A few weeks ago, Raza Rumi and Ailia Zehra, the editors of The Friday Times–Naya Daur, released a video in which they discussed receiving criticism from the right, the left and woke individuals. They expressed that while the right accuses them of being landay ke liberals (second-hand western liberals) and promoters of fisad (social anarchy), the left accuses them of not openly discussing the case of missing persons, Baloch separatists and of not being revolutionary enough. In a similar vein, they mentioned how they received harangues from woke individuals who give dictations on the usage of words and start hurling trendy words they have imbibed including, “trauma, gaslighting, or body shaming.” Their take on woke individuals reminded me of the article by queer activist Frances Lee, titled “Excommunicate me from the church of social justice”, in which the author mentions that, “telling people how to live their lives is central to dogmatic religion and dogmatic activism.”
I hear where Rumi and Zehra are coming from. Anyone who has worked for a just cause knows that getting people together is like herding stray cats. This is not a new phenomenon. I noticed this while reviewing Yasser Latif Hamdani’s Jinnah – A Life. I learned how Jinnah found himself against the British, the Congress, the Muslim elite, and religious Muslims alike. In religious circles, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi’s teacher, the late Amin Ahsan Islahi said to, “abide by the truth even if your shadow deserts you.” His words allude to the opposition to be expected when treading on novel ground. And Pakistanis are not exactly noted for their hilm (forbearance) in public discourse, despite the late Junaid Jamshed’s crooning, kyun na chunain woh rasta, jis per nahin koi gaya (why not tread the path, which no one has travelled).
Like those on the right, they want converts to their cause. Perhaps they want people to risk a stronger stance that could imperil their safety. For if some lives are lost, that would help further their narrative and fuel their cause.
Scathing criticism from the right is to be expected. Their narrative rests on perceived humiliation. It is the same narrative that is projected by the Hindutva in India and the alt-right in western economies. Irshad Manji, writes in her 2019 book, Don’t Label Me, that, “perceived humiliation fuels identity-obsessed warriors, whether they’re rampaging for the ethno-state or for the caliphate.” She argues that their identity is entwined with their worldview, so that any threat to their worldview becomes a threat to themselves. Therefore, akin to the narrative that Hinduism is in danger in India, we hear the sentiment in Pakistan that Islam khatray main hai (Islam is in danger) even though Muslims constitute 95 per cent to 98 per cent of the population. What is important to note is that education for such people amplifies their narrative, as they resort to bigger words to rationalize their insecurities.
In a similar vein, criticism from the left is also to be expected, for they have their own worldview where inquilab (revolution) would overthrow systems of oppression. Like those on the right, they want converts to their cause. Perhaps they want people to risk a stronger stance that could imperil their safety. For if some lives are lost, that would help further their narrative and fuel their cause. The dead would be used as martyrs, who would be promoted with the lal salam (red salute). Indeed, Manji writes that, “allies tend to get valued only for their usefulness to the cause, not for their intrinsic humanity” and they are, “tasked to be like consumer products – performance ready, suitable in the moment, and expendable once they have become inconvenient. Their involvement with causes is more transaction than interaction, verging on exploitation.”
Unless there are equivalent Pakistani cultural constructs, language based on “trauma, gaslighting, or body shaming” has to be replaced by a Pakistani discourse based on ajazi (humility) and ihsan (excellence) that counteracts dil azari (pungency), which is often caused by woke individuals.
Along with those on the right and the left, there is a relatively new group of woke individuals, who are equally judgmental and zealous as the rest. This group is possibly burned out and grappling with trauma of their own, which they address by lashing out at others on minor social faux pas. Former President Obama has called out this group for their purity politics by stating, “that’s not activism.” But beyond this, what such individuals end up doing from the comfort of their living rooms is attacking the very people who are at the forefront pushing for change. Instead of upholding hilm (forbearance), they end up thwarting effective change. Indeed, Daayiee Abdullah writes in his 2021 book, Progressive Islam, that generally, “progressive organizations disbanded one after the other because the members had disagreements on certain topics.” He suggests that such divisiveness arises as, “a significant number in the community [are]dealing with multiple levels of internalized trauma.”
Like Obama and Daayiee Abdullah, Manji states that woke individuals indulge in, “a culture of shrieking rather than speaking” and that, “by treating criticism as the end game, they’re infatuated with demolishing.” Additionally, she states that, “much of critical theory has itself become a drill in thoughtless conformity.” She is clear that, “unless we transform trauma, we’ll transmit it.” While Manji writes for a North American audience, a lot of what she offers applies equally to the woke Pakistani crowd, who imbibe their terminology from culturally dominant western social constructs. But the Pakistani woke crowd needs to understand that what applies elsewhere does not apply in Pakistan. For how can such individuals ever hope to have a conversation with the Pakistani right?
Change comes about when one emerges from the culture, works within it, and uses language and symbols that are familiar to the native audience. According to Manji, this means, “cultivating long-term relationships with those outside my safe and exclusive community.” Therefore, unless there are equivalent Pakistani cultural constructs, language based on “trauma, gaslighting, or body shaming” has to be replaced by a Pakistani discourse based on ajazi (humility) and ihsan (excellence) that counteracts dil azari (pungency), which is often caused by woke individuals. In this regard, Manji writes that we need to “sacrifice a few moments of melodrama”, “unfollow the fad of taking offense as an avenue of power,” and ask, “am I taking offense sincerely or am I trying to stand out?”
In essence, Pakistanis who are pushing for effective change, be they Rumi and Zehra, or anyone else, are trying their best given their circumstance and resources. The decision of how much risk to take (Rumi has already had an assassination attempt in 2014) belongs to them alone. They face criticism from the right and the left, both of whom have their own worldview and narrative. For woke individuals to scathingly burn them from the safety of their posh living rooms with their foreign social constructs is unwarranted, especially when they do not have much of a standing in the conservative Pakistani society and when they are in no position to effect any change.