After it became our permanent home, I decided to learn everything I could about my new country. I turned 7 years old a few weeks after my family moved to the United States, and emboldened by their risk-taking attitude I put aside my homesickness and let my curious nature take over. My mother, an educator in her native Pakistan who didn’t speak English but navigated the maze that is the New York City subway anyway, would look for scholastic shops, buying me picture books, coloring books, rife with doe-eyed cartoons of Presidents past and my favorite, the glorious Statue of Liberty. When I met Lady Liberty herself, I toppled over. It was my first visit to Ellis Island and my uncle told me, “She’s been welcoming people here for a long time.” It may have been because I looked straight up from the base of the pedestal and subsequently fell right down, but I like to think I lost my balance partly because I was starting to form the weighty narrative for these United States.
I was enrolled in a public school where the kindest librarians and teachers took me under their wing. While many lessons and instances reinforced my nascent understanding of the United States, I particularly remember my third-grade teacher remarking on my close friendship with an Indian girl, Dee. “If you had stayed in South Asia, in your own countries, you would most likely would have learned to hate each other.” Her words puzzled me, but I didn’t yet know about the senseless animosity of the two South Asian rivals. I was in junior high school when my mother gifted me a Pakistani history book. Titled “The Short History of Pakistan,” it was five inches of crumbly sepia-toned pages bound in a gray hardcover and full of the misspellings of the Queen’s English that I had learned to reject. I didn’t get through the first chapter. History became a lifelong love, but it seemed age-appropriate South Asian history wasn’t easily found. American history remains a passion of mine to this day, and I have grappled with both the accomplishments and agony of the American experience. It is my experience that Americans are continuously contending with their history, using their perspective as a tool in outlining their future.
The final song of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dazzling musical Hamilton begins with General George Washington counseling the audience “Let me tell you what I wish I’d known when I was young and dreamed of glory: you have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Christopher Jackson, a talented black theater actor, told the General’s story with poise when the show premiered on Broadway, but it was challenging for him to reconcile playing the Founding Father with the man who played a powerful role in perpetuating slavery. How could it not be? Here was a man who won a war in the name of freedom and liberty yet maintained a stony silence on the issue of slavery. On the face of it, his silence is a miserable fact to accept, especially since we know there were prominent voices calling for abolition, including his right-hand man, Alexander Hamilton. But there are other facts, too, that need consideration, and without whose consideration, we cannot have a full or even substantive judgment of the Father of the Nation.
This is when Walter Fisher’s communication theory, narrative paradigm, comes to work. The paradigm champions storytelling – that oldest of man’s communicative styles – as the most persuasive and meaningful form of communication. To be successful, Fisher argues, a narrative requires both coherence and fidelity. Coherence in turn necessitates the resemblance between stories and the credibility of the characters while fidelity asks whether the events described are factual, reviews the reasoning patterns followed by the characters, and how the argument in the story affects the decision-making of the listener.
We know, thanks to the work of countless historians, archivists, researchers and educators that Washington’s sentiment on the issue of slavery evolved over the course of his life. We know he was born into a world dependent on slavery; his own father was a slave-owner as were many people he would count amongst his closest friends and advisors. We also know that by the time of the Revolutionary War, he was troubled by the degrading consequences of the slave trade and vowed never to sell a slave as cattle in a market. There is remarkable coherency to his change of heart; a multitude of biographies with primary sources document his wish that someday Congress would enact a plan to phase out slavery. If we review the fidelity in this case, we can understand his reasoning to remain silent: in the late 1770s, Vermont and Massachusetts outlawed slavery while other states debated gradual emancipation but several Southern states, in particular South Carolina and his home state of Virginia, balked at the idea of following suit. He observed the deep political divisions and recognized the best solution was to maintain silence and encourage compromises.
