Roots Of Rage: Why Is Pashtun Anger Justified?

Roots Of Rage: Why Is Pashtun Anger Justified?
"Why are you being hyper?" A dear friend from Lahore chided me one cold evening while we were chatting about ethnic politics in Pakistan.

I have known this friend for fifteen years. We have spent hundreds of hours in which I have tried to educate him about the issues of war-torn Pakhtunkhwa, just like a member of any oppressed group would do.

Many times, these conversations became heated. It’s hard to contain anger while talking about thousands of people who have gone missing or lost their limbs to landmines. But my friend never found my political anger justified.

This is not my isolated experience. Young Pashtuns and Baloch who leave their hometowns for education or work would relate to my experience. Black people in the US faced similar criticism for their rage when they protested against George Floyd’s murder. Similarly, women often find themselves tone-policed by the patriarchy brigade.

The question is as to why those who are not at the receiving end of repression find our rage unjust. Is our rage justified? Does it have any transformative value? These are the questions I will answer in this article by applying the Black feminist philosopher Myisha Cherry’s framework to Pashtun rage expressed through PTM.


On Pakistan’s tone-policing of rights movements 

Tone-policing is a derailing tactic that, instead of focusing on the substance of an argument, focuses on the emotional manner in which a person expresses their opinion. According to Collins dictionary, it is “the rejection of an argument on the grounds of the tone in which it is delivered rather than on the grounds of its content.”

Out of the many ways the state responded to the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), tone-policing was one. Time and again, PTM activists were told that their demands were genuine, but their tone was wrong. In April 2019, in a jalsa in Orakzai, the then PM Imran Khan attempted to discredit PTM and deviate attention from the sufferings of the Pashtuns of tribal areas by saying, "PTM wale baat tho theek karte hain, lekin jo unka lehja ha wo bilkul theek nhi ha” (What PTM says is right, but their tone is absolutely not right). Khan, himself, has never been shy of using political rage and slander in the quest for power.

The military establishment and its allies have used the tactic of tone-policing to discredit PTM’s claims about the consequences of state-enforced terrorism and the war economy. While the military establishment used state institutions and media to promote the narrative of “anti-state” against PTM, the movement remained a red line for the media.

That Ali Wazir remained behind bars for more than two years in nineteen different FIRs shows Pakistan’s powerful military establishment’s obsession with the tone-policing of Pashtun leaders. He was offered freedom if he had formally apologised to the army for his rage, but he refused and upheld his principles–thus remained detained for a prolonged time.

While Ali lost 18 family members, including his two brothers and father, to terrorism, and people of his constituency faced the brunt of the state-sponsored Talibanisation, his rage still gets labeled as “provocative speech” against the state. The message is clear: you have to get killed, displaced, and humiliated but are not allowed to protest. In the state lexicon, a good victim is a silent victim.

The powerful want to determine the terms and tone of protest. A deeper problem with tone-policing is the power differential between groups and the ability of the powerful to define the bounds of conversation and the guidelines for what tone is acceptable and what is unacceptable. It is the tool of the powerful to silence dissent but has miserably failed in PTM's case.


Why are Pashtuns enraged?

Pashtuns, especially those who have faced the brunt of the war on terror, believe that terrorism in the Pashtun region is a direct result of the Pakistani state’s war economy and foreign policy towards Afghanistan. For decades, the dollar influx made Talibanisation a profitable business for Pakistan’s military establishment at the expense of the death, displacement and destruction of Pashtuns. Locals who are witness to different seasons of Talibanisation see the Taliban as proxy elements of the Pakistan army, crucial to the wealth accumulation of Pakistan's military top brass.

Omar Jafri, in a report, outlines four ways in which Pashtuns have suffered. First, they suffered directly from the war on terror. Second, they were targeted by foreign fighters fleeing Afghanistan. Third, Pashtuns have been the victims of Pakistani state policies targeting the Taliban. Finally, Pashtuns have also been the victims of punitive measures of Pakistani security policy that “often conflates ethnicity with extremist ideology.”

While most people are aware that out of the 70,000 people killed in the previous two decades, most were civilians, ethnically Pashtun, the post-operation miseries of Pashtuns find no space in the mainstream media. Families of the thousands of missing persons remain to live in anguish–and are economically crippled. Their wives continue to live the life of half-widows, raising children as single mothers without any social security and economic safety net.

