Compulsory patriotism
BY U M A I R J A V E D | 5/11/2015

DESPITE several premature obituaries and hastily drawn conclusions, two features of modern society continue to persist pretty much everywhere in the world. The first is the modern state, i.e. a differentiated set of rule-bound institutions, as a system of organising power and administering societal affairs (like taking taxes and providing security and schools). The second is nationalism, and the general idea that human society consists of enduring groups possessing internally common symbols, a shared identity (genealogical, religious, linguistic etc), and a desire to control their own affairs.

The second feature serves as a legitimising feature of the first. States may function using a set of laws, which provide its institutions with instructions regarding how to work, but the legitimacy of a state, or the more pervasive acceptance of both its authority and the laws it uses to exercise that authority comes through the more abstract notion of nationalism. Simply put, if I believe in a nation, I will acknowledge a state (and any of its institutions) as legitimate only if it is acting in the name of, and for, my nation.

This is a very basic idea that has sustained states through history, and, at the same time, contributed to the fragmentation of others into smaller new ones. The Pakistani state is no stranger to the latter, having experienced a painful split in 1971.

There`s a particular reason, or perhaps several of them, why it`s worth bringing up these points now.

For many middle-class Pakistanis, recent events Operation Zarb-e-Azab, Sabeen Mahmud`s horrific murder, the talk that never happened at LUMS, and the talk that eventually happened outside the auditorium in Karachi have all been processed under the broad lens of patriotism and nationalism.

One particularly jarring reaction from amongst the internet-using population has been to rationalise a murder by invoking the victim`s `treachery and anti state behaviour`. Another has been to initiate a smear campaign against a university professor on the basis of his `questionable` patriotism. The more `refined` have tut-tutted at such violence, but underscored their position by pointing out just how sacred the state is, and how necessary it is for us to identify with it given how beleaguered it currently is.

Let`s make a few things clear at the outset. In this country, when anyone talks about the state in the context of nationalism and patriotism, they mean the army. Parliament, Wapda, the Public Works Department, FBR, or any other organisation that is also a part of the state does not invoke patriotic sentiment nor does it openly ask for patriotism to be mandatory (through pictures, music videos, billboards, and television dramas). As a result of this rather primitive form of state-directed nationalism, questioning the army, or merely questioning the mental boundaries laid out by the security apparatus, is enough to be placed on a spectrum ranging from unpatriotic to outright traitor.

This phenomenon is not new for Pakistan. In the list of treacherous personnel, participants in ethnic politics (the Pakhtuns, the Bengalis, the Baloch, the Sindhis during the MRD movement, the MQM), socialists in the `60s and `80s, and now individuals who identify themselves as liberals all stand in line.

What has changed through this time is that the state doesn`t necessarily have to initiate the witch-hunt on its own. This all-encompassing idea of citizens practising unquestioning deference in front of the state (ie the armed forces) has managed to grab a foothold in the minds of many urban middle-class citizens.

Chauvinistic nationalism, such as the one commonly found in Pakistan, manifests itself in a variety of ways. For starters, it holds a thorough disregard for ethnic mobilisation; a disregard that often takes the shape of an earnest yet completely igno-rant question, `why can`t they all just be more Pakistani and less Baloch/Sindhi/Pakhtun/Mohajir` Another way is through the act of dismissing pluralist, liberal politics, or basic human rights activism, as a foreign-funded agenda. A third way is guarding the country`s `reputation`, whereby a traitor is caught and skewered on the internet or on television for trying to malign the country.

States pretty much all over the world are hypersensitive and insecure. What separates democratic states and societies from fascist or totalitarian ones is their openness to different forms of political expression. It is common to hear citizens in such countries angrily question their states on the issue of defence spending, or the decision to wage war, or to challenge the prioritisation of a nuclear arsenal over a better-funded healthcare system. It is even possible for citizens in such countries to openly challenge the very existence of the state in its existing form.

The logic behind allowing all such forms of dissent is a very modest one: if a country`s own citizens aren`t allowed to question the state that is contractually obligated to serve their needs, then who is? This logic simply doesn`t exist in Pakistan. A state with such strong authoritarian tendencies has managed to fashion and sustain a society in its own image. We`ve slowly arrived at a point where the popularity and pervasiveness (or lack thereof) of a dissenting idea doesn`t really matter. Even a polemical discussion on one aspect of the Baloch confliict, taking place within a small, largely irrelevant niche, needs to be actively opposed.

Tragically, state actors, and those who hold them beyond questioning, need to realise that legitimacy cannot be coerced out of a population. It is almost always gained by actual service, and not by an empty spectre of obligation or hollow notions of moral responsibility. Patriotism can and should never be compulsory, and neither should it be thought of as such. The failure to recognise such basic ideas will only lead to more witch-hunts, more silencing, and more dead bodies.•
The writer teaches politics at LUMS. Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn