Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com. Here is his exclusive interview for LUBP, which is being published as the first interview in the LUBP Critical Interview Series.
LUBP: Nadeem, thanks for taking out the time to interview with us. Tell us about your background in politics and your experience as a student activist of PSF. How did Zia’s ban on Student unions in colleges and universities affect political activism in Pakistan? Also, and these are really 3 interconnected questions, what was it like to live during the Zia years and not getting drunk on the cool aid of false nationalism that infected so many educated youth of this generation?
NFP: Well, let’s begin with my association with PSF. I joined PSF during my first year in collage (Saint Patrick’s Govt. College, Karachi), in 1984 simply because PSF was associated with a party (the PPP) which in those days was facing some of the most extreme forms of repression orchestrated by the Ziaul Haq dictatorship. In those days, whereas most universities and colleges in Karachi and Lahore had been taken over by brute force by the Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT), somehow St. Pat’s College hardly had any IJT members. There was just PSF, Baloch Students Organization (BSO), and some small National Students Federation (NSF) factions, and by 1985 I helped get all these progressive student parties together and formed a united front which went by the name of Saint Patrick’s Socialist Students Front (SSPF).
Our main aim was to keep IJT out of the college – by force, if and when required. We also held demonstrations against the Zia regime and against certain teachers we thought were fraudulent.
Zia’s ban on student unions was simply conceived to mute the student parties that were vigorously opposing his dictatorship. But what broke the camel’s back in this respect was the widespread defeats the IJT suffered in the 1983 student union elections across Pakistan. After the ban however, only the IJT was allowed to operate freely, while other student groups were constantly harassed.
As for what it was like not getting tipsy on Zia’s brand of patriotism and religion, well, you might be surprised to learn that a lot of young people really never took that crap seriously. Much of the student groups or youth on the left were openly against the ISI and CIA’s war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, whereas young people on the right were too busy reaping the material benefits of the humongous amounts of financial aid that was coming in from the US and Saudi Arabia.
What I am suggesting is that all the ideological and cultural engineering that went on during the Zia regime, its affects actually began impacting young generations after his death.
Young people on the left vehemently opposed the dictatorship using not only politics, but also the arts like poetry, painting, theatre and folk music. Most of us were focused on just replacing a dictatorship with a democratically elected government. Those on the right, though intolerant as ever, weren’t all that fascistic or psychotic as they have now become.
What I am saying is that the impact of the mess that Zia was creating in the name of Islam and Pakistan really began being felt on the lives of generations that arrived after his death. It was in the 1990s that we first began to notice exactly how much political, cultural and moral damage that man had inflicted.
Today, he may be dead and buried in Islamabad, but his legacy is alive and kicking in our politics, sociology and media. He had given a section of the population – who were once considered to be a right-wing lunatic fringe – the power to impose its warped ideas about patriotism, faith and politics over a population which was not so messed up about its religion and identity as it is now.
Thanks to Zia’s policies, this lunatic fringe has now become the mainstream in Pakistan.
LUBP: Your writings on rock music gave you a cult following among those who wanted a lucid appraisal of the local rock music scene. What is the scene like these days. Are there any groups that are producing good music?
NFP: Yes, I did write a lot on the local pop and rock scene back in the 1990s, idealistically believing that in trying to politicize certain corners of the music scene, one might generate an alternative young urban middle-class consciousness in the new generation – the sort certain musicians managed to arouse in the west in the 1960s (Woodstock), or late 1970s (Punk rock).
In my naiveté, and perhaps also arrogance, I thought this consciousness while being imparted by certain pop and rock bands may make the new generation of young middle class urbanites question the hollow and hypocritical brand of religion, morality and nationalism that was peddled by the Zia dictatorship in the 1980s.
In my enthusiasm I forgot that the end of the Cold War is going to unleash a new era requiring a whole new way of thinking.
I feel silly now about the way I ridiculed certain commercial pop acts for being non-political, because the new truth in this context was that from now on, even the most apolitical act of modern art and action, no matter how commercial or lacking an ideology, would work as a bulwark against a society that was fast converting itself into an insecure, intolerant and introverted set of people.
Lately, I am very impressed with the way things like Coke Studio have managed to give a new and much needed dimension to folk and Sufi music as well as to pop music itself. To me these days even blatantly corporate things like Coke Studio have become vital tools of reflection for a society that is at war with itself over the question of what constitutes true faith and what it really means to be a Pakistani.
