Arguing With Husain Haqqani

Husain HaqqaniHe is Senior Fellow and Director for South and Central Asia at a prestigious think tank in Washington, DC. He has written multiple books that have been termed ‘compulsory reading‘ in the West. He has been an invited speaker at the Aspen Ideas Festival and his ideas and analysis are regularly featured in global media like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, and Foreign Policy. Whether we like it or not, Husain Haqqani is probably the most influential Pakistani intellectual of modern times. Many don’t like it. I do not want to defend Husain Haqqani or his controversial ideas. What I want to do is use Husain Haqqani to talk about how we respond to those who we disagree with.

As you must know by know, Husain Haqqani’s latest piece for The New York Times caused quite a stir. In it, he dismisses the idea that India poses a real threat to Pakistan, and confirms the belief that the Pakistani state has supported extremist militants in Afghanistan and Kashmir. This is nothing new, however, it is his prescription for a cure that has angered many quarters because Haqqani calls for the US to get ‘tougher’ on Pakistan, something that is automatically seen as many as a shocking disloyalty, even though he explains that he is not looking to punish Pakistan:

The United States would be acting as a friend, helping Pakistan realize through tough measures that the gravest threat to its future comes from religious extremism it is fostering in its effort to compete with India.

Calls for ‘tough love’ are always controversial, however the response to this piece has not been to counter with facts and analysis. Actually, the response has shown the worst of the worst of human emotions. Surely you know what I mean, but here is a small sample of what I am talking about:

This is the response: Abuse, threats, hashtags, shouts of ‘traitor’, Indian flags and even a jewish star photoshopped on his picture. It is so stupid it is embarrassing. What do we think this behaviour makes us look like to the rest of the world? Intellectuals or idiots? Debaters or bullies? This is not even the behaviour of so-called ‘cyber commandoes’. Actually, they are nothing but cyber goondas. He says Pakistanis cannot be reasoned with, and we respond unreasonably. Such responses actually give Haqqani’s point more credit than his enemies realise.

This brings up another point. Pakistan has an entire diplomatic corps at its finger tips. Where is Ambassador Aizaz Chaudhry’s piece published in New York Times? Where is his piece published in The Wall Street Journal? More to the point, where are the Pakistani intellectuals who can debate with Haqqani without resorting to name-calling, innuendo, and threats?

Instead, what comes after the social media abuse calms down is completely predictable: Op-eds will be published in The Nation, Pakistan Observer, and Express Tribune. Urdu talk shows, especially on ARY, News One, and Bol will feature talking heads parroting the same talking points about how Haqqani was a member of IJT 30 or 40 years ago, even though he obviously grew out of such ideas before most of the audience was even born. They will call for Haqqani to be brought back to Pakistan and be tried for treason. After a few days of chest beating, something else will take over the media’s attention and the Haqqani Hate Squad will quiet down until he writes something else and the ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ is repeated.

Husain Haqqani is not really the point here. He is not the only progressive Pakistan whose ideas are responded with such abuse and threats. We see the same treatment handed out to our other internationally respected intellectuals like Asma Jahangir and Malala. If ISI and ISPR support such stupidity, how can we ever expect to be taken seriously on the world’s stage? If they do not support it, they need to call out these foolish ‘cyber warrior’ accounts, especially those that have attended the official trainings at NDU. They need to correct the retired officers and their children who spend their days abusing on social media. We need to stop attacking and abusing those who we don’t agree with, and start proving them wrong if we can. Otherwise, we are only drawing attention to our own lack of intelligent answers!

Where Are The Ideas?

We need to put together a foreign aid package for President Obama as a thank you for the billions his government has sent us. Our aid package can contain the political strategies of Zardari that help him, even while unpopular with the intelligentsia, win by polls. Even the PML guys can throw in their own help with some memos on the latest coalition building. And in exchange, we can ask Obama not to send anymore billions, but just a few people with actual policy ideas.

If there’s one thing that our politicians and intellectuals understand too well, it’s politics. My god, everyone in the country not only has an opinion, they are also experts on the subject. If politics was a natural resource that could be exported, we would be the wealthiest nation in the world.

Cyril Almeida makes this point perfectly in Dawn yesterday.

Unfortunately, we’re also one of the poorest nations when it actually comes to some policies for our politicians to enact once we elect them. This is also reflected in Cyril’s column – not by what he says, but what he doesn’t say. For all his exposition on the political strategies in Islamabad, there’s not one single sentence about the policies that might actually do some good for the people who don’t lust to have ‘Mian’, ‘Amir’, ‘MNA’ or ‘Minister’ before their name.

Ayaz Amir says as much in his piece for The News. I do think that he is much to sour in his writing – how can not come away with a stomach ache after reading it? But he does make one or two important points which I would like to draw to your attention.

First, he makes the observation that the media is not actually helping anything. Recently I was watching Shahid Masood’s show and a young woman commented that these TV anchors simply invite people on who they can prod into loud arguments and at the end of the show there is no solution proposed, no recommendations for action – just more yelling.  Here’s how Ayaz Amir characterizes it:

The crisis we face is more serious than we think. It is not just about fuel prices, sugar, inflation in general, or the breakdown of law and order. If it was only this there would still be hope. What we are facing is a bankruptcy of ideas, a governing class – covering the political and military spectrum – that can’t ask the right questions and therefore is in no position to get the right answers.

President Obama has had his comeuppance in the midterm congressional elections. He looks chastened and a bit beaten. The American electorate had a choice and it has exercised it. But what if there was such a moment in Pakistan? What choice would we have? What would be the alternatives on offer? None, because there would be none to begin with. Just more of the same, the past recycled to represent the future. This is a greater crisis than anything on the economic horizon.

Every wakeup call in the morning, when you scan the newspapers, is an invitation to cynicism.

And it is not just TV shows, either. The media gets criticised (though, let me tell you, it doesn’t seem to be getting through their thick skulls) but in a sense why should we expect from our journalists what our own intellectuals can’t even handle?

The spirit of Gen Zia lives on. In a nation that could never claim a shortage of false piety, he raised an entire temple complex to the spirit of hypocrisy. His legacy endures. The Pakistan of today is not cast in the image of Jinnah or Iqbal. The veneer of democracy notwithstanding, it is a tribute to the spirit of Zia. The supremacy of form over substance of which he was the master engineer continues to blight what, without a trace of irony, we call an Islamic Republic.

What should be our charter of economic renewal? Have any books been written on the subject? Are we even seriously debating this issue? Foreigners, and an increasing number of them, come and give us lectures on governance and economic policy and we accept what they say because we have little of our own to add to the narrative or the debate.

I have said before that I am sick to death of all these people clamoring from their TV studios and computer keyboard for some ‘revolution’ without even thinking about what they means or to what end they are revolting. But I will say that this country is desperate for a revolution of ideas.

I think we throw the label ‘intellectual’ around too easily. We have set the bar too low. All you need is some degree and in a county where everything has its price, it is well known that even an impressive sounding degree can be purchased.

But too many of our so-called intellectuals are not thinkers, they are simply parrots who learn to repeat certain catch phrases about hegemony or sovereignty or corruption. They give everyone a headache with their constant squawking until the people are ready to do whatever they say if they will simply shut up!

But this is no way to move a country forward. Jinnah had ideas. Iqbal had ideas. These were men who did not yell at each other about problems, they thought seriously about how to solve them. Where are our ideas now? They cannot have perished with these men. We need thoughtful people to step up to the task and begin a discussion not about politics and personalities, but about ideas.