Washington DC Discussion – Those who Control Pakistan’s National Narrative do not allow other Ideas

By Khalid Hashmani

Washington D.C. – On February 19, 2010, the South Asia Studies program of School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) organized yet another (SAIS) thought-provoking discussion with Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa. The writings of Dr. Siddiqa, who was once the Director of Naval Research with Pakistan Navy, have boldly challenged supremacy of Pakistani military and hegemony of thought process imposed by the growing religious coalition in Pakistan. Her two books Military Inc, Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy and Pakistan’s Arms Procurement and Military Buildup exposed the Pakistan military’s growing hold on the decision making process and gaining effective control of politics and economy of Pakistan. Although the title of her session “Salvaging Pakistan: The Changing Face of Civil Society” has mild connotations, her hard-hitting presentation and her responses in the follow-up Q&A session were not only provocative but also challenged many of the current assumptions and predicaments. She spoke in no uncertain terms that the extremism will continue to engulf Pakistan unless the the current national narrative of Pakistan is changed and there was a genuine tolerance for religious diversity in terms of other religions and other Muslims whose opinions differed from Sunni-Devbandi-wahabi ideology.

Liberalism and Extremism in Pakistan

Dr. Siddiqa vehemently questioned the notion that growing middle class will reduce extremism in Pakistan. She said that the factors such as poverty, corruption, political instability played the role of catalysts and are not the primary causes for growing terrorism in Pakistan. She added that addressing these factors will not necessarily stop growth of extremism in Pakistan. She cited recent surveys that clearly showed that a majority of Pakistanis want Pakistan to be a regional military power and even support the use of nuclear bombs if the survival of “umma” was endangered. It was ironic that surveys also showed that fewer people wanted Pakistan to be a great democratic country than those who wanted it to be a Muslim regional power. Although a majority of respondents said “No” to Talibanization, ironically they also wanted to “Umma” to be a concrete reality with “Nizam-e-Adal” with Khilafat. The survey also showed that a majority of Pakistanis perceive that the greatest threats posed to Pakistan were from (1) USA (2) Other Western countries (3) India, and (4) Israel.

Speaking about the liberals in Pakistan, Dr. Siddiqa said that Pakistan liberals were largely timid and fearful to fight the growing extremism. Seemingly, liberal looking people who give the impression of having tolerant views and practicing liberal life styles would like to see the supremacy of “Umma”. She said there is a large presence of extremism-leaning people in almost all institutions of Pakistan including military, civilian government, political parties, judiciary, and media. She gave an example of GEO TV network which has a major partnership with VOA. GEO generously makes its platform available to people with extreme and non-tolerant views to propagate their views. She added that today’s Pakistani media is largely influenced by various interest groups. They are mostly repeating to please a particular group just like some of the media such as Fox are doing in the USA. She remarked that the media in Pakistan in 1980s was far more open and free than today.

She asked how one would expect that extremism to be discouraged if major leaders like Shahbaz Sharif sign agreements with known extremists such as Mulana Jhangvi. She added that leaders like Imran Khan do not understand that liberalism is weakened if they take sides with extremists. Commenting on “voting patterns”, she warned that much of vote is influenced by clans and family ties and does not indicate liberalism or conservatism. Dr. Siddiqa said that criticizing the USA to get political prominence in Pakistan has become a common practice. She asked why any one would expect Pakistanis to feel positive about the USA when even the US government did not criticize such statements. She remarked that the cause of the religious rigidity in Pakistan is two=fold. First, the state itself has been willingly or unwittingly killing social science over years and the second reason is that Pakistan military has created a system that produces its own intellectuals.

Grand Coalition of Extremists

Dr. Siddiqa was of the view that it is folly to think that Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban, groups of Lashkar-e-Taiban, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP), Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other religion-influenced violent groups are separate organizations. They are very much interconnected. It may not be a strategic alliance but they frequently collaborate and help each other. She gave the example of the slaying of Daniel Pearl, where one group provided the safe venue and another group carried out the killing. Talking about these organizations, Dr. Siddiqa said that there are three major wars happening in and around Pakistan:

O Afghan Taliban fighting inside Afghanistan and on Pakistan tribal area.

O Pakistan Taliban fighting in tribal areas of Pakistan.

O Local forces such as Lashkar-e-Taiban, Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP), and Lashkar-e-Taiba fighting in the heartland of Pakistan.

Dr. Siddiqa reminded that the bulk of population in Pakistan is in 15-24 years age group, an easy target for extremists to attract. She also startled audience when she mentioned that most of the terrorists recently caught are Punjabis.