Pakistanis facing these questions must realize that even in a highly reactive environment today, most young Pakistanis are bound to relate more to a young pop star singing a Sufi kalam or a quawalli, than he or she can with a mad man who in the name of faith either spouts utter hatred and xenophobic rants on mainstream television, or worse, decides to blow himself up in the name of God in the presence of innocent women, children and men.
As to what the music scene is like today, I have no clue … but I do know that Ali Azmat is finally suffering the affects of a thoroughly fried brain!
LUBP: There is always an interplay between rock music and the prevailing political ethos. How do you think today’s rock musicians in Pakistan relate to the prevailing situation, specifically an extremist ideology that has no toleration for music, culture or liberal dissent?
NFP: I got deluded by the scene as well as with my own work in this context not only due to the fact that I was engaging with the scene on a rather naïve and overtly ideological level, but also due to what I saw was happening to a lot of musicians.
From the mid 1990s, democracy seemed or behaved in a rather meek fashion in its pursuit to address certain ogre like social, political, religious and cultural problems that the Zia regime had left behind.
For example, late Benazir Bhutto, who was such a hero and icon of my generation, just didn’t seem to move even an inch to remove the psychological bottle necks that the society had found itself stuck in after Zia’s departure. So many discriminatory laws and policies devised by Zia against women, the minorities, artistes and those with a liberal bent of mind remained intact.
The feeling was that if these laws remained untouched even during the governments of a liberal-left party, then they might be right. But then one can also point out that by then the right-wing press, the reactionary lobbies and the intelligence agencies had gained so much strength, that it became almost impossible for BB to even lift a finger against anything deemed ‘Islamic.’
And of course, one expected nothing from the likes of Mian Nawaz Sharif and PML-N in this respect. His party’s whole existence seemed to revolve around how to completely eliminate the PPP, or more specifically, BB.
So as our democrats went to war with one another, and the end of the Cold War suddenly rendered the left inconsequential and in utter chaos, the new generation either fell lock, stock and barrel for the growing role of large multinational corporations and consumerism, or, on the other end, many plunged into any number of myopic and compartmentalized versions of faith that emerged from the fringes and onto the surface.
A large number of urban middle-class young men and women fell pray to all this so-called spiritual and theological hoopla floating around at the time. Things like the Tableeghi Jammat, Farhat Hashmi and many other evangelistic groups began penetrating and making inroads into the middle-classes, also gunning for pop stars and famous cricketers.
And what these evangelists went for was a mental disposition that was extremely venerable to a selective kind of religious questioning that attempted to expose many Pakistanis’ lack of knowledge about the more puritanical aspects of Islam.
It is very easy actually to intellectually retaliate and neutralize the evangelists’ hyperbolic brand of faith and ritualism, but most young Pakistanis found themselves lacking this ability. Thus, unable to question what was being peddled to them as true faith, they ended up feeling guilty, or rather, they were consciously made to feel guilty.
This is also the time when things like the burqua, the hijab and long beards started to make their way into the fashion and spiritual aesthetics of the middle-classes.
It was quite a sight watching some free-wheeling pop stars suddenly becoming preachers, with some of them even deciding to quit music. What was once a debate – such as was music allowed in Islam – that was restricted to the most conservative sections of society, became a debate among the so-called hip liberals.
Can you believe that? How can musicians who truly understand the beauty and power of music, were now debating whether to quit something beautiful and replace it with something that was akin to a mullah’s danda!
It has been all downhill from there. The trend has further deteriorated where its now not only about some musicians becoming evangelists, wearing their faith on their sleeves, but some, who, though, did not become pop molvies, they have however, allowed themselves to be sucked in by the heightened post-9/11 conspiratorial and paranoid environment, senselessly mouthing utter nonsense about how our pious, innocent country is being infiltrated and destroyed by the Zionists, the west and, of course, the Hindus.
The funny thing is, that such musicians, or for that matter, actors and all, behave as if they are completely oblivious to the contradiction that they are living. Their rhetoric is derived from all the so-called revolutionary and angry sloganeering one hears in the media these days, but the irony is, such sloganeering is mostly emerging from people who are ending up becoming apologists of exactly the kind of forces who would deem all these artistes as being un-Islamic and fahash!
LUBP: Is it generally a good idea for fashion icons and rock stars to parade as political analysts?
NFP: Absolutely not, because they then sound silly. They should simply stick to doing what they do best because inherently their stuff is already an anti-thesis of what the reactionaries are advocating.
LUBP: What do you make of the media in general? Do you see them as objective reporters or catering to special interest groups?
