistan’s official narrative is not serving it well

Updated Apr 16, 2019 04:36pm

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A demonstration in Karachi in favour of the armed forces | Shakil Adil, White Star
A demonstration in Karachi in favour of the armed forces | Shakil Adil, White Star

There are strong reasons to believe that last month’s suicide attack in Pulwama in Indian-held Kashmir was an indigenous Kashmiri manifestation of a struggle for independence from India’s occupation. The world, therefore, has been critical of India’s hyper-nationalist narrative that calls Kashmir an integral part of the Indian state but refuses to give the Kashmiris their fundamental human rights.

Yet, the criticism of India’s belligerence has not helped Pakistan convince the rest of the world that it has no role in the attack. If anything, the country has come under tremendous pressure from the international community to take serious and concrete action against certain groups and individuals – such as Jaish-e-Muhammad, Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation – which are deemed to be responsible for various acts of terrorism – including the one in Pulwama.

The three organisations are banned globally under a United Nations Security Council resolution but face few restrictions within Pakistan. Law enforcement authorities in the country have never been keen on enforcing the ban, often stating that these organisations have broken no local laws.

That the world wants this to change was evident during a recent meeting between Pakistani officials and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental forum that counters money laundering and terrorism financing. The FATF representatives insisted during the meeting that Pakistan had failed to “demonstrate” why it “considered … proscribed entities to be low-risk”.

The task force’s own Asia Pacific Group deems these as “high-risk”. In its latest review, carried out between February 18 and February 22 this year, the group went to the extent of stating that Pakistan “does not demonstrate a proper understanding of” terrorism financing and the “risks posed” by the internationally proscribed entities.

These observations clearly point out that the international community remains wary of Pakistan’s narrative, particularly on jihadi outfits based within its territory. That the government has finally arrested more than a hundred people associated with these organisations, including a brother and a son of Jaish-e-Muhammad’s founder Masood Azhar, makes it evident that Pakistan is not finding it easy to carry on in the global arena with its existing security-centred and Islam-propelled narrative.

If the county does not move quickly to address this wariness, it could well be shifted from a grey FATF list to a black one. This shift will create major obstacles in the way of any money flows to and from the country — including through foreign trade and foreign investment. The economic costs of persisting with a narrative that the world does not agree to are clearly very high.

This is particularly worrisome at a time when the Pakistan narrative is not attracting any seriously significant audiences abroad. When foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi flew to London in early February this year, along with 11 senators and some senior Foreign Office bureaucrats, to attend a meeting on Kashmir in the British parliament, he could not convince even a single British minister to attend the event. While the absence of British ministers might not have any negative impact on the Kashmir issue, it is certainly indicative of the difficulties Pakistan faces in propagating its narrative and of the inadequacy of its efforts to do so.

Success – or failure – of these efforts is crucial to Pakistan’s global standing and its economic and diplomatic ties with the rest of the world. The fate of these efforts also affects the causes Pakistan supports abroad and the public opinion at home. The latter matters because, as is shown by the 2018 general elections, it has political implications. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf won at least some of the public support it garnered on polling day because it successfully tapped into a state-promoted narrative of patriotism during its election campaign.

As is, thus, obvious, constructing a national narrative and conveying it successfully to whomsoever it may concern is important both for global and local reasons. Given this importance, it is not unreasonable to ask how this narrative is formed in Pakistan, what its constituent parts are and who communicates it to the world at large. It is also important to examine the effects of this entire process on the Pakistani society as well as its global effectiveness.

The two-nation theory that underpinned the pre-independence era movement for Pakistan played a central role in defining the country’s national identity as being distinctly dissimilar to that of its neighbour, India. This was coupled, and reinforced, by a perennial perception of an external threat to Pakistan’s security — also originating from India. This perception was later bolstered by the role the Pakistani state assigned to India in the 1971 war that resulted in East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh. The state’s narrative, therefore, has focused primarily on the defence of its geographical territory since the very beginning.

This security-centred national narrative has been reflected in a defensive form of Pakistani nationalism domestically — one that promotes a unitary outlook, prioritising one language (Urdu), one religion (Islam) and a one-size-fits-all cultural identity. It repudiates social, cultural, political and religious diversity, creating a brittle conformity and discouraging the projection of a nuanced and realistic picture of the country. Attempts at even questioning and critiquing this ironing out of diversity, let alone challenging it, have often led to stigmatisation or, even worse, persecution by the state.

