Saturday, December 20, 2014

Waiting in Bethlehem

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
                                                                   W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming (1919)

Yeats wrote his great poem almost a century ago in the aftermath of the most calamitous war Europe had ever seen, but it could have been written for today’s Pakistan. The blood-dimmed tide is indeed loose, the best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity. But after the tragedy in Peshawar on December 16, there is a change in the atmosphere. Convictions – or at least expressions of conviction – are stronger, and the intensity more widespread. As if woken from a slumber of years, people all over the country, who had been waiting for God to change things, are rubbing their eyes and questioning their assumptions. It is the kind of moment where great changes can indeed happen. But we know that the moment will pass – is already passing – and the tide that needs to be taken at the flood will soon begin to recede. What Pakistan needs today is real leadership that can fundamentally alter the course of this society. Who can provide that leadership?

The traditional – one could easily say “hereditary” – political class of the country is so devoid of vision and so complicit in the status quo that any expectation of radical change from it is futile. At best, it may offer incremental improvement if it can be induced to look up from its narrow interests. Realizing this, many people are now looking to the military to provide leadership, but it can only do so in certain areas. It is the ideal instrument for waging actual war on the terrorists who attack the state, and by all accounts, it is doing so with great energy. The current top military leadership – ultimately inscrutable as always – seems to be exceptionally focused, sensible and professional. But the real change that is needed in Pakistan is societal change – a change of mindset, attitudes and values – and militaries are incapable by their nature of leading such a change. Societies where social organization has been handed over to militaries have always become repressive, violent, misogynistic and paranoid. The culture of unquestioning obedience and hypervigilance that enables an army to fight successfully as a coherent force does not transfer to complex civilian society without squeezing out almost all that is valuable from it. Mercifully, the current military leadership in Pakistan seems to recognize its professional role, though the temptation to go beyond it must be great at this moment.

Recently, a third force has arisen is Pakistan – the “New Pakistan” movement led by Imran Khan and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). In the aftermath of the Peshawar massacre, and given Imran Khan’s previous overtures towards the Taliban, this movement seems rather irrelevant now. Imran Khan implied as much when he called off his sit-in outside Parliament on December 17. However, this did not have to be the case. Societal change requires, above all, changing the attitudes of the young and the educated middle classes. Those are exactly the segments where Imran Khan had – still has – the greatest following. It also requires commitment, and his followers are committed. As such, of all the potential leaders in Pakistan, Imran Khan was in the best position to actually lead the change that this moment demands. But, tragically, he has yet to show that he has the vision and character to do this. Everything he has said so far in the aftermath of the tragedy has struck even his followers as self-serving and weak. If social media and anecdotal evidence are to be believed, his movement is deflating rapidly, which is a pity – and I say this as a staunch opponent of the movement. For all its vices, it was – is – a real movement driven by commitment rather than self-interest, which is a rare thing in Pakistan. Its problems came mainly from the top, but the movement itself could be a great vehicle of social transformation if its energies were diverted from such petty things as shouting down politicians and harassing opponents to the greater cause of changing hearts and minds. I believe that the foot-soldiers of the movement are ready for that, but unfortunately, the leadership is not. Contrary to popular belief, I think that the tragedy in Peshawar could have been an opportunity rather than a setback for Imran Khan, but only if he had the character to admit his mistakes and change direction. So far, there is no evidence of that.

A friend recently responded to some cynical comments by saying “It’s too early to be pessimistic.” Perhaps, but I think it is equally true to say that it’s too early to be optimistic. What will happen in Pakistan over the coming days, weeks and months is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the military will decide that the times are too critical for it to indulge the vacillations of civilian leadership, and take over. Or perhaps the current crop of politicians – Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan or others – will discover some hidden reserves of wisdom and resolve within themselves. Or – hope springing eternal – perhaps new young leaders will emerge from civil society to ignite the change. But perhaps none of these things will happen and Pakistan will continue on its current course after a time of mourning for all those young, heroic lives lost on December 16. If so, it may be a good idea to think upon the rest of Yeats’ poem:

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

How ready are we for that rough beast?

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