NFP: Well, what can one make of the media, other than the fact that it is out to make some useless waves and lots of money. The private TV channels that are seen by 21 percent of the population, all urban, is naturally becoming a reflection of the metamorphoses taking place in what we call middle-class in Pakistan. But so far, unfortunately, the metamorphoses in this class hasn’t quite been about this class coming of age and becoming more democratic and progressive in outlook, but rather, it has become increasingly confused, verbose and rhetorical almost to the point of being downright reactionary. I belong to this class and it bothers me.
LUBP: What is your assessment of the manner in which the media has dealt with the PPP?
NFP: The PPP like any other party is not beyond criticism. It should welcome it being Pakistan’s largest democratic party. But, of course, the way some sections of the electronic media have gone about attacking its every move, this is not criticism, it’s sheer harassment.
But for how long can a channel go on behaving like this? A time will come and in fact I think it already has come, when such a channel would start looking like a spoilt buffoon. So how or why should one take a buffoon seriously?
The PPP-led government wasn’t handed a land blooming with a hundred flowers. Any government would have struggled in the current scenario. And though I am very disappointed with the way this government has gone about handling certain issues, what should one do? Whine and crib and shout for another danda-carrying marde-e-momin in uniform to once again topple a democratically elected government, or should I simply wait till the next elections so I can exercise my right to show my disappointment through the vote?
I’m sure all these political experts and hosts we see on TV these days can’t be so naïve as to not realize that the way a lot of channels have gone about exercising the concept of the freedom of the media, that if, God forbid, we do get another mard-e-momin savior, he will not be a softy like Musharraf. He will outright gag them. What will they do then?
Actually, they will continue to survive, because spouting the usual anti-India rhetoric or presenting so-called religious programs that are more about using religion as a tool to screw those who’s idea of faith you do not agree with, will always be the in thing to do in this country.
LUBP: Lately, the LUBP has taken a lot of flak for calling out fellow bloggers and for its blunt assessment of that segment of our population that calls itself “civil society”. What is your take on this and how do you feel that civil society in general has contributed towards socio-political trends and events?
NFP: What is becoming an impossibility in the mainstream media in Pakistan, has become a refreshing reality on a lot of very good blogs. The alternative political, ideological, cultural and theological narrative that rightly challenges the narrow, right-wing narrative being peddled by the mainstream media in this country, is now emerging from such blogs.
Each one of them have to realize that they maybe different in their approach in this context, but they are all on the same boat. For example, progressive blog sites like LUBP, Café Pyala, Pak Tea House and Five Rupees are very different in their assessments of the media, politics and society. But keeping in mind the larger picture, they are serving the same purpose of providing a lot of young Pakistanis out there with a different and much needed new take on things. A take that is still taboo on most mainstream media platforms.
And the civil society? Well, what can I say? They’re good at gathering to protest against the drone attacks, which, mind you, actually kill militants, and for the release of Aafia Siddiqui – or, in other words, issues that are safe. All this civil society hoopla is quite a farce, really. I do not take it seriously.
LUBP: As a PSF activist what is your assessment of PPP over the years? We will welcome critical constructive feedback and what the PPP should do to expand/regain/energize itself as a party?
NFP: The PPP is the PPP. Big, widespread, animated and utterly disorganized. All I’ll say is that the current version of the party, in spite of being at the helm of a country boiling with an unprecedented number of problems, and in spite of the party being so neurotically harassed by the media, is still in a good position to formulate a lot of policies that, say, the PPP governments under BB couldn’t.
It is still the party I vote for. And if that bothers some people, then they should know that I am also a supporter of the ANP and the MQM. So, I would suggest that the PPP needs to get a bit bolder. It must continue engaging with parties like the ANP and the MQM. I refuse be a supporter living in a fool’s paradise by insisting that the PPP should once again become a populist socialist party. That is nonsense! It is a liberal-left party but with a heavy baggage and burden of losing its secular claims during the Z A. Bhutto regime when he in an attempt to pragmatically appease, began feeing the kind of scraps to religious parties that have now become monstrous boulders.
I still think that the current PPP government has a lot of potential; but more than just concentrating on surviving, it has to come out with some bold decisions, especially in the context of what this country has been facing in the name of faith and morality. And though I am not an economist, I believe this government has handled the situation the best way one can in this environment. I mean how differently would the PML-N have acted when in 2008 the country’s economy went kaput?
