Constantly Lost: The Identity Crisis And Meltdowns Of The Blocked Elite In Pakistan

Constantly Lost: The Identity Crisis And Meltdowns Of The Blocked Elite In Pakistan
There were many who were shocked after witnessing a barrage of hateful posts and tweets when Malala was shot and flown to the UK for surgery. The shocking bit wasn’t about hate-filled statements coming from the usual suspects who, at the time, were blowing themselves up in markets, schools, mosques and shrines. The real surprise was the language used by many ‘respectable’ men and women, and the manner in which they derided a young teenage girl who had been shot in the face by militant Islamists.

It was once believed that only frustrated, uneducated young people from downtrodden families were willing pawns of those who use indiscriminate acts of terrorism and violence against the state and polity. It is estimated that over 70,000 Pakistanis lost their lives during the vicious campaign of suicide bombings and assassinations unleashed by militant Islamist groups between 2004 and 2015. Two major studies on terrorism’s impact on mental health in Pakistan found a large number of people exhibiting post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. The first study was conducted in 2011 (MT Khalily, International Journal of Integrated Care, Oct-Dec, 2011), and the second in 2014 (S Nasim, M Khan, S. Aziz, J Pak Med Association, March, 2014).

Cult of personality: Khan is watching. He will make everything alright

On the other hand, the security and political analyst and the director of Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) Muhammad Amir Rana has published a number of studies that explore the mental and emotional dispositions of young people who were once willing to become suicide bombers. Most of them came from low-income backgrounds and were indoctrinated by “expert brainwashers” operating in militant sectarian and Islamist outfits.

In 2015, the progressive human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud was assassinated in Karachi by two men. One of them was Saad Aziz. When details about this young man — who had become radicalised — were released, it took many by surprise. He did not come from a downtrodden background, nor was he an illiterate person or a madrassa student. He came from a well-to-do middle-class family, that owned a trendy restaurant in one of Karachi’s high-income areas. Also, Aziz had graduated from the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), which is one of the city’s leading educational institutions.
Pakistan’s battles against extremism cannot be solely won through the barrel of a gun. Because one of the most powerful facilitators of the troubling security situation we are faced with today is more psychological in nature. It is that prevailing mindset which is yet to fully comprehend what is at stake

This was perhaps the first prominent sign that the ‘radicalisation of society’ which was largely thought to be taking place among low-income segments, had begun to make its way up towards ‘educated’ middle-income groups. This should have opened up a whole new study. However, Aziz may still be an exception, in the sense that he actually committed a heinous act of terror. But this does no mean that the ideas that prompted him to do so are also exceptions in the class to which he belongs.

Indeed, compared to lower-income groups, the number of people from the middle-classes who committed acts of terrorism (in the name of a religious ideology) is extremely low. But, since, for almost a decade, extreme ideas have been finding a home in the psyche of this strata, the middle-class was thus not above rationalising or even justifying the acts and narratives of those who were actually committing terrorism.

The ‘awestruck effect:’ Khan’s 2014 dharna

During the years when Islamist militancy and terrorism were peaking, one often saw many ‘respectable’ folk on TV and in drawing-rooms doing just that. Not only had members and supporters of mainstream Islamist parties become unabashed ‘apologists’ of Islamist groups, but also among these were ‘lifestyle liberals’ who had found another ‘messiah’ (after General Musharraf) in the populist shape of Imran Khan. They held on to his every word: Terrorism was due to American policies in the region; it was due to drone attacks; those being labelled as terrorists were “our misunderstood brothers,” etc. Some even went to the extent of claiming that suicide attacks were being conducted by non-Muslim foreigners posing as Muslims.

Just how much of this mindset had penetrated middle-income groups? Apparently, quite a bit. But what is it, exactly? It is not producing armies of ‘educated’ middle-class men and women willing to blow themselves up, killing men, women and children. However, as mentioned, it is creating apologists of such acts. The apologias are equally problematic because they make it that much tougher for the state to weave a counter-narrative. Former military chief General Raheel Sharif, and the Nawaz Sharif regime, faced this when it was decided that the military will go all out to ‘crush’ the militants. To its horror, the state also discovered that it was now up against a mindset that it had itself help build.

