Notes from the train station
I have been to the New Brunswick train station in New Jersey State, where I live, hundreds of times in the past four years. For the past three years, I have boarded the train from here to work and school at least twice a week. During this time, it never occurred to me to sit and observe the place, people and their activities while waiting for the train, although I am generally curious about things around me.
Today I went there and sat on a bench at a distance from people in the waiting room. I wanted to observe the waiting behaviors of the people. As I sat down and began to observe, I thought about my behavior, as to why I sat where I did— aloof and distanced. But soon I shifted my attention towards the people and the big room, which had seven benches— one of which was very long. It had two huge round pendant lights hanging from a high ceiling, six ventilators and eight windows— one of the windows was of giant size. The room had two doors exiting towards the station’s platform. It had a stairway for exiting the station.
Six people were waiting for the train when I entered the waiting room. Four of them were sitting at quite a distance from each other. The remaining two were sitting relatively close. Within a minute or two, the train arrived and the room emptied. Then within the next two to three minutes after the train left, more people began to come into the room. Again, they sat at a distance from each other. This time a cop also came in. He stood close to one of the corners in front of the bathroom.
As I was observing the room, I felt being observed by the cop. As a brown man with a thick black beard and a mix of Afghan, Arab and Iranian facial features (although I am ethnically Afghan/Pashtun), I feel seen with suspicion every time I face a white cop. Then another train arrived and people left the room. Again, more people arrived. This time, two more cops showed up with the crowd into the room. Usually, these cops wait in Dunkin Donuts on the floor below the waiting room. While waiting there, they chat, drink coffee and eat donuts. As many New Jersyians would agree, Dunkin Donuts is a favorite spot for cops in the State. They seem to spend more time in coffee shops than on duty outside.
To my left, a man and a woman, most probably a couple, were leaning against one of the windows. They were quiet and expressionless for the most part except when the man spoke over the phone for a few minutes. In the corner to my left, a black woman seemed lost in her thoughts as her gaze was fixated on the plain wall and at the same time engaged in nose-picking for about a minute. The rest of the people, the young and the aged, were busy on their phones— listening to music or surfing the Internet. At one point, eight people including two cops, out of fourteen people, were busy on their phones. Others were quiet. The only people talking were the three cops and the two aged white women sitting side by side.
As the number of people changed with the trains arriving and leaving, at one point, there were 27 people in the waiting room. About ten of them were white and the rest were people of color. To my right, a man in about his forties sat and began to read the book, Consciousness and the Absolute, as I spotted the name on the front cover. Out of curiosity later, I searched the book and found that it is written by Nisargadatta Maharaj. Nisargadatta “was a Hindu guru of nondualism, belonging to the Inchagiri Sampradaya, a lineage of teachers from the Navnath Sampradaya and Lingayat Shaivism.” The man with the book was the only one in the room, who was reading. Then the next train came. The room emptied again. The bookman left. And I left too.
While exiting the station and strolling the streets of the city, I thought the most remarkable and strange thing about my observation was that people rarely sat close to others and rarely did they talk to each other. They hardly acknowledged the presence of others, let alone looking at them and saying ‘hi’ to them. Most people kept to themselves. There was an aura of coldness and lack of human warmth. I feel behavior such as this generates certain cultural expectations of “appropriateness.” This socially constructed appropriateness, in turn, dictates the interactions of people in public spaces like waiting rooms.
P.S. This observation is part of an assignment I completed for an online Qualitative Methods course with the University of Amsterdam. The assignment was to find and describe a place where people are waiting (e.g. in queues at stores, at public transport stations etc.). I thought it would be nice to share my observation with readers here.
Against Pakistan’s fake, selective moral outrage
The Modi government’s recent revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir caused a moral uproar in Pakistan. Both the government and the people felt outraged at the revocation and Indian government’s continued atrocities against Kashmiris.
No one with a sane mind and a little empathy in their heart would deny that condemning India’s atrocities in Kashmir is the right thing to do, morally.
However, when moral outrage becomes selective, such as outrage over atrocities in Kashmir and deafening silence over egregious crimes against minorities inside the country, it should also be condemned.
Why? What is wrong with selective moral outrage? Spencer Case, Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Colorado Boulder, says, “To be selectively outraged is to be guilty – of irrationality at least, and probably of moral hypocrisy as well.”
A counterargument to this claim, as Case explains, is that a moral human being, especially a psychologically normal human being, can not be evenly morally outraged in a world so full of outrages.
This is true, as our moral outrage and empathy have limitations, but there is also a counterargument to this view the support for which is found in theology and moral philosophy.
In Islam, your neighbor and your community have the utmost right over your solidarity and support. For example, Zakat (obligatory alms-giving) should be given to the deserving in the community first. Once this responsibility is fulfilled, then one can support the economically deserving elsewhere.