Hundreds of families of the Kukikhel tribe of Tirah Valley that got displaced after the 2012 military operation in Tirah live in inhuman conditions in caves. Similarly, despite repeated promises, hundreds of displaced families living in the Bakakhel camp cannot return to their homes. Thousands remain stranded in Afghanistan. Silence on these issues points towards the dehumanisation and otherisation of Pashtuns in Pakistan—normalised through the narratives of “elaqa-e-gher” for decades.

To add insult to injury, Pakistani politicians and bureaucrats occasionally label Pashtuns as sympathetic to the Taliban. A year ago, Imran Khan faced criticism for calling Pashtuns Taliban sympathisers. Recently, Pakistan’s Permanent Representative in the UN, Munir Akram, came under fire for linking the Taliban’s ban on women’s education and work to Pashtun culture. It angers Pashtuns to be labeled as Taliban sympathisers. They see such claims as a tactic to erase Pashtun resistance to terrorism, distort Pashtun’s progressive identity and paint the Taliban as a home-grown political force that represents the aspirations of Pashtuns–while the matter of fact is that the Taliban are nothing but strategic assets of Pakistan’s military establishment.
The powerful want to determine the terms and tone of protest. A deeper problem with tone-policing is the power differential between groups and the ability of the powerful to define the bounds of conversation and the guidelines for what tone is acceptable

Despite the Pakistan army's tall claims to dismantle terrorist outfits through various military operations that displaced millions, the Taliban’s presence in Pashtun regions remains a reality. PTM leadership and activists have warned for years about the facilitation, safe passages and weapons provided to the Taliban, enabling them to reorganise in the erstwhile FATA. What enrages Pashtuns, even more, is that the state policy towards Taliban remains the same–at best, ignore the Taliban and, at worst, be complicit in their proliferation. The countless protests against the Taliban under the flag of “Ulasi Pasoon” in various parts of Pakhtunkhwa is a testament to the rage of Pashtuns against the Pakistani state’s continued collaboration with the Taliban.

The Pakistan military establishment has used unprecedented hard-handed measures against PTM leadership and activists to contain their rage–from assassinating PTM activists to forcing them into exile to detaining them in fraudulent cases. However, the crackdown has only backfired. It could neither silence Ali Wazir nor break the resolve of the parents of Gulalai Ismail, who were dragged into anti-terrorism court for three years in a fraudulent case of sedition and terrorism, nor could it silence Waranga Luni, whose brother Arman Luni was allegedly killed by Balochistan Police.

Young people who grew up amidst the worst waves of terrorism cannot be deterred through FIRs, detention and trials. In his latest speech in Islamabad, Ali said, "Comrades, remember this: I am standing firm with you. Jail can't break my resolve. If deaths didn't end my resolve, if the gory corpses and funerals (of closed ones) didn’t end it, and the lost spaces in the graveyard didn’t end it, how can these black doors (referring to jail gates) end my resolve.”

The man’s solemn commitment to truth and justice at any cost comes from deep wounds and rage –a justified one at that. But, sadly, those in power have been unable to see it and empathise with him.


Philosophers on political rage 

My own experience with friends and the larger political context of Pashtuns in Pakistan have made me think about the question of political rage or anger more seriously. For the answer(s), I turned to philosophers, not because they have the sole propriety over the truth about anger, but because one can learn more from their expertise and systematic articulations about the question of political anger. Martha Nussbaum in her book, Anger and Forgiveness, on the role of anger in the context of political justice, argues, “It is a bad strategy and a fatally flawed response.”

Owen Flanagan doubts the usefulness of anger in his book, Geography of Morals. He writes, “Could a contagion of tears rather than a contagion of rage be healing, could it restore hope in humanity? The answer seems clearly yes.” The list of philosophers on anger is long and beyond the scope of this piece. From Aristotle to twentieth-century feminist scholars and philosophers, anger has been studied widely for centuries. Here I focus on the works of two Black feminist scholars—Myisha Cherry and Audrey Lorde—to build my case for just political rage of groups like Pashtuns in Pakistan.


Myisha Cherry’s rage typology 

Myisha Cherry, a Black moral psychologist and philosopher of race, in her book, The Case for Rage, distinguishes among five types of rage in an attempt to identify the types that will lead us to justice from those that will lead to unnecessary and unbridled anger. These five types of rage are rogue rage, wipe rage, ressentiment rage, narcissistic rage and, finally, the Lordean rage.

