Pakistan Love Story

On the one hand, the Obama presidency has expanded the so-called war on terror, via its Af-Pak policy leading to ever-increasing drone attacks on the people of Pakistan’s tribal belt bordering Afghanistan and ofcourse in Afghanistan itself, where, as the NYT Sunday magazine article by Peter Baker (Jan 17th, 2010) points out, US troop levels are set to triple under Obama’s watch; on the other, suicide attacks on innocent citizens of Pakistan—mostly the urban working class in Pakistan’s major cities—have seen a dramatic increase in the past year. The Tehrik-i-Taliban, an umbrella group of Pakistani Taliban forces, has accepted responsibility for most of them—the most recent  of these being the December 8th 2009 attack on Lahore’s Moon Market which followed an earlier attack the same day on a market in the frontier city of Peshawer—victims of both these attacks being mostly women and children, a direct departure from the targets of earlier such attacks which were aimed at police and army strongholds.

The obvious conclusion being drawn by the average Pakistani citizen as well as by many analysts of Pakistan based here in US academia, as well as by the intellectual elite of Pakistan and by many of its political leaders (most clear promoter of this line of reasoning being Imran Khan, erstwhile womanizing cricketer-turned-mullah-type-politico and leader of Tehrik-i-Insaaf Party)—is that  the US-led War on Terror (which is seen as imperialist aggression and as an attack on the sovereignty of Pakistan), in which the Pakistani Army’s role is seen as one of pathetic obeisance to its foreign masters and against its own “brothers” (viz. Taliban and Taliban prototypes)—is the cause of this violent blowback from the Pakistani Taliban. The latter, thus, become, quite bizarrely, anti-imperialist freedom-fighters under this line of reasoning.  What is equally interesting is that progressive thinkers and activists aligned with left movements or parties both in Pakistan and here in the US also give credence to this view—though their view of the Taliban is slightly more nuanced, or if one were being unkind, one might say it is more prone to the convolutions of conspiracy theories, all of which ultimately lead back to the machinations of the all-powerful US military-industrial complex and its Zionist policeman in the Middle East, Israel. Added to this, on my latest visit this past December to Lahore and Karachi, were the not unusual, but more vociferously-voiced complaints than ever before against the corrupt ruling elites of Pakistan, be they Army or civilian, who are seen to be in bed with the US-Zionist Masters of the Universe, and hence equally deserving of mass contempt and anger. The Taliban aggressors and suicide bombers wreaking daily havoc on the lives of Pakistanis? Peanuts, by comparison. Or, as one attendee put it in his rejoinder to me during a talk I had just delivered at a Leftist bookstore-café in Lahore called Café Bol: “Oh Bibi” (referring to me)—this 500-pound gorilla (i.e the Taliban) you keep on mentioning as sitting in our living room is not our problem; our real problem is the 2,000 pound gorilla sitting on our borders and bombing us with its drone attacks!”

For defending Pervez Hoodbhoy—a leading physicist and social activist of Pakistan for over three decades—against what I perceived to be an ad hominem attack by a US-based Pakistani-American academic from Boston called Shahid Alam in the pages of CounterPunch, the latter calling Hoodbhoy a “Native Orientalist” for daring to suggest that the Taliban were a threat to Pakistan’s existence—I was verbally castigated by several attendees, including the owner/founder of the café who, toward the end of my visit in Lahore called me an “orientalist” too—because I had dared venture into what he termed was “his territory” of Sufi shrines where he was involved in “revolutionizing” the devotees.

By virtue of entering that space and singing sufi songs myself along with them (unusual for a woman since women are generally not allowed to enter divine spaces in the same way as men or participate equally, especially not if there is a performative angle to it), and moreover, filming the scene for later research purposes, I had somehow defaced the purity of the space, brought in an element of commercialization (somehow, the fact that most of the men doing “dhamal” and performing at these weekly gatherings for huge audiences is immune to commerce, as is the selling of charms and other shrine culture paraphernalia there), and ego-gratification.

