Pakistan’s Leftist Literature of Resistance

When people think of Pakistan, a failed state crippled by military dictatorship, civil unrest and religiously-derived terrorism immediately springs to mind. If most foreign analysis on the country since 9/11 is to be believed, Pakistan is a dangerous, suffering region that serves primarily as the focal battleground in the global War on Terror. The Pakistani people themselves are automatically depicted as brainwashed, dictatorship-loving drones or hawkish, anti-Americanist religious fundamentalists, sometimes both.

For all its popularity, this one-dimensional discourse on Pakistan obscures two key attributes of the country’s society. It obscures Pakistani cultural and artistic contribution, which continues to flourish even with endemic bombings and outbreak of violence. And it utterly elides the historical resistance among the Pakistani people against the corrupt military and regressive nonstate forces. Because of restrictions imposed on left-wing organizations by dictators and liberal parties alike, antiestablishment ideas, protest and resistance proliferated into the cultural sphere. This enmeshing of culture with political resistance dates back since before the country’s inception, most significantly with the All India Progressive Writers Association (AIPWA) and its post-independence counterpart, the All Pakistan Progressive Writer’s Association (APPWA). What resulted was a flowering in film, literature, and poetry that struck the very heart of Pakistani consciousness and artfully conveyed the challenges confronting  the young country.

From the beginning, the PWA had a strong communist membership and held close ties with leftist politics in Pakistan. It served as the guiding light for the establishment of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP), having predated its existence. Sajjad Zaheer, the cofounder of the PWA alongside other progressive Indian writers, migrated to Pakistan and became the secretary general of the CPP. In 1951, he was embroiled in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, wherein he and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, esteemed Urdu poet and member of the PWA, were punished for conspiring to overthrow the liberal and increasingly authoritarian Muslim League government. The Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case was the pivotal point in an ongoing and aggressive assault on the CPP and its associates. It resulted not only in the banning of the CPP in 1954, but led to the further censorship and ultimate banning of the PWA, which was declared a political party despite being a literary organization. However, far from paralyzing the Pakistani Left, these repressive measures only mobilized it. As popular poet and progressive Habib Jalib said, “After the creation of Pakistan, as one by one our dreams were shattered, we looked for people who shared our ideals, to see how we could establish democracy and freedom in our country.”

Sajjad Zaheer and Faiz Ahmad Faiz.

Sajjad Zaheer and Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Both of these communist writers were imprisoned together in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case.

Indeed, the angst in the wake of Partition and the botched independence that caused the deaths of at least one million people, effected widespread displacement and triggered countless rapes, was most honestly and devastatingly captured by the Progressives and their leftist associates. Faiz’s “Subh-e-Azaadi” (“The Dawn of Freedom”) laments the systemic suffering and denial of rights on the day India and Pakistan gained their hard-won freedom from the colonial power, Britain. An associate and dabbler in the PWA, short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto explored the psychological and ironic violence that characterized Partition and transcended communal, national and religious loyalties. His short story “Khol Do” (“Open”)  depicts a Muslim girl and refugee raped by a group of young men who belong to her own religion and nationality, a vicious irony that conveys the universalizing reality of rape in Partition. Yet, there was a gem of optimism and vigilance in this literature. “The Dawn of Freedom” closes with the lines, “Friends come away from this false light/Come, we must search for that promised dawn.” This epitomized the leftist investment in nation-building and improving the lives of the Pakistani people, which would persevere for decades to come even under the fierce onslaught of religious reaction and nationalist suppression.

This leftward and progressive creativity wasn’t just limited to the realm of literature, however, but came to inspire cinema in Pakistan. The 50s and 60s saw a boundless flourishing in film, the promise of which current-day Pakistani filmmakers are still trying to fulfill. The revolutionary poets Jalib and Faiz were intimately involved in filmmaking and song-writing behind-the-scenes. Jago Hua Savera (The Day Shall Dawn) was the first Pakistani submission to the Oscars in the category for Best Foreign Language Film. The film was set in rural Bengal, then a part of Pakistan, and focused on the problems of an impoverished Bengali family, who relied on fishing for their survival. Faiz wrote the screenplay and the cast was drawn from both West and East Pakistan. Its focus on the working class earned it the Golden Medal at the Moscow International Film Festival of 1959.