The collective national mindset is a powerful thing. It determines how a nation thinks as a whole. Mindsets are often weaved from narratives formulated by the state and the nationalist intelligentsias. The narratives in this context are conceived to build a collective mindset which would inherently supplement and fall in line with the state’s policies, without much resistance.

Nevertheless, sometimes such a mindset, after it trickles down from above, and is then fully absorbed by those below, becomes the domain of the people. So much so, that even when the state decides to change the narrative to suit its new-found needs, it struggles to make the people shrug-off the old mindset. Because after decades of propagating the narrative, the mindset that it produced becomes powerfully ingrained in the DNA of a nation. Eradicating it or replacing it with a new narrative and mindset becomes an extremely tough ask.

This is what happened in Pakistan. And this is why the state is finding it difficult to transform the collective mindset which was propagated by the state to make Pakistanis believe that they, as a nation, were a bastion of Islam, surrounded by enemies who were plotting to destroy their faith.
Maybe our Jekyll is simply refusing to realise that the evil Hyde is an extension of our own self. Laying within us have been delusions of bravado and a myopic worldview

When the military was conducting an unprecedented military operation against Islamist militants (2015 - 2017), the state and government struggled to change a mindset which almost automatically generated numerous ‘apologetic’ voices whenever the military took action or whenever the militants retaliated. Such voices were the outcome of the mentioned mindset. This mindset still cannot fully reconcile to the fact that the militants were not holy warriors out to purify Pakistan and defeat its many enemies.

Pakistan’s battles against extremism cannot be solely won through the barrel of a gun. Because one of the most powerful facilitators of the troubling security situation we are faced with today is more psychological in nature. It is that prevailing mindset which is yet to fully comprehend what is at stake. What is even more disconcerting is that many of those carrying this mindset are probably not even aware of how they might actually be aiding extremism to continue flourishing. Such a phenomenon was captured rather brilliantly in the classic 1956 film Forbidden Planet.

The film takes place in the 23rd century where a spaceship is sent from Earth to a planet that is 16 lightyears away. The crew of the ship is tasked to find out what happened to a space probe that was sent to the planet 20 years before. On reaching the planet, the captain and crew find a scientist and his family who tell the investigation party that an unknown force had destroyed the probe and killed the inhabitants of the planet.

After facing attacks from the same entity, the crew finally figure out that the entity is actually the subconscious manifestation of the scientist himself, triggered by a machine invented by him.

The scientist continues to deny this, until he is finally convinced that the elusive entity which is slaughtering the planet’s inhabitants is indeed a physical expression of his own subconscious mind and/or the manifestation of what the German psychologist Sigmund Freud called ‘the id’.

One of the two ministers in Khan’s government who wants to blow up in the Parliament

It is fair to wonder whether the unprecedented spats of violence by extremists that have been haunting Pakistan for years may actually be the physical manifestations of our own collective subconscious? This might also explain the inexplicable state of denial or silence that we as a nation usually fall into every time some entity goes on a killing spree in the name of faith.

Maybe our Jekyll is simply refusing to realise that the evil Hyde is an extension of our own self. Laying within us have been delusions of bravado and a myopic worldview. These are the imaginary notions of the self that fuelled a collective mindset which has become difficult to replace with an anti-thesis of what we were once programmed to believe.


In December 2014, when terrorists attacked a school in Peshawar and murdered over 140 people — mostly students — Raheel Shareef asked Imran Khan to end his anti-government sit-in (dharna) in Islamabad. Khan was reluctant because (in his mind) he was close to ousting the Nawaz regime. Most Pakistanis had gone into shock after watching the bodies of young children on TV screens and scenes of mothers and fathers frantically trying to find their children. Khan eventually decided to end the dharna, during which he had also wagged his finger at US drone attacks that were targeting the very people who had planned the attack on the school.
The middle-class, split between Musharraf’s idea of Islam (‘Enlightened Moderation’) and that of Zia, remained to be one of the core beneficiaries of economic liberalisation. But sensing the imminent fall of Musharraf, they went into depression. Their identities, formed first by Zia, and then by Musharraf, once again began to disperse and disintegrate

He was also against any military operation against the terrorists. But in this too, he was forced by Gen Raheel to put his signature on a consensus document drawn by the government, opposition and military-establishment to green-light an all-out operation against the Islamist militants. However, before this, the car that Khan was leaving the dharna area in, was stopped by a group of middle-aged women who pleaded with him not to go. They had tears in their eyes.

