Published by Global Affairs / June 2017
A vat of vice and wickedness amid a sea of green turbans?
But their victories are somehow viewed in isolation. They are seen as outliers - their great accomplishments relegated to the shadows in favor of unflattering headlines beamed across the globe that slyly remove the context and reduce the country to one giant misogynistic, intolerant, vat of vice and wickedness amid a sea of green turbans. While the worst of humanity hogs the limelight – our most prized assets go unheralded. And tragedies like Mashal Khan and mafias in religious guise along with shady men with offshore accounts are allowed to drag the national trajectory off course.
While it is true that Pakistan gets shortchanged when it comes to depicting its strengths but the blame needs to be divided equally between those who wish to isolate and demonize to serve some sinister agenda and look better in contrast - and the State that fails to appreciate its treasured icons - their vibrant civil society and media watchdogs that ultimately give it legitimacy - and a formidably talented and driven population that give it a unique advantage.
The Revised Peking Order
There’s a new imaginatively titled piece on the Wire - ‘How do you solve a problem like Pakistan’ by Seema Sirohi. It pokes fun at the country’s choice of ambassadors, refers to anti-Pakistan voices for validation and presents a rising chorus demanding Pakistan’s expulsion from the ally corner. There are also suggestions to tighten the noose, to isolate and put the country in its place. It has been penned by a Washington based analyst who comments on US-India relations.
If the attempts at isolation didn’t take, it is not just because Pakistan is rapidly moving up in the pecking order but also its sincere efforts in confronting its pesky demons. And while the famed Pak-US alliance that once overthrew communism is on increasingly shaky ground, as long as their interests align, the partnership should endure. But the road is likely to get rockier unless Pakistan’s image can line up with its heavily advertised road to prosperity.
The nation is in remission but its lobby is nowhere as effective as the behemoth propaganda machine that answers to the call of their Indian masters. Neither does it have the visibility to rebut the smear campaigns piled on with alarming regularity. Meanwhile any think piece that comes from within is scrutinized for bias; millions of success stories taken with a grain of salt. Any human right violation from the Indian side however will barely create a ripple because of heavy investments made to keep the spotlight on its shining face.
Should Musharraf hang up his Pom Poms?
Perhaps it is time to align Pakistan’s new, improved image to the strands of its policies and attain a wider audience for its growing stature. Pervez Musharraf made for an easy mark and the article shredded his credibility as a speaker in Washington and deemed him to be the weakest link. The commentary may seem harsh to the proponents of the good General but it can serve as a useful indicator of Pakistan’s perception problem.
With so many inspiring voices why limit oneself to politicians or dictators. The former president with his enlightened agenda may have liberated the media and earned the gratitude of many, but he can no longer carry the burden of projecting Pakistan’s benign face alone.
Leaders make handy cheerleaders but there are those who are respected and admired across the board already projecting a positive image. Oscar winners, athletes, philanthropists and trailblazers, the best and brightest from the arts – independent voices from academia who take bold stances; the pillars of society who fight for social justice; everyday Pakistanis who beat the odds and make history.
The West may not buy India’s surgical strikes story or put stock in their portrayal of an Indian spy as a simple naval man, when he has actually been guilty of espionage and sabotage but India is the new ally and Pakistan is dubbed as the troubled neighbor creating mischief along the western front – the alleged aggressor in every disagreement.
Outliers Respond to the Casting call
Being on the back-foot forced to profess ones innocence at every turn is not an ideal position. Pakistan’s response cannot be reactionary. It should instead focus on building its brand and credibility is the most important currency in this game. And their counter-narrative drive does not have to look far for inspiration for there are heroes aplenty to lend credence to their progressive agenda.
There’s even a superhero in the mix. Singer Haroon Rashid’s creation ‘Burka Avenger’ about a crime fighting female school teacher was ranked amongst 11 most influential fictional characters by TIME in 2013. A local production company (SOC films owned by Sharmeen Obaid) bagged the prestigious Robert. F. Kennedy, Journalism award recently. A man devoted his entire life to serving humanity. Edhi’s legacy is a powerful reminder of the nation’s incredible capacity for generosity and their commitment to charitable endeavors. It is the same kind of support seen behind worthy causes like cancer hospitals / research centers set up by a popular cricketer turned politician that offer free treatment to the masses while keeping their international standards intact.
With all the limitations Pakistanis prevail. Their overseas brethren flourish in their new surroundings that encourage innovation and development unshackled by fear of being victimized by self stylized or State sponsored blasphemy brigades and bring accolades at film festivals, in scientific arenas, medicine, law, education etc.
