Pakistan and the narrative of shame

November 11, 2010

lahore mosqueManan Ahmed has a piece up at Chapati Mystery which should be essential reading for anyone interested in the current state of Pakistan and its prickly relations with the west, particularly with the United States. 

Starting off with a re-reading of Salman Rushdie’s “Shame” (one of those books that I expect many of us read in our youth without properly understanding) he returns to the original inspiration for the title – “Peccavi“, Latin for “I have sinned.”   According to an apocryphal, yet widely believed, story of British imperial conquest, “Peccavi” is the message that General Charles Napier sent back to Calcutta when he conquered Sindh (nowadays one of the provinces of Pakistan) in the 19th century. He then discusses how the modern-day view of Pakistan is defined by shame, or by a perception which over-simplifies it to  “Peccavistan”.

“Peccavistan is just as real as Pakistan,” he writes. ”It is a bundling, an explaining, a framing, a means of de-mystification when the mystery is itself a reflection of paucity of sources not of intelligibility. Peccavistan sells because Peccavistan takes away complexity, it reduces our mental and emotional commitments to Pakistan. Pakistan, though 180 million strong, ravaged by floods and suicide bombers, continues to carry on. Apocryphally speaking.”

Do read the whole thing, but his description is familiar.  I’ve shortened some paragraphs below to illustrate the point, in ways I hope do not do too much disservice to his text:

“In Napier’s view, a particular violence and terror haunted the valleys of Sindh. It was the Muslim menace in power … His civilizing mission, for which he invented a casus belli, was to counter this terror and violence … This violence which was projected onto and into the Sindhis by the colonial voice masked, however, the colonial violence itself … So even though Napier, who landed in Sindh in 1841, saw terror and violence everywhere, he failed to see it as his own violence.”

There is a lot to think about there. Among them, is what it tells you about  the impact of the U.S. decision to intensify its drone bombing campaign on Pakistan’s tribal areas, usually presented as a way of saving Pakistan from itself. These drone attacks are believed to be carried out with the complicity of the Pakistan government and the army.

Whether the drone bombings are appropriate or not, the narrative that resonates in Pakistan is one of shame – the notion that the government is too weak to stop a foreign country firing missiles into its own sovereign territory.  You can twist the knife on that — and people do – by making that shame more painful by dint of official collaboration. Then - and I would stress I am not defending this view but rather trying to explain it – you are a short step away from the argument used by Islamist militants and their sympathisers that Pakistan needs to be ”saved” from its rulers, if necessary by force.

One of the other points from Peccavistan is to understand how far Pakistan is defined by history. The United States post 9/11 has been notoriously short on its understanding of history. And while it can be misleading to see everything through the lens of colonial rule, you probably have to reconcile those two ways of thinking if Pakistan and the United States are ever to work out how to understand each other.


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