Cultural nationalism

July 25, 2021

The image of a country cannot be different from what the society is

Cultural nationalism

Finally, the gloves are off. It has been admitted that the narrative of the soft image was only a ruse or a cover-up. The world had already said so, or felt so. The confession only chimed into the harmonious chants that the world has composed about our country.

In other words, we were trying to fool the world, mislead them and hiding our true intentions. The world labelled certain elements of our society as terrorists, but this was never accepted. Our stance was that on the whole the country or the countrymen were pacifists and peaceful, with only a fringe edging towards extremism. And it was not untoward, if the fringe used terrorism or violence to achieve its ends.

The phrase came into currency during Musharraf’s rule. It was intended to show to the world that our real intention was not what it appeared to be. It was then repeated mindlessly by every leader and policymaker making all and sundry apologetic about why we were not promoting a soft image: the ‘real image’, rather than seeing ourselves through the eyes of the world.

Many believe that it was not enlightened moderation. It was just another effort at aping the West in their mannerisms and ideologies. We should not follow them for it is only a sign of inferiority. So is speaking in a foreign language, particularly English, as also wearing foreign clothes, suits, ties and jackets. If free from this all, we will be true to ourselves and hence shun the inferiority complex, miming the norms and ideas that we have internalised.

During the Musharraf-and-Shaukat Aziz days, it was said that a soft image of Pakistan could be promoted by holding fashion shows across the world as well as inside the country. The embassies and high commissions hosted these gala exercises abroad. Even the presidency and the prime minister’s house were not spared this sight as foreign dignitaries were entertained to this showcasing of Pakistani culture.

It should always be noted that culture is not just entertainment though it does have a high entertainment value. Culture is the way we live and its rarefied reflection finds itself in the arts. Entertainment is only a by-product of a quest to engage in an activity that is creative and contains significance human expression. If it were not so, then culture could be imported and put on display. This is what is being done in some of the countries in the Gulf where museums, art galleries, music and dance shows are arranged and best artistes from all over invited to perform. However, the local people hardly have any forum to express themselves. A living society is not about entertainment only – its culture, music or dance theatre or film is the expression of the anguish, concerns and the satisfaction involved. It is not about paying and sitting on the side lines, while others participate in it.

The best advertisement, it is said, is the product itself and the proof of the pudding lies in its eating. The image of a country likewise cannot be much different from what the society and the country are. The media and the agencies can gloss over only so much.

We should be what we are and who we are. The question keeps popping up time and again. Those wanting an ideological revamp rely on a puritanical return to the pristine principles of the distant past. Bringing back the originality of the ideas and the values also needs the resurrection of the institutions and structures that existed then. If the rolling back of the years and centuries is an impossibility, then the next best may be the igniting of the same spirit.

How can that be done? Only, the originality of thought and the guaranteed freedom can bring it about. The freedoms of speech and thought are the greatest victims of the self-certainty that this nation has about its past and its role in the present. Some of the controversies and purges like in the text books these days are a stark reminder of the lack of tolerance and acceptance.

Some states are bound or limited by their past and the ideological parameters that they aspire to follow. There was never one meta-narrative and there should be none because it has all the fallibility of a political construct. So debate, discussion and freedom to enquire can be the only option available to us. The insistence of intolerance and an artificial uniformity in nation-building can be a real source of disaster and the worst form of censorship ever imposed.

A selective understanding and reading of the past and present will take us away from who we are. It is not only a question of speaking the English language and of wearing Western suits. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the immaculate attire of the founding father and keep his vision of an open, tolerant and an enquiring Pakistan at the same time.

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

Cultural nationalism