What is happening in Pakistan

O Pakistan is strategically changing

O Institutions are collapsing

O Liberalism is disappearing

O Public perception that views partnership with the USA as a tactical step

O Voting Pattern are not true indicators of liberalism

O Growing middle class is not liberal as perceived by US officials

O Minds are being shaped by global politics

O New forms of radicalization are appearing

O Radical conservatives who may not look like Taliban are poised to takeover Pakistan..

It is a myth that middle is not radical conservatives. In fact middle class through out the world history have shown conservative bias. It should not surprise any one to know that it is the middle class that is funding madras’s in Pakistan. Do not go by appearance! Do not look only at stereo-type models. The thoughts of many liberal looking people are similar to Taliban as they too believe that bringing back khilafat will solve all problems.

Current National Narrative of Pakistan

Current Policies of Pakistan are influenced by:

India centricity

Focus on Muslim Identity (survival of state tied to “Muslim Umma”)

Insecurity about their identity

Desire for power

Belief that others want to break Pakistan and take away their nuclear weapons

Who is Pakistani “Establishment ?

Military (not all)

Civil Bureaucracy (not all)

some in judiciary

Other constituents come from media including those from editorial ranks, academicians, intellectuals, and from other fields.

It is folly to think that the “establishment is solely “Punjabi”. Indeed having the largest presence in the Pakistani military and bureaucracy, they have the dominant presence in the cadres of establishment but many non-Punjabis are also part of the establishment. The “Establishment” is not a formal and well-structured organization but rather it acts more like powerful “interests group”

What is “Hizb-watan-Tahreer”?

Pakistani Establishment

Most of religious political parties

Most of conservative political parties

Some institutions

Some media companies

Taliban and other religious terrorist organizations

It is the convergence of these forces that controls Pakistan’s national narrative. These forces do not allow free and open access to any other ideas except those that fall within their definition of the national narrative. Media and information outlets are greatly influenced by Hizb-watan-Tahreer”. She cautioned that there many in expatriate Pakistanis who support the objectives of Hizb-watan-Tahreer.

Dr. Siddiqa said that it is essential to make space for other narratives to be debated and consideration be given to other alternatives for possible inclusion in the national narrative. She said that to bring about a meaningful change, it is essential that free discussion of ideas such as co-federation with other regional countries, or ethnic and lingual considerations be allowed. She added that unfortunately both India and Pakistan are largely ignorant of each other and that has been the cause of a lot of mistrust between two countries.

Dr Siddiqa challenged Pakistanis to adopt “rational” thinking on major national issues and warned that looking at each problem as a conspiracy either carried out by CIA, RAW, or some other external entity prevent us from finding real solutions. She added that Pakistanis blame Americans for giving arms and funds to create Mujahadins to fight soviets in Afghanistan and omit the fact that Pakistanis were also as willing to accept those arms and funding and eager to fight as they saw the opportunity to serve their larger interests.

Need Comprehensive Solutions and not quick fixes

Dr. Siddiqa mentioned that different solutions being proposed will not eradicate extremism if real religious tolerance is not allowed to flourish. The solutions proposed by various people include:

Investment in Development

Investment in Education

Institution Building

Eradication Corruption

Building and engaging engagements with the emerging liberal middle class

Elimination of Feudal institutions

Engaging at institution-to-institution levels

Dr. Siddiqa proposed that the most important contributions that US can make is to assist in the following areas:

Strengthening of democracy

Helping to change National Narrative and foster access of other ideas

Helping to bring liberal interpretations to the mainstream

Helping to eradicate practice where rights of citizens are based on their putative relationships to religion.

US must stop thinking in terms of personalities, and quick fixes for Pakistan.

US must re-think its strategy of preferring to deal with only one institution.

O US must have a comprehensive policy for Pakistan that includes society itself.

O US must Insist on transparency

Dr. Siddiqa remarked that in fact there has never been change of regime in Pakistan. The changes in personalities have taken place but the policies and governance philosophies have remained the same. This is the reason that blaming one ruler or other ruler makes no difference.

Talking about the new US aid commitment (popularly called Kerry-Lugar Bill), Dr. Siddiqa said that it is merely a tool of engaged and she did not expect that much would be achieved from it.

She severely criticized Ambassador Hallbrooke’s approach and said that the ambassador often talked down Pakistan and look at short-term picture only. Instead, she favored the Vice President Biden’s approach as she felt that it exhibited better understanding of what was happening in Pakistan and took a long-term view of the engagement in civil society of Pakistan.

* Mr. Khalid Hashmani is a Washington DC-based veteran human rights activist. He is the founding President of Sindhi Association of North America (SANA) and Chief coordinator of Sindhi Excellence Team (SET) that participates in advocacy activities on behalf of rural Sindhi.

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