Pakistan is silencing discussion on a growing number of topics, causing concern among human rights activists, journalists and political dissidents in the country. A Committee to Protect Journalists report published in September this year concluded that the country’s powerful military establishment is using fear, intimidation and even violence to pressure the media to self-censor. In October, journalists and media workers held rallies across the country to protest against measures aimed at curbing newspapers’ circulation and TV channels’ transmission in certain areas. A number of high-profile TV anchors who were critical of the security establishment’s interference in Pakistani politics were fired from their positions.
Recently, I myself was targeted by this ongoing silencing campaign. Earlier this month, along with three other rights activists, I was barred from speaking at the 4th Faiz International Festival – a three-day music, art, debate and literature event named after renowned socialist poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz whose work and life exemplified defiance and resistance against authoritarianism. The irony could not be starker.
We were told that there was “external” pressure for our removal, including threats of cancelling the entire event if the organisers did not remove us from the schedule. It was clear that we were not welcomed there because of our past criticisms of the country’s military establishment.
The festival went forward as planned, without our participation, but the organisers placed an empty chair on the stage during the sessions that we were supposed to attend. This was their way of silently registering their protest against censorship.
The current crackdown on free speech in Pakistan stems from the security establishment’s belief that a pervasive “fifth-generation warfare” is being waged against the country. The “fifth-generation warfare” is an awkwardly woven narrative that suggests that the country is besieged by enemies who are using their proxies to control the minds of Pakistan’s “vulnerable” youth. It is a form of paternalism, one which is seen in one form or another in all paranoid, authoritarian states throughout history, and it is employed to target the usual suspects in Pakistan: human rights activists, progressive intellectuals, critical journalists and the political opposition.
The Pakistani state has never been confident of its own viability as a political entity because it views the country’s ethnic faultlines and geostrategic position as perpetual threats to national cohesion. Yet, the “silent martial law” that is clouding political debate in the country is entangled with a formally democratic set-up. This unstable intersection between a civilian government and military control is propelling a new type of political practice that has both comical and tragic dimensions.
The comedy stems from the tragic fact that people are too scared to directly name the military establishment in their criticisms. This fear has led to the creation of a large set of euphemisms that are commonly used in critiques. For example, writers often use terms such as “the boys”, “angels”, “unknown individuals” or even “extra-terrestrial creatures” (a term popularised by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) when referring to the country’s secret agencies.
During the election campaign earlier this year, Iqbal Siraj, a candidate from Sharif’s party PML-N, alleged publicly that his warehouse was raided, his men were harassed and he was personally threatened by the personnel of a secret agency who wanted him to switch loyalties. After two days, presumably under intensified pressure from the same forces, he backtracked from his earlier statement, claiming this time that it was the “agriculture department” that raided his warehouse over “tax concerns”. Since then, the term “agriculture department” is often used satirically when discussing issues involving the security apparatus, including the contentious issues ranging from forcefully disappeared persons to electoral rigging.
But sometimes, the euphemisms are simpler and more traditional. When I was informed of my removal from the panel at the Faiz Festival, the organisers used the ubiquitous “they” – the meaning, with all the implied and latent threats, understood by all parties. “They” did not want my participation.
The biggest tragedy of Pakistan‘s double system of oppressive military control and seemingly democratic civilian rule is the fact that, unlike direct military rule with a firmly regimented list of do’s and don’ts – or indeed a well-functioning democracy where free speech is fully protected – the lines between acceptable and unacceptable speech remain blurred.
Officially, there are few restrictions on free speech in the country and many journalists, intellectuals and political activists get away with scathing critiques of the establishment. But then many others run into trouble with the same forces over much politer versions of the same critiques. For example, I was barred from the Faiz Festival while many others who had often presented harsher critiques of the security establishment than myself were permitted to speak.
The excessive contingency of the situation makes all the actors involved more anxious about the precise place of the red lines that ought not to be crossed. It also leads to the impression that there is little method to this madness, and that the fates of many are decided by the whims of anonymous local intelligence operatives.
The chaos of the situation raises larger questions about the contemporary era, particularly in light of the melting away of political certainties on a global scale. Not only is the international financial system and the neoliberal ideology undergirding it incredibly unstable, but the nation-state form, the arena par excellence for political claim-making, is itself threatened by the accelerating flows of resources, ideas and people. In other words, the framework that structured postwar politics is now falling apart, exposing the rigidity of our political forms to the openness of the unknown, with all the anxiety such an encounter entails.
It is then not surprising that fear of “foreign elements” is propelling political thought and action around the globe, displacing debates over resource distribution and other social justice issues. For the Trump administration in the US, it is the immigrants; for Europe, it is the refugees; and for India’s Modi, it is Muslims and “secularists” who threaten the homogeneity of the nation-state. These communities become the internally excluded part of the nation, acting as phantoms against whom an imaginary identity is cemented. And since they are the displaced focal point for the anxieties generated by rapidly collapsing political, economic and material certainties, they become targets for the vilest forms of abuse that they must repeatedly endure to sustain a fragile nationalism.
What we are witnessing is the nation-state’s struggle to understand, or even define, the threats it currently confronts. Terms such as “fifth-generation warfare”, “hybrid warfare” or accusations of “foreign agents” are imprecise attempts to define any phenomenon that appears to exceed the normative language available to the state, turning our political chaos into a properly linguistic crisis. This state of affairs betrays an anxiety that a gap has opened up in the status quo, which can no longer be sutured using conventional methods of control. And it is here that censorship fails most spectacularly. The very act of suppression and removal only widens this anxiety, since prohibited content often takes on a life of its own as a symptom of the widening cracks, further haunting the present through its very absence.
The difficulty of the situation is that the gaze of the state deployed to judge the proliferating threats in society is unable to turn inwards to interrogate its own role in perpetuating the chaos that it so fears. In Pakistan, this lack of introspection is compelling the state to decimate all forms of dissent in hopes of resuscitating a political order that has lost all vitality. The challenge, today, then is not only one of resisting the worst excesses of a paranoid establishment, but also of intensifying the search for new ideological and institutional coordinates for constructing political communities. This means that we have to open ourselves to the challenges presented by the foreignness of the new, with all the patience and creativity it demands, if we are to move beyond the endless violence and haunting silences that mark our present.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.