Constructing the Discourse: Need of a National Narrative for Pakistan

Dr. Nazir Hussain & Amna Javed

The problems and challenges Pakistan has faced over the last 70 years and the way the nation has responded, many critics have described Pakistan as the ‘most resilient nation.’ Therefore, Pakistan must be built as a modern, progressive and democratic Muslim state, which plays a constructive role in the national, regional and international peace, progress and prosperity.

The national narrative depicts the consensus and resolve of the nation for its future progression and sets the direction for its role in the regional and global dynamics. It describes a nation’s prized values and norms through history and paves the way for future direction. It is a common perception that a state cannot go on surviving for long without a strong national narrative. For Pakistan, the national narrative is more important because not only is the state geo-strategically important for the international politics but inwardly there is a dire need to face a multitude of challenges with determination. Therefore, this article explores on one side, the importance of national narratives and on the other side, it takes on a journey of the Pakistani national narrative; its history, present and a possible future.

The notion of attaining any narrative is not easy and it has to go through a course of its own time. No state is made perfect with a cohesive set of agendas. Some states have ideologies, norms, values, which are cohesive while most do not. History has witnessed many states rise from a point of nothingness solely based on narratives. It took the U.S. more than one hundred years to become a cohesive state after the American Revolution. More than that, after the Great Wars, Germany and Japan were two states which had to rebuild their entire system and structure from the scratch and they had to develop a consensus and a set of ideas regarding their future. From being battered states, they now are considerably pervasive and rather important part of the world system. Furthermore, China is another great example of how a state, which once struggled with notions, doctrines and narratives came to get bigger and transformed its structure and institutions with the best of their abilities to become the leading economic power in the world. Turkey is another example where the mixture of religion, democracy and economic development has changed the country's status and helped achieve world ranking in the economic hierarchy.

Considering the situation which Pakistan has been facing in the wake of enormous difficulties in the economic, security and political spheres, it also faces a fluctuating national narrative. The basis of the national narrative was seen in the address of August 11, 1947 by Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. But the same address has so many other dimensions to it which perhaps were never readily incorporated within the course of action. There was the sound idea of supremacy of the institutions and the check and balance between the Legislature, Judiciary and Executive, and the idea of democracy in its real sense. The question of a strong center vis-a-vis provincial set-up along with the muddled democracy, which began to reign afterwards, was the first time when the lines got blurred. Moreover, the quest of being an exemplary nation-state for the rest of the world has still become largely overshadowed by the issues of governance, corruption and terrorism.

The events which followed became the basis of national narrative but not national consensus particularly in the domain of domestic politics and social culture. A road down the history lane shows the initial fluctuation when the first Martial Law was imposed which in a way changed the entire politico-culture value system with the onslaught of ‘Islamic Modernism.’ Though the first industrialization gave impetus to socio-economic modernization but the controversial presidential election and its outcome left a scar on the national psyche. Z.A. Bhutto came into power and swayed for a more ‘liberal and socialist’ approach in politics. However, he through the ‘Gulf Bonanza’ brought socio-economic dividends and linked the country with its Islamic/Arab roots. The country seemed to be moving on a democratic path with socialist leanings. However, this got muddled when the new regime launched religious narratives which took its toll on the state. The political and religious polarization left unending marks on the national psyche. This was poles apart from what Jinnah had initially intended for; a modern and progressive Muslim state.

Much more than the socio-political manifestations, the state was going from having civilian governments to Martial Laws, which added to the nuisance. The following years with highly volatile democratic governments between Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto only added to the political divide. At a juncture like this, the idea of nation-building through national narrative became far off because altogether the fissures were not just among political parties or provincial governments but went beyond the civil-military, right-left and between institutions. The common Pakistani was confused because there was no unanimity in any idea or discourse.

And when 9/11 occurred and the ruling regime placed Pakistan with the U.S., things got even more complicated. Because in President Zia’s time, the idea of scavenging the USSR away from Afghanistan by utilizing the non-state actors was celebrated and suddenly in the next millennium they were being shunned. While conservatism was being avowed, his notion of ‘enlightened moderation’ and ‘Pakistan first’ further confused the nation. The Pakistani nation got divided between the so-called ‘jihadist’ to ‘de-jihadist’ narratives.

There were the manifestations under which the nation-building, political and institutional system and the overall narrative and structure of Pakistan became haunted by inter-institutional strife, corruption, terrorism and a lack of not just good governance but also personal identity. And when President Musharraf left, there was again a vacuum even though that narrative struck certain cords which blunted the state. The ‘day-after’ scenario was much worse because there may have been democratic values emerging on the horizon once again but there was no unified narrative on which there could be a cause of cohesion.

