Mosharraf Zaidi: ‘The Unthinking Pakistani’


Mosharraf Zaidi

The following piece by Mosharraf Zaidi was published in today’s The News. It is re-posted here to further what is a discussion vital to the national cause. 

Why is Hafiz Sayeed, the head of a UN-sanctioned organisation, being provided an audience with some of Pakistan’s most prestigious talk show hosts? Why is the US ambassador to Pakistan being detained at Islamabad airport, if even for a few minutes? What explains the appearances of fiction script writers and comics wearing red topis on serious news television talk shows?

We don’t need an inquiry commission to explore these questions. We just need a healthy respect for Pakistan. A country of almost 200 million people is not a disposable bag of Halloween tricks. It is serious business. How serious? A brazen raid of a city that hosts Pakistan’s most important military academy should raise structural questions. The presence of the world’s most wanted terrorist in that city should raise existential questions. The unchallenged destruction of key military hardware, purchased with hard earned foreign assistance should raise capacity questions. The torture and murder of an intrepid investigative journalist should raise moral and legal questions.

That’s exactly what happened. The US raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad raised questions. Bin Laden’s presence there raised questions. The P3C Orion attack at PNS Mehran raised questions. Most gruesomely, Saleem Shehzad’s torture and murder raised questions.

Unfortunately, the universe’s response to these questions leaves much to be desired. Whatever Pakistan’s elected leaders, bureaucrats, technocrats and generals may be saying to the rest of the world, the basic message being conveyed on television, through press releases and by proxy is very simple: “Osama bin who? Pakistan is a fortress of Islam. Got questions? You’re a traitor.”

This may represent an adequate defence for a 10-year-old facing down schoolyard bullies. But Pakistan is not ten. It is 64. International relations demand something slightly more sophisticated. Parading clownish conspiracy theorists and internationally-despised terrorists on prime time television is so bush league, it beggars belief. If the best response Pakistan can conjure to India’s incredible capacity for propaganda is a bumbling faux historian that wears a red topi, Pakistan is in serious trouble. It is as if Pakistan wants to insist on bringing a knife to a gun fight. A blunt, boring butter knife. Made of plastic. In Gujranwala. If the best response that Pakistan can conjure to American hubris and myopia in the region is to harass the US ambassador, Pakistan is in really, really serious trouble. It is as if Pakistan insists on wearing Bermuda shorts, and a tank top with nihari stains on it to board meetings in which everyone else is dressed in Armani suits.

What motivation could there possibly be for Hafiz Sayeed to magically appear on television other than to scare the people who are watching Pakistan closely? Last time we checked, the JuD (or its spin off Falah-e-Insaaniat Foundation) had yet to achieve a greater name in welfare work than the Edhi Foundation. Nor had 80 odd JuD madrassahs begun to dispense education that could hold a candle to the stellar learning experience under-privileged Pakistani kids enjoy at The Citizens Foundation’s 660 schools. What exactly is going on?

The impulse in Pakistan, as always, is to conjure up a conspiracy of genius. In a dark and smoke-filled room in Aabpara somewhere, the cunning machinations of the ISI are hard at work. The truth is probably a lot scarier. Public service has not been a first, second or third choice for Pakistan’s best and brightest young people for over two generations now. This raises a simple, but damning problem. The people analysing the state of the world and helping the Pakistani state make decisions are not going to win any Nobel prizes for physics or chemistry anytime soon.

Yet for decades, the most important decisions Pakistan has made, both in state and across society, have in fact been made by the owners of less than stellar intellects. The results are there for all to see. The dubious distinction of having as many as 40 million children out of school in Pakistan is not an empty slogan. It is a real problem. This is reflected in a profound and growing inability across Pakistani state and society to think. Forget critical thinking. Pakistan’s systemic underinvestment in education and knowledge-generation, and its sustained overinvestment in sentimentality, zealous pride and empty slogans have real consequences.

One of them is the stoppage of the US ambassador at Islamabad airport. Another is the mysterious popping up of Hafiz Sayeed on big time talk shows. Yet another is the nonsense and tripe spewed by clownish conspiracy theorists. These events may be entirely independent and coincidental. Or they may be painstakingly well coordinated and timed. In either case, they represent the sum total of creativity and tactics employed by a state and society that simply doesn’t have any answers. Pakistan keeps doing less than optimal, and more than surreal things because that’s the best it can do.

At home, body bags pile sky high in Karachi and across Khyber. The fighting sons of Landhi, Orakzai, Lyari, Wazistan, Orangi, Bajaur, Surjani Town and Mohmand. Taking shrapnel and bullets. Taking hammers and tongs. Taking ball bearings and fire. Bearing the brunt of citizenship in a country that provides only 35,000 policemen to a city of 18 million – but somehow manages to afford an airline with one of the world’s highest employee to aircraft ratios. Adding insult to injury are constant ads from military affiliated foundations, recruiting policemen. Not to shut down the violence in Karachi or Khyber – but to shut down dissent in Bahrain.

Away from home, Pakistan constantly seeks financial aid from other countries. Pakistanis then want to turn around and call those countries names. The military is the primary recipient of foreign assistance, while political governments and NGOs have received a mere pittance. Yet somehow this results in the military being lauded for its “nationalism”, and the political class and civil society being dragged through the mud for their “treasonous” habit of dissent. This too is a product of a profound and growing inability to think.

It doesn’t stop there. Much of the obsession of both so-called liberals and so-called conservatives in Pakistan with religion is a dislocated zeal for arguing about God and the role of faith in public life. That’s a great topic for a Christopher Hitchens debate with any reasonable person, but it is not primary to Pakistan today. The most problematic manifestations of faith in Pakistan are not shampoo ads for women that observe hijaab. The most problematic manifestations of faith in Pakistan are terrorism, public sympathy for contract killers, a twisted national legal framework that incentivises the exploitation of minorities and ridiculous “piety” laws being implemented by a dysfunctional legal and judicial system. In short, exactly the kind of problems we would expect to see in a society that is increasingly bereft of the capacity of discerning thought.

The manner in which manifest religiosity has been mixed in with manifest nationalism, and a dangerously superficial ability to quote Allama Iqbal is germane to the unthinking Pakistani society. Harassing representatives of foreign governments, parading alleged terrorist masterminds, and deploying nutty conspiracy theorists has no basis in either South Asian tradition, or orthodox Islam, or even notions of Pakistaniat. But the unthinking Pakistani society isn’t thinking. Ahistoric and anachronistic, there is no way out for society. It has to begin thinking. The effective Pakistani state will remain an elusive and impossible dream until it does.

Mosharraf Zaidi is a political analyst who advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy. This column was originally published by The News on 27 August.




  1. Dear Mr. Zaidi, Seems like your trip to DC was productive. Please do visit again. I’m sure the US Ambassador has many other “suggestions” for blog posts. Best, Charlie

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