All of them belonged to middle-income families. The tears were not for the students who had been mercilessly gunned down in Peshawar. It was as if, the school attack — let alone the fact that thousands had already been killed in acts of terrorism — just did not matter to the wailing women.

What does this say? The fantasies of a clean, pious Pakistan that Khan was peddling to them had become concretised in their minds. In him they saw a charismatic, modern-day messiah. In 2017, German researcher Jochen Menges conducted a study to explore the impact of charismatic leaders on their followers. His findings led to what he called the “awestruck effect.” According to Menges, a lot of people suspend their emotions while listening to charismatic leaders. This hampers their ability of critical thinking. Menges adds that “charisma as a dominant behaviour is successful only when it is matched by submissive behaviour on the part of a leader’s followers.”

An earlier theory in this context is based on the works of Sigmund Freud. It is often referred to as “transference,” in which a person or group projects an idealised image of a father-or mother-figure on to a leader. When the leader becomes conscious of this, he tries to enhance this idealised image of himself. In politics, this is often done by the creation of the cult of personality. For example, Khan’s photographs while performing prayers, or working out, or speaking to a group of youth, etc., are floated to substantiate the idealised image of him being a morally correct and fit father-figure who can do no wrong.

So, why was Khan adopted as this figure by thousands of middle-class folk? Why, like the mentioned women, were they willing to exhibit more heartbreak about the ending of his dharna, than about a traumatic tragedy (the Peshawar school attack)? Also take the recent case of two ministers in Khan’s regime who expressed their desire to blow-up in the Parliament and kill Khan’s opponents. They both belong to well-to-do families. But why would they air a revenge fantasy which sees them becoming suicide bombers when such bombers have killed over 70,000 common civilians, cops, soldiers and politicians in Pakistan?

They were only expressing something that has already plagued the psyche of middle-income groups. A large percentage of them will never actually become suicide bombers themselves, but, as already discussed, they continue to be the violent subconscious that is consciously and physically manifested by those from the classes below.

The actual terrorists and militants in this context usually get swayed by contemporary ‘jihadist’ literature and narratives that are directly or indirectly influenced by Manichaeism. That refers to third-century Persian system of doctrines which was later adopted by various religious traditions.

It constitutes a ‘dualist cosmology’, based on the idea of a primordial conflict between light and darkness, good and evil. Class, ethnicity, nationality or material economic conditions do not play a role in this conflict. Race and faith do. It is also called a ‘cosmic war.’ The militants explain the conflict as one which has been going on for centuries outside the material realm, and within a spiritual one that the sacred texts speak of.

In a 2018 essay for the Journal of Strategic Studies, the forensic psychologist Karl Umbrasas writes that terror outfits who kill indiscriminately can be categorised as “apocalyptic groups.” According to Umbrasas, such groups operate like “apocalyptic cults” and are not restrained by socio-political and moral restraints. Umbrasas writes that apocalyptic terror groups justify acts of indiscriminate destruction through their often distorted and violent interpretations of the sacred texts.

Is this how the middle-classes understand the conflict they believe they are in, as well? Let’s see.


The middle-class in developing countries is tightly sandwiched between the classes below and the elected as well as unelected ruling elites above. Middle-income groups in these regions are also sometimes called the “blocked elite.” They may have attained economic influence, but feel that they are being denied political influence by the ruling elites above. They develop a persecution complex. On the other hand, a fear of plunging down and being relegated to the classes below, or losing their economic influence to the more ambitious folk among the low-income groups, triggers a state of depression and anxiety.

Zia enjoined economic liberalisation with political Islam

According to the American psychologist Michael Friedman (Psychology Today, 29 October 2020), anxieties related to depression can change how one fundamentally sees him/herself as people. It can undermine their identity. Friedman calls depression “the ultimate identity thief.” We build our identity through experiencing and discovering the things with which we connect in our lives. It can be anything – a musician or genre of music, a sportsperson or sport, an actor or genre of film, a religious figure or his/her particular philosophy, etc. The aforementioned condition (sense of being blocked/sandwiched) and the resultant anxieties have set off an identity crisis among middle-income groups.