In 2014, terrorist attack on the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar again jostled the fabric of the nation and from there onwards the era of a new narrative began. Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched to wipe out the terrorists and their networks followed by Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad to show national resolve against terrorism. The national consensus was built to root-out terrorism, make Pakistan a peaceful and safe place. The launching of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and its ownership taken by the civil-military leadership points towards the national resolve to economic progression and social emancipation. Pakistan’s neutrality in the politico-military conflicts of the Muslim/Arab world points to the fact that we are not global Islamic masonries but ‘Pakistani Muslims.’

Seventy years after Pakistan’s independence, the pre-requisite for solidity in the national narrative is stronger than ever. In order for the nation to become a strong entity and the state to step forward in its political and strategic power-play in the region and even in the international sphere, there needs to be an investment in a narrative which involves each and every missing piece of the puzzle. It all begins from the first right step and in this case it is imperative that Pakistan adopts its ideology in the perfect manifestation. In Quran, the Lord Almighty has claimed in Surah Ale-Imran that the perfect way of life is the one which is balanced. In this sense there is nothing more balanced than the idea of ‘Islamic moderation’, which is that depiction of the Islamic injunctions that support social justice, well structured freedom, adherence to social norms and values, yet flexible enough to adapt changes, and promotes tolerance, mutual co-existence through power of rationality.

Then the idea of a strong nation and a stronger narrative is crucial for national political consensus. Pakistan is a state with an active multi-party system, which means that more than one opinion exists which gives off the idea that there might be a lack of consensus on more than one issue. While all of this amounts to the spirit of democracy, building a national political consensus that does not divide the nation, the public opinion and the institutions, is mandatory. As political parties are the entities which shape and reshape the public opinion and while complete unanimity is neither possible nor even normal, there should be an ideal amount of consensus on the core national concerns like foreign policy matters and security issues.

All of this also amounts to harmonizing the national institutions without harboring any ill-will among them. Pakistan has often faced the challenges of civil-military, civil-judiciary, and bureaucratic tussles, which have caused various cracks in the structure. These need to be curbed because only then a unanimous and sound narrative can come into existence.

For any state and nation, the ‘human value’ is highly important because if there is a disgruntled and hopeless population, no nation can move forward. Thus there is a need to increase the Human Resource Development in Pakistan which amounts to an increase in skilled manpower. Nations get resilient when provided with manpower which is skilled for its military, economy and other relevant fields. It would open up more opportunities for the youth in the future as there will be more avenues to explore. This entails harnessing the youth bulge which is one weapon which almost every nation has but only those nations come out strong that utilize this force and connect it to a future which is solid.

All of this can be done if Pakistan further invests in education. This is one side that has been ignored and not marketed as it should be. Without sound structure of education, the narrative building can never be fully achieved. This is an idea that leads to economic progression which is something that Pakistan and its narrative need more than ever. Initiatives like CPEC are a step closer to this achievement and it must be furthered by giving the entire country its due share.

Then there is the idea of national self-reliance, which is given in terms of building a solid national narrative. We must understand that though we have friends in the international arena that would help and aid us militarily and economically, it is important to highlight that 70 years ago Pakistan was built by its own medium, credence and legacy which were self-reliant then, and so should be now. This self-reliance could not just build a narrative but could build a nation because it is not just important for our identity but also for our economic standing.

Finally, three points are must for the national narrative which is agreeable and covers all: a proactive foreign policy, national identity and the re-construction of discourse. The need for a proactive foreign policy is necessary in the ordeal of building a discourse. Pakistan needs a policy based on larger interests and strategic relevance. Then the need for national identity is imperative for Pakistan and its discourse. Unless there is no understanding of our identity through history, policies, ideology and interests, there will be much confusion and a lot of hostility between each faction of the state. It should be remembered that we are Pakistani Muslims and not the global holy warriors. With an identity there can be unity and with that there will be solidity. All of this can come out as a result of de-construction and then the re-construction of the discourse which surrounds itself with the national narrative.

Grounded in these basic features, the discourse and the national narrative of Pakistan can come out as one which is profound. It will be one that can instill patriotism which is grounded in rationality while rationality is grounded in nationalism.


Dr. Nazir Hussain is Director School of Politics and International Relations at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and Amna Javed is a freelancer based in Islamabad.

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