It’s very easy to chant slogans about self-reliance and what not, but come on, even an economic novice like me realizes that a bankrupt and defaulting Pakistan would be ten times more dangerous, chaotic and bloody than it already is.
LUBP: Keeping in account its history and its appeal as a mass party, what should the PPP do towards developing a secular narrative and legislation?
NFP: To begin with, and this also goes for all other secular parties in Pakistan, including the ANP and the MQM, they should start sounding a lot more secular than they usually do.
They do not have to constantly evoke their religious credentials just to prove that they are not irreligious. If they believe that religion and politics should be kept separate, then this should come out clearly not only in their policies, but in their lingo and symbolism as well.
And if this government is obviously unable to provide alternative narratives and arguments in this context on private TV channels, then I have yet to see this government put much effort in introducing any such programming on the state-owned PTV as well – a channel that reaches about 79 percent of all TV viewers in Pakistan.
I remember, during the first BB government, her government introduced a fantastic programme hosted by Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy in which he used to discuss scientific phenomenon and even commented on the achievements of both ancient and modern-day Muslim scientists.
If private channels today are brimming with crackpots masquerading as scientists, religious scholars and political analysts, this government should utilize the PTV to introduce more sensible and sound programming on science, religion and politics.
LUBP: You often write about reconstructive trends with regards to our national identity and about mutually accepting and tolerating our multiple ethnic, sectarian, religious and cultural identities. In terms of working towards a secular future for Pakistan, how important is the development of a social phenomena that celebrates heterogeneity or can secularism only be achieved by treating the works and words of Jinnah and Iqbal as sacred texts and building on the mists of our past?
NFP: Unfortunately, in Pakistan, anyone claiming to hold liberal or secular views is both directly and indirectly forced to be apologetic about his or beliefs. This apologetic behavior then usually sees such individuals constantly using the examples of Jinnah and Iqbal, saying how liberal, secular, or, in Iqbal’s case, how moderate and enlightened, they were.
Well, the truth is, Jinnah unfortunately will always remain to be a huge enigma in this respect. What was Jinnah’s Pakistan? Who knows, but yes, it certainly wasn’t something that it became many years after his death.
Secularists, leftists and liberals should break out of this apologetic mindset. They can use Jinnah and Iqbal when it is necessary, but, hey, Jinnah and Iqbal have been used by the reactionaries as well, haven’t they?
If one claims to be a progressive, secular or liberal, then he or she should talk about how the current reality is calling for Pakistan to once and for all overthrow the self-imposed burden of being the so-called bastion of Islam and look forward to being a progressive, tolerant Muslim majority republic. One should now be able to do this without always finding the need to invoke Jinnah or Iqbal. Enough of the apologetics.
LUBP: Also, can we choose to ignore our nationalist leaders like ZAB, BB, Bizenjo, G. M. Syed, Haider Bux Jatoi and Bacha Khan and their appeal to the masses in our combined struggle for a secular Pakistan or can secularism be constructed simply from Jinnah’s August 11th speech to the Constituent Assembly?
NFP: Legacies – secular or theological – need to be looked and studied critically to see what went right or what went wrong during the time those people associated with the legacies were doing what they have become famous or infamous for.
Of course one can’t but respect the politicians that you have mentioned, but I’d rather look at their weaknesses and vulnerabilities in trying to construct whatever they thought was secularism, or progressivism or liberalism. I am specially critical of ZAB in this respect.
But the truth is, secularists and liberals in Pakistan must stop looking backwards for inspiration. It’s an entirely different Pakistan today. A Pakistan on the brink of turning itself into a Somalia or a myopic, widespread reactive society that instinctively and without much thought is seen to applaud populist narratives brimming with isolationist, intolerant and delusional notions of patriotism, politics and faith.
Like I said, enough of the apologetics. I personally have no doubts about me being a Muslim Pakistani. I believe in God, but why should I have to wear my beliefs on my sleeve? I’ve seen young people wearing T-Shirts saying, ‘I am a Muslim.’ But who is doubting that? I never thought that they were Martians, so why the exhibitionism?
I am a believing Muslim who is a staunch secularist. I do not see a contradiction in this. I do not have to evoke my belief in God, or prove how Jinnah was also a secularist, to make my point.
My points should be proven in showing how the whole idea of a theological state has been disastrous for this country, over and over again, and how if Pakistan has to advance and survive as a cohesive state in the future, it can only do so through democracy and by having a progressive relationship between all of its many ethnicities, religions and sects and with the world at large.
LUBP: Thank You Nadeem for such an enlightening interview.