The ‘It-is-not-us’ syndrome

By Hajrah Mumtaz  Dawn Online

A couple of months ago, I wrote a column in praise of certain Pakistani pop stars and bands, arguing that there are a fair number of songs that display political consciousness and a related sense of responsibility. I referred to such songs as Junoon’s ‘Talaash’, Shahzad Roy’s ‘Lagay Raho’ and ‘Kismet Apnay Haath Main’, Noori’s ‘Merey Log’ and Laal’s rendition of Habib Jalib’s ‘Main Nay Uss Say Yeh Kaha.’

I find now that that argument was all very well – as far as it went. Such is the manner in which we are bound by our long-cherished prejudices and mental chains that it took a report by the New York Times’ Adam B. Ellick to show me what I had completely failed to notice: the music acts’ total refusal to either touch upon the topic of the Taliban, or to even acknowledge them as a concern.

In a video report shot in Lahore, Ellick asks a few of Pakistan’s top musicians why they have spoken out against corruption, political wheeling-dealings, poverty and the manner in which the country has been done in by everyone from the politicians to the West to India – but never against the Taliban, who currently constitute the clearest and most present of dangers.

Here, verbatim, is what Ali Noor of Noori has to say:

‘We are not going to get up and say that we want to talk against the Taliban – simply because they are probably one of the smallest problems this country has. […] It’s the West. It’s the West that is against the Taliban, because they are very heavily affected by it. We’re not.’

And here is what Ali Azmat – the man who once sang about ‘zehni ghulami’ – has to say: ‘We know for a fact that all this turbulence in Pakistan … it’s not us. It’s the outside hands.’

What, really, can one say? The Taliban are one of the smallest problems this country has? When we’re having a bombing virtually every day, when parts of the south-west of the country were until very recently in serious danger of falling to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and its associated gang of goons?

Ellick comments, dryly, that this view – it’s not us, it’s ‘foreign hands’ – persists despite a spate of bombings in the country with the targets ranging from civilians and security forces’ installations to an Islamic university for women. ‘They’re [Pakistan’s pop musicians] angry about one fact: that the United States has interfered in Pakistan’s politics for decades.’

Of course Ellick focuses in his report on the anti-American angle apparent in many Pakistani pop songs, using stills from the ‘Klashinfolk’, ‘Kismet Apnay Haath Main Lay Li Hai’ and a CoVen video to press his point home. And he ignores other work such as that by Laal. Nevertheless, his point is made well enough to make me cringe: amongst the people interviewed in his report, there seems to be an utter refusal to acknowledge that the Taliban are in any way a threat, or that this is a local, home-grown problem that affects Pakistan first and most deeply.

To be sure, other comments may have been made in the interviews that were edited out when the report was compiled. And, as Nadeem Farooq Paracha tells Ellick, a musician is not necessarily the best person to come up with insights into the situation of Pakistan, since his view would tend to reflect the dominant one. But, he asks, ‘at least address the schools’ issue. Why are you [the Taliban] destroying schools? What has that got to do with America or Zionism? Nobody’s even talked about it.’

So in the next shot, Ellick puts the question to Ali Azmat. Off-camera, he asks, ‘Would you ever sing a song about how two hundred girls’ schools were blown up?’ Azmat’s reply? ‘Well you know, you cannot blame the Taliban for that. Where do you think those fundings are coming from? It’s the agenda of the neo-cons to de-Islamise Pakistan… religion must be killed.’

One could be forgiven, at this point, to want to shoot oneself in despair. We’re all tempted to defend Pakistan in the face of criticism, sure. But in this manner and in such ill-chosen words?

But why blame Ali Azmat or Ali Noor? The sad fact is that this is a nation of delusional people, and the views these two men have expressed are shared by a great many people – I’d go as far as to say the majority. It took years of beheadings, bombings, whippings and extortion by the Taliban to turn the tide of public opinion against them. It took the infamous ‘flogging video’, the imminent fall of Swat and parts of Malakand into the militants hands, and an active threat posed to the government’s writ over Peshawar to set people saying finally that the Taliban-led militants had to be countered. Until then, if you remember, the public discourse had mainly been along the lines of ‘but all they want to do is enforce an Islamic system – and that, after all, is what we all want.’