The 1969 movie poster for Zarqa.

The 1969 movie poster for Zarqa.

Riaz Shahid was another emerging progressive filmmaker. His 1969 film Zarqa illuminated the struggle of the Palestinian people against Israeli colonization and starred famous actress Neelo as the titular heroine. The violence Zarqa endures in the fictional film did not only represent the Palestinians, but hit too close to home for Pakistani movie-goers as well. Popular legend dictates that Ayub Khan, the first military dictator of Pakistan, forced Neelo to dance for the Shah of Iran while the latter was on an official state visit. Because of this, Neelo attempted to commit suicide. Jalib channeled his anguish for the actress’ plight in a poem titled “Neelo”, which was later adapted into a song for Zarqa and became an anthem against oppression. Zarqa was also an example of decades-long transnational solidarity between Palestine and the Pakistani people, and Shahid is famous for donating the financial proceeds from the film to Fatah, the political branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Neelo as the Palestinian heroine and freedom fighter, Zarqa.

Neelo as the Palestinian heroine and freedom fighter, Zarqa. Jalib wrote the song “Raqs e Zanjeer” (“Dance of Chains”).

Zia Ul-Haq, Pakistan’s sordid and longest-ruling dictator, seized power in a military coup in 1977. While all prior dictators had been jointly allied with religious fundamentalist parties, Zia took it to a new level and imposed an Islamization program that marginalized religious minorities and women. Faiz was imprisoned and then driven into exile in Beirut. Jalib protested against Zia and languished in jail. But in the character of Pakistani resistance, this repression did not inhibit dissident art and literature. On the contrary, it only bred progressive enterprises. The theater group Ajoka was founded as a performing arts counter to the regime. Tehreek-e-Niswan and Lok Rehas followed suit.  A new generation of feminist poets was born. Kishwar Naheed and Fahmida Riaz gave brazen and stunning indictments against the misogyny of the Zia regime through the medium of poetry. Their poems correlated with the mass mobilization of women activists and protesters against the regime, who faced severe police brutality at their rallies. Both poets paid personally for their endeavors. Riaz confronted sedition charges and Naheed lost her job. Jalib encapsulated the Zia era in his poem, “Zulmat ko Zia” (“Darkness Called Light”) wherein he asks the dictator, “How can I write that a human is a God?” Pakistani rock band Laal has since adapted the poem into a song.

A women's protest against Zia. Women lawyers were at the vanguard of the charge against the regime's misogyny.

A women’s protest against Zia. Women lawyers were at the vanguard of the charge against the regime’s misogyny.

Jalib faces police brutality at a protest against Zia.

Jalib faces police brutality while protesting the Zia regime.

This is the culture and tradition in which Pakistanis create art and write literature. This is the legacy they inherit. It’s true that the political landscape is abundant with military dictators, religious fundamentalists, and corrupt politicians. But the fact that Faiz to this day is a household name in Pakistan and considered the country’s unofficial poet laureate reveals the people’s defiance against these hegemonic forces and their sincere desire for progress. For too long, Pakistan’s rich cultural and literary heritage has been undermined and ignored. It is time to shed some light on its existence, and on its crucial connection with dissident politics. No vilification and stereotyping of Pakistanis, however rampant, changes or mitigates this history. It was as Eqbal Ahmad, political scientist and commentator, said in his criticism of V. S. Naipual’s reductive take on Pakistan, “You describe Pakistan as an Islamic state under General Mohammed Zia-ul Haq.  You describe it throughout as if this government represented that country and was supported by its people. It was your responsibility to at least report, mention, that the state of affairs you are describing there was being opposed at great risk to themselves by hundreds of thousands of people, including all the known poets and writers and artists of Pakistan, without exception. That our best writers of that time were in prison or in exile, our best poets were in prison or exile. “

The Awami Workers Party is a merger of leftist parties, founded in 2012. Already workers are organizing in the thousands, signaling a hope for progress in Pakistan.