Though he privately may have supported universal freedom, he would always meet the issue with silence in his official and public capacity. His silence, we can infer was what he thought was his best chance to grant the nation a future. He could never extricate himself from this conundrum during his life, and still cannot in legacy. But for Christopher Jackson and millions of others, these insights offer assistance in reconciling the man with his mission. In fact, Washington’s home, Mt. Vernon, has opened an interactive exhibit titled “Be Washington: It’s Your Turn to Lead,” where participants hear from Washington’s advisors, including Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Henry Knox before deciding the course of action for actual events Washington faced. None other than Christopher Jackson narrates the exhibit. There is not an easy reckoning to be had here – there cannot be – but there is an impassioned debate revolving around narrative that remains relevant to this day. That debate is only possible because of how we treat our most revered figures, no one is above reproach in American history.
It is inevitable I should compare the American experience with my Pakistani one. My family along with hundreds of others, would celebrate Pakistan’s Independence Day on August 14th with concerts and bazaars set up in New York City. That is when I first saw the likeness of Quaid-e-Azam (“Great Leader”) Muhammad Ali Jinnah. In his official portraits, he always wore a somber expression, intense dark eyes under his fur karakul hat (now popularly known as the Jinnah cap). This tall, thin man was a brilliant legal mind and quickly rose through the ranks to become the most successful Muslim barrister of India. His political ambition was undeniable; he threw himself into reorganizing and reinvigorating his Muslim League political party after a poor showing in elections. He debated Mahatma Gandhi and his Indian counterpart, Jawaharlal Nehru, opposing almost everything about their plans for a post-British country. Jinnah presided over the Lahore Resolution of 1940, calling for a new state to be carved into Asian geography. For this reason, Jinnah became the champion for millions of Muslims.
No one could have anticipated the brutality and unspeakable violence that would befall South Asia during Partition. It is estimated one million people were killed before the mass migration of Muslims and Hindus was complete. I have read accounts of railway stations awash with blood, box cars full of dead Hindus leaving modern-day Pakistan, and lifeless bodies of Muslims murdered while fleeing modern-day India. It is one of the painful periods of human history. I have often wondered what Jinnah thought or felt when he saw this level of viciousness and fanaticism. Did he ever regret calling for a separate land for Muslims? Was his goal to found an Islamic state of sorts? Surely he recognized not all Muslims could leave India, and some Hindus were destined to remain in Pakistan. What exactly was his vision for this country he brought about? These questions are taboo in Pakistan, because they go against the state-fueled – and only acceptable – narrative.
The theory in stark opposition to Narrative Paradigm is Rational World Paradigm. I can distill the differences of both with this: narrative paradigm argues we experience a world full of stories, and we must choose among them based on coherency and fidelity, while rational world paradigm understands the world through an almost linear series of logical relationships uncovered through reasoning. There is perhaps no other plot as compelling to a nation than the tale of its genesis, and the state is usually deeply invested in the legacy. In the case of Pakistan, the state has maintained total control of the linear arguments behind the existence of Pakistan, and along with it, co-opted Jinnah’s legacy.
History in Pakistan is taught via rote memorization, standardized in textbooks to promote a fictional past. Academics and historians, inside and outside the country, have criticized the national curriculum for its historical revisionism. For example, it is difficult to find information on the Indus Valley civilization. In its place, a fantastical myth exists to tie Pakistan to an Islamic past, severing all ties to a wondrous multi-ethnic and multi-religious antiquity dating back thousands of years. Subsequently, there is generally no detail given to the spread of Islam in the subcontinent or the conversions, many under duress, of the existing mainly Hindu population. School books in private institutions, public school systems and the religious madrassahs carry overt anti-Hindu sentiments, fueling Indophobia and casting doubt on the loyalty of the country’s Hindu and other minority faith citizens. Adding to this is a 1976 government proclamation that all textbooks should, among other things: 1- acknowledge a global network of enemies working against Pakistan, driven by India and 2 – emphasize Islamic virtues of obedience and submission (which works superbly with rote memorization). It was the religious zealot plus military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq, a maniac with designs to formulate an Islamic fascist state, who decreed the 1976 history book proclamation, but all successive governments have kept it alive.