Similarly, if the members of your own community or nation are in some kind of suffering, they are the first deserving of your solidarity. The rest of the people come later. In moral philosophy too, you have the utmost responsibility and solidarity to show with those who are the closest to you geographically and in other ways.
Again, you can counterargue that moral outrage at the fate of others and your own are not morally competing interests. That is true. They are not and should not be, but only if you have your responsibility to those in need and close to you fulfilled first.
In Pakistan, the ethnic and religious minorities have suffered for decades, but the government and the majority of the people have been silent.
Religious minorities such as the Hindus, Christians, Ahmedis and Shia Muslims have been persecuted by Islamists for decades, but one sees from little to no moral outrage in the country.
Similarly, ethnic minorities such as the Baloch, Pashtuns and Mohajirs have been persecuted by the state, yet again the moral outrage at the atrocious acts from the successive elected governments and the people is from little to non-existent.
Moreover, elected parliamentarians are in jail. Thousands of activists are missing and as many killed extra-judicially. A large number of bodies of political activists have been found in mass graves.
There have been curfews in Waziristan. When people speak about their rights, they are silenced, detained and even killed. The state’s secret service harasses and surveils activists even outside the country.
The Baloch have been calling on the UN for help for decades. The Pashtuns after the emergence of the rights-based Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement and state repression, marched on UNO in Geneva for their constitutional rights last month.
Most people are silent on these atrocities against their own people but outraged against India’s atrocities in Kashmir. This is a fake and selective moral outrage. I am enraged at this selective outrage.
What Nietzsche thought about the State?
What is the state? Why do we obey it? Should we obey even when it oppresses us? And what can we do for our freedom against its tyranny? These questions come to mind every time I see the appalling treatment of governments of their subjects. In quest for insights, I have read extensively, but nothing has struck me so profoundly as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883).
The book covers a multitude of themes but in one of the sections, “Of the New Idol” in Part I, Nietzsche talks about the state: “The state? What is that? Well then! Now open your ears, for now I shall speak to you of the death of peoples.” He says, “State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it tells lies too; and this lie crawls out of its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.”
“Zarathustra as character in the treatise,” Richard Falk notes, “is presented as a prophetic voice of Nietzsche, the person who stands outside and in solitude so as to understand better what is taking place inside, a voice that is shrill with anger, impassioned by conviction, and dedicated to truth-telling, however heretical.” Falk contends that it is important to remember that “Nietzsche was experiencing a young German state that was seeking unity by promoting an intense cult of nationalism that would eventuate in self-destructive major wars twice in the 20th century.”
In Nietzsche and the State, David Gordon says that although Nietzsche was in politics far from an authoritarian, in his youth he supported the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, whose militaristic politics he then rejected in later years. Most probably, it was the political situation of the time that influenced Nietzsche to write one of his most famous and great works.
Nietzsche’s depiction fits the character of all modern states but of some more so than others. While reading “Of the New Idol”, I kept thinking about my country of origin, Pakistan, and what it has been doing to its people, particularly the oppressed groups. For far too long, innocent people have gotten killed in bomb blasts, target killing and numerous other mysterious ways. Many have gone and keep going missing for raising their voice against this cruelty.
However, rarely has the state caught these criminals and terrorists. The perpetrators turn out either suicide bombers found in shreds on blast sites or “unknown” assailants, who are so adept at escaping that the entire security machinery is “clueless” as to where they come from and where they go back in hiding. The state does not feel responsible at all for the safety of the people.
But, for the thinking man of this merciless polity, these are all cold lies, as Nietzsche would put. Where it serves its interest, the state would find law breakers out from the bowels of cities and the highs of mountains. But when upholding the law goes against the state’s interest, it would turn a blind eye and look the other way.
In Pakistan, the conscience-stricken citizens among all the many obedient subjects, who have challenged the state, are silenced, harassed, detained and even killed. These great souls have, in Falk’s words, risked “a life-threatening response by challenging the authority of the repressive regime in power.” No one listens to them because the monster roars, “On earth, there is nothing greater than I: the ordering finger of God am I.”
The cold monster whispers dark lies about its god-ness and greatness to all and sundry. The ways in which technology has facilitated the spread of the propaganda of the modern state would be unthinkable for Nietzsche, but the good news is that it has also almost equally empowered the people. The passage maintains that this cold monster would surround itself with “heroes and honorable men” and “bask in the sunshine of good consciences.”
These are usually normal men with normal roles as fathers, brothers and uncles in the family, but when it comes to the relation between the people and the state, they become uncontrollable and evil monsters. Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Bashar al-Assad and others have shown this cold monstrosity. I have wondered how are these men capable of such extraordinary coldness. Sometimes, the answer is nationalism. Sometimes power. Or greed, sociopathy, pleasure and wealth. Or a combination of all of the above.