Dr Matthew Nelson, a scholar based at the London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, has explained how this unitary national narrative came into being in Pakistan. In his 2009 article, Dealing with Difference: Religious Education and the Challenge of Democracy in Pakistan, he argued that early expressions of ethnic tensions and political polarisation “from below” prompted the development of a state-led harmonization effort promoted though textbooks used in Pakistani schools.

Dr Aqil Shah, an assistant professor of South Asian Studies at the University of Oklahoma, on the contrary, has shown that harmonization was not the effect of internal divisions but the cause of them and that it started as soon as the country became a geographical reality. In his 2016 book, The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan, he described how Pakistan’s early efforts at nation-building – informed by the ruling Muslim League’s understanding of a unitary Muslim nationalism – “politicised and polarised ethnic (especially Bengali) identities”. These developments, he says, “spurred movements for autonomy that [in turn] sparked military and civilian-elite fears of internal fragmentation … put[ing] a premium on assimilation”.

In either case, the state’s top-down narrative and a popular opposition to it have been there since the start. This clash was reinforced by the way the state’s own institutions have taken shape. As distinguished scholar Dr Tariq Rahman explained in an interview, the military and civilian bureaucracy developed more quickly and more robustly than political parties and the legislature during the early days of Pakistan. This was mainly because both the military and the bureaucracy inherited their rules, regulations and infrastructure – including trained human resources – from British colonial rule. On the other hand, all those institutions that represented and were meant to enforce the will of the people had to start from scratch. An overdeveloped state, thus, came to lord over highly underdeveloped political and societal structures, something that Hamza Alavi, a Pakistan-born sociologist who taught and worked in England, elaborated in a seminal essay he wrote in 1972.

Police personnel arrest a Pashtun Tahafuz Movement activist during a protest outside the National Press Club in Islamabad | Online
Police personnel arrest a Pashtun Tahafuz Movement activist during a protest outside the National Press Club in Islamabad | Online

A couple of decades after independence, the civilian bureaucracy started experiencing a gradual decline in its quality, competence, efficiency as well as power. The biggest blow to it was served by the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto which, in the 1970s, lowered the bar of entry for it and sacked hundreds of well-entrenched senior bureaucrats. The military, nevertheless, was able to consolidate its already pre-eminent position within the state structures in spite of losing the 1971 war. Thanks mainly to two military regimes – the first between 1977 and 1988 and the second between 1999 and 2008 – it successfully entrenched itself into the state’s system. A seemingly ceaseless civil war in neighbouring Afghanistan – and the consequent violence in Pakistan – and hostilities with India over Kashmir have only further strengthened its position vis-à-vis other institutions. All this has helped senior military personnel project themselves as the guardians of Pakistan’s national interest which they define exclusively in India-centric ‘state-security’ terms.

Along the way, the military has also gained a lot of say in economic policymaking in order to ensure that defence spending continues to increase irrespective of whether the economy and national finances are doing well or badly. It has developed its business interests too through its pricey housing schemes and such diverse enterprises as banking, fertilizer, sugar, dairy, livestock and cereals.

Given the military’s dominance in almost all significant policy areas, it is highly unlikely that it will allow a shift in the state’s security-focused narrative. A large section of the people in Pakistan also seems to have developed a liking for this narrative, making it even more difficult to change.

Academically speaking, the evolution of this popular support is in line with Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson’s 1991 thesis of nations being “imagined communities”. Anderson wrote that a community – or a nation – is created when a group of people, which may belong to different geographies, starts to imagine that it has shared historical, cultural, social and religious traits — that is, a sense of belonging to a particular idea or identity. In many parts of Pakistan, this sense of belonging is rooted in religious differences with Hindu-majority India — a legacy of the partition of the Subcontinent along religious lines.

As many scholars have pointed out, religious affinities within Pakistan have been routinely used by the state as a bond to keep together disparate groups and communities living in the country. The interests of these groups and communities are, thus, aligned – more tenuously in some cases than in others – with their commitment to a cohesive, but nonetheless anxious, nationalist narrative. This narrative is reinforced in popular media, through school textbooks and during celebrations of nationally important events such as a frenzied flag-lowering ceremony at Wagah Border with India, near Lahore.