For instance, in Pakistan, middle-income groups have been sandwiched between the identities of folk/populist Islam and of ethnicity held by the classes below; and identities formed from nationalist meta-narratives, conceived and propagated by the civilian-political and state elites above. The middle-income segments are often the more willing recipients of the latter, but there is a conflict between the civilian and state elites in the interpretation of the meta-narrative. The civilian ruling elites are compelled to adopt elements that the low-income segments identify with. The civilian elites fuse them with the nationalist meta-narrative. State elites find this problematic because they feel such a fusion dilutes and then displaces the core of the meta-narrative. That core is supposed to keep a diverse polity united as a nation.


This conflict of interpretation between the two sides of the ruling elites is explained by the civilian side as a battle between democracy and authoritarianism. By the state elites, the conflict is explained as a confrontation between corrupt politics and the institutions of national unity and national interest. According to the political economist S. Akbar Zaidi (Issues in Pakistan's Economy: A Political Economy Perspective) it was the latter elite that began to provide a semblance of political participation to the middle-classes, even though Zaidi is of the view that it has become increasingly difficult to define exactly what it means to be middle-class in Pakistan.

And he is not at all amused by the manner in which some scholars do this. For example, in his review of The New Pakistani Middle Class by Ammara Maqsood, Zaidi writes, “Maqsood’s book is mistitled because it is not at all about a ‘Pakistani’ middle class, but looks at a small section of individuals belonging to her notion of the middle class.”

Zaidi, so far, has settled for – but is not entirely convinced by – the term “aspirational classes” that are the most active acquirers of consumer goods. Therefore, according to him, 38% of the country’s population can be counted as middle class in Pakistan. This class is socially conservative, yet enterprising, mainly due to the manner in which the state began to bolster the nationalist meta-narrative with variations of ‘political Islam,’ especially after the departure of the erstwhile East Pakistan in 1971, and the coming to power of an Islamist military dictatorship in 1977 (General Zia-ul-Haq).

The dictatorship conjoined economic liberalisation with social conservatism. Therefore, the classes that benefited the most by the policies of economic deregulation and liberalisation also adopted a conservative disposition that was attached to these policies. What this produced was a conservative middle-class, but one which was impressed by expansive developmental models and repulsed by the ‘old style’ politics based on class conflict, which it saw as tilted towards the classes below.

The military dictator Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008) repeated this formula by continuing the economic liberalisation that was initiated from 1979 onwards, but he diluted the Islamic aspect of this formula by reinterpreting it to mean something more ‘spiritual’ and ‘Sufi’ in nature. This intensified the conflict of interpretation, but this time, the conflict directly impacted the middle-class. It split between pro-Musharraf ‘moderates’ and those still holding on to the firmer notions of Islam proliferated during the Zia regime (1977-88). However, as Musharraf’s government began to crumble in 2007, along with the economy, and civilian ruling elites began to revive themselves, state elites such as the military-establishment once again began to frame the tensions as a conflict between corrupt politics and national interest.

Zaid Hamid had a plan

The middle-class, though, split between Musharraf’s idea of Islam (‘Enlightened Moderation’) and that of Zia’s, remained to be one of the core beneficiaries of economic liberalisation. But sensing the imminent fall of Musharraf, they went into depression. Their identities, formed first by Zia, and then by Musharraf, once again began to disperse and disintegrate. The middle-class had by then become a significant urban constituency. Musharraf tried to retain this constituency through identity-politics. Articulate men were unleashed on popular TV channels who began to frame the conflict between the dictatorship and the anti-Musharraf politicians as a cosmic battle between good and evil.

One Zaid Hamid became a regular on a TV channel churning out conspiracy theories suggesting that the politicians were tools of international forces to engineer the ouster of Musharraf and place anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam forces in power. Many young middle-class folk were spellbound by him as he spouted one worn-out conspiracy theory after another, claiming that he had a plan to disrupt the plans of those out to turn Pakistan into a den of corruption and deviance. His ‘sources’ and ‘references’ were largely conspiracy mongers and debunked literature that had originally emerged in Europe and the US in the first half of the 20th century. He also used obscure Islamic sources. He was like a cross between the classical conspiracy theorist and an enraged Islamist, who also liked to pose with the guns that he owned.

