The response in Pakistan

Print edition : December 08, 2001

Noam Chomsky's lecture tour in Pakistan evokes an overwhelming response.

PROFESSOR Noam Chomsky is a recognised multiple genius. Linguistics, mathematics, philosophy, literature, politics and other disciplines and, above all, the capability to synergise them all, place his work far above that of most of his contemporaries. He presents a reality that often bites. Chomsky was in Pakistan in the last week of November to deliver two lectures, in Lahore and Islamabad. The response was overwhelming, yet it raised several basic questions and left them unanswered as well.

His themes, in Lahore as well as Islamabad, largely covered the same issues he touched during his tour of India. Yet his visit to Pakistan had its own importance, especially with the United States being at war with the poorest country - Afghanistan. The huge response Chomsky drew to his two lectures from a broad spectrum of Pakistani society and the wide coverage in the media were perhaps a reflection of the prevailing anti-American sentiment in the country.

At least a section of the media in Pakistan attempted to raise some fundamental questions about the visit of a man who is regarded as one of the eminent intellectuals of the current era. This section made a passionate plea to the people to ponder seriously over the issues raised by Chomsky and even wondered whether his visit would have triggered the same level of interest but for the war in the neighbourhood.

The first lecture, in Lahore, was sponsored by The Friday Times (TFT), a left-of-centre weekly. After TFT advertised the Chomsky lecture - as it had come to be called - the publication was inundated with requests from all kinds of people who wished to attend. It received requests from over 3,000 people who wanted to hear Chomsky speak. Everyone in the city wanted to be at the 'Chomsky lecture'. "What is going on? Is it an event where some people want to see and be seen?" The response had inspired a piece, 'Why are we flocking to hear Chomsky?', by TFT News Editor Ejaz Haider, wherein he asked whether people were "not doing the right thing for the wrong reasons".

Haider compared Chomsky with the Pakistani intellectual Dr. Eqbal Ahmed, a great friend of Chomsky, and asked why the so-called Pakistani 'thinking class' was flocking to the lectures when Dr. Eq, as he was popularly called, was shunned and marginalised for his brand of native 'Chomskyism'. "Most of all, Chomsky is the conscience that troubles everyone. And we, as a people, are not terribly famous for putting up with anyone among us who would, Chomsky-like, tell us who we are."

Yet, on November 24, the hall at the Avari Hotel in Lahore witnessed a spontaneous overflow of intellectualism. People sat in the aisles and the lecture was, on popular demand, video-conferenced live with Karachi, the commercial capital that was not on Chomsky's itinerary. Several people walked in without invitations and squatted on the floor to listen to the enlightening lecture on the character of the war launched by the U.S. on Afghanistan.

IT was no different when Chomsky visited the national capital on an invitation from the Dawn media group. The auditorium at the Islamabad Convention Centre was jam-packed with representatives of the media, academicians, students and other sections of the elite; many more people were left annoyed at the limited number of invitations issued. Chomsky was given the Dawn award, 'The Ensign of the Rising Sun of Mehgarh', as he delivered the lecture and took queries. The insights that he shared with the audience that evening was reported for days in all the leading newspapers in Islamabad.

In a way it was ironical. Chomsky, a Jewish person, was making waves in the ideological state of Pakistan where all people of Jewish descent are considered essentially Zionist. If his lectures and his ideas were celebrated, the unexpectedly huge response they generated was also analysed. An Indian diplomat even remarked that the religious zealots of Pakistan would have dubbed the event as a Hindu-Jewish conspiracy if they knew his antecedents.

"So why should we want to listen to Chomsky? Just because he is a famous intellectual or because he is likely to give us the ammunition to take potshots at the United States, the U.S. that we love to hate? Or are we really prepared to listen to what he has to tell us about us?" Haider wrote. The timing of the lecture, along with the new equations the Pakistani establishment was working out with the U.S. in the wake of the war in Afghanistan, perhaps augmented the mass appeal of his ideas in the country. It was evident that his ideas provided 'ammunition' to the anti-U.S. lobbies and helped put the 'placate-U.S. policies' of the military government under the magnifying glass. However, what was not clear was if it really succeeded in presenting a looking glass to the thinking elites in order to awaken them to the 'tell us about us' part of Chomsky's effort.