The Awami Workers Party is a merger of leftist parties founded in 2012. Already workers are organizing in the thousands, signaling a hope for progress in Pakistan.

Today’s Pakistan isn’t the same as Zia’s Pakistan, but many of its problems, including that of the Taliban, directly result from the Zia dictatorship. Pakistanis continue to fight, resist, and challenge the military and the religious fundamentalist threat, whether it’s nonstate militant outfits or institutionalized blasphemy laws and Islamist parties. Given the constant milieu of violence, they resist at the risk of their personal safety and happiness. This resistance is nothing new. It’s confirmed by the country’s history. And if history repeats itself, then this resistance will grow and thrive in the face of oppression.

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The Noor Inayat Khan Story: A Double-Edged Sword

On September 13, 1944, a political prisoner was executed in Dachau Concentration Camp at the hands of the Nazis.  The political prisoner was a woman, an Indian, and a Muslim. Her name was Noor Inayat Khan and she was one of millions of dissidents that died fighting Hitler. Both Muslims and Westerners are unfamiliar with her story, but a recent and heart-wrenching documentary, Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story, shines a light on this forgotten Muslim freedom fighter. Noor worked for the English Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Nazi-occupied Paris. Her decision to join the resistance against Germany bespoke a rare bravery and selflessness, which the film frames as the result of her father’s Sufi teachings. Her eventual capture and murder immortalizes her in history as a heroine, who made the ultimate sacrifice in defying evil. Her story is exceedingly relevant to times when the Muslim community remains fraught with antisemitism, and relations between Jews and Muslims are contentious. Unity Productions Foundation (UPF) produced this film and premiered it in Washington, D.C. in February at the regal and velvety Warner Theatre. However, the film and the program that preceded it posed a paradox. Anti-oppression was emphasized, but it served a very specific interest. Indeed, the film premiere was a coup for an interfaith that accomplishes bridge-building, but not without making significant concessions to powers that generate oppression.

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Noor Inayat Khan was only 30 years old when she was killed by Nazis.

To further delve into this, it’s necessary to examine Noor’s positionality as an Indian woman in that time period and relative to the colonial government she was working for. In the 1940s, India was colonized by Britain and had suffered colonial and imperialist exploitation by various Western powers for more than three hundred years. With the onset of World War II, some Indians pursued a loyalist line, others allied with the Axis powers, and still some others stayed neutral in a contention where they would be the ultimate losers as colonized subjects. The colonial violence enacted on the Quit India Movement championed by Gandhi and the Indian National Congress confirmed this. Even more denigrating was the mass famine of 1943 that killed at least three million Bengalis, a starvation deliberately engineered by the British, who diverted food from Bengal to other areas in the empire and prevented India from using its ships for food imports. When asked about the famine, Churchill famously remarked that it did not matter because the Indians would go on “breeding like rabbits.”

Noor Inayat Khan therefore compromised a dual and challenging role, as a dissenter of fascism and a woman with a colonized and racialized heritage. But her predicament wasn’t rare. It was reminiscent of the Maghrebi Muslims in France who fought the Nazis even as they were colonized and maltreated by the French. It was this story that UPF originally started researching and co-founder Alex Kronemer mentioned this in his preliminary speech. Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian Muslims protected both French and North African Jews from the occupation forces. The Grand Mosque of Paris issued false certificates and provided shelter to the persecuted minority, including a famous Algerian cabaret singer, Salim Halali. This event was dramatized in Ismaël Ferroukhi’s Free Men, a French-language film starring award-winning actor Tahar Rahim as the Algerian Muslim protagonist. But where Free Men succeeds and Enemy of the Reich fails is in the consolidation of these polarized identities and the recognition of these Muslim characters as essentially colonized. “We will never be free unless we wage war on colonialism and fascism,” a resistance fighter cries in a memorable scene in Free Men. ”Down with colonialism! Down with fascism!”

