The short dstance from abstraction to reality

Pakistan's national narrative has been hijacked first by the military and later by fundamentalists

The short dstance from abstraction to reality
In recent months my articles have tended to try to apply political theory and intellectual history to political events and behavior in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The insight that comes from working at the interstices of intellectual history and political theory is  somewhat akin to that described in the Financial Times’ recent excerpt from Stephen Johnson’s new book, “How We Got to Now,” a book about scientific innovation. In it, as I understand from the excerpt, innovation is described as primarily arrived at through technological discoveries of different people coming together to make an idea only imagined before become feasible. The light bulb is an example.  Different people worked more or less simultaneously on a generally recognized problem, turning electricity into light, and a solution appeared. One person got the credit, but drew on the work of many others.

But innovation may start with a visionary thinker imagining potential uses for technology that is yet to be imagined, say electricity, long before it harnessed for power. The heroine of this particular piece is Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the poet Lord Byron, who because she lived at the interstices of advanced mathematics and poetry, saw the possibilities of how mechanical numerical calculating machines could be directed by internal instructions to go beyond numerical calculations to algebraic and analytical systems that encompass prose, poetry, music. Sophisticated calculating machines which could be programed to go well beyond numerical calculation, such as she had envisioned, had to wait for electricity and a number of other inventions, and came along to change our lives over 100 years later.

[quote]Malala was branded as a tool of anti-Pakistan elements[/quote]

Now I do not consider myself or the many others who labor to bring together political theory and intellectual history to be innovators. Visionaries in such fields are rare indeed, and even breakthroughs in thinking are very uncommon. But I do believe that working at the crunch point of two or more such disciplines allows one often to see beyond the superficial surface appearance of events and actions to their historical and conceptual roots and to their intended and especially their unintended consequences.

For example, I wrote of state- and nation-building recently, and noted the difference between the two. States can be weak or strong, but neither a strong or weak state necessarily makes a nation. Nations, no matter how they came to be, are inhabited by citizens whose greatest loyalty is to the nation/state, not to family, ethnic group, or region. Nations have usually been able to establish a coherent national identity, or ideology, which is the foundation for an organic national narrative. Pakistan is a weak state with an invented nationalist ideology and a national identity that is still up for grabs. Its national narrative has been, to a large extent hijacked first by both the military which constructed a self-serving defensive national narrative, and later by fundamentalists who have morphed it into a defensive and exclusionist one.

Ada Lovelace
Ada Lovelace

The unintended consequences of this incoherence are fairly clear: a myopic and defensive obsession with India; the buildup over decades of proxy armies based on this defensive narrative which now have turned against the state because, though the times and the civilian government’s agenda have changed, that of the proxies (and perhaps the army) has not; an erratic and often disjointed foreign policy which, at the very least, confuses its  friends;  and  a national narrative that leads to incongruent public reactions to national and international events,  e.g. the long standing duality about Afghanistan, and the recent ambiguous public response to Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize.

The mixed reaction to Malala’s Nobel Prize is especially illustrative when I compare it to the Bangladesh reaction to Muhammad Yunus’ Nobel Peace prize in 2006. Yunus was universally acclaimed in Bangladesh when he won. The message from Bangladeshis then was that Yunus had brought great honor to their country. His troubles in Bangladesh came much later and are political. The attacks on him began in 2010, 4 years after he had won the prize. They are the result of a particular policy of an egocentric political leader, Sheikh Hasina, who one rumor has it thought the prize should have been hers, though for what is very hard to say, or according to another rumor, fears him as a possible political opponent, something he may have exacerbated by appearing to be interested in a political role after the Bangladesh army intervened in early 2007. In any case, since Sheikh Hasina took power in 2009, she has made it a point to go after Yunus and Grameen Bank. Some of her party jumped on that band wagon smelling blood and loot, but many did not and do not agree. And 4 years after the attacks began, the government has succeeded in removing  Yunus from Grameen Bank, but has not yet accomplished its ultimate objective—taking over the bank. Except for a vindictive Prime Minister and her acolytes, however, Yunus remains very popular in Bangladesh and his worldwide reputation is, perhaps, even stronger than it was.

[quote]Innovation may start with a visionary thinker imagining potential uses for technology[/quote]

Malala’s case is more depressing. Although the latest Pew Poll shows that an over whelming majority of Pakistanis favor schooling for girls, and there was a great outpouring of pride and joy about her award in most of the Pakistan press that I could read, much more attention than it deserved was given in the Western press to the small, but noisy, minority that panned the award, seeing it as a Western conspiracy of some sort, and/or Malala as a tool of anti-Pakistan elements.  An undercurrent of misogyny could not be missed. There are some, I suppose, who see a great threat to their way of life or to their culture in her assertion that schooling for girls is an innate, universal human right. In any case, the reaction from Pakistan was, in many Western eyes, ambiguous. And this raised again questions about whether  Pakistan will ever come to terms with modernity, whether it remains a country whose elite (I heard this expressed publicly recently by an American educator who has worked in Pakistan) has no interest in education for the under classes, be they girls or boys, and whether its contorted, out-of-date national identity and distorted national narrative are both cause and effect of its weakness as a state, and the seeds  of possible failure.

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.