Nietzsche maintains that this new idol will give you everything if you worship it. In this way, “It buys the splendor of your virtues and the look of your proud eyes. It would use you as a bait for the all-too-many.” But if you oppose it, even for the most righteous of reasons, you risk irking the monster, hence inviting its ire upon yourself. That is why most subjects choose complacent ignorance over conscientious dissidence. But if pushed too hard, the subjects, like in Tunisia and elsewhere, do rise to challenge the coldest of all cold monsters’ authority. In Pakistan, the 26-year old Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, challenged Pakistan’s mighty army at the beginning of last year.
Surprisingly, 139 years after publishing his book, Nietzsche’s words are relevant and invigorating even today. Most states, even liberal democracies like the United States, violate the rights of their citizens. African Americans are routinely killed by the police and incarceration rates are the highest in their community. Myanmar, India, Israel, Turkey, and on and one, most states violate the rights and dignity of their people.
What should be done when the state violates its citizens’ rights but demand compliance? This is perhaps one of the most difficult questions that some of the greatest thinkers/philosophers of all time have tried to explore. Anarchist philosophers reject unjust hierarchies of power in favor of ” self-managed, self-governed societies based on voluntary, cooperative institutions.” Philosophical anarchism is the view that citizens don’t have obligation to obey the law, although they have good reasons to comply with it. Philosophical anarchists believe that the state lacks moral legitimacy: However, they don’t advocate violence to eliminate it.
Liberal philosophers believe “that government is necessary to protect individuals from being harmed by others, but they also recognize that government itself can pose a threat to liberty.” The English-born American political activist and philosopher Thomas Paine expressed in Common Sense (1776), “Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one…”
According to liberals, the solution is to devise a rules-based system that not only gives government the power necessary to protect individual liberty, but also prevents those who govern from abusing that power. Libertarians, like liberals, strongly value the protections of individual freedoms. But unlike liberals, “Libertarians usually see the kind of large-scale, coercive wealth redistribution in which contemporary welfare states engage as involving unjustified coercion.” In other words, the libertarians advocate the minimalist state.
To conclude, one should listen carefully to Nietzsche for his depiction of the nature of the state helps us understand the gross violations of rights by almost all states in varying degrees. But one should also remember that without the state, the regulation of human behaviour and the protection of individual rights would remain a pressing challenge for society. Moreover, would a stateless society or societies, as some anarchists advocate, be ever realizable? It is especially difficult to imagine so, as the modern state has brought most tribal and indigenous communities in its fold.
In the end, in Falk’s words, “To remove the blindfold, and see the state as the coldest of monsters is a necessary wakeup call for which we should thank Nietzsche for, even now, 139 years after Zarathustra was published. And yet we also need to resist the temptation to fall into a deeper sleep by adopting a posture of unrealizable and unacceptable negation of this strange political creature called the state. In the end, the state is not a monster, but a work in progress.”
Empathy: When is it a force of good and when not?
Yesterday, a friend and I talked about the violence against peaceful protestors in Sudan. She said she can’t believe what is happening to innocent people. What is worse, she said, is no one cares about them. No one is helping.
I said I share your sentiments. But the problem is not that no one cares; it is just that such conflicts are quite complex. Yemen, Syria, Libya and other cases are before our eyes. Intervention or no intervention. People have been dying.
She said but why can’t we do something. Why can’t we be with them, so they don’t feel alone and scared? Why can’t we share their fear and pain, she said.
Again, I said I share your kind thoughts. But one also has to feel mentally and emotionally safe themselves to be able to help others.
It is sad that they are trapped but we can’t do much if we get trapped with them. One can’t help their crying child by starting crying with them. One has to feel ok and take action.
I said I love how empathetic you are but you need to separate emotional empathy from cognitive empathy
The Yale psychologist, Paul Bloom says emotional empathy means feeling the pain and suffering of people. Emotional empathy does not always help and it is not healthy. In work of peace or in life in general, one needs to make sure first they are ok.
Cognitive empathy, he says, refers to understanding other people’s problems and empathizing with them. Cognitive empathy is mentally appreciating the pain of other people and not necessarily feeling their pain emotionally.
Bloom says, another limitation of empathy is that we don’t empathize with strangers as much as we do with people we know. Therefore, individual actions and governments’ policies should base on rational calculation rather than purely on empathy.
As an activist, I follow the news of conflict in my country, Pakistan, and across the world closely. The events in the past year in Pakistan and in countries such as Syria, Yemen and Sudan affected me emotionally.
At one point, I could not watch the videos of Pakistani security forces’ oppression of the protestors of the rights-based Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement or the PTM.
This was one reason why I took a break for four months from social media. I have read and have realized that it is ok to share the pain of fellow human beings. But it is not necessary to feel the way other people feel.