The parallel of colonialism with fascism isn’t coincidental. Enemy of the Reich, however, fails to approach that. There are limitations to every project, of course. Free Men was a historically-derived fictional film whereas Enemy of the Reich was a documentary. But there were numerous opportunities. Noor’s ancestor, Tipu Sultan, is mentioned, but the film does not elaborate on what he is famous for, which was anticolonial resistance against the British. Noor’s overseers refer to her as brainless and she is betrayed ultimately by a woman on her team, but racism isn’t even speculated as the motivating factor for these happenstances.

In many ways, the accompanying program suited the film. The speakers emphasized the importance of this historical story to current times, and they were right.  But not precisely in the ways they claimed. The subtextual message was that Noor fought against extremism, and that it’s the duty of today’s Muslims to fight against Islamic extremism, delineating a parallel between Nazi fascism and Islamic fundamentalism. But there was another insidious, uncanny parallel that was tailored to the one-sided theme of the film, and which the speakers failed to mention. Suhail Khan, a representative of the Institute of Global Exchange, was the first guest speaker. He described his experience on an interfaith voyage to “the holy land.” In an age where Palestinian refugees cannot return to their homeland, Khan didn’t just go to Israel in the name of “bridge-building.” He called it “this troubled corner of the world” in his speech, refusing to recognize the plight of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli state. Ira Forman, a state-appointed envoy of the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and a former lawyer for AIPAC, was the next guest speaker. He condemned the persecution of Rohingya Muslims, French Muslims, and the Muslims of the Central African Republic, but Palestinian Muslims were conspicuously missing from his speech. This deliberate conflation of antisemitism with anti-Israel sentiment served the specific interest of normalizing Israeli colonialism. It fit in perfectly with the documentary’s silence on the colonization and destruction of Noor’s country of origin, India.

Closer to India, Eileen O’Connor was an impromptu speaker. The deputy assistant secretary to the bureau of South and Central Asian affairs, she name-dropped her specialty, that iconic term, “Af-Pak.”  She talked about how she worked with “moderate Imams” in Afghanistan who “counter voices of radicalization”, a tacit justification of American occupation in Afghanistan and imperialist presence in Pakistan. Afghan civilians are drone striked, shot, and raped by American forces in the name of fighting terrorism, but O’Connor maintained that the Taliban was the sole evil obstructing peace with Muslims. So did Alex Kronemer, the co-founder of UPF. The 9/11 terrorists wanted to “create a wedge between the Muslim world and the West”, he orated, and UPF was combating that. What he does not realize is that the wedge, rather the gaping disparity, existed already. And only radical change in foreign policy can bridge it, and even that doesn’t heal the residual scars of empire, which are painful and irrevocable.

The Nazis were terrible, destructive, and oppressive, but so were the imperialists. As Aimé Césaire wrote in his renowned anticolonial treatise Discourse On Colonialism, “the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois” of the West cannot forgive the Nazis because they “applied to Europe the colonial practices that had previously been applied only to the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India and the Negroes of Africa.” Fighting fascism is a necessary lesson to every Muslim in the world, and it’s what the community can learn from Noor. But so is fighting colonialism and imperialism. Condemning one without the other reveals a deficiency in principle and sustains the oppression of Muslims and other imperialized peoples in the world.

This article originally appeared in The Islamic Monthly.

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Melting Pot Multiculturalism: Mistaking the Coca Cola Super Bowl Commercial for Progress

By now, everyone’s heard of the Coca Cola commercial that aired during the Super Bowl and the racist response it provoked from right wing politicians, tweeters, bloggers and news personalities. Former Representative Allen West said that the ad promoted “the balkanization of America” and that the use of non-English languages was fundamentally un-American. Glenn Beck echoed his sentiments, asserting that depicting America’s ethnic and linguistic diversity advocated disunity and was meant to “divide us politically.” Conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham took this opportunity to use the slur “illegal” against undocumented individuals, reflecting the larger debate on immigration and the resulting nationalist anxieties.

