Diagnosing Pakistani liberals’ love for the Pashtun ‘Tahaffuz’ Movement

Posted originally to Eurasia Future on 15 March 2019.

The Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement seems intent on making it abundantly and painfully obvious as to what its true nature and purpose is. Why then does it have so much support from the moneyed, English-savvy urban elites of Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi?

It is not unreasonable to assert that a nation’s public, notably the opinionated sections of it proficient in the English language and with considerable usage of social media to further their causes and activism, all more or less agree that maintaining national security is important. It logically thus follows that understanding of their country’s particular security dilemmas and sensitivity to whatever has transpired in its past to harm its security – in Pakistan’s case, tens of thousands of civilians murdered in cold blood and hard-fought military operations in the roughest possible terrain to destroy hardcore terrorists – is something that should be present in their discourse from both a moral and practical perspective.

This has not, however, been the case for Pakistani liberals, who occupy a strong presence in the English-medium print and electronic media and thus dominate the way the country appears to be thinking to the outside world. Their insensitivity toward Pakistan’s actual problems, ranked by how intensely they impact the entirety of the nation (thus making security top of the list), is as blatant as it can get for something that is contained implicitly in discourse than expressed directly.

PTM’s rhetoric and manner of going about its activism, even in the situation where it was based on legitimate pretexts and not ridiculous ones, would civilize itself out of pure sensitivity to the need to avoid raising tensions in its war-weary homeland. Perhaps one might excuse its followers for a few anti-Punjabi slogans, a few Pashtunistan chants here and there; for Pakistan’s Ivy League and LUMS-educated liberal intelligentsia, however, there truly is no excuse.

It is not difficult to diagnose this severe failure on the part of the liberals to align their talking agenda and perspective to Pakistan’s reality. A few major factors embedded in their psyche contribute to it. These liberals – an assortment of op-ed and column writers describing themselves with the ‘liberal’ tag, ‘human rights activists’ and ‘advocates’ of various nice-sounding yet often vague and heavily-marketed causes – do not consider the national context and realities on the ground before enunciating their stance on issues because they ultimately do not care.

This indifference combined with persistence in their decision to act as commentators on Pakistani affairs – and often also as the bridge between Pakistan and foreign punditry for discussions on the country – affirms the status of much of this intelligentsia as both hypocritical and useless for the country. These groups match their thinking and talking patterns and points to whatever is trending hottest in the West, where the densest network of electronic and print media exists.

As part of the latest paradigm in the art of sheepherding and compartmentalizing the Western populace and ensuring it prioritize trivial topics over major ones (discussing which candidate said the most ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ thing and so on instead of viewing their record on foreign wars or on defence spending and so on), virtue-signalling and identity politics with divisive tags and labels seems to dominate modern day Western discourse.

A bizarre attempt to imitate this would be the only possible explanation for why Pakistani liberals so eagerly promoted PTM despite its nature and rhetoric. It doesn’t matter how the PTM acts and how fraudulent its claims are repeatedly shown to be, they are not the largest ethnic group in Pakistan thus they fit the ‘minority’ tag and automatically have scores of liberals backing them (let’s ignore the fact that Pashtuns are the country’s second-largest ethnicity; it’s the tag that matters!). Everyone needs a shiny cause to sponsor and declare solidarity for. Indeed, liberals ‘championing’ the ‘oppressed’, by sheer coincidence, so often turns out to be playing into the schemes of hostile foreign elements.

Minority fetishization, encouraging the notion of anyone and everyone to declare themselves oppressed and cause a ruckus until the state devotes attention to them, the criticism of leaders and political factions based on how they fit into tags that one would more commonly find used in the aforementioned modern Western socio-political context (‘Imran Khan the womanizer’, PML-N the ‘liberal party’ because it doesn’t get along with the ‘right wing’ military and so on). Such is the purview of liberals, it would seem.

The West, with its sprawling network of NGOs and civil society organizations, championed the cause of ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria who turned out to be multinational squads of head-cutting extremists. The noble reformer-activists of Iran turned out to be advocates for monarchy, members and supporters of a terrorist-cult or puppets to actors who constantly attempt to attack and harm their home country. All these misbegotten, destructive campaigns were underscored by the ‘liberal’ theme; ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’, ‘gender equality’ and so on and parroted around eagerly by social media-savvy youth eager to show off their fancy intellect and capacity for virtue-signalling.

The level of genuineness of the social awareness, ‘human rights’, or ‘democracy’ aspects being in these cases to hide the more sinister and many-times more impactful factors at work could not even matter less. Given what was truly going on, how nice and shiny the ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’ smokescreen looked did not matter at all.

It was still a smokescreen, as is PTM for an increasingly marginalized faction of irrational ethno-nationalists in a certain neighbouring country of ours. The area they seek to cause a ruckus in happens to be the part of Pakistan which seen the most bloodshed over the last decade and has been slowly inching toward normalcy and improvement. Just like angry situations in real life are defused by responsible persons urging civility and avoidance of incendiary language, PTM should be called out for its attempts to spark conflict and strife in Pakistan’s Pashtun community. But do Pakistani liberals have the wisdom or sensitivity toward their country do see past the smokescreen? It doesn’t seem so, despite how clumsy and brittle PTM’s PR is.

Are Pakistan’s liberals so restricted in their level of awareness, so packed into their bubble as to be unaware of the potentially wretched role they may come to find themselves playing for their country, witting or unwitting? In the case where they find their awkward NGO or human rights group endorsing such counter-productive, harmful and toxic causes as the PTM, does the repeated pointing out by more responsible citizens of the fraudulence of these causes not deter them? It seems not, considering PTM’s popularity among so many non-Pashtun urban elites hasn’t seemed to have fallen.

Liberals need to introspect on the role that they, despite their monopoly on good education, skill in English and platform to air their views, are playing in their country. Ignoring the most important realities and focusing on the less relevant issues merely  because the latter take less effort to understand and because they provide ample opportunity shiny, moralistic public statements has turned Pakistan’s liberal intelligentsia into a liability.

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