Convinced by this narrative, large sections of the Pakistani populace support the idea that their country is always under threat from its foreign enemies. There is no dearth of Pakistanis who see the whole outside world hatching conspiracies against them all the time. Specifically speaking, they believe that Pakistan is bordered by a hostile power – India – and faces security threats from Afghanistan and, to some degree, also from Iran.

A conference on Kashmir at the British parliament | Radio Pakistan
A conference on Kashmir at the British parliament | Radio Pakistan

The evolution of this national narrative, however, did not happen in a straight line. There was a lot of intellectual and political debate about it throughout the 1950s and the 1960s mainly between the left-wing liberals – who envisioned Pakistan as a progressive, democratic homeland for all its citizens regardless of their religious and ethnic difference – and religious ideologues who saw the country purely as an Islamic state. These debates continued well into the 1970s. Dr Saadia Toor, an assistant professor of sociology at the City University New York, wrote in her 2005 article, A National Culture for Pakistan: The Political Economy of a Debate, that such debates were often aired by Radio Pakistan and Pakistan Television (both state broadcasters) during that decade.

Dr Farzana Shaikh, an associate fellow at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, has thrown some light on another type of contestation — the one between a grass-roots level cultural manifestation of religion and a state-led initiative to promulgate and enforce sharia laws. In her 2008 article, From Islamisation to Shariatisation: Cultural Transnationalism in Pakistan, she explained that, in the 1980s, the state embarked on a course to standardise religious practices through the promulgation of laws on, for example, fasting, prayers and zakat even while the society at large mostly saw, and experienced, religion as a cultural and spiritual phenomenon. The state, she said, wanted people to follow a social path guided by a narrowly codified sharia whereas a majority of the populace continued to follow diverse, and often divergent, religious traditions.

The state’s objective in enforcing sharia, according to her, was to forge a uniform national identity so as to mix and merge it with a global community of the faithful, the ummah. This uniformity was necessitated by a civil strife in Afghanistan that was presented as a holy war between Muslims of south-central Asia and godless communists from the Soviet Union. Resultantly, the military in Pakistan successfully positioned itself as a guardian of the Muslim community not just within its own country but also abroad.

The first official intervention by the Pakistani state to present its narrative to foreign intellectuals was undertaken by the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto after the 1971 war. Having lost on both military and diplomatic fronts, he felt the need to counter India’s narrative in order to make the Indian government negotiate a settlement on the prisoners of war and occupied territory. Chairs and fellowships were established at the Oxford University, the Cambridge University, the Columbia University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the Heidelberg University in Germany.

For decades, these chairs and fellowships were a source of vibrant discussion, analysis and independent critique. Today, the state seems to be more intolerant of critical debates outside Pakistan than it is for those at home. The external critique, in the view of senior state officials, damages Pakistan’s image abroad and, thus, hurts its international standing.

Though state functionaries continue to approach academics, and also student associations, abroad to organise events aimed at promoting the state’s narrative, these events do not appeal to serious audiences because they lack the spirit of free inquiry and independent analysis. On the contrary, academics and other members of the intelligentsia who use critical research-oriented practices to discuss and debate the external and internal challenges facing Pakistan are often labelled as disloyal or as enemies of the state. Those who have organised Pakistan-focused seminars abroad – particularly on Balochistan and, more recently, on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – have also come under criticism, even surveillance, from Pakistan’s diplomatic missions.

The security and intelligence establishment believes these events focus only on Pakistan’s negative aspects. I personally experienced this when I hosted the launch of Dr Nafisa Shah’s book Honour and Violence: Gender, Power and Law in Southern Pakistan in London. A senior Pakistani diplomat noted that honour killings were not unique to Pakistan. He claimed that even Princess Diana and her Egyptian lover Dodi al-Fayed “were also killed in an honour killing”. This regurgitation of a familiar conspiracy theory, filtered through a Pakistani notion of honour, reflected the Pakistani state’s prickly and defensive posture which is completely out of touch with European realities and is simultaneously unable to confront real challenges in Pakistan.