Speaking Truth to Power & Other Great Tales
Back home girl power rises despite the cultural handicaps defying the visuals of oppressed women while crushing third world gender biases. They can be found in the armed forces, on Everest, at the Academy Awards, in bomb disposal squads around conservative areas of KPK, at the UN, heading media empires, setting the fashion world ablaze and travelling solo across the countryside on a bike. While chaos rages around them, Pakistanis keep the art and cultural scene thriving - toil hard in the pursuit of scientific advancements and speak truth to power. These unconventional entrants in narrative wars are not the exception but the norm and should be lauded for adding an optimistic hue to the conversation.
Make them the centerpiece of the hearts and minds campaign. And use them to bolster the nation’s flagging morale because Pakistanis also need reassurances that their path will not be obstructed by draconian laws. Or by thoughtless decisions threatening to impede progress by redefining the parameters of free speech via medieval mindsets that surfaced in Mardan.
Discard those outdated Homeland Stylized Blinders
One day once the nation puts its house in order - the mediocre minds that command the vote banks can be relegated to the sidelines and the deserving can inherit the earth. Maybe then they can open the doors and develop tourism so the world can see its true colors without the Homeland stylized blinders. And how Pakistan is unlike other nations – women are free to drive, are in charge of how they dress and pursue their dreams. Granted, that independence recedes a bit as one leaves urban centers behind but it’s a long way from KSA or Iran. While it may be struggling to reassert its identity it’s a far cry from the illustrations of mud hut dwelling, camel riding savages that parks its nukes under a tarp in a war torn landscape. Nor is it a nation of mindless drones lined up to cheer for emperor supreme or a regime swarming with warlords and drug kingpins.
180 Million Taliban in Funny Trousers?
A realignment of priorities becomes a crucial element of the messaging when one hears stories by travelers from the Far East about Japanese youth eager to learn Urdu to understand the Taliban because all they see are bearded men in funny trousers with no interest in learning about other cultures and no real depth of understanding of theological matters. From their standpoint it is a nation of 180 million Taliban since they study Pakistan through the prism of Western media or the very helpful Research & Analysis Wing as someone pointed out. Using respected icons as cultural ambassadors – the representatives of our values and the custodians of the faith may help banish such biases.
Nations with a Get out of Jail Free Card
Though the eastern neighbor appears to be headed down the slippery slope of religious fundamentalism, Pakistan is now making the correct moves. But India, thanks to its spin-masters working overtime can brush violations under the mat for now - Saudi Arabia, with its oil and Russia with its clout can absorb all the accusations regarding dismal human rights records or wars in Yemen, Syria. They may not be on the right side of history but command the biggest platforms unaffected by labels of repressive regimes or oppressors of minority groups.
Horror & Heartbreak - our sole claim to fame
And while Pakistan is on the right path, it must now watch its step. It cannot afford to let its guard down for a second. Every transgression will be amplified – each misstep captured on celluloid. The lynch mobs, faith based murders, honor killings and sectarian tensions destroying the social fabric will be the only side of Pakistan the world will remember. It will be the only time they get to hear its name in between breaking news cycles and morning coffee breaks. Horror and heartbreak cannot be the sole footnote to the nation’s 70 year old history. Yes, a little girl got shot on her way to school – but she also rose like a phoenix to become a global icon. Malala is the embodiment of Pakistan’s spirit. Because a nation battered and bruised pushed beyond breaking point continues to defy expectations.
Mumbai however keeps milking one terror attack. As the maker of a soon to be released Pakistani film ‘Yalghaar’ pointed out - there are 80,000 dead in Pakistan. There are also countless injured, families displaced, lives ruined. Their names are all but forgotten.
True Grit vs. Manufactured Idols
The stories of survival – of courage and compassion need to be amplified to allow their fellow citizens and the world to acknowledge Pakistan’s sacrifices and get a sense of the challenges they confront every day. Rehabilitation projects for the brave victims of terror need to be highlighted. Here are real heroes’ not manufactured idol’s that deserve better. Like the 15 year old Aitzaz Husain – recipient of SJ who saved countless lives by throwing himself on a suicide bomber. A recent report comments on the plight of a martyrs’ family – still living under the shadow of TTP – waiting for compensation – for their sons sacrifice to be acknowledged, living off platitudes - unfulfilled promises of monuments and sports arenas, universities dedicated to a hero’s memory and for his name to be immortalized in the curriculum.
Pakistan needs to do right by its people before expecting the world to do the same. Putting its fiercest champions at the forefront does not serve as a veneer for a flawed base - it is not a ruse to score brownie points on the global front or mere strategy to whitewash history, like its bordering regions often do. Pakistan needs to be better than its neighbors.
It is time to rally around the brightest stars of the constellation. It is time to honor the dark side.