Waris Husain Editorial: Shouting ‘Fire!’ in a Panicked Pakistani Theater

To Be Published in Pakistan Post.

A classic example used in law school to describe the bounds of free speech is that we don’t give people the right to falsely shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater because it would cause hysteria and people would likely be hurt. Just as this right is not protected for individuals, it should not be protected for the Pakistani Army who has manufactured several instances of creating hysteria in the public over fictional fears. While the Wikileaks discovery that General Kayani has been playing a major role in civilian affairs is not surprising, it is an affirmation of hysteria-inducing episodes that have occurred throughout the nation’s history, but especially in the last two years.

The most pervasive example of the military “shouting ‘Fire’” has been through the religious indoctrination of the nation, painting the picture of Pakistan as the last bastion of Islam. This was done for many reasons including creating a common identity for a newly-formed ethnically heterogeneous nation. The message was, ‘unless we come together under religion, we will unravel as a nation.’ However, the Army inculcated the public with this dire need to unite through religion for its own purposes. It gave them the prestigious and incontrovertible title of ‘guardians of Islam,’ which is far more credible than merely being an Army for a third world nation. This allowed for their budgets to grow in perpetuity without much rebuke from the populace. The military has been able to maintain support amongst the public by reaping and harvesting this obsessive focus on religion. 

Along the same lines, the Army has manufactured hysteria towards relations with India, who has been depicted as a nation that wants nothing less than the complete destruction of Pakistan. History is replete with examples of the Army fostering paranoia towards India; including creating fictional stories of Indian aggression in the media to drum up support for wars whenever they arose (the same can be said for the Indians). This has led to the escalation of conflicts, when there was no such need according to the actual ground realities.

Further, by cultivating the religious obsession alongside a focus on India, the Army created a perfect storm to retain supremacy over the people and governance. They were able to portray themselves as valiant Muslim fighters combating a Hindu-Army hell-bent on destruction. This has been a great deterrence for both states to ever come to the bargaining table and peaceably negotiate the problems that limit their positive relations. Thus, it is much like an individual falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater but then sealing off all the exits. Stampedes would break out in the theater causing fatalities, just as the Indo-Pak war has caused numerous fatalities. If anyone would try to escape the madness, i.e. through peace talks, they would realize the doors have been sealed off by the people who created the hysteria in the first place.

The military has also created an Anti-American fervor, although much of this rising sentiment is due to U.S. action in Afghanistan and globally. However, this anti-Americanism has benefited the Army by allowing it to limit the value of the ideals the U.S. purports through democracy and civilian institution building. Pakistan may have taken some lessons from the C.I.A., whose grip over the U.S. power-structure is staggering. Yet, the mere fact that the U.S. military leadership is chosen and directed by the civilian government is an example the Pakistani military would rather not allow its public to see.

This perception of the threats posed by U.S. intervention was embodied by the reaction cultivated in the media in response to the Kerry Lugar Bill. It is not question that the Pakistani military, namely the I.S.I., has a hand in Pakistan’s media through illicit channels, whether by force or common relationships.  However, this was no more evident than the negative reactions to the Kerry Lugar bill after it was announced as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.

The bill was aimed at funding and improving the civilian institutions, building infrastructure, including roads and schools, amongst other positive developments. The thorn of the bill for the military was in Section 201, which aimed at “promot[ing] control of military institutions by a democratically elected civilian government.” An organization that has operated under the cover of darkness overthrowing civilian governments, harassing judges, killing political dissidents, torturing civilians, and arbitrarily detaining people will not give up its autonomy easily. This is the reason why many reports from across media outlets and state-sponsored institutions that the Kerry Lugar Bill was an imposition on Pakistan rather than assistance.

By creating hysteric obsessions with religion and India, the military has been able to retain its status as an incontrovertible guardian of faith. Further, by fostering anti-Americanism, the military has been able to limit the ability of the U.S. to intervene or inspire any change to the current sharing of power with the military at the top. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” Similarly, the most leniant perceptions of the military as a benign figure in Pakistan’s history would not allow us to permit them to continually “shout fire” in the already panicked Pakistani ‘theater’ or public.

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