This attitude is an extension of the state’s propensity to stifle debate and academic freedom within Pakistan’s own universities — a trend that has become more pronounced over the past year. Two back-to-back events on Mashal Khan and Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) – at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and Karachi’s Habib University, respectively – were cancelled in April 2018 ostensibly at the behest of intelligence agencies. More recently, the alleged killing of Arman Luni, a PTM-affiliated Balochistan-based academic, at the hands of the police and the subsequent arrest of another academic, Dr Ammar Jan, in Lahore, for participating in a protest over his death, point to the same direction: that the state has taken a narrow, exclusionary and anxious approach to shape and impose its narrative.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and former chief of army staff Raheel Sharif during a meeting | APP
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and former chief of army staff Raheel Sharif during a meeting | APP

The state obviously wants to co-opt the academics in this endeavour but, failing that, tries to coerce them into silence. The other side is not receiving all this lying down. More than two hundred Pakistani academics signed a public petition last year as a protest against the suppression of freedom of speech.

The state fails to acknowledge that academics who criticise its policies do so not for any selfish reasons but because they are concerned about the well-being of the people of Pakistan. They want the state to ensure its legitimacy only through the strengthening of democracy and respect for the Constitution.

They are all also willing to enter into a debate with the state provided it presents its narrative in an intellectually rigorous manner — not in the way it is done by the so-called think tanks mushrooming in Islamabad, which lack analytical rigour, authentic sources and stringent norms of academic freedom, that are pre-requisites for producing a credible critique.

Given the fact that the space for progressive thinking has shrunk within Pakistan, the views of Pakistani academics working in other countries have become increasingly significant in setting the direction of the state right. The state must realise that the intelligentsia in the diaspora – possessing the information only an insider can have but simultaneously having the perspective of an outsider – looks at Pakistan through a unique lens. The advent of social media and the resulting globalisation of knowledge means that Pakistani academics abroad now have more hands-on information about their home country than they did in the past. They are also more active academically and more interconnected than ever before.

Flag-lowering ceremony at India-Pakistan border | White Star
Flag-lowering ceremony at India-Pakistan border | White Star

Rather than engaging meaningfully with them, the state has, instead, employed its diplomatic missions abroad to showcase its narrative to the rest of the world. These diplomats have often encountered difficulties in making the Pakistani narrative sound credible because they present it in the most puritanical, exclusionary and rigid form because the Foreign Office lacks institutional capacity to come up with innovative ways to do so. It is a fossilised organisation, relying far too heavily on old school diplomacy and failing to embrace modern tools of influencing international opinion — such as cultural, public and economic diplomacy. “[It is a] very archaic, overly bureaucratic, centralised, fossilised organisation, which has not kept up with the requirements of modern time communications and modern tools of diplomacy,” is how Raza Rumi, a newspaper editor, who also teaches at a college in the United States, argued in a 2015 interview with me.

This view is echoed by Ahmed Rashid, who has written extensively on Pakistan’s international and regional relations. His seminal book, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, was published in 2000. “There is no permanent think tank in the Foreign Office to look at issues ahead of time and plan measures to take,” he told me in 2015. “There are few original papers written which try and change foreign policy or point policy in another, fresher direction. Until the 1980s, there was a great deal more thought put into foreign policy by the Foreign Office.”

Many foreign affairs analysts and practitioners agree that it was in the 1980s that the Foreign Office started ceding control of making the foreign policy (in particular, with regards to India, Afghanistan, and the United States) to the security establishment. This loss of control has weakened the prestige of diplomatic corps and undermined the professional development of its members. As a result, diplomats serving abroad have limited power to develop policy guidelines and devise new strategies.

In a 2015 interview with me, Owen Bennett-Jones, a senior journalist working with the BBC who is also an expert on Pakistani politics, observed that the Foreign Office was usually the last place to find information on Pakistan’s international relations. Young diplomats are acutely aware of this. They know where the real power lies. Since it is the security establishment that makes key decisions, they tend to adapt their opinions and ways of thinking to this reality. A concern for the advancement of their own careers means that very few of them, if any at all, are willing to take an independent stance.

