Feisal Naqvi

The Power of One

In Uncategorized on February 20, 2015 at 5:51 am

Historians tend to fall into two categories. There are those who believe in deep underlying categories, the kind of people who present theories about the deep empowerment of the urban bourgeoisie and how it led to the European social revolts of 1848. And then there are the ones who believe in ‘Great Men’, that the prime determinant in whether a country goes south or north is the quality of its leadership.

It may be that the truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in between. It may be that current events, like the tip of an iceberg, are merely the visible element of underlying economic and demographic forces. On the other hand, it may equally well be that those social forces remain indeterminate until forged by the will of a leader into actual action.

I pose this question because I wonder how the post-Peshawar histories of Pakistan will read. Will they talk about how the horrors of that day jolted a somnolent leadership into action? Or will they talk about economics and demographics, how a nation riven by social and religious divides descended into chaos and became the next Syria?

The point to remember at this stage is that we believe in fairytales and happy endings because that is an essential part of human nature. Even the most serious of us are secret fabulists. Our brains constantly process millions of pieces of information and try to turn what may well be a random series of unfortunate events into a coherent whole.

In most instances, this interior narration serves a useful purpose. You see a distant object moving towards you, your brain extrapolates the trajectory and concludes that it will land where you are located and directs the body to be somewhere else. Consequently, the piano does not land on your head.

In other cases, the narrative is more dysfunctional. One neurological study dealt with patients whose right side was paralysed but whose paralysis was not being recognised by the brain. When they were asked to pick up an object with their paralysed limb, they obviously couldn’t. But at the same time they couldn’t recognise their own disability. Instead, what they would do is come up with rationalisations for their inaction. “Oh, I used my right hand instead of my left because my left hand was tired.”

What studies like this reveal is that different parts of our brains serve distinct functions in this biological duet. One part of our brain acts as the nerve centre, receiving information from all over the body. Other parts of the brain stitch the disjointed bits of information into a believable narrative. Or, as in the case of stroke-affected patients, the most believable narrative possible.

Where then does Pakistan stand today? How will our histories be written five, ten, twenty years from now? Will historians say that the events of Peshawar shook the scales from the eyes of the Pakistani public and lead to a social revolution? Will historians record a brief period of public consternation followed by a gradual return to business as usual?

I suppose the point that I am trying to make is that trying to impose a grand design on political events is a fool’s errand. There are so many contradictory things going on in Pakistan any given moment that one can construct any future narrative. Ten years from now, Pakistan could be a secular heaven or a sectarian hell. Both are possible.

One of the bitter lessons you learn as you grow older is that things don’t always work out for the better. The good guy doesn’t always win. Sometimes the princess has an arranged marriage to a frog and has to say farewell to her true love. Sometimes, history can be cruel.

At the same time, the consequence of history being indeterminate is that individuals get to play an outsized part. The classic metaphor for chaos was that a butterfly flapping its wings over the Amazonian rainforest could cause a hurricane in the Caribbean. That teaches us the folly of forecasting. But it also teaches us the outsized impact that any one person can make.

Henry Kissinger may well be a terribly evil man but he is also, without doubt, one of the smartest statesmen of the past fifty years. In his words, “As a professor, I tended to think of history as run by impersonal forces. But when you see it in practice, you see the difference personalities make.”

Closer to home, we have two very clear examples of the difference made by individuals. A year ago, the army was viewed through the prism of General Kayani’s personality – shadowy, secretive, laconic. Today, the army is viewed as if it was an extension of General Sharif – bluff, honest, down to earth. Perhaps both images are equally misleading. But perhaps there actually has been change.

A better example of the power of one is that given by Jibran Nasir, the activist in Islamabad who has led the charge against Mullah Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid.

In grand strategic terms, Nasir’s charge has been irrelevant. True, an FIR has been registered against Aziz but the matter has proceeded no further. Preachers of hate still appear daily on our screens. The TTP still operates across Pakistan.

But at a different level, the difference made by his example is profound. The standard allegation against the Pakistani elite is that it is disengaged, interested only in itself. And there is considerable truth in that.

On the other hand, the standard defence of the Pakistani elite is that while citizens can be expected to be engaged, they cannot be expected to be heroic; that Pakistan is a country so dominated by hate that the most that can be asked of any decent person is that they quietly go about their business.

By showing the difference that one committed individual can make, Jibran Nasir has destroyed that argument. Ordinary people in Islamabad looked around and saw that one of them was standing up against terror and its apologists. And when they saw that, suddenly it became a lot more difficult for them to justify their own inaction. Yes, I know that we had the example of great leaders from history before. But it is one thing to read about Martin Luther King. It is another thing entirely to see one of your own become a leader.

I don’t want to be too rosy-eyed. Even at its peak, the Jibran Nasir led movement wasn’t able to get more than a few hundred people to attend the vigil outside Lal Masjid. But a few hundred people outside Lal Masjid is still a few hundred people more than I would have thought possible.

So I come back to where I started. How will history record the months and days following Peshawar? Will it be the story of an epic triumph? Will it be the usual narrative of a depressing failure? Will it be the case that things continue as they ever were?

Obviously, I don’t know. What I do know is that we write history through our own actions. And what Jibran Nasir has shown us is that we do have the option of writing a different history than the one scripted for us.

This column appeared in The News on 4 January 2015


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