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December 2, 2018

Narratives and our young


December 2, 2018

I remember having attended a seminar a few years ago in which the ambassador of a European nation in his keynote address observed that Pakistan’s strategic location, which should have been among the country’s most valuable of assets in terms of trade and investment, had turned into a glaring liability. It’s difficult not to agree with him.

Another great asset which we are fast turning into a liability is the country’s youth. According to the UNDP’s ‘Pakistan’s National Human Development Report 2017,’ Pakistan currently has the largest young generation (aged between 15 and 29) in its history, accounting for nearly 30 percent of its total population. Nearly 64 percent of the population is below the age of 30. This shows that Pakistan, the sixth most populated country, has one of the largest workforces in the world.

The implications of this youth bulge are enormous. Close to one million jobs must be generated annually. For the economy to do so, it must register sustained growth of at least six percent a year. Not only that, the country should resist falling into the trap of jobless growth – which happens when economic expansion doesn’t lead to a proportionate increase in employment. This necessitates adequate human capital development to shore up employability of a gigantic young generation.

While job creation and human capital development are exceedingly important to capitalise on the enormous asset that we have in the form of youth, such efforts will go down the drain in case young men and women – illiterate as well as moderately and highly educated – continue to stumble into the quagmire of foul narratives, which have held sway over the nation’s collective psyche during the last four decades.

While these narratives may differ with each other in some respects, their pith is the same: every conflict is presented as a struggle between good and evil in which either you are on the side of the good or on the side of evil. Once the angels and demons have been identified, the latter must get the cane.

Such narratives remind us of the practice of witch-hunt, which remained in vogue in most parts of Europe from the late Middle Ages to the early modern period. Both men and women were branded as witches for owing allegiance to the devil. Making a pact with Satan in exchange for extraordinary power and riches forms the basis of the Faust legend, which has been immortalised in literature by English dramatist Christopher Marlowe and German poet Goethe.

During the witch-trials, persecutors would accuse their opponents of witchcraft, bring them to courts, have them convicted for their mortal sin, and then burn them alive. Almost any incident – from burning of crops and death of livestock to family feuds and political rivalry – for which no plausible explanation could be offered was set down to witchcraft, which was looked upon as a menace to both the individual and the social order. That’s how ‘good’ was deemed to achieve ascendency over ‘evil’.

Coming back to Pakistan, today’s young people were born in or after 1989. While 1989 itself may not be of much significance in the nation’s history, the preceding year had seen the end of the General Ziaul Haq era (1977-88) and the revival of democracy. It was during that fateful period that many of the vices that rack the nation’s collective psyche crept up. The regime, which otherwise was shorn of legitimacy, vaulted at an apocalyptic ideology or narrative to survive.

The narrative sees Pakistan as the only ideological state in the contemporary world; as such it was meant to be the centre of Muslim unity. However – as per the narrative – regrettably, instead of making tangible progress towards Islamisation, society became Westernised, secularised and vulgarised. The country, therefore, had to be purged of such baneful influence by setting up an ‘Islamic’ society – by force if need be. Both the media and academic institutions were used as agencies of indoctrination. The 1980s’ Afghan war provided a perfect spectacle of the spirited warriors of Islam (the mujahideen) challenging a mighty pagan empire and ultimately putting it to rout.

At home, the jihadi narrative militarised the youth, who lost trust in the power of the pen and instead would swear by the power of the gun to defeat the ‘wicked’ forces. The ‘jihadi’ factories set up in the north-western part of the country made lethal weapons available easily and cheaply; this became better known as the ‘Kalashnikov culture’. Recruitment of the youth in large numbers to fight alongside their Afghan brothers contributed to the younger generation’s fascination with jihad. Private armies or lashkars began to raise their head. Textbooks eulogised jihad as a foremost virtue. Once the Afghan war was over, this love for jihad would find its expression in sectarian violence.

During the 1980s, Pakistan remained a beneficiary of substantial American economic and military assistance as a reward for its enormous contribution to the Afghan war. The economy therefore registered a robust growth. However, during the 1990s, the economy went into a tailspin as bilateral assistance dried up and political instability ratcheted up. To make matters worse, the bailout packages given by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) not only put further brakes on economic growth; they also forced the economy to prematurely open up to foreign competition, thus leading to de-industrialisation and loss of jobs. In the political realm, the two principal political parties, which took turns in the exercise of power, remained at daggers drawn, which disillusioned the youth with the political process.

These circumstances set the stage for the corruption narrative of the PTI to gain currency. Imran Khan’s inability to play the politics of electables put the skids under his electoral prospects in the initial years. However, it was only a matter of time that lady luck would smile on him. Although the cricketer-turned politician didn’t subscribe to the Zia narrative in full, he is cast in the same mould as the late military ruler in putting himself on a high moral pedestal and demonising his rivals.

Just as Ziaul Haq set down all of society’s evils to the ‘secularisation’ of society, Khan put it down to corruption. Just as the Zia regime was a dab hand at passing religious edicts – declaring who was a true Muslim and who was not – against his opponents, Khan and his moral brigade excel in passing moral edicts on his political rivals, declaring who is an epitome of uprightness and who is corrupt to the bone. And now we have the TLP, which has taken self-righteousness and mob politics to the next level. Needless to say, evil, whether it takes the form of vulgarity or corruption, or for that matter witchcraft, deserves exemplary punishment.

A large and growing segment of the youth has been taken in hook, line and sinker by these misleading narratives. For many of our young people, tolerance, dissent and ratiocination are unmistakable signs of moral weakness, while reviling, demonising and punishing ‘enemies’ with their own hands are the highest virtues of patriotic Pakistanis and true believers. Worse, like witch-hunts centuries ago, such narratives have turned out to be a raving success for their authors at the expense of the rest of society.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi

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