I agree with Bloom that emotional empathy is not good for one’s health. Hope this helps the readers and activists in the field.
America is unlikely to pressure the Pakistan Army, but PTM should knock on all doors for justice
Since the onset of the rights-based Pashtun Protection Movement or PTM in February last year in Pakistan, its supporters have hopes from America to pressure the Pakistan military establishment to accept their demands. The PTM is a nonviolent movement that is demanding justice for war crimes committed against Pakistan’s largest ethnic minority— Pashtuns. The PTM supporters have protested in various cities of the U.S., including in front of the White House in the federal capital, Washington DC. The Trump administration has not issued a single condemnatory statement on the issue. From such a lack of interest, it is clear that the Americans are not interested in the Pashtun problem in Pakistan. There are a number of possible reasons. Some are general. Others are specific to PTM and Pakistan.
Generally, America has a negative historical track record of supporting regressive forces over democratic forces in numerous parts of the world. In the Spanish–American War in 1898, America supported the “independence” of Cuba and the Philippines against Spanish imperialism, but soon after the Spanish withdrawal it dominated the governments and peoples in these countries. When the local people resisted, America went to war against them. The Philippines did not become independent until 1946, almost half a century after dethroning the Spanish Empire with America’s help in 1898. America’s imperial project goes all the way back to the subjugation of the Natives in first few decades of the 19th century, the occupation of Hawaii in 1898 and subsequent exploits in Latin America and in the Middle East in the 20th century.
More recently, in 1986, the United States drew up sanctions on the white-dominated apartheid regime of South Africa, ending constraints from international sanctions on state repression of the anti-apartheid movement. Around the same time, the Reagan administration and Pentagon supported President Marcos of Philippines despite his government’s indiscriminate repression of the democratic opposition. It was because Marcos was America’s ally against Communism in the Philippines. However, Reagan withdrew his support of Marcos when the military-backed civilian uprising against Marcos transpired. There was also a growing wedge between the State Department and Congress and the Reagan administration and Pentagon. For details on the two cases, you can read chapter two of Kurt Schock’s book, Unarmed Insurrection: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies.
There are other cases of America’s support to dictators against democrats, but the question is will America support the PTM in Pakistan. The answer I am afraid is in negative. I may be wrong, but here is why I think so. First, America has more to gain from cooperation with the Pakistan army, especially for the endgame in Afghanistan, than hapless Pashtuns. This is despite the fact that America and the Pashtuns of Pakistan seem to have a common objective: The end of terrorist proxies allegedly backed by Pakistan army and used in Afghanistan. America is also preoccupied at the moment with the peace process with the Taliban in Afghanistan. A senior American expert on the region also confirmed this in a private conversation.
Second, America has supported generals over civilian leaders in Pakistan in the past. That realpolitik equation has not changed yet. With the Trump administration it has become more robust than ever, although he put pressure on Pakistan at the begging. My fear is that just like America and other powerful Western countries left East Timorese to the butchery by the Indonesian military, they will leave Pashtuns to their fate in Pakistan. It behooves these countries to avoid antagonizing Pakistan’s dominant military while it is blatantly denying rights to the Pashtun victims of war.
Third, one of the PTM demands is the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate possible crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity by the Pakistan army. America will not get itself involved in this, because its own leaders and armed forces are guilty of committing war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) received 1.7 million cases of war crimes allegedly committed by the NATO and U.S. forces, Afghan secret service and security forces and the Taliban, combined. Since America is not a party to the ICC, the Trump administration cautioned the ICC Prosecutor not get involved. The Prosecutor responded that Afghanistan is a party to the ICC and crimes committed on its soil will have to be investigated. The point is that America will not support PTM in this regard.
Noam Chomsky says America has supported democracy where it has served its interests and opposed it when democracy would threaten American interests. This is true in the light of history. The PTM may stand a chance with the European Union subtracting the United Kingdom, which is the main historical culprit behind the past and current woes of the Pashtuns. Having said that, PTM should knock on all doors for justice, including that of the Americans. It is those who strive for justice, get it someday. The Polish Jew and lawyer Raphael Lemkin got the international community to adopt the Genocide Convention of 1948 after years of campaigning. Don’t forget that Jews were not the favorite of the West at the time and endured conscience-shocking atrocities at Hitler’s hands.
PTM should plead its case and keep telling its story to the world. As my favorite Native American proverb puts, “Those who tell the stories rule the world.”
In search of identity
The last time I saw my family was six years ago, before coming to the States. I talk to them over the phone now but it does not feel real. A lot has changed since then. New members have joined the family. Some family members have died. Their widows and young children are on God’s mercy because that is how life is in a small, poor village in rural Pakistan. My mom has grown weak and old. One family member, I was told recently, is terminally ill.
