Say Cheese

Fayes T Kantawala is contemplating a return to Naya Pakistan

Say Cheese
The weather has turned here in New York. The sticky stagnant air is flecked with rue and rain, and the change means two things for me. One, that T-shirt season is thankfully over so my body dysmorphia can come down a notch or five. And second, the time will soon come for me to pull a Mary Poppins and migrate East for the winter to make my crash landing into Naya Pakistan.

I am a little scared to do so, truth be told. Consider the headlines from just this past week: I was disappointed to read that the government had asked Dr. Atif Mian to step down from the newly announced Economic Advisroy Council because alt-right politicians found the fact of his professed Ahmadi faith unpalatable. Just a few days before that, representatives of the PM had taken to Twitter and the news to proudly and loudly express their support for the appointment, making statements about how inclusive our country is and how Pakistan was for everyone, minority or not. There is also a white in the flag, the op-eds reminded us, not just green. Dr. Atif Mian is, by all accounts, an excellently qualified mind for the council, and one of the leading professors of macroeconomics in the world. His advice on policies for our country would have been a great feather in our cap.

Economist Atif Mian - unacceptable in Naya Pakistan

That rhetoric for his support lasted less than 42 hours because the new government cowered at the tantrum of a Maulana and his supporters who, let’s be clear here, have nothing to do with economic policy, macro or otherwise. They let a group of right wing extremists effectively decide who is qualified to serve on a body with which they had nothing to do. These are the same people who actually believe that arranging large-scale protests against a Danish cartoon competition that they thought to be blasphemous (which hasn’t even happened yet) was what Naya Pakistan should be concerned with. Not fixing the trade deficit, not domestic economic policy, not the crises of education or water. No, no. A cartoon competition.

Several other members of the council resigned in protest, and rightly so, but that means we have lost a tremendous amount of brain power that could have been invaluable in shaping our country’s progress. But more than that, by doing this the government has basically inaugurated an intellectually regressive, petulantly illogical, proudly discriminatory government. It has condoned the idea that only a particular kind of Pakistanis are the right kind, and that has nothing to do with qualifications or talent or what good they can do. Instead, it has to do with the bigoted musings of a dangerous fringe group whose main political leverage is blackmail. Listen to us, the blackmailers demand, or else; and we succumb every time.
The message from India has been: we are brave enough to realize that exclusionary, bigoted policies based on fear, loathing and misinformation are not what make a country great

The day before this U-Turn, India’s Supreme Court struck down a draconian colonial-era law banning intercourse between members of the same sex. They had done this once before some years ago but it was quickly reversed and it has taken many activists these last several years to get the Supreme Court of the largest democracy in the world to say that love is not illegal. It is a landmark ruling, not just for them but for developing countries around the world. Indians are, and should be, proud of a step that will ensure the health and happiness of so many of their fellow citizens. The message from India has been: we are brave enough to realize that exclusionary, bigoted policies based on fear, loathing and misinformation are not what make a country great.

Which brings me back to Naya Pakistan. When I return to this country, I will be asked the same question that I am asked every time I have returned over the last two years. “What’s it like living under Trump?” The question is laced with satisfaction, an obvious twinge of pleasure at the thought that the Americans are finally getting their comeuppance. People will ask me if I have come across Trump supporters, and try to convince me at generator-powered dinner parties that America is doomed. I do not disagree with some of what they say (as you and I have discussed before) but what surprises me is when the same people who voted in the PTI rail against the people who voted in Trump without any feeling of cognitive dissonance.

You are the same people, I want to scream. Your skin, your language, your passports may be different, but you both voted in a megalomaniacal fibber because you “wanted a change” and did so blindly assuming that a persistent record of pandering to the right-wing (remember Imran Khan’s days as a protege of General Hamid Gul? Remember his undying love for the jirga system? Remember his passionate defence of the Taliban?) Or worse, you did it knowing all this.

So ban cheese, if it makes you feel any better, as if wedges of brie and Boursin are the real problem. But as you do, please also admit that it is you (and not an amorphous other, but you) who would rather listen to a rabid mob of bloodthirsty mullahs than a world-renowned professor of economics. Admit your role in the propagation of the idea that not all minorities are equal in our country. Admit that you think the “so-called divide between civilians and the military” is made-up s***. Perhaps then, the next time you turn on the television and start complaining about Trump and wondering who in their right minds would have voted in such a lunatic, you’ll realise that, contrary to what you think, you don’t have to look very far.

Write to