Then there was the TV anchor Shahid Masood who had had a promising beginning to his TV career in the early 2000s. But during the period that the Musharraf regime was collapsing, Masood heavily borrowed material from the writings of the notorious Turkish conspiracy theorist and creationist Harun Yahya for a set of dramatic lectures on the ‘End of Times.’ His framing of the aforementioned conflict was more apocalyptic. The distorted, invented and re-invented histories, revenge fantasies, and pseudo-scientific and magical economic gibberish spouted by these two gentlemen sat well with middle-income groups facing the possibility of an identity crisis, and fearing that they would be relegated to political obscurity or pushed downwards in the messy ranks of the classes bellow.

Shahid Masood went apocalyptic

Even though the appeal of both Hamid and Masood eventually wore off, they had tapped into the psyche of an influential constituency that was feeling vulnerable after the departure of Musharraf. Some members in the military-establishment were taking notes. They began looking for a suitable replacement for Musharraf, even though the left-liberal PPP and the centre-right PML-N had won the 2008 and 2013 elections to form governments. But they were the old civilian ruling elite at odds with a state elite that saw them as a threat.

Imran Khan stepped in to fill the ‘void’ created by Musharraf’s departure. But the fact is: there really wasn’t any void. If there was one, it was filled by the PPP and PML-N. However, the middle-classes were now 84-million-strong (Zaidi, The Hindu, 28 February 2017). They already had economic influence and were perched in all manner of positions in important institutions, including the mushrooming electronic media. Musharraf had become their ‘strong man,’ and their minds were now stuffed with the conspiratorial balderdash fed to them as a way to explain the strong man’s fall.

The establishment’s men taking notes found in Khan someone who could be moulded into becoming a civilian Musharraf. To address the fears and anxieties of the middle-classes — now carrying lofty and magical theories and histories — Khan had to usurp not only Musharraf’s ideas of nationalism and ‘Sufi Islam,’ but also bits from Islamic ideologues, as well as from Pakistani ‘post-colonial’/postmodernist hacks sitting in universities in the US but applauding Islamism as an admirable idea against Western modernity.

Khan received the bulk of urban middle-class votes, but they were not enough to give his party a majority. He had to cobble together a shaky coalition, but one that he began to run like an authoritarian ruler. The lofty, passionate rhetoric continued, but, of course, it could not do anything to stem the decline of the economy, curb violent crimes, or mend deteriorating relations with countries that are Pakistan’s leading trading partners and providers of financial and military aid. In fact, Khan’s rhetoric damaged these.

Initially, as he failed, his core middle-class constituencies went quiet. But when it became evident that the military-establishment had had enough of this experiment, and opposition parties had finally found some space to make use of the anger that was simmering in the polity against Khan’s misrule, the middle-classes began to go into meltdown mode again. Many among this class had invested a lot of emotion in Khan, identifying with him as an authoritative paternal figure and identifying him as a messiah of sorts. As a new round of identity crises ran across this class, out came the conspiracy theories. But this time, since the military-establishment had strategically retreated, the theories were rolled out by Khan, his ministers, and his last remaining supporters in the electronic media.

Out went the anti-corruption rhetoric (mainly because his own administration had become plagued by corruption). And in came the tried and tested theories of foreign intervention. Supposedly, Khan, who in reality had only limited international exposure or clout as PM, had somehow become a grave danger to US and European designs in the region. So, they influenced the military establishment to back off and allow the opposition parties to oust him through a no-confidence vote.

Khan is basically trying to soften what is otherwise a hard fall. And his middle-class constituency is doing the same. But they know the game is over. They’ve lost another identity that was formulated for them, this time around Khan. A young group of Khan’s supporters that I know well have started to watch old videos of Khan’s 2014 dharna. They were there. Two of them fell in love there and married soon after. This can be seen as loss of identity, now holding on to nostalgia to retain itself.

But the middle-classes must realise that they are an important economic and cultural segment who need to formulate identities for themselves instead of always searching for messiahs to form identities for them.

The writer is a journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian.