x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Pakistan's new paranoia

The big ideaThe hardline philosophies of the charismatic TV host Zaid Hamid have permeated the grassroots political life of Pakistan, writes Manan Ahmed.

Zaid Hamid, pictured in Rawalpindi, standing in front of photographs of his own mujahideen past.
Zaid Hamid, pictured in Rawalpindi, standing in front of photographs of his own mujahideen past.

The hardline philosophies of the charismatic TV host Zaid Hamid have permeated the grassroots political life of Pakistan, writes Manan Ahmed. A new narrative is ascendant in Pakistan. It is in the writings of major Urdu-language newspaper columnists, who purport to marshal anecdotal or textual evidence on its behalf. It is on television, where the hosts of religious and political talk shows polish it with slick production values. The basic elements of the story - which has often, and erroneously, been called a conspiracy theory - are simple. Local agents (or terrorists, or soldiers, or Blackwater employees) representing a foreign power (India, or the United States, or Israel) are intent on destroying Pakistan because they fear that it will otherwise emerge as the powerful leader of the Muslim world, just as the country's past leaders had predicted. The ascendant narrative is prophetic and self-pitying, nationalist and martial; it is a way to interpret current events and a call for activism to restore the country's interrupted rise to glory.

The consumers of this narrative represent the largest demographic slice of Pakistan - young, urban men and women under the age of 30. They came of age under a military dictatorship with a war on their borders, and, more recently, almost daily terrorist attacks in their major cities. The twin poles of their civic identity - Pakistan and Islam - are under immense stress. They love Pakistan; they want to take Islam back from the jihadists. But there is no national dialogue, and no vision for the state: no place, in other words, where the young can make sense of their own country. Pakistan is ideologically adrift and headed toward incoherence, unable to articulate its own meaning as either a state or a nation. To the anguished question "Whither Pakistan?" the country's leaders provide no response.

A man named Zaid Hamid, who has perhaps done more than anyone else to promote the new narrative of national victimhood, says that he has a clear answer. We are, he argues, living in the apocalyptic end-times - and Pakistan must emerge as the leader of the last struggle. Clad in his trademark red hat, he is leading rallies on campuses and in auditoriums across the country. His words - and the excited reactions of his audiences - are captured by camera crews, and the footage posted on YouTube and Facebook.

In his ceremonial Urdu, laced with Quranic verses and English idioms, he tells the gathered that they represent a generation hand-picked by God to lead Pakistan. He warns them of the sinister forces arrayed against the blessed nation of Pakistan. He assures them that prophecies predict their victory - all they have to do is mobilise. They have to leave their seats and take back their country. Only then can they conquer India and Israel. Only then can they rebuke the United States. Only then can they fulfill the dreams of Pakistan's founding fathers. But the first step has already been taken - they came to his rally, they heard his call to action.

Zaid Hamid is the leading voice of this new Pakistani revivalism. His mysterious rise to prominence demonstrates the power of the new televised media - and the new social networks - in Pakistan, even as it provokes questions about his financial and political backers. In 2006, Hamid was a one-man think-tank in Islamabad, issuing defence and security analysis for his own company, Brasstacks. In 2007 the country, led by the Lawyers' Movement, rallied against the military regime of Pervez Musharraf and upended the established order across the nation. After the national elections of 2008, as well as the military operations in the north-west, Hamid emerged as the host of his own programme on the independent channel TV One. Within the year, he became one of the biggest stars of the Pakistani punditocracy - spreading his message in columns and op-eds, on YouTube channels and in solidly produced television documentaries.

Through each new phase in his explosive ascent to the pinnacle of Pakistan's media landscape, Hamid remained a staunchly patriotic booster of the Pakistani military, and a vicious critic of "foreign" meddling in Pakistan's affairs - usually carried out, in his account, by the American CIA or the Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). He promoted a martial understanding of the Pakistani past, resplendent in the glory of jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The country's army and air force, he explained, had bravely faced down threats from India, America and Israel - but they were often undermined by their own politicians.