There have been tragedies which I keep mourning. And there have been happy occasions which I have missed. However, I also feel like living in a dream. It is not distressing but it is just that life does not feel true. Some call it an identity crisis. Others call it a state of un-belongingness. Whatever it may be, my identity has been shifting in many ways. I am a different man from the one I left in the village one sunny afternoon six years ago. I have transformed in ways which would be unthinkable back in the village. But I also feel I have not changed at all, which is a paradox.
I spent the first twenty years of my life in the village. Now at thirty-one, I live an hour by train from one of the world’s busiest and most populous metropolises, New York City. It is not that I am shocked or in awe (which I was both at first sight), but I am surprised by many things around me. Some of these things are quite trivial. I go to the bar, drink and enjoy but it still does not seem like my thing. I go to the beach and have fun but it still does not feel part of me. Sometimes, I even doubt if I had any fun. I have dated, had relationships but even dating at times seems foreign to my identity. None of these choices are imposed, of course.
I have wanted to do all of this but it still feels novel and, oddly enough, strange sometimes. However, these feelings are not constant realities. They shift from time to time. As I reflect on my life, I feel socialization plays a big role in one’s thinking about the world and their place in it. I grew up with a unique set of values and philosophy of life. The family came first. Parents enjoyed the utmost respect. Death was a constant reminder at the mosque. Praying at the mosque five times a day was compulsory. These were one set of principles I absorbed as a child and teenager.
As an adult, I was introduced to a new set of values. Dating was unacceptable. In fact, I did not know any such thing existed until I met my Turkish classmate in college in Lahore, who had a girlfriend in Turkey. Marriage was arranged. Contact with a stranger woman was deemed odious. The man who stayed away from women gatherings at family weddings was considered the most respectable. Reading or writing as an avocation was looked down on a waste of time. Philosophy was considered the subject of madmen. Questioning subjects such as God and religion was profanity. Quite random picks but such are the shifting sands of memory.
I imbibed these lessons like a sponge. I had to. It took me over a decade to change my ideas about most of these things. Although I have reoriented my understanding, it seems like there is still a deeper layer to my identity that remains unchanged, at least until now. Sometimes it feels like a hole or emptiness, like something is missing. One feels homeless at home, aloof around people and hopeless in a place which many from around the world come to for hope of a new future. One advantage of this uncertainty or confusion, however, is that it has made me more curious about the predicament of human existence and my place in it.
This predicament has turned me to some of the best philosophers and thinkers of all time to see what they thought about life. How they lived. In the last five years, I have collected books by Plato, Hume, Nietzsche, Mill, Aurelius, Frankl, Caums, Dawkins, Iqbal, Orwell, to name only a few. Most of my time spend in reading these madmen because I feel alive in their company. I may not have much in common with the men on the street but these madmen talk about things that are universal. Things that I used to think about in the village but did not comprehend.
I read five or more books at a time. My persistent side interests besides academia in reading are philosophy, positive psychology, religion, war and politics. About two years ago, I also began to read poetry. The topics that interest me particularly are ethics, justice, power, violence, love, beauty, empathy, death, life, mind and much more. This sounds overambitious but most of these topics are parts of a bigger whole.
I think my curiosity stems from uncertainty and the desire to know more, to try to be wise, as the saying in German goes, “wage es weise zu sein (dare to be wise).” Wisdom for me is not knowing-it-all pretentiousness. That is beyond impossible. Wisdom is silence, too. One has to read to know when one has to keep quiet and let someone else speak. My ambition is to discover who I am in my context, so that I can be of a little use to humanity.
While in search of identity, I miss home and struggle to preserve part of the young man from six years ago, so that I have something to share with my family when I see them next.
What would Orwell say about Pakistan Army’s repression of Pashtuns?
The British novelist and essayist and critic of authoritarianism George Orwell opens the second chapter of his book Why I Write with the following quote:
“As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me up with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.”
Orwell understood that “one can not see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism and national loyalty.” He believed no ideology, including religion (Christianity) and international socialism, had a comparison with the power of patriotism. Hitler and Mussolini rose to power because they knew “facts” and how to exploit the national loyalty of their peoples. Orwell was an outspoken supporter of democratic socialism and opposed totalitarianism and British imperialism overseas.
Almost 7 decades after his death, Orwell’s analysis is still relevant to the postmodern world. Today, patriotism and national loyalty are on the rise like never before. From the United States to Hungry in the West to India and Pakistan in South Asia, to mention only a few countries, nationalist jingoism is the popular sentiment not only among the ruling elites but also in the majority of the people in these countries. Americans elected Donald Trump as their president; Hungarians and Indians have elected the xenophobes Orban and Modi respectively, twice, and Pakistanis except for ethnic minorities such as the Baloch and Pashtuns worship the totalitarian army generals as their gods.