Karachi-based political economist Haris Gazdar explained to me in an interview that there are “too many divergences from constitutional mandates” in Pakistan during the implementation of the state’s own policies. “Elements within the state pursue or support actions which are deemed to be illegal by … important international stakeholders. Such actions enjoy support within segments of the security establishment but cannot be supported openly by constitutional office-holders,” he argued. “The more of a mismatch and discrepancy there is between defined constitutional mandates and [the] actual practice of power, the greater will be the trust deficit [in the working of the state].”

The discrepancy between what the Constitution provides for and the actual practice of power is a recurring theme in Pakistan studies. The establishment seems increasingly keen to address it – even further in its favour – by manipulating parliamentarians who are invested with formal constitutional power. Elected regimes have been undermined frequently by unelected institutions. In recent times, for instance, the suo motu notices taken by the Supreme Court directly impeded the executive power of the previous elected government headed by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN).

The arbitrary application of the Constitution’s articles 62 and 63 for the disqualification of elected public representatives, including former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, offers another evidence of the manipulation of the Constitution’s original scheme. The Senate elections in March 2018 are similarly alleged to have been rigged in order to stop the PMLN from winning any seat from Balochistan. There is a widespread perception that the same pattern was followed in the general elections in July 2018.

As a result of an ongoing effort by the security establishment to gain absolute supremacy over the civilian parts of the state and the civilian resistance to it – no matter how weak, oblique and ultimately inconsequential that resistance may be – there is no consensus in Pakistan on how the state should be run and by whom. “There are competing centres of power in Pakistan,” argued Dr Farzana. As she noted, they have “different visions” of what kind of an image of the country “we want to project” to the rest of the world. What gets promoted at the end of the day is the military’s vision because of its dominance of the polity.

Pakistani soldiers at a military parade | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Pakistani soldiers at a military parade | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

“[The military] projects an image of the country that is primarily concerned with the defence of its frontiers and the questions of democracy are subordinated to [the question] of sovereignty,” Dr Farzana also noted. “There is no understanding of national interest as one that might encompass larger issues of social and economic welfare.”

Besides creating many disparities between the powerless and the powerful, this narrowly defined national narrative also excludes Pakistanis who have been celebrated globally for their work — such as Malala Yousafzai, Dr Abdus Salam and Asma Jahangir. Pakistani Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, who came close to being selected as the head of the Church of England in 2002, has always been treated as a pariah by the state because, despite his constitutional status as a Pakistani citizen, his religion excludes him from being a part of his country’s Islamised national narrative.

This one dimensional narrative is self-defeating in the global context because it relies on a very rigid definition of national interest — one that ignores ground realities and, in some cases, even constitutional principles. It also does not allow Pakistan to be a normal democratic polity but rather shows it as a heavily militarised state ruling over a highly radicalised and deeply divided society.

The consequences of this are not lost on the world. When, in 2016, I took a straw poll of diplomats attending the Foreign Service Programme at the Oxford University, they cited nuclear weapons, terrorism, security, Islam and the Taliban as the most commonly associated factors with Pakistan.

It seems increasingly clear that the current state narrative promoted by the establishment – driven as it is by real and perceived internal and external security threats – has become untenable. Other core factors, such as ethnic and religious diversity and social and economic development, must also be taken into account. Human development, with a focus on an educated, healthy, trained and diverse population, is just as important for the advancement of Pakistani interests as is national security. An authentic Pakistani national narrative needs to offer a nuanced and realistic picture of the country’s needs and objectives — not just of its security-related concerns. But openness, inclusivity and focus on human security can be embraced only when the establishment allows the expression and evaluation of a range of opinions.

The state must understand that defining national interest solely in terms of national security and internal ‘harmonization’ produces an enforced silence within the country and a lack of credibility for the state abroad. The security-centred national narrative, therefore, needs to change if Pakistan is to project itself as a more confident and less anxious state. Failure to do so, and a continuing insistence on the projection of old, monolithic values, will damage the country’s international standing and internal development even further.

The establishment must also respect Pakistani scholars. This requires a change in its security-dominated mindset. It also needs to recognise that critical thinking is a necessary condition for a people to progress. It is a mistake to deny that to academics. By criticising the state, sometimes even sharply, they are actually helping it to function better.


Nadir Cheema teaches economics at the SOAS University of London, and is a senior research fellow at Bloomsbury Pakistan. He regularly contributes on Pakistan’s macroeconomy.


This was originally published in the Herald's March 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.