In the pre-9/11 world that did exist once, people from Pakistan were often seen much agitated after their travels abroad. People elsewhere, especially in the West, mistook them as Indians. To this, they would always clarify “I am from Pakistan, not India” to the ignorant outsider, often without much success. Once back home, they would fume about why the world recognised India more and not their Pakistan.
It was either because being too young, the country was not considered born yet by the outside world or it had not done anything worthwhile to earn recognition on the world map.
Today, post-9/11, some might think that people in Pakistan are obsessed about the country’s image. While this is certainly not for want of recognition, those who obsess about the image do not all fall under one category nor do their concerns. The concerns may vary between Pakistan not being seen as religious enough or modern enough or peaceful enough or cultured enough by the world.
In all fairness, the image that Pakistan carries today is this — a hotbed of extremism, a country that treats its women and minorities unfairly, even brutally, exporter of terrorism and similar other labels. Within the country, people know this image is negative to the point of exaggeration and many live in a state of denial. That Osama bin Laden was not present in the Abbottabad compound when the US marines came to get him does not, therefore, fall in the realm of conspiracy theory; most educated people in the country argue that there is no video evidence to confirm that he was. “No one saw the dead body,” they claim.
Sometimes, you have to remind them that they are contesting something even the Pakistani state does not. One doubts if the terms of reference for the Abbottabad Commission included ascertaining if the incident took place at all.
That’s the state of mind against which the discussion about Pakistan’s image is being held. It is true that a state, or a country shall we say, becomes important or known only in relation to other states or countries. But short of declaring a war on another country, what it essentially stands for is something that happens within its geographical bounds.
There may be divergence in how the state sees itself and how the people see themselves in relation to the state. In a country that was carved out of another, especially for its Muslim citizens belonging to certain areas where they were in majority, the ideological moorings had to be abstract and soon found an anchor in religion. This was done at the expense of its ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. The insecurities of the newly founded state were addressed in a centralised and soon militarised state.
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Today, the so-called image of countries is said to be determined on the strength of their “soft power” which in turn is dependent on their culture and political values. Here, as per the state narrative, religion became the unifying force and culture was relegated to a back seat in the untainted pure new country. This led to a sense of estrangement and not just in smaller provinces. Soon the population-heavy Eastern wing was led to go its own way, and with it went a lot of cultural baggage too.
The country or what remained of it after 1971 kept toying with ideas of representative democracy and military dictatorships and, by the time 9/11 happened, it was in the throes of its fourth military rule. Of these military rules, the eleven years under Gen. Zia-ul Haq literally Islamised the state, brought in discriminatory legislation and brutal punishments, banned political activity, encouraged sectarianism and limited the cultural activities in unimaginable ways.
That was the image of the country not just for the world; it also bogged the country down and it’s a weight that Pakistan is still reeling under.
Even though it seems that those at the helm tried to imagine it in every way as a country that wasn’t India, it is to India that Pakistan must turn to, again and again. In a post 9/11 world, the image that Pakistan now carries is security focused — a country that harbours jihadis, Islamic revolutionaries, sectarian terrorists and Taliban — but the fact of the matter is that it is significantly connected with the state policies from before.
To India Pakistan inevitably returns which has successfully been selling its soft image from long before the term was even coined — the world’s biggest democracy, pluralism, culture, dance, music, films, cuisine, yoga, you name it. It returns to India because alongside using this power to compel the world to do business with it, it thinks India has smeared Pakistan’s name as a ‘sponsor of terrorism state’. The capitalist world sold to huge market access has turned a blind eye to India’s excesses in Kashmir, Pakistan shouts to almost deaf ears.
Terrorism, intolerance and misogyny define Pakistan’s reality. Those who struggle against these ills first become national and then international heroes. Pakistan has to change its reality in order to change its image. It must therefore learn to respect its Malalas, Asma Jahangirs and Sharmeen Chinoys as patriots and not traitors because this is what they actually are.
It must not treat the work of Raza Khan as subversive but as the right step in the direction of peace. Khan was trying to connect children and break their stereotypes about the ‘other’, the ‘enemy’ country. He wanted to change the image of both countries as enemies to each other. He does not deserve to ‘disappear’ like this.
Peace within Pakistan and peace between India and Pakistan is what is going to change Pakistan’s image. The beauty of its deserts, plains and mountains would not bring tourists unless they are convinced their lives are not at risk. Democracy, rule of law, music, film, dance, arts, concern for our own heritage, sports are values that are needed foremost for the people of this country. The image, soft or hard, will change of its own.