State of Denial: The ‘It-is-not-us’ syndrome

Hajrah Mumtaz

A couple of months ago, I wrote a column in praise of certain Pakistani pop stars and bands, arguing that there are a fair number of songs that display political consciousness and a related sense of responsibility. I referred to such songs as Junoon’s ‘Talaash’, Shahzad Roy’s ‘Lagay Raho’ and ‘Kismet Apnay Haath Main’, Noori’s ‘Merey Log’ and Laal’s rendition of Habib Jalib’s ‘Main Nay Uss Say Yeh Kaha.’

I find now that that argument was all very well – as far as it went. Such is the manner in which we are bound by our long-cherished prejudices and mental chains that it took a report by the New York Times’ Adam B. Ellick to show me what I had completely failed to notice: the music acts’ total refusal to either touch upon the topic of the Taliban, or to even acknowledge them as a concern.

In a video report shot in Lahore, Ellick asks a few of Pakistan’s top musicians why they have spoken out against corruption, political wheeling-dealings, poverty and the manner in which the country has been done in by everyone from the politicians to the West to India – but never against the Taliban, who currently constitute the clearest and most present of dangers.

Here, verbatim, is what Ali Noor of Noori has to say:

‘We are not going to get up and say that we want to talk against the Taliban – simply because they are probably one of the smallest problems this country has. [...] It’s the West. It’s the West that is against the Taliban, because they are very heavily affected by it. We’re not.’

And here is what Ali Azmat – the man who once sang about ‘zehni ghulami’ – has to say: ‘We know for a fact that all this turbulence in Pakistan ... it’s not us. It’s the outside hands.’

What, really, can one say? The Taliban are one of the smallest problems this country has? When we’re having a bombing virtually every day, when parts of the south-west of the country were until very recently in serious danger of falling to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and its associated gang of goons?

Ellick comments, dryly, that this view – it’s not us, it’s ‘foreign hands’ – persists despite a spate of bombings in the country with the targets ranging from civilians and security forces’ installations to an Islamic university for women. ‘They’re [Pakistan’s pop musicians] angry about one fact: that the United States has interfered in Pakistan’s politics for decades.’

Of course Ellick focuses in his report on the anti-American angle apparent in many Pakistani pop songs, using stills from the ‘Klashinfolk’, ‘Kismet Apnay Haath Main Lay Li Hai’ and a CoVen video to press his point home. And he ignores other work such as that by Laal. Nevertheless, his point is made well enough to make me cringe: amongst the people interviewed in his report, there seems to be an utter refusal to acknowledge that the Taliban are in any way a threat, or that this is a local, home-grown problem that affects Pakistan first and most deeply.

To be sure, other comments may have been made in the interviews that were edited out when the report was compiled. And, as Nadeem Farooq Paracha tells Ellick, a musician is not necessarily the best person to come up with insights into the situation of Pakistan, since his view would tend to reflect the dominant one. But, he asks, ‘at least address the schools’ issue. Why are you [the Taliban] destroying schools? What has that got to do with America or Zionism? Nobody’s even talked about it.’

So in the next shot, Ellick puts the question to Ali Azmat. Off-camera, he asks, ‘Would you ever sing a song about how two hundred girls’ schools were blown up?’ Azmat’s reply? ‘Well you know, you cannot blame the Taliban for that. Where do you think those fundings are coming from? It’s the agenda of the neo-cons to de-Islamise Pakistan... religion must be killed.’

One could be forgiven, at this point, to want to shoot oneself in despair. We’re all tempted to defend Pakistan in the face of criticism, sure. But in this manner and in such ill-chosen words?

But why blame Ali Azmat or Ali Noor? The sad fact is that this is a nation of delusional people, and the views these two men have expressed are shared by a great many people – I’d go as far as to say the majority. It took years of beheadings, bombings, whippings and extortion by the Taliban to turn the tide of public opinion against them. It took the infamous ‘flogging video’, the imminent fall of Swat and parts of Malakand into the militants hands, and an active threat posed to the government’s writ over Peshawar to set people saying finally that the Taliban-led militants had to be countered. Until then, if you remember, the public discourse had mainly been along the lines of ‘but all they want to do is enforce an Islamic system – and that, after all, is what we all want.’

What will it take for us to recognise that Pakistan’s problems, from the Taliban to poverty, under-development and corruption, are home-grown? Even where we reject them, we try to blame others. ‘It’s the foreign influences; a conspiracy against Pakistan and Islam; it’s India; it’s America; it’s Israel.’ Like pre-schoolers, we whine on and on: ‘It’s not us; we aren’t like this.’

Ellick also shows in his report portions from that highly popular song ‘Yeh Hum Nahin’, the collaborative effort against terrorism by some of the country’s biggest pop icons. Here are the lyrics he picks up on:

‘This is not us; not us. The story that is being spread in our names is a lie. These stamps of death on our foreheads are the signs of others.’

(To be fair, Ellick also refers to Shahzad Roy of taking on religion in his ‘Laga Raho’ song. But that doesn’t alter the fact that no one refers to the Taliban-led militants. And it is true, as Ali Hamza says, that ‘If we start talking about the Taliban, it’s very easy for them to get rid of us.’ But that doesn’t alter the fact that others, from theatre groups such as Ajoka and Tehrik-e-Niswan, to filmmakers and journalists, are speaking up.)

Pakistan is a nation in denial, unwilling to mature and accept responsibility for mistakes past and future – unwilling to shoulder the weight of responsibility for improving its own future. Certainly, other countries have meddled in our politics. But we’re the ones taking the decision to let them, and then finding ways of shooting ourselves in the foot. The Taliban are a case in point, thanks to Pakistan’s notions of strategic depth in Afghanistan. Like ostriches, we always have and perhaps always will keep our heads stuck in the sand. One can argue that it is the state and the government that ought to be tasked with steering the course of the country’s future away from its currently suicidal direction: but until individuals who constitute society change their minds, a mere government can achieve little of long-term impact.

So much for zehni ghulami!

¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤



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