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On treason and patriotism

“During part of her childhood, Elizabeth was illegitimate. In 1534, parliament ruled that it was treason to believe her illegitimate. In 1536, it was treason to believe her legitimate. Signals were changed again in 1543, and again in 1553. After that, you could believe anything.” – Will Cuppy

Like identity, the idea of patriotism and treason is fluid, not static. It depends on the norms, values, and laws of society. It is not inherently natural. In fact, it is naturalized in society through discursive processes by the ruling elite.

Similar to Will Cuppy’s example of Queen Elizabeth, in the 19th century, it was not treason to subscribe to the communist school of thought in the US. For instance, over 5000 people marched through Chicago in a political demonstration called the “communist picnic.” But as the seeds of the cold war started to grow, any person with any sort of affiliation with communism was considered a traitor. As soon as the cold war ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, it was again normal to subscribe to communism or socialism. One such example is Senator Bernie Sanders who has continuously advocated for socialist politics in the US.

The idea of treason and patriotism is interlinked with David Campbell’s idea of danger and logic of interpretation. By the logic of interpretation, he means that the way a state interprets danger to its sovereignty shapes its identity, and whatever exists outside that definition of identity is unpatriotic. In this interpretation of danger, a threat emerges from certain context-bound judgments made by decision-makers or policy analysts where a historical mode of representation, which according to Roxanne Lynn Doty adopts the imagination of the Self and the Other, is employed to define danger, and therefore, treason.

Similarly, for most of Pakistan’s existence, it has interpreted India as a danger to its sovereignty. That India is trying to undo Pakistan and will attack any minute has constructed India as the Other, making India central to the discourse of treason within Pakistan. For this reason, the India card, much like the religious card, has been frequently evoked as a danger to Pakistan in the public and media discourse by the ruling elite for political and strategic purposes.

It has become rather easy to dismiss any criticism and dissent as an Indian or foreign conspiracy. This is not to suggest that India does not pose a threat to Pakistan. It very much does, especially under Narendra Modi’s far-right politics that is swiftly gaining ground in India. The problematization comes when it is used as a political tool for personal vested interests, to dismiss dissent from the peripheries against the ruling elite, or to silence the opposition.

This political tool is successful because whoever stands in the opposition to the ruling elite fears the allegations of un-patriotism. To take the example of the ‘best’ democracy in the world, the Democrats and public media did not criticize or question the Bush administration for carrying out an illegal invasion of Iraq. Despite enough evidence against it, the Democrats in Congress refrained from a critical debate on the issue.

Democrats have been united in their opposition to the Bush administration on the majority of topics. But, according to some critics, the Iraq War was unique, and Democrats did not resist the Bush administration because many believed bombing Iraq was the best course of action. However, for those Democrats who opposed, speaking up made no sense because the administration would succeed and there would be no electoral reward from opposing. As Jane Kellet Cramer argued that there is compelling evidence that the majority of Democrats and a significant number of Republicans submitted to the executive branch, not on the facts of the case, but to avoid appearing unpatriotic to no end.

Therefore, the labels of traitor and unpatriotic depend on the principles and logic of the ruling elite. Whatever exists outside that logic and threatens the authority of the elite is treason against the state.

Similarly, ever since Pakistan’s inception, practically every opposition leader, more than five former heads of state, and a range of human rights activists, journalists, poets, and even academics have faced allegations of treason including Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah when General Ayub Khan labeled her as Pakistan’s enemy in his election campaign. A 1964 pamphlet reads, “In reality, Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his companions are working with Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah for Pakhtunistan … Pakistan is surrounded by enemies.”

Characterizing opponents as enemies of the state is among the central political principles of the ruling logic. Be it the US or India or anywhere else in the world, dissent against the ruling elite is considered treachery and unpatriotic.

In recent years, the socio-political environment in Pakistan for critical debate has deteriorated. Many academics, journalists, activists, and students faced sedition charges for speaking against the authoritative policies of the state and for merely asking for their right to assembly. It is worse for the people at the peripheries; their dissent against the social, economic, and political marginalization is considered anti-state and they are often linked to a foreign conspiracy to quickly dismiss the discourse against the ruling elite.

The PTI’s narrative regarding the ‘letter’ threatening regime change in Pakistan by the US has pushed the whole of the (former) opposition under one umbrella: treason. Again, this is not to suggest that the US has had no role in the political life of Pakistan but to problematize the whole idea of treason and patriotism and how its misuse can have multiple effects on the political and social fabric of Pakistan. The US might have reasons for regime change in Pakistan given Imran Khan’s anti-American views and inclination towards Russia in the Ukraine-Russia war. The task is to investigate the ‘letter’ on every platform possible either to avoid falling into another populist stunt by Imran Khan to save his government against the opposition or to punish the accused parties for destabilizing Pakistan.

Arsim Tariq, "On treason and patriotism," The News. 2022-04-19.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political life , Political demonstration , Politicians , Democrats , Communism , PM Modi , Imran Khan , Ukraine , Russia , PTI