Pakistan Unhitches Hitchens

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan is like the spouse who makes one froth at the mouth and take leave of one’s senses. In the ensuing rant, it is possible to get almost all the facts right while getting the big picture almost entirely wrong, leaving one feeling, the next day, sheepish and deeply embarrassed – the real damage done, in any such fight, being to oneself. Pakistan’s latest enraged ex is Christopher Hitchens, who could not have done himself any worse damage than what he has accomplished with his ironically titled Vanity Fair blowup, “From Abbottabad to Worse.”

Hitchens delivers his verdict right off the bat:

Here is a society where rape is not a crime. It is a punishment. Women can be sentenced to be raped, by tribal and religious kangaroo courts, if even a rumor of their immodesty brings shame on their menfolk. In such an obscenely distorted context, the counterpart term to shame—which is the noble word “honor”—becomes most commonly associated with the word “killing.” Moral courage consists of the willingness to butcher your own daughter.

What, Hitchens asks, can one expect of a “degraded country,” an Islamic republic burdened with “sexual repression” of this order?

There is no denying the sexual repression prevalent in Pakistan, but a more even-tempered Hitchens would have considered squaring it with the recommendation at end of his article, which is to shift alliances and instead embrace India, “our only rival in scale as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy, and a nation that contains nearly as many Muslims as Pakistan.” Surely Hitchens has heard of honor killings in India, of women being paraded naked in villages as panchayat-sanctioned punishment? And surely, the next day, a becalmed Hitchens would have thought to wonder what exactly sexual repression and “degradation” have to do with Islam, if there are nearly as many Muslims in India as in Pakistan.

This kind of reductive psychology makes no sense: Would a second marriage survive such flying off the handle? Would one not write off India as well because human beings there are considered untouchable in the 21st century or Saudi Arabia because women are forbidden to drive? And would one not have written off, for whatever obscene oppressions and suppressions, many societies of the past that are now exemplars of the liberal world?

None of this is to argue that Pakistan is not plagued by very severe problems, some of which Hitchens has enumerated. The appropriate response to Hitchens is not a defense of Pakistan’s civil and military elite, of the kind Christine Fair has penned for The Huffington Post, with its accounting of Pakistan’s cooperation in the war against terror. Nor is it the dismissive posture adopted by many Pakistanis, pointing out their country’s various positives. These are weak defenses, the staples of many a domestic fight: This is all I’ve done for you, think of the good times, we were happy once, and ultimately those defenses are as far from the point as a Hitchens-style diatribe.

The response calls for the kind of unglamorous analysis that won’t make it into Vanity Fair or The Huffington Post. At any given time, a society is characterized by many currents and counter-currents, positives coexist with negatives, and struggles for human rights wax and wane. So has been the case in Pakistan. Hitchens’ statement that “Pakistan takes its twisted, cowardly revenge by harboring the likes of the late Osama bin Laden” is so unnuanced as to call into question the author’s credibility as an analyst; the greatest damage he has done here is to his own reputation.

There is no one Pakistan: There are many Pakistans, and the question to ask is why the forces of repression have been gaining the upper hand in the country. A part, but only a part, of the answer is provided by Hitchens himself – the “sick relationship between the United States and various Third World client regimes, many of which turned out to be false friends as well as highly discreditable ones.” The US has not reached out to those who have been leading the struggle for dignity and decency in many countries. Rather, under its umbrella, those who championed the rights of people were picked off and the most unsavory characters protected for decades. The fear and passivity in societies that see courageous journalists die horrible deaths without protest, protection, or support is not a surprising outcome.

And at the same time, one sees respected think-tanks in Washington churn out analyses that recommend continued assistance to the very clients that have forestalled social progress in these societies. What are the proponents of progress meant to make of these signals? Just that there is a long road ahead and not much help is to be expected from friends like Hitchens, who forsake analysis for anger and do not ask what kind of degraded society can accept such cynical manipulation of people in the Third World.

The sick relationship between the United States and various Third World client regimes is of course not the entire answer. India has escaped such a relationship with any power from the outset, and yet degrading conditions and obscene evils, including the willful murder of unborn daughters, plague India as well. It is not that Indians are not aware of these; many have been struggling against them for years, fearlessly and fiercely. Progress, however, remains painfully slow.

There are other reasons as well for this uneven development, this social stasis, that go beyond the consequences of propping up discreditable client regimes. Some would point to the post-World War II neo-liberal global order that favors the market over social welfare, an order in which Shining India focuses on repressing its indigenous people to exploit mineral resources while outsourcing the solution of its most degrading poverty and gender discrimination to handouts from the UK’s Department for International Development.

But this is picking up the story midstream; the uneven development has something to do as well with the episode of colonization, which not only stifled the processes of industrialization and urbanization, the essential ingredients of social progress in the now developed societies, but irrevocably harmed the industries and movements that existed prior to colonization. The flattening of the social hierarchy never reached the stage in India that it did in Europe, there was no social revolution, and the ancien regime entered the 20th century unscathed. The Carpenters, Barbers, Taylors, and Masons of the Anglo-Saxon world all became equal citizens, retaining their anachronistic surnames only as reminders of a pre-industrial guild economy, but in India they were categorized into Other Backward Castes and, having lost their occupational status, turned into objects of pity and condescension to be manipulated as vote banks in the new mechanism for legitimizing power. This is the process that has yielded what Hitchens terms “our only rival in scale as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy” but whose peculiar characteristics have meant that gains at the bottom have been painfully slow.

Christopher Hitchens should, and does, know all this. The story of human development is uneven; the lags are long, the evolution is slow, the journey is fraught with obstacles, including the interventions of those “in the lead” (who, themselves, never had to contend with such). It is tough going even in a country like India, where the vote is indeed chipping away at the power structure, let alone in one as benighted as Pakistan. Moving the entire world to one of decency, dignity and moral courage is a struggle that can do without the rants. Hopefully Hitchens would agree with that on the morning after.


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