On his television programme, which began in 2008, he turned his attention toward the more distant past, presenting hour-long documentaries on the "great heroes" of the Muslim world, the military commanders who conquered Spain or Sindh or fought the British Empire. Hamid's documentaries have a reverential - almost sacred - tone, highlighting historical documents and stressing the "authenticity" of his re-enactments. Each show ends with a solemn promise that Pakistan could one day regain its pride and fulfil its destiny.

To those unfortunate enough to have lived in General Zia ul Haq's militarised Pakistan, all of this is eerily familiar, and hence laden with dire portents. In the 1980s the national television channel, PTV, ritually alternated between footage of "captured" Indian agents and serial dramas glorifying the Arab warriors of the Islamic past. Zia ul Haq's Sunnification policies depended entirely on a turn towards the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia - from whence came both the ideology of strict sectarianism and the largesse to create madrasas and jihadist training camps. The sordid history of the US proxy war in Afghanistan does not need to be told anew. What remains important is that particularly narrow definitions of history, religious practice and national purpose were hoisted upon millions of young men.

From these millions, General Zia nourished the mujahideen for the battle in Afghanistan, for Kashmir, Bosnia and Palestine. The local and the global injustices were thus intricately intertwined for those young, hungry minds across Pakistan. The chief vehicle of dispensing such narratives was the religious history of Muslims across the world. By combining elements of Pan-Islamism with reactionary Wahhabism and layering the whole lot with a strong sense of victimhood, Zia sought to create a specific psychological profile for the Pakistani Muslim: militant and nationalist above all, angry at perceived injustices against his faith, convinced of a vast conspiratorial "other" against which one must be willing to sacrifice oneself. It was a smouldering cauldron from which both funds and personnel could always be extracted. Though these processes slowed down after Zia and though Musharraf made some gestures at changing the national dialogue - via his "Enlightened Moderation" - these are the conservative forces which continue to compel Pakistani middle class.

The genius of Zaid Hamid has been to deftly shift the role of Islam from Zia's strictly performative one to a more flexible mould. His acolytes, who call themselves lal topis (red hats), see a pious man who is less interested in their actual religiosity - whether they pray or not, give alms or not, wear hijab or not - and more concerned with their devotion to the idea of a resurgent, "independent" Pakistan. He calls on Islam mostly to play the role of history. He produces sayings from the Prophet Mohammad declaring victory for the Muslim armies against "al Hind" (India) and Jerusalem. He distributes the "prophecies" of Shah Nimatullah, a Sufi poet from the 12th century. Such claims to religiously based "evidence" allow him to sidestep any direct criticisms. There are no such prophecies, of course. The traditions Hamid claims predict the conquest of al Hind are spurious and were collected late in the 10th century in a book of eschatological accounts circulating along the Byzantine frontier of the 'Abbasid dynasty. The "quatrains" of Shah Nimatullah are another case of popular mythography.

What remains real, and gravely troubling, is that a quiet transformation is occurring in the cultural landscape of Pakistan. Hamid is only at the forefront of a movement thatincludes others like the hyper-nationalist columnist Ahmed Qureshi, always eager to blame India or Blackwater for each bomb blast; the televangelist Aamir Liaqat, who provides a treacly veneer of religious learning for the "Foreign Hand" theorists; the reformed rocker Ali Azmat and the fashion designer Maria B, who act as emcees at Hamid's rallies.

Like Glenn Beck, the paranoid American TV sensation, with whom he shares many traits, Hamid is channelling the deep misgivings of the middle class and offering them visions of a glorious future - one whose realisation requires nothing more than blind fidelity to the supposed foundational truths of the nation. For millions of young Pakistanis, it is proving to be a heady brew. But the hangover, when it comes, will be staggering.

Manan Ahmed is a historian of Pakistan at Freie Universität Berlin, and blogs at Chapati Mystery.