Cherry uses rage as synonymous with anger, but she defines rage as "an intense anger in response to incessant injustice" rather than "unbridled anger."

She focuses on four dimensions—target, action tendency, aim and perspective— to determine if a particular type of rage is good or bad, in the sense of being constructive and useful in accomplishing social and racial justice. “Target” refers to whom the anger is directed at; “aim” means what one hopes to achieve in connection to anger; and "perspective" refers to the approach which births anger. In a research article titled “Political Anger,” Cherry writes, “Anger is also motivational. This means that it has an action tendency or a desire that can motivate action.”

The first type, rogue rage, is anger at injustice with no clear target. A person with rogue rage blames everyone. It is based on "me versus everyone else" positioning. Rogue rage's aim is not putting an end to injustice, fighting for new laws, or redistributing wealth, for instance. The perspective that informs this kind of rage is nihilism, "a sense of dread and despair, an absence of belief or hope." In short, rogue rage is based on what Cherry terms “pain-passing” to those who are not the cause of it. Imran Khan’s rage can be categorised as rogue rage.

Wipe rage targets the racial "others." Contrary to rogue rage's pain-passing tendency, wipe rage uses racial others as scapegoats since they are perceived to be the cause of the experiences of injustice even when evidence shows otherwise. Those with wipe rage have the action tendency to “eliminate the scapegoats” made possible by the hatred directed towards them. The Nazis in Germany and White Supremacists in the US are examples of this kind of rage. One can also see sectarian violence against Shia and Ahmadi Muslims as a form of wipe rage.

Those with ressentiment rage aim to target the racial group in power, most likely all members of the powerful group. The aim is revenge but there is also envy towards the powerful group. Cherry argues that ressentiment rage’s action tendency is “reactivity.” Reactivity is the opposite of activity in the sense that those reactive in the world are “subjects being acted upon” rather than acting on the world, creating their part of it— which is what those active in the world do. The perspective that informs this type of rage is preoccupation and obsession with the dominating other and replacing their dominance rather than seeking justice.

Those narcissistically outraged don't target oppressive forces, institutional racism, or white supremacy in the US context, for instance. Narcissistic rage is concerned more with the individuals that oppress than with the larger systems of oppression such as a racist police department or police as an institution. Those with narcissistic rage have an action tendency to express their place within a particular hierarchy. It is characterised by “excessive self-importance” and “ego-centric self-entitlement.” An example would be Imran Khan targeting individuals within the military and trying to push them to bring him back to power, rather than being angry at the interference of the military in politics and their systematic genocidal policies against the Baloch and Pashtuns.

In summary, Cherry argues that the targets, aims, action tendencies and perspectives of the rogue, wipe, ressentiment and narcissistic rage are ethically and politically problematic. She stresses that they must be called out for what they are.


Lordean rage: “our best hope”

But there is another kind of rage that Cherry argues is our best hope—Lordean rage, named after the Black feminist scholar and poet Audre Lorde. Lordean rage's targets are those complicit in and the perpetrators of racial injustice and violence. Its aim is constructive change, not destruction. For Cherry, it is "transformative anger" rather than "transition anger." Its action tendency is "to absorb and use it for energy."
Myisha Cherry, a Black moral psychologist and philosopher of race, in her book, The Case for Rage, distinguishes among five types of rage in an attempt to identify the types that will lead us to justice from those that will lead to unnecessary and unbridled anger

In the essay "Uses of Anger," Lorde argues that anger has its benefits if it is focused and utilised for necessary action. Cherry terms it "metabolised anger." The perspective that informs Lordean rage is inclusion rather than exclusion. Freedom and justice are for all, not for a specific few. She argues that activists and organisers who are angry at racial inequality and discrimination and are motivated to end racism so that all of us regardless of skin colour and background can thrive have Lordean rage.

Moreover, she contends that it may not be necessary, but Lordean rage can be particularly useful for anti-racist purposes. Cherry differentiates Lordean rage from the generic notion of rage that might interfere with liberal and egalitarian goals. This type of rage, she claims, is a positive force, as it “… does not preclude other emotional and cognitive responses like compassion and empathy.” Due to these characteristics, Lordean rage should be managed rather than suppressed, discarded or replaced.


