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9/11 and the 11th of September

The 11th day of September has not been good to Pakistan. Ask any group of Pakistanis why Pakistan has failed to live up to its potential and sooner rather than later, directly or indirectly, this one date will be invoked as an explanation of much of the tragedy that punctuates our history.

At least two in the shortlist of the most popular and deeply-held theories about why we are in the predicament we are in, how we got here, and exactly when, relate to this one single date: the 11th day of September.

The original 9/11 for Pakistanis is the 11th of September, 1948. Barely a year into the creation of a Pakistan, the ailing Quaid-e-Azam died of chronic tuberculosis exacerbated by a bout of pneumonia. He left behind a newborn state even more fragile than he was in his own final days. Although officially Jinnah was the governor-general of the country for little over a year, the ceremonial intent of that post and his quickly deteriorating health meant that even in that one year his ability to practically influence the everyday workings of the newborn state was limited, and waning.

Many Pakistanis believe that this was the defining tragedy of the country. That born in a hurry and in confusion, with deep and bleeding wounds, bereft of resources, short of qualified politicians or administrators, and with so many rooting for its collapse, the loss of its great and revered leader knocked the country so brutally at its knees – and right at the moment of its birth – that it has never been able to recover from the blow. That those who followed him were unworthy of his mantle and without his guiding wisdom not just his vision but the very apparatus of the state he had single-handedly carved out was manipulated, co-opted, and ultimately hijacked, by the very forces that he would have most steadfastly risen against: the forces of corruption, of abuse of law, of autocracy, of intolerance.

The narrative that the Pakistani mind knits around the 11th of September, 2001 and its impact on Pakistan, is equally compelling. Just like 1948 when Jinnah’s death left us reeling and rudderless right when we were at our most vulnerable, on this date of infamy in 2001 it was the unseen and seen hands of history that knocked us down along with the great towers in New York.

Whether the events that unravelled after 9/11 are viewed as an orchestration from without (as it is by many) or an unleashing of our own internal demons (as it is viewed by as many), this one date becomes a defining fulcrum of history for the Pakistani mind, as it does for so many others around the globe. Whether by intent or by happenstance, Pakistan sees itself bleeding on the altar of geopolitics because of the forces unleashed by the events of this date.

Pakistan is not alone in having internalised the meaning of 9/11 into a very personal discourse of tragedy. For many in Pakistan, the meaning of 9/11 is derived not just from what happened on the streets of New York on that horrendous Tuesday in 2001 but in terms of the tragedies we see unfolding on our own streets every day. The horror of this date in 2001 is all too real to forget, but that particular Tuesday seems more distant today and has been overtaken in our imagination of 9/11 by so many other horrors that have been triggered by that one horror, in Pakistan and elsewhere.

Pakistanis are not, and have never been, without compassion for those who were grievously wronged on 9/11 or since, in all the places that have remained cloaked in the unending shadows of 9/11. But the bloodshed on our own streets, the bombs lobbed in our own land, the killers who rise from our own midst, and the daily deaths of our own compatriots are all too immediate, too unending and too sickening to be understood as anything but a tragedy that is all too personal.

But nauseatingly personal as this tragedy has become for Pakistan, in our collective imagination it remains an imposed tragedy. Hence, the unending and meaningless debates on whether ‘this is our war or not’. This is a question that cannot be asked except in the context of this one date, 9/11. But it is also a question that cannot be answered until we devolve it from the context of this one date: 9/11. And therein lies the conundrum that the legacy of 9/11 has become for Pakistan, and arguably for many others in the Muslim world.

Compelling as they are, neither of these narratives – of the impacts of Jinnah’s demise or of 9/11’s shadow – is entirely satisfactory. More importantly, and conceding that there is in fact great (but not complete) explanatory power in each, the point to be made here is that the way these narratives have been constructed gives us a plausible set of explanations but not a very practical set of solutions. They help us explain to ourselves why we are where we are but not as much to understand how to get out of the predicaments we are in.

The narrative built around Jinnah’s demise and its impacts on the evolution of governance in Pakistan has not only generated the image of the leader as the ‘perfect’ and ‘sole’ arbiter of change but has de facto absolved us – the citizen – of the responsibility to act.

The narrative is that we missed out on achieving our national potential because we lost our great leader so soon after our birth. The theory of change implied by this narrative is that we cannot and will not achieve that potential unless another leader as great and as perfect appears on the scene. The result is our unending, and forever heartbreaking, search for perfect leaders.

The corollary to this theory of change is even more dangerous: that it is leaders who make nations and the rest of us have neither the ability nor the responsibility to act as agents of change. Great leaders like Jinnah are, indeed, a blessing. But a society that just sits on its hands waiting for such a leader to show up is undeserving of such a leader.

The narrative in Pakistan built around 9/11 is equally disempowering. The essential narrative is that 9/11 unleashed great demons of insecurity and violence which are now not even in the control of the forces who created them. The understanding of who the demons are and who was supposed to control them varies between those who gravitate towards tales of grandiose outside conspiracy and those who are pulled towards explanations of equally grand inside complicity. Either of these variants could well be true; maybe both.

The problem is not in the explanation. It is in the presupposition that closure on 9/11 itself is needed before any meaningful advance can be made. Even as reality has overtaken the context in which it was borne we continue to seek clear and uncomplicated answers to questions that are evermore unclear and evermore complicated. Ironic as it may be, the more we cling to the context of 9/11 the less able we are to respond to the realities it has triggered.

Maybe the lesson for Pakistan on this unfortunate date is that it is time to let go of the narratives we have built around the 11th of September as well as around 9/11. Both signify an important – maybe vital – context to the reality we live today. The reality we live is of bad governance and intolerance, on the one hand, and of insecurity and violence on the other. Let the context shed light on the reality so that we see it better, but let it not blind us into inaction.

Maybe the thing to do on this 11th of September is to let go of the 11th of September.

The writer has taught international relations and diplomacy at Boston University and at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and was the vice chancellor of LUMS. Twitter: @adilnajam

Dr. Adil Najam, "9/11 and the 11th of September," The News. 2013-09-11.
Keywords: Social sciences , History-Pakistan , History , Violence , Extremism , Quaid-e-Azam , Pakistan , New York , 9/11