Pakistan’s elected totalitarian regime, run by the army, is similar to Orwell’s England of the twentieth century. The generals and their protégés in the civilian government have established their reign of terror and repression on the Pashtun victims of the War on Terror. In February last year, a peaceful civil rights movement, the Pashtun Tahafuz (protection) Movement or PTM, emerged from Pakistan’s erstwhile tribal areas against the alleged war crimes by Pakistan army in the past decade. The PTM has demanded justice for crimes such as extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances among others war abuses against innocent Pashtuns. The army ignored it first and then tried to negotiate on its own terms with the PTM. When the PTM leadership refused to budge from their original demands, the army has now begun to crack down on the nonviolent movement.
Two weeks ago, the Pakistan army soldiers in the Boyya area of North Waziristan opened fire at peaceful PTM protestors, leaving 13 dead and scores injured. The army’s media wing ISPR blamed PTM leaders for inciting an attack against the soldiers first. But video footage of the incident showed that the protestors did not possess any arms. Prime Minister Imran Khan did not condemn the attack. In a clampdown, the army through its proxies has arrested the top leaders, including elected members of Parliament, of the PTM on terrorism charges. The irony is that the army created and has hosted terrorists while the PTM leaders stood against them for years, but they are still to blame.
In mainland Pakistan, which is the Punjab province, support for rights movements like the PTM from the country’s ethnic minorities is hardly in dozens. Out of 110 million people in Punjab, one can count on fingertips those who have shown solidarity with the PTM. The rest are either afraid of the generals or celebrate them as their own, as loyalty to in-group, no matter how unfounded, is a primordial human characteristic. It is perhaps not their fault since it takes a big heart and cognitive liberation to transcend one’s skin and empathize with a stranger.
Speaking of England’s then political parties such as Conservatives and Anarchists in Politics and the English Language, Orwell said, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” In the current political climate of Pakistan, the army is the architect of such political language. Through control of media and use of coercion, it represses the truth. Most political parties except for the PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto, a few leaders of PMLN and Pashtun nationalist parties, such as ANP and PKMAP, are in bed with the generals. Imran’s PTI is complicit in the current crime of repression and murder of the PTM activists.
However, the good news is that the truth does emerge eventually. Power also may shift from oppressors to the oppressed. When the truth emerges and power shifts, then there will be accountability and justice. Until then, there is resistance, even if it is only in the mind.
4 ways in which unarmed insurrections may weather repression in nondemocracies
The emergence of movements or challenges for political change threatens the interests of regimes, especially in nondemocracies or pseudo-democracies. According to Kurt Schock, authorities may respond in four possible ways to these challenges: Ignore, conciliate, reform and repress. When a challenge expands and gains momentum, authorities can not ignore anymore because it undermines their legitimacy. When authorities can no longer ignore the challenge, they seek conciliation. Conciliation may take the form of “symbolic gestures,” channeling or cooptation to encourage challengers to adopt institutionalized political channels such as contesting elections and etcetera.
If conciliation fails, then political reforms may become an option. But the problem with political reforms is that if the authorities introduce reforms, it may encourage the further mobilization of the challenge. Lastly, authorities rely on repression. According to Schock, repression may entail the imposition of negative sanctions, use of force and coercion and violence by proxy. Repression may be used in both democracies and nondemocracies, but Schock argues that it is more pervasive in nondemocracies because most overt challenges pose a direct threat to the regimes.
The question is how may unarmed insurrections survive repression by authoritarian regimes. Shock suggests four possible ways: However, they don’t guarantee the success of the insurrections. If followed, the suggested ways “may increase the likelihood that a challenge will remain resilient in a nondemocratic context.” While adopting these strategies, the challengers should be mindful of their political context. Shock contends, “The factors influencing the trajectories of unarmed insurrections and their interactions are far too complex and subject to the influence of factors beyond the control or recognition of activists and social scientists.”
Here are the four ways that a challenge under repression from the authorities may adopt to sustain its struggle.
1. Adopting network-oriented rather than hierarchical organizational structure: Shock and other theorists such as Walter Powell and Robert Burrows contend that social movement organizations under repression should adopt network-oriented or decentralized than hierarchical or centralized organizational structure. Shock argues that “… Network-organized challenges are more flexible, are more adept at expanding horizontal channels of communication, are more likely to increase the participation and commitment of members and the accountability of leaders, are more likely to innovate tactically and are more likely to weather repression.”
2. Implementing more diverse tactics and methods: Shock argues that “The more diverse the tactics and methods implemented, the more diffuse the state’s repressive operations become, thus potentially lessening their effectiveness.” He emphasizes on using a mix of three methods that the theorist Gene Sharp talks about at length in his book The Politics of Nonviolent Action: Protest and persuasion, noncooperation and disruptive nonviolent intervention. The first method, protest and persuasion “help overcome apathy, acquiescence, and fear; promote solidarity; contribute to the elaboration and dissemination of counterhegemonic frames; and signal to third parties and reference publics the existence of an unjust and intolerable situation.”
