It has been almost nine years since I wrote my first op-ed article for the Daily Times. Of the many writers that I once shared this space with, some have moved on to bigger and better things, others have moved on to greener pastures and some have just moved on, hopefully, to a better place. Friends often ask me why I keep on writing for this newspaper. My answer comes in three parts: first is that it has now become a habit, second, the Daily Times is still the only consistently ‘left of centre’ newspaper in Pakistan and as such deserves my support and third, it almost always publishes whatever I submit without censorship or ‘editing’.
As far as censorship is concerned, only twice were my articles ‘chopped up’. First was when I wrote about the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) female vigilantes all dressed up in black and armed with ‘lathis’ (wooden sticks) who went around Islamabad enforcing morality. I suggested that they were so popular with our devout sorts because for them these young women played out the fantasy role of a ‘dominatrix’. What was edited out, as Alfred Hitchcock would say, I leave to my readers’ vivid imaginations. The second article to be cut in part was the one I submitted after the assassination of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto. Perhaps I was too overcome with grief to write anything that was printable.
About editing, many moons ago, there was a young assistant editor who would not only change my lead but also change what I had written. The problem with her energetic editing was that it would often entirely change the point I had tried to make. After a chat with the former editor of the op-ed page, that stopped. Recently though, I have noticed that in my articles commas are appearing in places where I deliberately left them out. About commas, my point of view is that of a minimalist — less is more.
However, what I really want to talk about is how I have changed over these nine years. As the end of another year approaches, it is time for introspection. As I read some of my articles published over the last many years, the change, even though gradual, becomes quite obvious. The early part of this century was a period of considerable upheaval for Muslims everywhere but also for Muslim Americans. 9/11 altered the relationship that the US had with Muslims, especially those who lived in the Middle East and in Pakistan. Importantly, nine years ago the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was ongoing and Pakistan had become a frontline state in the war in Afghanistan.
Until then, I rarely felt the need to be particularly aware of my identity as a Muslim or a Pakistani but every time I entered the US, at the immigration counters I was ‘forcefully’ reminded that I was a Muslim of Pakistani origin and as such entirely suspect. Even though I travelled with a US passport, my last name and ‘place of birth’ always merited some close inspection and intrusive questioning. That is the first change I can see in my own persona. I am now more aware of my Muslim and Pakistani heritage than I used to be in the past.
Over the last decade it became quite noticeable that the US and Pakistan were no longer as ‘friendly’ as they used to be. Today, according to the ‘polls’, most Pakistanis dislike the US and most Americans feel the same way about Pakistan. Personally, I am not too impressed by these polls, at least from the Pakistani perspective. The lines for US visas in Pakistan are still long and almost every young physician I meet in Pakistan irrespective of the intensity of his or her ‘religious’ beliefs still wants to emigrate to the US rather than to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
From a political perspective, two separate events happened, which did much to dampen my ‘liberal’ enthusiasm. First was the election of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government in Pakistan and the other was the election of Barack Hussein Obama as president of the US. From the Pakistani perspective, the ineptitude and corruption of the Zardari-led PPP government entirely undermined my personal feelings for the PPP as a party of the ‘left’. As far as Obama is concerned, I am still waiting for the ‘progressive’ Obama that I supported during his first election to show up.
I now wonder whether, perhaps, the liberal centre-left ideas that I have nurtured for most of my adult life are an anachronism in the modern hyper-connected world. Free markets and continued income disparities are now the inevitable future, and old-fashioned ideas about the rights of the poor and the disadvantaged are just that, old fashioned ideas. The election of the rightist, pro-rich Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in the recent general elections in Pakistan seems to support that perception.
The other personal reality that I now face is that, besides being a Pakistani and a Muslim by birth, I was also born into a Shia family. Considering the recent flare up of sectarian violence, I wonder whether being a Shia is going to become a liability in Pakistan. I think it is unlikely that Shias will suffer the same fate as another religious minority that was constitutionally ‘expelled’ from the brotherhood of Islam 40 years ago but then, the way things are going, who knows? During the years I worked in Pakistan, many of my colleagues belonged to the very groups that are vociferously ‘anti-Shia’, yet I personally never felt threatened. However, now I avoid disclosing my religious origins.
Finally, and yes there is always a finally, I have lived long enough to see the political pendulum swing from the right to the left and back. Whether or not the pendulum swings back to the left in my lifetime, my personal belief about the innate decency of most people living in this world will not change.
While the human spirit craves for liberty at all ages, its yearning peaks in youth. The youth are ...