What will it take for us to recognise that Pakistan’s problems, from the Taliban to poverty, under-development and corruption, are home-grown? Even where we reject them, we try to blame others. ‘It’s the foreign influences; a conspiracy against Pakistan and Islam; it’s India; it’s America; it’s Israel.’ Like pre-schoolers, we whine on and on: ‘It’s not us; we aren’t like this.’

Ellick also shows in his report portions from that highly popular song ‘Yeh Hum Nahin’, the collaborative effort against terrorism by some of the country’s biggest pop icons. Here are the lyrics he picks up on:

‘This is not us; not us. The story that is being spread in our names is a lie. These stamps of death on our foreheads are the signs of others.’

(To be fair, Ellick also refers to Shahzad Roy of taking on religion in his ‘Laga Raho’ song. But that doesn’t alter the fact that no one refers to the Taliban-led militants. And it is true, as Ali Hamza says, that ‘If we start talking about the Taliban, it’s very easy for them to get rid of us.’ But that doesn’t alter the fact that others, from theatre groups such as Ajoka and Tehrik-e-Niswan, to filmmakers and journalists, are speaking up.)

Pakistan is a nation in denial, unwilling to mature and accept responsibility for mistakes past and future – unwilling to shoulder the weight of responsibility for improving its own future. Certainly, other countries have meddled in our politics. But we’re the ones taking the decision to let them, and then finding ways of shooting ourselves in the foot. The Taliban are a case in point, thanks to Pakistan’s notions of strategic depth in Afghanistan. Like ostriches, we always have and perhaps always will keep our heads stuck in the sand. One can argue that it is the state and the government that ought to be tasked with steering the course of the country’s future away from its currently suicidal direction: but until individuals who constitute society change their minds, a mere government can achieve little of long-term impact.

So much for zehni ghulami!

[ You can watch Adam Ellick’s video here ]



Filed under culture, Identity, Music, Pakistan, Religion, Taliban, USA, War On Terror

16 responses to “The ‘It-is-not-us’ syndrome

  1. Hayyer

    It was suggested on another thread that blaming India was a good way of motivating soldiers to fight the Taliban. Perhaps the musicians have bought the argument as well.

  2. Bloody Civilian

    reminds me of a jamaati leader trying to make the case how the americans and israelis were ‘better non-muslims’, being the ‘people of the book’, than the ‘godless soviets’. this was to try and prove that soviet-invaded afghanistan was a bigger jehad than israeli-invaded lebanon.

    we’re applying a similar ‘logic’ now, and it can only lead to more of the same (logical) consequences in 10 years time, as we’re reaping now.

  3. Milind Kher

    There really isn’t any point living in denial. Ali Noor and Ali Azmat need to wake up and smell the coffee.

    “Foreign hand” and other such myths cannot be sustained for all times to come. If the army is making all out efforts to tackle the terrorists, they need to be supported.

    Unless these attitudes change, defeating the terrorists may well nigh be impossible.

  4. mao

    Thanks for writing this article. We really need to step forward from our tried-and-tested denial methods. Does 1971 ring any bells?

  5. AZW

    Pakistan is a nation in denial, unwilling to mature and accept responsibility for mistakes past and future – unwilling to shoulder the weight of responsibility for improving its own future. Certainly, other countries have meddled in our politics. But we’re the ones taking the decision to let them, and then finding ways of shooting ourselves in the foot.

    I really cannot add any more to this pithy quoted subsection of an equally powerful writeup by Hajrah Mumtaz. Great article.

    After reading this article, I feel that we do have hope here. However voices like Hajrah’s are sadly few and far between. And this distrust of the West, bordering on relentless paranoia begs another question: While not a single country has had a uniform principled stand when it comes to foreign policies (and that clearly includes Pakistan), why do majority of Pakistanis let their distrust cloud the judgment so much that it takes (or may still not take) merciless bombings by a fanatic army to recognize the innate problem that has been there due to fundamental fissures in Pakistani society for the past sixty years?

