By Bina Shah
On the banks of the luminous China Creek, overlooking old mangrove swamps and the shipping cranes at the port, more than 50,000 people flocked to this year’s Karachi Literature Festival, held annually in February when the flowers bloom, the weather is temperate and the city feels alive with possibility.
The festival, featuring panel discussions, book promotions, debates, music and theatrical performances, has established itself as a safe space to discuss not just literature and the arts but also politics, history and society at a time when plurality of opinion is not always welcome in Pakistan.
A new Sindh Festival, also held in February, offered another approach to Pakistan’s rich cultural heritage. This extravaganza was a brainchild of the Pakistan Peoples Party’s patron-in-chief Bilawal Bhutto Zardari; it included a concert, art show, film festival, fashion show and horse-and-cattle show. Its aim was to showcase Pakistan’s “softer image,” in the distinctly political hope that by stimulating cultural pride, Pakistanis, especially the young, could be persuaded to reject militancy and religious extremism.
Two wars are being fought in Pakistan: a military one against the violence of religious extremists and a psychological and emotional one to resist a more insidious change in society itself— the growth of intolerance, a drift toward the right and a decline in room for cultural, religious, ethnic or social diversity. This shrinkage of public space, or Talibanisation, as the social scientist Ayesha Siddiqa puts it, is not violence itself, but creates support for “ideas which eventually feed violence.”
Talibanisation has spread virally, thanks to right-wing talk shows, newspaper columns and social media. It silences debate about the role of religion, branding anyone who advocates secular democracy an atheist. For example, it whipped up a campaign against the autobiography of Malala Yousafzai, the teenage campaigner for education for girls who was severely wounded in an assassination attempt; earlier this year, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial government banned the book from private school curriculums. The proponents of Talibanisation denigrate women’s rights activists as “NGO workers in tight jeans” and harass young men and women at universities who try to spend time together.
At the end of the Cold War, the American political scientist Joseph S. Nye Jr. coined the term “soft power” for his intriguing alternative to assumptions that military and economic might were the only important forces driving American foreign policy. Alongside them, he offered America’s culture and values as exports that others could emulate, voluntarily choosing democracy and shunning terrorism.
Pakistan’s political leaders are now testing a similar concept, but with an indigenous twist: repackaging Pakistan’s own culture for its citizens as attractive, accessible and more compelling than the right-wing religious narrative that has warped the nation’s cultural landscape for two decades.
The idea’s biggest advantage is its home-grown origin. That makes it far more palatable for Pakistanis, for example, than the advice in a 2007 study by the RAND Corporation in the United States that identified Sufism, the mystical arm of Islam, as a possible line of defence against religious extremism in Pakistan. That idea fell flat here because its origin suggested that foreigners were manipulating Pakistani culture.
Still, our leaders have not yet mastered the subtleties of leading their people to the “right” choices. As David Ellwood wrote in a recent post on the blog of Oxford University Press, it is dangerous for any state to treat its heritage and values “as though they are resources at the disposal of the state.”
A literal example: the Sindh Festival, though it drew large peaceful crowds, was marred by discord over its use of the excavated ruins of the lost city of Mohenjo-Daro as a backdrop for its opening ceremony. Because it was organized by a prominent politician, Pakistanis showed mixed feelings about this hyped version of their culture; they were attracted to its allure, but concerned that their heritage was being yoked to one political party’s agenda.
Moreover, if the government shows preference for a progressive narrative about the country’s history, it faces right-wing accusations of spreading “Western” or “secular” propaganda, or of favouring “liberal” values over “traditional” ones. One case in point is the Pakistan Peoples Party’s commitment to women-friendly laws, those against sexual harassment and discriminatory marriage practices. These were passed while the party governed, but conservative groups label them as foreign intrusions.
Unlike politicians, Pakistani civil society groups like those that ran the literary festival can highlight stories from our culture that remind us of who we all were before the Taliban and our current divisions came to the forefront. These are stories of struggle against foreign colonizers and internal oppressors; of how Sufism, not the sword, spread Islam in South Asia; of how Pakistan was founded on multicultural and multi-religious grounds.
Some 60,000 schoolchildren attended the Karachi Children’s Literature Festival last month. They listened to storytellers, participated in interactive art and music sessions, and attended debuts of graphic novels that captured the lives of “Azeem” (great) Pakistanis: Begum Raa’na Liaqat Ali Khan, who championed women’s rights; Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a poet and activist; Hakeem Said, a scholar and philanthropist assassinated in 1998.
The battle for Pakistanis’ hearts and minds will be as tough as the one for sovereignty and territory. But the message will spread best when it’s free from political manipulation or overt assertions of national or civic pride. The children at the festival weren’t asked to choose between extremism and peace; they were left to enjoy themselves, to clap and cheer, to sing and dance. Experiences like these, organic and unforced, will win the cultural wars in Pakistan — if they are encouraged to flourish on the strength of unifying, not divisive, narratives and values that we all share.
Bina Shah is the author of several novels, including “Slum Child,” and short-story collections.