Our Willy Brandt moment

Published in The Express Tribune

Nearly everything Christopher Hitchens wrote was wrong. A British journalist who prided himself for going against the grain, Mr. Hitchens was skilled at hating what people most loved – Lady Diana, Mother Teresa, and for much of the end of his life, God. But Hitchens wasn’t a contrarian as much as he was a con. While at Oxford, ‘Chris’ would print socialist pamphlets by day and drink champagne at dinner parties by night. If Marx was right about a class war, Hitchens would be its finest double agent. Preferring self-advancement to scrupulousness, ‘the Hitch’ left behind a trail of disappointed friends and discarded causes.

Towards middle age, this ‘man of the left’ fell in love with the idea of empires more relevant, seeking citizenship in America. 9/11 pushed Hitch further to the right, from where he gifted the expression ‘fascism with an Islamic face’ to the English language. Deserting his liberal comrades, he finally embraced the most red-meat cause of them all: war in Iraq. Taking trips to Baghdad with Bush ghoul Paul Wolfowitz and tut-tutting the horrors of Abu Ghraib, Hitchens became one of neoconservatism’s more scholarly enablers – impressive considering just how stupid neoconservatism is.

So it is to the Hitch we turn, one of the world’s louder voices toward the end of his life, to understand the kind of rep Pakistan has begun getting. In an essay penned after the humiliating Abbottabad raid, Hitchens took a sledgehammer to all things white and green. Calling Pakistan a wretched state, a ‘Walmart of fissile material’ and, for the US, both the mercenary and the sycophant, Hitchens’ bile flowed free. ‘If Pakistan were a person,’ he wrote, ‘he would have to be completely humorless, paranoid, and insecure, while suffering from self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred.’

One might agree only with that last quality. A caveat first: with his big words, dull tones, and public schoolboy manner, Hitchens was a gifted takedown artist for whichever master he served at the time (both the mercenary and the sycophant, as someone would say). Now the latest cheerleader for the Crusade against Moslem Terror, Hitchens pulled no punches with Pakistan. But the problem lies in greater part with us: we’re making the job for Pakistan’s critics far too easy, not least when we’re doing it for them.

In case you missed it, Pakistani society is fracturing. At a time when tens of thousands of lives have been lost to the most serious existential threat we’ve ever seen from within, civilized societies are buying ideas men like Christopher Hitchens are selling from without. It’s the worst of both worlds Pakistan-style, all the casualties and no memorials. Abroad, the Pakistan-as-wretched-state narrative sells hard not because the alternative narrative is less convincing – it is because there is no alternative narrative on offer. Our policymakers have no idea what Pakistan’s role in the world should be. This nuclear power can’t even boast a foreign minister – two viziers instead jostle for anything but.

At home, society splits across lines of race, class, and sect, with militants abusing aspects of all three. With drone attacks that murder our children, and bomb blasts that blow up flesh-and-blood human beings and bricks-and-mortar residencies, anything that reminds us of federation, of being whole, is being torn apart. But we would rather hate each other first. As right-wing reactionaries rail against ‘liberal fascists’, easily the stupidest term to have ever made it into our lexicon, liberal elites will giggle over the bad English of the urban middle classes. Easier countries can endure lack of consensus; in Pakistan, it means certain types of Pakistani deaths resonate in one’s heart more than others.

We learnt last year that a 14-year-old girl could merit assassination. But we also learnt nine years ago that the very first drone fired into Pakistan murdered children – two of them. Nek Muhammad was ours to try, Malala was ours to save. By conflating these two wholly separate issues, we ended up doing neither. That factory fire in Karachi? We had ourselves a debate pitting labour law reform against the joys of deregulation, and went back to sleep.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to know Shakil Afridi committed treason, or that Raymond Davis committed murder. You don’t have to be a ghairat brigadier to know that drone strikes are destroying our soul; or a liberal fascist to know our own defenders are complicit. You’re not a separatist for knowing the state is hurting the Baloch people, you’re not the establishment for knowing that terrorists are killing non-Baloch settlers. You don’t have to be Faisal Raza Abidi to know the system acquits monsters, you don’t have to be our superior courts to knowvani is part of the feudal disease. You’re not a Barelvi for knowing these militants will bleed and bleed Pakistan regardless of ‘external powers’, and you’re not a Deobandi for knowing America’s war in Afghanistan has rendered our own country unrecognizable. It’s time we build a united narrative.

When Germany’s Willy Brandt dropped to his knees before the monument of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, where 300,000 Poles had been slaughtered by the Nazis, it became a symbol that shook Poland and overwhelmed younger Germans. Brandt’s testament was wordless – to the tragedy of war, to the evil of genocide, to crimes of pain and cruelty that language couldn’t atone for. In 1970, Brandt showed that it was worth trying to close even the chasms world wars left behind. That first step towards Germany reuniting, that first crack in the Belin Wall, was Germany’s chancellor attempting redemption. Pakistan needs coming together too, but constant calls for reform will only work if there’s agreement on what needs reforming.

More than any other country, Pakistan has to heal. Reaching across the aisle and helping each other up would make for a start. We saw consensus in the streets after Quetta’s heartbreaking bloodshed earlier this year. It is with a heart still broken that one says, after yesterday, we will need it again.