Ultimately, though, what I was doing according to his analysis, was “selling sufi culture to the West, thus orientalizing and exoticizing it.”  Wow! What this response indicated to me was the extreme degree of US-hatred and West-rejectionism  which has taken hold of even those like the café-owner who is a product of English schools and universities, having grown up and lived for most of his life in Britain. Any point of view which questions a blind allegiance to the notion of cultural purity he and others have come to embrace in the wake of 9/11 and its aftermath, or a reference to a home-grown fanaticism or even , God forbid, to an internal commercialization of the Sufi path can only elicit such diatribes and anger of which I became the convenient object by virtue of living and working in the Big Bad West. Sufism, it would appear, has become the latest casualty in the imperial game—and perhaps for men angered at their perceived emasculation at the hands of the reigning superpower,  some territory they can call their own needs to exist in the cultural patrimony.

Another, related critique I received was that my own analyses regarding the rise and causes of religious extremism in Pakistan had shifted from being “spot on”—this because I had earlier pointed to the class dimensions of the phenomenon in a piece (published in both CounterPunch and The Friday Times of Pakistan), where I reported my interactions with inmates of the Lal Masjid before it was razed to the ground by the Army in the summer of 2007—to having become “disappointing”  by what was perceived by my critics as a defense of the Pakistani Army actions against the Taliban strongholds in FATA and South Waziristan later that same year.

When I tried to argue with my left-leaning as well as bourgeois but supposedly anti-establishment interlocutors  (who oddly enough all began to sound identical to me!)–that my position was not reducible to such binaries—I was asked by some of them quite bluntly, was I for the Army or the Taliban? Bush’s infamous line, dangerously simplistic to the core, “You Are With Us or Against Us”—had traversed the distance between West and East and led to an ever-more dangerous binary: was it now to be a choice between the Pakistan Army and the Taliban? In this version, the Army was being seen as the “real” problem; the real “enemy of the people”—the Taliban, somehow, neutralized under the threat of army tanks and missiles and CIA-supplied drones. Whatever happened to a both/and frame of analysis, I found myself asking to no avail?  What was this disingenuous “choice” between one horror or another, ranked according to some criteria I could not comprehend? How is it, I found myself wondering despairingly, that we have come to this juncture, where analysis now yields to polemics, where one is seen or must declare oneself either as a revolutionary patriot, a Man (sic) of the People, who sees things in black and white, or else risk censure and condemnation as a lackey of the West, a member of the corrupt bourgeois elite?

Perhaps what I witnessed are the beginnings of a mass revolution, where the Left forces and the Tehrik-i-Taliban will make common cause against a corrupt ruling class which has certainly ground the country and its people into the dust in the past 62 years.  If so, that will be a sad path to follow indeed, because such political bedfellows will not make good marriage partners for either the country or the region. What would be a better alternative as I see it from an admittedly insider/outsider perspective, is a coming together of Left parties and organizations to address the very real economic, social and political disparities resulting from the hierarchical class system of Pakistan which is still in thrall to feudalism,  uniting under a common program for action for all Pakistanis without regard to ethnic, gender or religious differences, and  then working on issue-based agendas where pragmatic solutions and calls to action can result in real, measurable change. To this end, I must say I was pleased to attend various mass gatherings in Lahore and in Karachi where under the banner of the Labor Party of Pakistan (LPP), many of the Left parties came together to declare solidarity, bury their internal ideological differences, and work out a program for action that would have the both/and appeal I mentioned earlier. Thus, for example, at the LPP’s National Committee meeting in Islamabad at the end of the year, it was announced that 30,000 people are being mobilized for the International Mazdoor Kissan (Workers and Farmers Party) Conference to take place in Faisalabad at the end of January. Not a huge number given that Pakistan’s population is approximately 170 million, but an important beginning after decades of apathy and resignation in Left circles nonetheless, which can surely grow into an important movement for radical change. According to an email circular announcing the conference which will mark the LPP’s fifth Congress, a comprehensive document was circulated for discussion at the December meeting in Islamabad—which I believe was presented at the Lahore meeting that I attended at the Mehfil Cinema Hall, hosting a crowd of approximately 1,000 activists, and where I was enormously impressed by the call for unity for the Left/Progressive parties, issued with such clarity by the (unfortunately) only female speaker on the podium: Dr. Farzana Bari, who also heads the Department of Women and Gender Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. The document that was circulated for further discussion … takes up the question of religious fanaticism on international level and why the Socialists must oppose and fight against it by building broader alliances.

