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Faces of nationalism

Updated August 17, 2017

FOR several decades now, many Western scholars have argued that nations are manufactured. Nationalists may believe themselves to be part of a natural community that can trace its history back to a distant, often mythical, past, but in fact their ideas are bogus. Nations, the argument goes, have far messier, disparate and less glorious histories that many nationalists acknowledge. Nationalists feelings don’t exist before they are created.

Furthermore, some of these sceptics argue, nationalism is not only fake but also dangerous. Rather than stressing what people have in common, nationalists highlight what separates them, which leads to rivalry and conflict. And political leaders manipulate nationalist sentiment because they know they can become more powerful by whipping up intercommunal and international tensions.

Defenders of nationalism argue that these concerns are exaggerated. Even if they accept that extreme nationalism is peddled by propagandists and carries risks, they talk instead of patriotism, arguing that it is a positive and normal emotion that can help bring people together and give them pride in their country.

The two-nation theory has competition.

These issues are especially confusing in Pakistan. In the first place it has existed for only 70 years. And then there is the two-nation theory. The suggestion that religion is a more important source of communal feeling than geography or language has further complicated the situation. The need to incorporate religion into the national story has meant, amongst other things, that attempts to create a national sentiment out of the Indus civilisation have never found much traction.

The two-nation theory is still taught in Pakistan’s schools and remains an important element of the ideology underpinning the Pakistani state. But as Aug 14 was celebrated this year it was clear that this ideology is now facing new competition. If the two-nation theory were still the dominant discourse then the media coverage in the run-up to Independence Day would have been concerned with advancing Muslim rights and the need to protect Muslims from hostile cultures.

In fact, the country’s TV screens showed something else. They were filled with images of bright young Pakistanis rejoicing in their country. The national flag was superimposed onto anything that moves and quite a few things that don’t. Music videos showed smiling faces and the magnificent natural beauty of Pakistan. Banks and corporations even got in on the act, wrapping themselves in the flag so as to associate their business with the mood of the moment.

These highly produced short films generally included a few images of clerics and beautiful mosques. To that extent they associated their nationalism — or patriotism — with Islam. But far more striking was the emphasis placed on young people singing and dancing, often in Western clothes.

The minorities were virtually always featured prominently and in a positive light, as were women. These powerful images present a Pakistan that many conservative religious leaders would find distinctly disagreeable. Just imagine what would happen if Jamaatud Dawa or Jamaat-i-Islami were given the opportunity and the budgets to create films celebrating 70 years of Pakistan: no singing, no dancing, no Western attire, no minorities and quite possibly no smiles too. Instead there would presumably be a glorification of martyrdom and some form of jihad.

The kind of Pakistani nationalism that is now on such prominent display on the TV screens, in the social media and on the streets has its origins in the military campaigns against the Pakistani Taliban over the last decade. When the army launched its first serious offensive by moving into Swat in 2007 it was shocked to discover that some of its men reportedly defected. Even though the numbers were small it was, for senior officers, an extremely worrying development. Their response was to create a nationalist alternative to violent jihadist ideology. The TV channels pumped out images of highly professional soldiers risking their lives in defence of their nation. First this messaging came from the ISPR but then the channels starting producing similar material for themselves.

Those stirring militaristic images of a decade ago have given way to the current celebration of Pakistan’s natural beauty, creativity, inclusivity and liberalism. It’s a development that poses a dilemma for those who remain suspicious of nationalism and who continue to fret about its tendency to create conflict by exaggerating difference. Some will hold on to their worries. They fear the time when — probably at a time of tension with India — those who fail tests of patriotism will be branded traitors.

But those very same sceptics might also think that the kind of Pakistani nationalism that is currently being manufactured — youthful and liberal — is at least one that keeps the extreme Islamists at bay. And many might conclude that even if nationalism will create problems in the future, in the context of today’s Pakistan, it’s best to fight one battle at a time.

The writer is a British journalist and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm.

Published in Dawn, August 17th, 2017