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They were joined in by dozens of other Americans displeased with Coca Cola’s apparently multicultural agenda, some users resorting to using racial slurs and other racially charged appellations like “terrorist.”

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Because of its original multilingual and multicultural content and the right-wing vitriol it incurred, people are lauding the Coca Cola commercial a triumph for antiracism and media representation. Many users on Twitter and the general blogosphere praised the commercial as a way to counteract the online racism against it. Forbes went so far as to connect it to immigration reform in Congress and branded the commercial “a huge success.” On the surface, it definitely seems to be in favor for people of color. After all, it represents and humanizes people of different ethnicities, it normalizes their oft-erased or vilified languages, it affirms the American-ness of a girl in hijab and it even depicts an interracial gay couple, striking two marginalized identities at the same time. The ad is a seeming godsend; what could possibly be wrong with it?

There is, however, a critical similarity in both the Coca Cola ad and the rhetoric of the conservatives who attacked it. Both support American patriotism and the racism it produces albeit in different ways. Even Amy Davidson of The New Yorker, a proponent of the commercial, affirms, “. . .the Coke ad was. . . in the better sense, patriotic.”

The Intersection of American Patriotism with Multiculturalism

The Coca Cola ad opened with “America the Beautiful” and the patriotic song played throughout the rest of the ad in several different languages, including Keres, an indigenous language, all of which are spoken in the United States. It was reminiscent of the larger patriotic theme pushed by liberal integrationists, antiracism activists and multiculturalists: America is a melting pot, constituted of immigrated peoples whose diversity binds the richness of the nation and both literally and figuratively makes America. This theme invokes the verses written by Russian immigrant Emma Lazarus, which are inscribed beneath the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me/I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” There is nothing more consummately American than immigration. This melting pot multiculturalism diverges from the assimilationist model that tends to Americanize immigrated diasporas.

This emerging narrative, for all its idealism, ignores the sinister but absolute fact of America’s inception, which is the genocide of several million Native Americans, the colonization of their land, and their persisting disenfranchisement (see David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World). Every immigrant and descendant of immigrants is a beneficiary of settler colonialism, the feasible exception being Mexicans and other people of indigenous ancestry. (As acclaimed Spokane writer Sherman Alexie summed it up, “Let’s get one thing out of the way: Mexican immigration is an oxymoron. Mexicans are indigenous.”) The other exception entails African Americans, whose ancestors’ arrival in both colonial and democratic America was deployed against their will with the transatlantic slave trade.

Melting pot multiculturalism is therefore designed to integrate people into the American fabric without dismantling the country’s oppressive structures, including the genocidal legacy that enabled its founding. It also seeks to assimilate nonwhite minorities into its hegemony, either as agents or passive victims. Barack Obama is frequently cited as proof of a post-racial America, his evident blackness obscuring his regressive and harmful policies. His systematic increase in drone strikes, the accelerated rate of deportations of undocumented people, and his deployment of troops to Afghanistan, Uganda, Libya and Mali enact violence on people of color, be they at home or abroad.

This hyper-visibility of nonwhite minorities in media, government, business and other leadership positions disguises the systematic nature of racism and limits it to an individual, even isolated phenomenon. The conservatives and American nationalists repulsed by this ad are constructed as the zealot minority of the American populace by media, even if state policy and other institutional elements enforce their perceptions. This racism in a way is worst than more blatant iterations, because it is more insidious and more difficult to discern and confront. Most debilitatingly, it appeases people agitating for genuine social change by subduing their radical, antiestablishment tendency. The Coca Cola commercial does the same thing. By tokenizing various nonwhite faces, hijab-clad girls, and the assorted languages of these people through a multilingual rendition of “America the Beautiful”, it promotes the American patriotism that produces and continually perpetuates systems of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. Coke fails to challenge hegemonic narratives of patriotism, but merely gives it a diverse face. The commercial embodies multiculturalism as defined by Japanese-Canadian feminist scholar Setsu Shigematsu,  that is “a policy of selective inclusion of racial and ethnic ‘minorities,’ to promote an image of diversity, obscuring continuing forms of structural inequities and institutional racism.”

