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May 7, 2018

Self-hatred and other demons


May 7, 2018

Self-hatred is a strange demon. It haunts us all, to some degree, at some point in life. In most cases, it is our constant companion, making us do things that only a person under the influence of a demon can do. It appears in its most virulent form when it stalks a whole nation. Under the influence of this demon, many nations embark on a process of self-cleansing and end up tearing themselves into pieces. This act of cleansing is an act of violence upon oneself.

The exorcists were at work at the National Assembly last week, trying to rid the nation of the memory of one of its own brightest sons – Dr Abdus Salam. In 2016, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif approved, in principle, the renaming of Quaid-e-Azam University’s (QAU) National Centre for Physics to the Professor Abdus Salam Center for Physics. The former PM had also approved a grant for five annual fellowships – named after Professor Abdus Salam – for Pakistani PhD students in the field of Physics. The process of renaming the centre was never completed for reasons we are not aware of.

Last week, a resolution was presented in the National Assembly by Captain (r) Safdar, an MNA from Mansehra, whose only qualification, apart from being a retired army captain, is his marriage to the daughter of former prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif. The resolution argues that the Physics department at QAU should be named after Muslim scientist Abu al Fatah Abdul Rehman Al-Khazini who “secured astonishing achievements in Physics” that were “followed by [the] whole European world”. This time the incompetence of our dear captain surpassed his bigotry. He did not seem to know that the Department of Physics and the Centre for Physics are two different entities.

The opposition members who signed on the resolution have tried to step back after the backlash on social media by explaining the distinction. However, they did not elaborate why they paid such attention to the Department of Physics of one university. What was the urgent need of linking this particular department to Muslim history?

In October 2017, Captain Safdar had threatened on the floor of the House: “If the name of the Department of Physics is not changed, I will protest here every day.” He had also demanded banning the minority group from induction in the armed forces and other important state institutions.

Only a day before last week’s resolution was presented, he had reportedly again stated to the media “…Why was (the institution’s) name associated with Dr Abdus Salam? His name is controversial…”

Our own Don Quixote, Captain Tees Maar Khan, tilted at a wrong windmill and a good number of honourable members went with him, arguably sharing his ignorance. The embarrassing retreat is only tactical.

The similarity with the innocent Spanish hero ends at that. Given his way, Captain Safdar can prove a deadlier version of Khadim Hussain Rizvi. The resolution makes an implicit statement about the Pakistani identity. A medieval Muslim scientist of Greek origin belongs to “us”, but a contemporary Pakistani scientist, belonging to a minority community, does not belong to us.

This is the kind of exorcism that is going all around us. India wants to rid itself of the memory of heroes like Akbar the Great and Tipu Sultan; Sri Lanka and Burma want to rid themselves of Muslim minorities and populists in the West want to cleanse their countries of migrants.

Religion plays both psycho-spiritual and social roles. At the spiritual level, it links man with the Divine, both outside and inside of the self. As a spiritual quest, there can be no conflict between followers of different religions. How can pursuit of the Divine pitch humans against each other? On the social level, religion is an important factor of identity formation. If this identity is linked to the spiritual message of a religion, a peaceful moral community is formed. Unfortunately, in our globalised world, religion is being employed merely as a marker of ‘tribal identity’. It is a political project, completely delinked from the spiritual content of the religion.

The nation-state ideally tries to create a civil identity that encompasses people of all religions and cultures living within the boundaries of a state. Nation-building, as a project, has tried to draw upon the power of religion in many countries. By separating religion from its major spiritual role, they have turned religion into a tribal force. Erudite religious scholars like Javed Ahmad Ghamidi have a lot to say on this point.

Captain Safdar has never tried to hide his bigotry. The PML-N may find his antics useful at a time when the cornered and besieged party has been forced to prove its religiosity. It has faced fierce opposition from some religious groups since the execution of Mumtaz Qadri. Under pressure from Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the party had to force one of its federal ministers to resign.

More recently, the PML-N caved in to Tehreek-e-Labbaik after a short dharna in Lahore, and promised to implement the “sovereign agreement” made between the state of Pakistan and Tehreek-e-Labaik of Rizvi. The PML-N fears that Khadim Hussain Rizvi and online aalims, an asset recently acquired by the PTI, can open the floodgates of hell upon the party, putting it in a situation that the ANP faced in KP during the 2013 elections.

If Dr Salam, Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate, does not belong to us because he is not a Muslim, how do we explain the similar treatment meted out to Pakistan’s second Nobel laureate, Malala Yusufzai? In 2012, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government decided to rename the Saidu Sharif Degree College, a college in the Swat Valley, after Malala Yousafzai. Students at the college protested the renaming. Some disliked the change while others feared for their security. They thought the renaming would make them vulnerable to attacks. Malala Yousafzai herself had to ask the government to remove her name from the college.

When Malala was attacked, many religious and mainstream political parties were cheerleading for the Taliban. Though the national mood has changed since then, for millions of educated Pakistanis, Malala does not belong to us while the Taliban do. This is again a question of defining the national identity.

What has Malala done to earn this excommunication? Dozens of schools, all over the country have been renamed after the young victims of the APS attack. These innocent children were victims, collateral damage, to borrow a favourite term of our security experts. Malala, on the other hand, is a survivor. She came back from the dead to show the power of our girls to the tormentors of the nation. She is our revenge upon the Taliban and their mouthpieces.

Frankly, I find it rather puzzling. I can see two points here. One, she is a young women with agency ie the capacity to exert power. That is too much for the misogynists of this land. Women belong to ‘us’ as long as they remain confined to their homes. A woman in the public place is a risk to the community. During the last week, we saw two legislators belonging to the ruling party using sleazy language against female political workers of the PTI. The PTI’s own record is even worse. The only fault of these women is their participation in the political process.

Two, we feel like a community under siege and this siege now defines who we are. Anyone leaving the siege, going out and shaking hands with ‘the enemy’ is suspect. This is a job that few can be trusted with. The very fact that Malala is admired by the world makes her suspect.

A leading anchor last week declared former prime minister Nawaz Sharif an agent of “the international establishment”. The argument went: the international establishment manifested itself through the international media and since the international media had endorsed Nawaz Sharif’s narrative, he was an agent of said elusive international establishment. The next station: anyone supporting Nawaz Sharif is an agent of the international establishment.

If there are so many agents in this gullible nation, comprising mostly the illiterate poor, doesn’t it need the guidance of those who have access to the secrets of the world, who are Dana-e-Raaz, to steal the title Iqbal bestowed upon himself? What if the wise men of the land have a compass with south marked as north?

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @zaighamkhan

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