The second method, noncooperation, challenges the legitimacy, resources and power of the state, “and the collective withdrawal of cooperation from the state promotes cooperation and empowerment among the oppressed.” Finally, disruptive nonviolent intervention may be used in support of the previous two methods. “Creative nonviolent intervention,” Schock claims, “undermines state authority and contributes to the ability of movements to sustain themselves by providing networks that are alternative to state-controlled institutions.”
3. Shifting from methods of concentration to methods of dispersion: Another way for social movement organizations to weather repression is to shift from methods of concentration such as protest demonstrations to methods of dispersion such as a strike or a boycott. According to Schock, methods of concentration are useful for building solidarity, highlighting grievances and the extent of dissatisfaction and if the state responds with repression, exposing “the fact the state is based on violence than legitimacy.” However, in the face of repression, challengers must be able to shift to methods of dispersion, since the latter does not provide the state with tangible or discriminate target for repression. Shifting to methods of dispersion “may overextend the state’s repressive capacities due to the lack of specific target.” Shock argues that depending on the context, both methods may be useful and effective.
4. Adapting more quickly than the state: Last but not least, challengers need to adapt more quickly to the state’s actions than the state does to theirs. Schock argues that “If challengers adapt more quickly than the state, they increase their likelihood of weathering state repression.” Since the state does the same thing, the challengers must be tactical and innovative in their methods to keep the authorities off balance and save the challenge from stagnation. Several theorists argue that challengers can adapt well if their organizational structure is network-oriented rather than hierarchical and if they use a combination of methods outlined above.
To sum up, Schock argues that “challenges characterized by dispersed yet coordinated networks and decentralized organizations that can mobilize resources through channels not directly controlled by the state, and that implement a diverse mix of methods and respond effectively to the state’s actions, are more likely to remain resilient in the face of violent repression.”
The Pashtun Black Decade-and-Half in Pakistan
In the 1990s, in the civil war between Algeria’s ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) and the Islamic Salvation Front Party (FIS), 200,000 Algerians lost their lives. The period came to be known as the “Black Decade” or the “Red Decade” due to the spilled blood of the innocents. Both the government forces and FIS were accused of committing atrocities again civilians. They particularly targeted Algerian intelligentsia and journalists.
In the wake of 9/11, the people of Pakistan, particularly, the Pashtun ethnic group met a similar fate at the hands of the Taliban and the armed forces. It is public knowledge that close to 70,000 Pakistanis have lost their lives to violence by the Taliban and other sectarian groups in the country. Violence against the Pakistani state and society ensued from drone strikes on Taliban leaders and the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud in 2004, and the eventual creation of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP in 2007.
However, what is not public knowledge yet is that the Pashtuns of Pakistan suffered the brunt of the war both by Taliban and government forces. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal data, from 2005 to 2016, in proportional terms, 82 percent of fatalities from terrorist violence took place in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan, which are predominantly Pashtun-populated regions. In numbers, out of 58,855 deaths, 42,094 were from FATA and KP followed by Sindh with 7,732 casualties, Balochistan with 6,010 casualties and Punjab with 1,972 casualties.
The atrocities of Pakistan army and other security agencies were hidden from the public eye until the merciless murder of a young businessman and aspiring model Naqeebullah Mehsud on fake terrorism charges in January 2018 by police in Karachi. Naqeebullah was an ethnic Pashtun displaced to Karachi by violence in his hometown of Waziristan. His death proved to be the last straw that broke the camel’s back, as it gave unprecedented impetus to the boiling rage among the Pashtun youth regarding atrocities committed on their land and against their people during the war on terror.
In February 2018, a new rights-based movement, The Pashtun Tahafuz (protection) Movement or PTM, emerged under the leadership of a young tribesman Manzoor Pashteen to protest against the perpetual cycle of violence against Pashtuns. PTM is demanding justice and accountability for the extrajudicial killings and disappearances (by thousands) of innocent Pashtun men and mistreatment of the local Pashtuns in northern areas by Pakistan army. The movement has the support of an overwhelming number of Pashtuns inside and outside Pakistan. Pashtuns in Europe, Canada and the United States are mobilizing people and resources to pressure the state to accept PTM’s demands.
