We Must Fight the State’s Populist Narratives

We Must Fight the State’s Populist Narratives
We are living in a world where narratives influence our individual and collective lives. The age of information compels states to deploy different narratives to achieve their goals. The state produces a master narrative which is disseminated through different means: the media, academia, religion, think tanks, cultural industry, and the elite.

Master narratives are produced and reproduced ad-infinitum. Although the construction of narratives may serve the state’s interests, they are often incompatible with reality.

The distortion of reality and resorting to conspiracies reflect a siege mentality and a state of mass paranoia. National myths are constructed through long rants which creates an entire nation averse to critical thinking.

Recently, Fawad Chaudhary, the federal minister for information and broadcasting, said that there were links to India behind the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) protests in Islamabad. This is not the first time the government has found a scapegoat to distract citizens. The state has repeatedly employed self-victimization and spread conspiracy theories to gain advantage.

Finding a scapegoat (in this case, India) and a whipping boy does not serve us well at the international level. In fact, it reveals to the world our irrational national consciousness. While it’s true that rival states manipulate the international institutions and other states to weaken their adversaries, throwing foreign policy failures on rival states such as India and the West reflects our dysfunctional decision-making and unsound policy approach.

Successive Pakistani governments have been using scapegoats and playing the victim, instead of looking inward to pinpoint the problem and find a solution. For instance, when Pakistani journalists held a legitimate and just demonstration against the draconian Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority, the state implied the protest was linked to a Western conspiracy against Pakistan.

Pakistan’s state institutions, federal ministers, political and religious parties, elite and media organizations have produced a narrative of Pakistan being the only voice for Muslims around the world. There are numerous protests for this cause. At the same time, there is not a single national protest for Uyghur Muslims in China. Religious political parties have not issued a single statement against the brutal treatment of Uyghur Muslims and human rights violations in Xinjiang. This is because the state is not interested in speaking up for Uyghur Muslims in China.

This policy of silence serves the state’s economic and political motives. Hence it is considered as fair game in international politics. If we wish to be politically literate, we have to deconstruct these narratives.

At the domestic level, every new government blames its predecessor for failures. Prime minister Imran Khan and his team never miss an opportunity to blame Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) for all the troubles in Pakistan. Instead of tackling the economic turmoil and political crisis, the incumbent government cries conspiracy. They defend their impractical policies using the shield of self-victimization.

Most importantly, there is a need to problematize the populist narratives of Prime Minister Imran Khan. His populist narrative of corruption as the only issue of Pakistan is only beneficial  for ratings-hungry talk shows. The corruption narrative is constructed to defame and weaken the opponents. In the same way, Article 58-2(b) was widely used by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan to dissolve the governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif on the charges of corruption.

Interestingly, the targets of such allegations or reprimand are mostly politicians, never military dictators or influential generals. This selective accountability approach adds to polarization and weakens our democracy. The narrative, produced by the state, of politicians being corrupt and incapable of serving people needs to be problematized. Politicians have been serving this nation for decades, their sacrifices cannot be undermined.

Humans are notorious for concocting fantasy worlds and dwelling in them when the real world gets too bitter. The situation is worsened when a state distracts its population from real issues by feeding them controversial narratives that become collective imagined realities. It is one thing for an individual to be blindfolded, but for a whole nation to go blind is dreadful, and unfortunately not rare in our case.

Today, it is simple for a regime to sell a narrative given the various means that are available for dissemination. Our Prime Minister is often seen engaging in this dissemination. Whenever times get rough, the government plays a card out of multiple available options.

For Imran Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, the religion card appears to be a favorite. When commuting gets difficult due to unaffordable fuel prices, our premier tells us to watch Ertugrul Ghazi. He wants to distract us by sending us back to the glory of our distorted past. At other times, he instructs us to forgo our worldly concerns because “one can only be at peace in grave.”

It’s wonderful how inflation can be tackled by stories of swordsmen and pleasures of the hereafter, isn’t it? For a nation with a soaring poverty rate, we are accustomed to buying such narratives.

Pandering to the religious or nationalistic sentiment of the masses is quite a Machiavellian move. It stirs fervor, makes us forget about our empty stomachs and petrol tanks. Perhaps Karl Marx was right about religion being opium of the people. Over the decades, religion has been weaponized by the state for political motives. This is despite the fact that this policy backfires more often than it succeeds. Now the state can be seen appeasing the Frankensteins that are Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the TLP.

On incidents of rape, sexual harassment, and violence on women, instead of owning responsibility, the state chooses victim blaming and victim shaming. Imran Khan, on multiple occasions has cried crocodile tears over “fahashi” (vulgarity) being the main cause behind violence against women. Religious figures do this as well.

In an interview with Axios on HBO, the prime minister said “If a woman is wearing very few clothes, it will have an impact on men, unless they're robots.” Narratives like these add fuel to the fire and exacerbate an already deplorable human rights situation in Pakistan.

One of the means to indoctrinate a nation with a regressive religio-cultural narrative is through educational institutions and curriculum. A recent example of that is Single National Curriculum which entails many backward elements.

The state brands any progressive or dissenting voices as either “ghaddar” (traitor) or “ghustaakh” (blasphemer). Many lives have been ruined over these allegations, and justice remains elusive in this ‘Riasat e Madina 2.0’.

When activists or citizens take a stance in favor of cultural modernization or even human rights, they are shut down as Western propaganda. For instance, feminist movements such as Aurat March receive a lot of hate and are accused of spreading Western ideals. The misconception the state is attempting to spread is that human rights can only come from West because us Pakistanis are oblivious to any such concepts.

All these narratives can be deconstructed using critical faculties. Critical thinking can prove to be a solution for all our narrative-driven conundrums. It is never too late to fight our fallacies no matter how severe the indoctrination. We should refuse to become sheeple and think about our problems based on evidence, rather than stories. Richard P. Feynman says, “There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt.” So always remember to doubt what you are told by the state and society.