The LPP NC discussed the national question in Pakistan and agreed to fight for the rights of the oppressed nationalities and demanded an equal distribution of state resources for all nationalities and to put more resources for the under developed areas. It agreed to oppose the military operation carried out in several parts of Pukhtoon Khawa and Tribal Areas and also the terrorist attacks of the religious fanatics. It will continue to oppose both. It agrees that there is no military solution to curb the rising religious fanaticism while there is need for a comprehensive package to fight the fanatics including the steps to separate the state from religion.
Indeed, creative solutions to end BOTH militaristic interventions into the body politic of Pakistan whether by the US, the Pak Army, CIA, ISI, XE Services, RAW, Mossad  or some nefarious combination of all the above, AND Talibanistic terror and extremist thinking have to be sought. Since all such agencies and policies are anti-people, it is the people themselves who have to protest and rise up in ways that can serve their ends in the best possible manner.

It is good to read that the Anjuman Mozareen Punjab which will be hosting the forthcoming International Mazdoor Kissan Conference (along with another Left party, the Labor Qaumi Movement) at the famous Dhobi Ghat Ground in Faisalabad on Jan 29th 2010, will mobilize its forces from all parts of Punjab to achieve a target of 30,000 participants of the conference. The peasants from Okara, Faisalabad, Sarghoda, Jhang, Depalpur, Pakpatten, Khanewal, Toba Tek Singh, Chaniot and other cities and districts of Punjab will join the congress in their traditional manner with Dhools Dhamakas. They will demand land rights and land reforms all over Pakistan. They will also take the question of water shortages and will demand restoration of all state subsidies to agriculture inputs.

These are real demands, based on the daily issues facing the landless peasants of Pakistan and it is crucial that these and other similarly urgent issues take center stage so that the stranglehold of regressive state and non-state actors is loosened and a third way forward can be fashioned, accompanied, as it must be, with an analytically sound  rejection of militarism, feudalism, imperialism, and religious extremism which all combine to keep the status quo in place through the confusion these intertwined ideologies have sown in the minds of too many people.
It is time to think afresh; it is time to believe that spring is coming, even as we feel ourselves to be  in the dead of winter’s icy grip. I conclude with a poem by one of Pakistan’s most revered poets of the Left, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, with hope and just a little bit of faith.

Bahar Ayee (Spring Has Come)
By Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Translated by Ayesha Kaljuvee

Spring has come

So have returned suddenly from the past

All those dreams, all that beauty

That on your lips had died

That had died and lived again each time

All the roses are blooming

That still smell of your memories

That are the blood of my love for you

Spring has come

All the torments are raging again

That unheeded advice of friends

That intoxication of your embrace

The dust of old chapters have opened

With all our questions, all our answers

Spring has come

So have opened

all the journals of my love anew

all the journals of my love anew

Spring has come
Spring has come

FAWZIA AFZAL-KHAN is a Professor in the Department of English at Montclair State University in New Jersey. She can be reached at:



Fawzia Afzal-Khan is University Distinguished Scholar at Montclair State University in NJ. Her latest book is Siren Song:Understanding Pakistan Though it’s Women Singers. She can be reached at: