5 QUESTIONS: ‘What will giving up achieve?’

Published: Wed, 07/06/2011 - 08:09 Updated: Mon, 07/11/2011 - 09:23
Farieha Aziz is currently Assistant Editor, Newsline, Karachi. She was awarded the APNS (All Pakistan Newspaper Society) award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) in 2007-08  
 
 How will you describe the current crisis in Pakistan. Is it an artificial crisis, a pseudo-western construct? Or is it an authentic, deeper, existential, political, identity crisis?
 
No amount of denial will do away with the fact that there is a mess that needs to be sorted out on the home front. This is no construct or conspiracy, it’s the truth. There’s always been an identity crisis in Pakistan, and since its inception, we haven’t really been able to decide on what kind of a State we want and what direction we want to head in. We’ve been a very schizophrenic State and society. And very frankly, other than coming together under the green flag when the green shirts are on the playing field, there’s no unity. But the immediate crisis today is the polarisation of society, the growing extremism, the murder of innocent people, and the breakdown of institutions, which of course has been a long time coming. 
 
Thousands of innocent lives have been lost to suicide bombings, bomb blasts, grenade attacks and open fire here. The argument that Pakistan is reaping the fruits of what it sowed, to me, is grossly misplaced where there’s a question of human lives. Yes, past and present government policies, and the involvement of State institutions and agencies in certain activities have brought us to where we are today, and it is the reason that we are pariahs today. But the people of this country are also the victims. There are many, many people in this country who have simply suffered as a result, and continue to do so, and that argument is no justification for the loss of their lives. Most of the population is struggling to survive, to live and to make ends meet. And they have no greater desire than to achieve just this. If guns are pointed outwards, they’re pointed inwards as much.
 
 What is the divide between the fundamentalist and secular/liberal/moderate paradigms in civil society? Are the moderates losing ground?
 
When you do not allow discourse, the mixing of communities and ideas, polarisation is bound to happen. Basically, no one is willing to listen to the other, reach a middle ground and take it from there. Each ‘side’, if you may, has its own ideological leanings and is not willing to budge. Coexistence is painful for them both at this point, even unacceptable.  
 
It appears that whenever there is a question of religion or the rights of women, the conservatism in society and among those who hold positions within State institutions, is reflected more strongly than ever. It’s not as simple as identifying ‘liberal’ political parties and ‘Rightwing’ parties. There are issues on which they will both band together for political mileage. And so you’re left searching for moderate voices who have the capacity to introduce change at a policy level, and well, you’re left looking. Either 
they are outnumbered, or it’s not in their interest.
 
So there are very few ‘moderates’ to begin with. Some months ago, when Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated, followed on the heels by the murder of Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, public discourse on their murders and about the Blasphemy Law in general seemed to indicate that the moderates had lost ground. Nevertheless, that did not mean the moderates had given up. They were putting a counter narrative out there despite the obvious risks. Increasingly, people have been speaking out against all kinds of atrocities. So it’s not over yet. 
 
Is it true that the educated elite in Pakistan has betrayed the country?
 
Well, I suppose there are expectations from the educated elite in Pakistan. Funny, how ‘education’ is viewed as the solution to all ills. If you really look at education today, it simply equips you with the skills to participate in today’s rat race and succeed on a personal level. Then, as for a mindset, you have examples here where those that belong to the educated elite are part of the feudal classes. And though they may have studied at Oxford, for example, back home their practices and traditions remain unchanged.
 
I believe we have misplaced expectations from people, segments of society, and most of all, education. And since there never was a direction, what has happened in this country is that a lot of people have been following a self-serving agenda. 
 
Do you, personally, feel trapped? Do you see windows of hope, resilience, resistance? Can  you give examples…
 
Yes, there are times when it is incredibly frustrating and one just sees doors closing around you. But, despite the death and destruction, there is definitely resilience. Processions are bombed, but the next year people attend the same way — give and take a few. Karachi will shut down, there is endless bloodshed and a host of civic problems and street crime. Does life stop? No. At the risk of sounding insensitive, life goes on, painful as it may be. The people, the city and the country swing back, to make the best they can of the present circumstances. We were hit by the earthquake, the floods; these may sound like very clichéd examples, but for a country with such a poor economy, infrastructure and a multitude of other problems, we’re still around. There’s a tendency to pick oneself off of one’s feet and get back to the grind. 
 
The philanthropy in this country is something. The Aga Khan Foundation, Edhi, Shaukat Khanum, SIUT, are just some examples of the amazing organisations doing charitable work, and organisations and individuals alike do a lot for their fellow citizens. That is also hope.
 
Then there are people speaking out regardless of the consequences, because, as some say, “Pani sar se guzar chuka hai” (the water has risen above the head). Be it about murders in the name of religion, accountability of State institutions, people are talking, holding protests. What good all the talk has done and the results it has produced can be argued, but the fact that at least people are speaking up is a ray of hope. I often marvel at some of those who are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, even 80s. What haven’t they been through, and what haven’t they seen the country go through? Times are bad, but they haven’t given up. So how can the 20, 30-something-year-olds just fling their hands up in the air in sheer helplessness without even trying? I can’t say what the outcome will be, if it’ll get better or worse. Since there’s no guarantee, might as well try and then wait and see. What will giving up achieve?
 
People who can leave Pakistan have been leaving for decades; it’s not something new — people wanting out. But there are still those who stay on. Doing business is not easy here, especially since you’re an instant target for kidnappers, extortionists etc. But there are people who are here, and through them and their businesses, there are jobs for numerous people. A huge population is not going anywhere, not because most of them can’t, but because some of them won’t. That too counts for something.
 
 
The young in Pakistan are experimenting with new music, prose, poetry, theatre, cultural expressions. Do they signify a flight of imaginative liberation?
 
I would think so. But a lot of the art and music they are dabbling with is not escapist, but driven by realism. Theatre, music and art are reflective of the current situation and experiences. Today they’re more conscious than ever of what’s going on around them, what they’re feeling, and they have strong opinions about it all, and that is being given creative expression.  

This story is from print issue of HardNews