What would Jinnah say? Rigid education teachings – in a country where reading for pleasure is not common – is the only access point for education, and that includes information on the Father of the Nation. It is almost taboo to discuss the personal life of Jinnah, because frankly, the details can torpedo the harsh narrative of the Islamic Republic. Muhammad Ali Jinnah was born into the Ismaili sect of Islam, and he converted to Shia Islam as an adult. The fashionable and brilliant lawyer socialized in the highest circles, and had friends across the religious spectrum. He married the Ruttie Petit, the daughter of a successful Parsi businessman and close friend, creating a societal scandal because of the differences in age (he was 41, she was 18), and religion. In a case of the apple falling right by the tree, his only child Dina was raised Muslim and would go on to marry Neville Wadia, a son of Parsi man and Christian woman. They wed in a church. These are two of the most important people in Jinnah’s life yet the state-run narrative has purged their details from the history books. No one tells their story.
Both personally and politically, there is ample reason to doubt Jinnah would have supported the ideology the state has ascribed to him – and certainly not the discriminatory and violent attitudes against minorities. In his first Presidential address, he made it clear to the people of Pakistan that “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” Jinnah had a vision for what his Pakistan would be, but the tragedy is he was not able to serve as its leader for long. He delivered this speech on August 11th, 1947; he died September 11th, 1948. Unlike George Washington, Jinnah did not have the opportunity to make formative policy decisions afforded to him. He did not leave behind essays, speeches and state manifestos to set as precedent. It is then remarkably easy for an ideology and mission to be attributed to him. Unlike the culture in the United States, Pakistani society does not participate – and most likely would not entertain – a critical perspective of the Founding Father and other notable members of history.
If in the United States, the Founders are akin to Greek gods – awe-inspiring but flawed, full of the jealousies and idiosyncrasies of us mortals, then in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, they are idolized as prophets it is considered blasphemous to question. If in the United States the Founders are not above reproach, then in Pakistan, the founding leaders’ lives are above scholarship. How a nation studies its origins plays a significant role in determining how its people seek solutions for contemporaneous crises. It is advantageous to study the founders and accept them for all their wisdom and limitations – political or moral. They are just like us, and so it stands to reason, we are just like them, capable of shaping our communities. Our role as the public is activated. However, when are taught the founders are sanctified and the truth obscured, our role diminishes to a submissive, unquestioning one. When history is taught as a linear sequence of events, independent thinking is stifled.
Pakistan has grappled with terrorism within its borders for decades; its government has long since held the country is on the front line of terror. And yet, the state’s history encourages a mythological past and narrative of exclusion that allow many people to easily negate criticism of the country. Both of Pakistan’s Nobel Prize winners, the physicist Dr. Abdus Salam and the brave Malala Yousafzai, are loathed in the country – he for being a member of a different Islamic sect than the majority of his fellow countrymen, and she for having supposedly manufactured her own near-death experience. There is no sense to these conspiracy theories, unless you believe in the linear logic dictated by the government and reinforced in all areas of social life. The leaders and activists who can see through the smoke screen are few and far between, and often at great personal risk. In the minds of many Americans today, the leadership of their country is far removed from the aspirational ideals they hold dear. The press is routinely degraded, the ugly forces of racism and xenophobia have reared their heads, longstanding allies shunned and rivals embraced, and in such an environment, conspiracies run rampant. But there is no submission or obedience here from the general public, rather there is a cacophonous echo of citizens decrying the current state or specific actions thereof at seemingly every turn.
The stories we tell of our founding fathers are the same stories we are continuing. Americans have fought (and continue to loudly fight!) to elasticize that hallowed phrase “We the People” to include a group of people far more diverse than the Founders could have imagined. Pakistanis have accepted the heavily redacted narrative of their history, reacting to inquiry or contrarian facts as though to a personal slight.
It’s all in who gets to tell the story.