    I can only speculate that there is an innate fear of modernity trumping the religious convictions that even the educated masses have hard time reconciling. This fear is not only expressing itself in Pakistanis, it manifests itself in most of the Muslim countries. This fear sees the West striding forward in leaps and bounds, and disappointingly, finds the “truth” (religion) and the “disciples of the truth” (the faithful) lagging far behind. While extremists react with fire and fury, the quiet ones express the frustration in terms of mistrust and hatred (maybe even quiet support for the Mujahideen), and garb this frustration by invoking conspiracies and paranoia. Yes, the conspiracy theorists are present everywhere, but no where in the world they enjoy such a clear and hostile majority, as in Pakistan and the Muslim world. The power of ideas that European Renaissance has invoked over past six centuries is being fought in the Muslim world and Pakistan by recidivism into the unadulterated text and a world from 14 centuries into the history.

    The term Modernity conjures up the falling social values. The images of relentless evil practices are associated with the rapid change the Western society is experiencing as humanism starts shedding religious dogmas that were held sacred for centuries. While Europe has passed through the catharsis of the religious based rampant heavy-handedness and has reconciled comfortably now to the role of religion in personal space only, maybe the Muslim world is passing through the same catharsis presently. The world is changing too much, too quickly for the Muslim world; they cannot erect any walls around them in this day and age, and the invasion of the new world through airwaves and the internet is simply relentless.

    As such, the acts of the overt militants and their silent sympathizers are probably not an act of an aggression, but rather that of a clear desperation.

  6. Dcmediagirl

    Fascinating and deeply troubling post. Thank you.

  7. mohammad

    I think the author failed to understand terror networks and their very experienced death squads. Only LeJ which now labels itself as punjabi talibans operates tens of terrorists cells throught pakistan. Now you are telling us a poor singer can sing anti taliban song and live in pakistan at the same time,then you are not aware of LeJ, who martyred thousands of unarmed civilians in last three decades.

  8. Bloody Civilian


    the author has quoted the singers voicing the same fears, but also voicing a lot of nonsense too. and she gives the example of ajoka being an exception. admittedly, theatre doesn’t have anywhere near the same reach as pop music… but have any members of ajoka been assassinated yet?

  9. mohammad

    Well you answered your theatre question. Also terrorist have a huge backlog of innocent target killings as ISI says.

  10. Milind Kher

    Lashkare Janghvi has always had the establishment looking the other way, which is why they could cause so much mayhem, like the Sipahe Sahaba.

    They have focused on systematically killing intellectuals, which has harmed Pakistan.

  11. Bloody Civilian


    the threat to life might explain the expediency in avoiding the subject but not necessarily the compulsion to come up with all the nonsense we see examples quoted of in the article.


    who is the establishment?

  12. Hayyer

    If your analysis is correct then much damage may occur before the desperate ones achieve a resolution. Christian Europe had neither airwaves nor suicide bombers.

  13. Milind Kher


    The establishment is the GOP. It is to be blamed for turning a Nelson’s eye to the doings of these organizations

  14. AZW

    @ Hayyer:

    These are mere conjectures and loud thinking on my part; but to respond to your comment, I feel that:

    Medieval Europe did not have to contend with an vastly superior East that was making tremendous strides in social and physical sciences, and relentlessly questioning age old dogmas and practices sent down to it from the bronze age. Europe had to shed its own cloak at its own pace, never having to worry about a rival civilization that was a stark daily reminder to how much West had been left behind.

    Not to say that it was a less painful process. A lot of people burned on stakes, lots of persecution took place, and the stranglehold of the Church was almost absolute for the full millenium. Yet the dynamics were vastly different then what the Muslim world is currently facing.

  15. Hayyer

    Yes time has speeded up and the techniques available to the inquisition have multiplied and improved.

  16. Ummi

    The author of the article seems another ignorant woman who believes in that India and US are our friends thus we should not condemn their filthy activities. If the author thinks that she is right then why DG ISPR and today Gillani claimed that they have found proofs of India’s involvement in SWaziristan?

    You guys need to keep yourself updated about current affairs rather than continue to follow your forefathers who used to lick up toes of British officers in pre-partition era.