It’s fitting, of course. The foremost inequity that Coca Cola masks with its diverse imagery is its own egregious capitalism and neocolonialism in global southern countries.

“Multiculturalism As a Tool for Corporate America”: Coca Cola and Global Capitalism

In her incisive critique of multiculturalism, “The Paradox of Diversity” featured in the essay anthology The Dark Side of the Nation, Marxist feminist sociologist Himani Bannerji engages with the work of civil rights legend Angela Davis. She writes, “A scathing critique of multiculturalism as a tool for corporate America, both in terms of its internal diversity management and international capitalism or globalization, features in the essays. . . by Angela Davis.” Nothing is more applicable to Coca Cola, which used multiculturalism and curried praise of progress despite being a neocolonialist, capitalist organization.

Coca Cola’s tokenism of minorities diverts attention from the company’s worldwide employment of sweatshop labor and theft of water that local populations rely on for subsistence. It’s easy for Coca Cola to make a commercial partially in Hindi, but are people familiar with their disastrous history in India? In 2006, Indian farmers in the state of Rajasthan could not irrigate their fields because of a Coke plant. In Kerala, the company contaminated local water. It currently has 58 plants in Uttar Pradesh that induce water depletion and are a major source of contention for native Indians. What makes Coca Cola’s crimes worst is that they’re exercised on vulnerable, impoverished populations that are disproportionately poorer than those in the global north.

The company is also responsible for abuses of workers’ rights. Besides sweatshop labor, Coke has displayed horrific anti-union activity in Colombia, which culminated in illegal murder. It’s exercised similar machinations in other parts of Latin America. It has an abundant history of racial discrimination, some of which were as recent as 2012. Given Coca Cola’s disgraceful and publicized track record, it’s readily apparent their multicultural ad wasn’t evident of a crusade in favor of minorities, but served the specific purpose of abating criticism and lobbying that can lead to a change in their widespread human rights abuses.

By filming a multilingual, multicultural commercial seemingly on the side of minorities, Coca Cola screens its past and current abuses and allocates the discussion on its racial abuse to its commercial. The culprit, the oppressor, is not the beverage company, but merely the right-wing zealots, who are hindering the purveyor of true progress, Coca Cola. The response from liberal media only affirms this, and the impact of the commercial is over-stated. Contrary to Forbes, the commercial will probably not move Congress. Coke only advocates a softer American nationalism, that is less hawkish, but no less jingoistic. Its message is loud and clear: Spanish is only valued when it’s being used to sing patriotic music.

Coca Cola attempts to compensate with this ad, but a short and insubstantial film cannot compensate for water depletion, employee discrimination, inhibition of unions, murder of workers via paramilitary forces, theft of natural resources and engineered starvation. In a way, the ad is symptomatic of the larger culture of feel-good liberal diversity that reduces faces of color to mere and lifeless tokens and refuses to grant them rights and agency. The marketing towards minorities is also counterproductive. Jill Filipovic of The Guardian notes that marketing soda to poorer, vulnerable communities of color only increases health risks among them. 

 A multinational corporation, Coca Cola is responsible for terrible human rights abuses and continues to commit them with relative impunity even in the face of damning criticism. Angela Davis’ thesis has come true. Multiculturalism has become an effective tool for corporate America, both in marketing, silencing criticism of capitalism and validating the continued perpetuation of its crimes. Parts of the antiracist American public have been duped into viewing the ad as progressive, and it is perhaps this taming of radical tendency that is the saddest outcome of Coke’s media stunt. By placating progressives with a multicultural commercial, their activism weakens, and true change is prevented from materializing.

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