The state, which is basically the Pakistan army, has nullified the demands of the PTM by calling it a propaganda of the foreign “enemies” against Pakistan. It has however not provided a shred of evidence, but mere allegations and speculations. The state, allegedly the Army and its spy agencies, has harassed, detained and tortured and even killed PTM activists
The institutions responsible for justice such as the judiciary and the national parliament have not taken any concrete steps to address the grievances of the movement. The recent 26th amendment to the constitution that will increase the representation of tribal areas in the national and provincial assemblies, is a tactical deflection from the main demands of PTM. Representation has surely been long overdue but mere representation in the future can not absolve institutions complicit in horrible crimes against innocent people in the past. PTM’s leadership needs to be alert to this diversion.
Historically, it is usually the power of the people that have brought the rulers to their knees. PTM is that power in the history of the Pashtun struggle for rights and autonomy over their lives. It has no other way but to resist and demand justice for what I now call the Black Decade-and-Half that the Pashtuns in Pakistan have endured.
The nature of political power
In politics, power is referred to as the ability of the ruler to dissuade the ruled from doing something they want to do or to persuade them to do something they refuse to do. Referencing Robert MacIver’s work The Web of Government, Gene Sharp, in his book The Politics of Nonviolent Action, defines political power as “the total authority, influence, pressure and coercion which may be applied to achieve or prevent the implementation of the wishes of the power holder.”
An example of this would be the tussle between the Pakistan army and the rights-based movement called the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement or PTM. The army is using its power to get PTM leadership to give up its peaceful resistance “against” the state. The DG Inter-Services Public Relations Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor a few weeks ago while threatening PTM leaders said, “Their (PTM’s) time is up.” This is the language of power or political power.
But what is the real essence of power and how does it work?
Normally, when people think of power, they think of armed forces, weapons and other means that governments employ to subdue their subjects or other nations. This view of power is what Gene Sharp calls the “monolith theory” of power. It assumes that “the power of a government is a relatively fixed quantum (i.e. “a discrete unit quantity of energy”), a “given,” a strong, independent, durable (if not indestructible), self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating force.” In other words, in this view, the people are at the mercy of the goodwill, decisions and support of their government or other hierarchical systems.
The monolith theory equates power with physical might that is almost unalterable and unbreakable unless countered by a mightier physical force. In Sharp’s view, it is this idea that underlies most political violence, wars and the possession of nuclear weapons.
This view of power has undermined an alternative theory that Sharp calls the “pluralistic-dependency theory” of nonviolent action. This view is the converse of the monolith theory because it assumes that “governments depend on people, that power is pluralistic (as it rises from many parts of society), and that political power is fragile because it depends on many groups for reinforcement of its power sources.”
The monolith theory overlooks the fact that political power consists in outside sources such as authority (the ruler’s right to command and be obeyed), human resources (persons who obey and assist the ruler), skills and knowledge (of such persons to meet the needs of the ruler), intangible psychological and ideological factors (such as obedience by the ruled, and common faith and ideology that affect the power of the ruler in relation to the people), material resources (that the ruler controls to their advantage) and finally sanctions to enforce obedience of the subjects.
Sharp argues that the effectiveness of these sources, in turn, depends on obedience. And obedience should be loyal not forced. It is also important to make the distinction between power and authority. Power is the ability or the capacity to rule but authority is the right, that people give to the ruler, to command. When the ruler loses authority in the eyes of the ruled, then the sheer use of force and coercion may not command obedience. Sharp contends that “Because authority must by definition be voluntarily accepted by the people, the authority of the ruler will depend upon the goodwill of the subjects and will vary as the goodwill varies.”
The utter use of force can not command obedience when the authority weakens or collapses. He asserts, “The weakening or collapse of that authority inevitably tends to loosen the subjects’ predisposition toward obedience. Obedience will no longer be habitual; the decision to obey or not to obey will be made consciously, and obedience may be refused.”
The obedience of the subject is the most important single quality of any government and thus, in Sharp’s words, “obedience is at the heart of political power.” People obey the ruler because of habit, fear of sanctions, moral obligation, self-interest and other factors but their obedience is not a given and hence not inevitable.
Building on Jouvenel’s argument in On Power, Sharp claims that “At any given point in a given society there are limits within which a ruler must stay if his commands are to be obeyed. These limits are subject to change throughout the history of a society.” Finally, quoting Russell (Power), he notes, “Obedience can be enforced only while the mass of men are in some sort of agreement with the law. There is no lack of examples of opposition and successful opposition, to government decision.”
Keeping the pluralistic view of political power in mind, the best course of action for the government in Pakistan, especially the army, is to sit with PTM leaders and negotiate the movement’s demands with them. The use of physical force has been tried in the past year, and the result has been the further mushrooming of PTM. When people refuse to be suffered by the threat of sanctions i.e. when threats do not affect their mind and emotions, physical compulsion becomes ineffective. Compelling people by force to obey “rules” is not obedience and can never be permanent. The Pakistan army knows this. But the good news is that PTM also knows their power. And they should continue to resist, for there is no going back now.