It's iconic that when Pakistan takes one step forward to project its positive side to the world, the country is pulled several miles backwards by its own political leadership and an obscurantist clergy.
Speaking at a public gathering in Islamabad recently, Prime Minister Imran Khan pooh-poohed those who insist that Pakistan needs an image makeover through its soft power. He scoffed at the idea of using soft power as a means to win international goodwill, terming it an "inferiority complex". "I repeatedly hear that we need to present a soft image of Pakistan. What does a soft image mean? Why do we say this, and if this soft image is established will the world consider us very good?" Dawn newspaper quoted Khan as saying.
One doesn't have to go far from where Khan spoke to find a powerful symbol of Pakistan's aspiration to project its soft and democratic image. Walking down the Gali-e-dastoor (Constitution Lane) is like visiting a Left-wing art gallery in some Bolivarian country. Except that it is right inside the Parliament house of Pakistan, which is anything but a bastion of the Left.
Sepia-coloured prints of old newspaper front pages announcing the imposition of martial law – barbed wires stretched across them to create a sinister effect -- jostle for space with the murals of famous revolutionary Urdu poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib, along with the text of their fiery poetry. The Gali-e-dastoor bears witness to Pakistan's troubled constitutional history and its perpetual conflict with the military establishment, as also to its aspiration for democracy and civilian rule.
It is an attempt to showcase the country's softer side and convince the world – especially foreign visitors – that Pakistan is not all about terrorist attacks on school kids, sectarian killings and notorious blasphemy laws; it's a thriving democracy where civilian control over the country's institutions is paramount, and freedom of expression is intact. So much so, that even the military's anti-constitutional misdeeds are on display inside the country's supreme civilian institution.
I was among the delegates who were invited from 30-odd Asian countries to participate in the Asia Peace Film Festival (APFF) in Islamabad in 2017. Guests were treated to some of the best films and documentaries from Asia; there were informed debates in open seminars where speaker after speaker emphasised the need for Pakistan to assert its soft power. The three-day jamboree culminated in a conducted tour of the Gali-e-dastoor. In a country that almost always grabs the headlines for all the wrong reasons, it was quite surprising to see the soft side on full display.
American philosopher Joseph S Nye is credited with coining the term soft power. He further elaborated the concept as "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments." It is essentially a foreign policy tool deployed as a charm offensive to increase a country's global influence to achieve favourable results. According to the latest global soft power ranking index published in 2019 by communications consultancy Portland, France is at the top of the list, followed by Germany, with the United States under Donald Trump slipping down to number five. In a separate category of the top ten Asian countries, India ranked at number eight; Pakistan was not even considered for the survey.
Impactful power initiatives (such as the APFF) in Pakistan are still few and far between, but they are nevertheless happening because, over the years, a liberal section of the power elite has realised that their country has already lost a lot of time and resources in trying to establish itself as the vanguard of the Islamic world. And the state's patronage of terrorist outfits and religious extremists has not helped Pakistan gain an upper hand either in Kashmir or in Afghanistan, leave alone earning respect and goodwill of the international community.
This realisation has led to some positive initiatives by independent groups, aimed at instilling liberal and progressive social values in the youth, especially university students and young professionals. The Islamabad-based think-tank Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS) runs several programmes to de-radicalise the youth and to familiarise them with counter-extremism narratives. It also runs a programme called Youth for Interfaith Harmony to encourage tolerance for all religions as well as different sects of Islam. The organisers acknowledge that "religious extremism is a continuing problem" in Pakistan, and the youth need to be shepherded away from the sectarian and narrow-minded interpretation of Islam.
While this section of society is desperate to change Pakistan's negative image by projecting its hitherto ignored rich and diverse culture, the ruling establishment remains either totally indifferent to such ideas or mocks them. Questioning the whole concept of soft power and terming it a sign of "inferiority", Khan, in one fell swoop, took the wind out of the sails of scores of filmmakers, writers, poets and rights activists who have been lobbying hard to build a softer image of their country.
The irony in Khan's speech, however, was not lost on anyone when he told the filmmakers to create bold and original cinema. A year earlier, his own government had failed to defend renowned director Sarmad Khoosat's thought-provoking feature film, Zindagi Tamasha (Circus of Life), and deferred its release following the threats of violent protests from the far-right Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).
It did not matter that the film had got plaudits at the Busan International Film Festival for its sensitive portrayal of a religious-looking elderly man who gets videoed while dancing to a raunchy film song at a wedding party, and when the video goes viral, he is subjected to humiliation, social boycott and ignominy. In a sanctimonious and vigilante society, it is rather scandalous, if not outright blasphemous, for an elderly man to swing his hips in an "unmanly" fashion. No wonder Khan thinks being soft is a sign of inferiority.
The TLP targeted Khoosat for making what it called a "blasphemous" film that would "deviate the people from the path of Islam". The threat was so serious and the social media campaign against him so severe, that Khoosat deleted his social media accounts and had to spend almost the whole year in fear.
Incidentally, the TLP was also behind the widespread troubles that engulfed the streets of Pakistan in 2018 when the Supreme Court acquitted Christian farm worker Asia Bibi in a case of blasphemy against Islam and its Prophet – a crime punishable by death in Pakistan. Instead of strictly dealing with the thugs controlling the streets, Imran Khan's government negotiated and signed an agreement with TLP leaders to wriggle out of the crisis.
Juxtapose this with the government's arbitrary clampdown on peaceful and secular activities. Soon after coming to power in 2018, Imran Khan gave marching orders to at least 18 NGOs; the authorities launched a drive against "unfavourable" school textbooks and banned at least 100 of them for allegedly carrying "blasphemous and anti-Pakistan" content. Some of the books were reportedly banned just because they carried the quotes by Mahatma Gandhi rather than Pakistan's founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
On the one hand, the government is deeply suspicious of peaceful civil society organisations, but on the other hand, it treats violent extremist groups with kid gloves. Clearly, the political establishment thinks that Pakistan's influence in the geostrategic arena will increase only by accumulating hard power – a strong military arsenal supported by extreme Islamist non-state actors and a robust economy; investing in art, culture, cinema and independent think tanks is just a waste of time.
Joseph S Nyne once lamented that "some of our leaders do not understand the crucial importance of soft power." Although he said it in the context of America, his words ring true for the political leadership of Pakistan. Taking a leaf out of Joseph S Nye's books would do no harm either to Imran Khan or to the country he is currently leading.