Feminist philosophers and the value of anger

Cherry’s argument falls within the tradition of feminist philosophers who defend the “intrinsic and instrumental value of anger in response to oppression.” For these feminist philosophers, anger may help women gain self-esteem, become aware of their oppression and bear witness to it, assert their “love for good” and “hatred for evil.”

In her book Think Like a Feminist, Carol Hay writes, “… anger has the ability to upset the status quo in a way that no other emotion can.” Sara Ahmed, the British Australian feminist theorist and writer, argues that anger has a political potency and should be defended when it is righteous.

Although Cherry’s scholarship is influenced by the works of feminist scholars, in the book she specifically explores what role anger plays in anti-racist struggles. In this sense, the book is primarily about “Black rage,” but it is also concerned with the anger of people of colour at the injustice they face. She writes, “Anger plays the role of expressing the value of people of colour and racial justice; it provides the eagerness, optimism, and self-belief needed to fight against persistent and powerful racist people and systems; and it allows the outraged to break certain racial rules as a form of intrinsic and extrinsic resistance.”

As a moral philosopher, Cherry’s argument carries a universalist aspiration: She is concerned with the nature of anger, its function, and its cultivation in response to racial oppression. Finally, Cherry emphasises that Lordean rage ceases to be Lordean rage if it loses its transformative, inclusive and constructive spirit. Rage is just when it is concerned with protecting the physical, mental, material and spiritual well-being of all regardless of identity. This type of rage should aim at dismantling racist, oppressive and discriminatory systems of ideas and structures for all.


PTM: Towards a more just political rage 

PTM by asking for accountability of the military is essentially advocating for change in the status quo. It has normalised naming and shaming the Pakistan army for transgressing its constitutional role and committing crimes against humanity in the Pashtun regions. The movement, by questioning the state’s genocidal policies and claiming rights over its resources, is attempting to transform the unequal relationship between the state and ethnicities, and the relation among different ethnicities.

Until PTM’s emergence, the state had control over the narrative about Pashtun identity, easily conflating Pashtun identity with Taliban ideology. PTM through a strong resistance against terrorism reclaimed that power, failing the billions of dollars project of the Pakistan army to sell the Taliban as a local political force.

PTM’s rage is Lodrean rage, as it has targeted the military, hitting the bull’s eye. Its aim is to transform the existing conditions of Pashtuns, so that they can live in peace but also find justice. The perspective that finforms PTM is hope for a positive change. What motivates the movement is reconstruction and the transformation of Pashtun society, and hopefully the Pakistani polity at large.

PTM's modus operandi is nonviolent discipline, a continuation of the Pashtuns’ nonviolent heritage of resistance– and hence disproving once again the concocted state narrative of Pashtuns as violent.

PTM leaders have shown solidarity with the Baloch missing persons cause and with Sindhis.

PTM as an anti-war struggle has been instrumental in unmasking the culprit, but by using Lodrean rage it can further evolve itself into a more inclusive and transformative force. For a change in socio-political status quo, accountability of the military has to go hand in hand with challenging the socio-cultural structures of oppression. PTM can not establish full justice if it is not inclusive towards women and the vast linguistic and religious diversity of Pashtun society. Sikh, Christians, Shiites and Ahmadis of Pakhtunkhwa have faced genocidal violence based on their identity. Taking this into its ambit is a question for PTM to address.

It is vital for PTM and Pashtun political organisations in general to understand that oppression is intersectional and thus its resistance has to be intersectional too. PTM should be more inclusive of women who have suffered not only state militarism but also patriarchy. PTM can learn much from the Kurdish struggles in Syria and Turkey where women have a relatively fair and better representation in political organisations. In my fieldwork in Kurdistan in Turkey, I saw that the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) had a chairman and a chairwoman from the highest to the lowest rungs of the organisation.

Finally, to be justly enraged is to be more inclusive, transformative and attentive to the rights and freedoms of all, not just a few men. Of course, oppressive structures can not be changed overnight. In fact, aiming to abolish instantly can be counterproductive. The right approach is to aim for a gradual change, removing one brick at a time to dismantle the entire structure eventually. PTM and other rights groups in Pakistan have much to learn from the insights of Black feminist philosophers and feminist scholars in general.