The bitter criticism that Chomsky had offered to the Indian polity while he was in India during the first leg of his tour of the subcontinent, though not extensively reported in the Pakistani media, contributed to increasing his acceptance in the country. "What he said there widely challenged our long-held and cherished stereotype of the Jewish-Hindu conspiracy against Muslims in general and Pakistan in particular. But since we love anyone who is able to tell the Indians where to get off, we are prepared to ignore his Jewishness and love him for his anti-Indianness," Haider wrote.

Or was it essentially the 'rebel' who has thrived in the 'not-so-democratic' Pakistan who was bewitched by the Chomsky-ian charm? After all, Chomsky "is best when debunking linguistic subterfuge. His best put-downs are when he talks of key words as 'national interest' and 'free trade'," wrote Khaled Ahmed, Executive Editor, TFT, in another article, 'Chomsky: Rebel without a pause'. In Pakistan, where 'national interest' is a word used too often by the establishment in order to justify most policies as well as their reversals, Chomsky's interpretations and analyses offered an interesting counter-view. Moreover, it is fashionable to be a U.S.-hater and a rebel. Perhaps going to the lecture was like 'rolling up the sleeve' a la T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock.

However, Ahmed takes the interest generated by Chomsky in Pakistan a step further:

"Chomsky has been called 'essential ammunition' by America haters... But one wonders if Chomsky would be completely satisfied with this manner of use of his work. The real insight is that this indicter of the U.S. lives in the U.S. and is able to publish there.

"He actually prompts us to look at ourselves critically with the same honesty and depth of knowledge as he looks at America. Do the Pakistani media come up to the standards he has set?

"Do we have a Noam Chomsky of our own? Would we allow him to survive if he were to appear in our midst? We will be more just in 'using' him against the West if we are prepared to accept his kind as an institution in Pakistan.

"Chomsky, in his publications and in his talks, appears virtually to be a prophet. His job - to unleash the truth. He answers questions and raises many more. Leaves many to us to ponder and find answers to. He invariably holds a mirror not just to America or to Pakistan but to any people and nation he visits or who choose to read him.

"And in the wake of his truth, he gathers his ever-increasing flocks and universalises many contentious contemporary issues even as he himself remains marginalised from the mainstream process. As Rainer Maria Rilke says in Letters to a Young Poet - 'Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into answers'."

The visit of the 'rebel without a pause' brought out some passionate write-ups in the Urdu press as well. The Editor of the well-known Urdu daily Ausaf, Hamid Mir, known for his pro-Taliban sentiments, bemoaned Chomsky's visit on another count. In his column, Mir said that while Muslims around the world were facing repression, there was no voice in the entire Muslim world that could effectively counter the repression. He said that it was left to an American intellectual, Chomsky, to take up the job. "His courage is a matter of satisfaction for those whose own intellectuals, politicians and rulers have become puppets in the hands of imperialism. Noam Chomsky's popularity in Pakistan is evidence of our own ideological bankruptcy. We can only wish to have such a poet, writer and intellectual who could play his role in the country."

Someone in the audience in Islamabad asked Chomsky the following question: The U.S. Envoy in Pakistan has praised Musharraf a lot; was the U.S. serious about restoration of democracy in the country? Chomsky answered that there was a time when the U.S. praised Saddam Hussain for being its ally in the war against Iran. But what happened later? It showered bombs on Iraq. It played Suharto against Sukarno in Indonesia in the same manner and later humiliated the military dictator.

At least two Federal Ministers, Dr. Ataur Rehman and Abbas Sarfaraz, came to listen to Chomsky in Islamabad. But they appeared uncomfortable in the face of Chomsky's plain-talk. When Chomsky asserted that the U.S. President was a bigger terrorist than Osama bin Laden, as the former had no proof against Osama while the killing of innocent people in Afghanistan was the proof against President Bush, people in the hall clapped.

"But the two Ministers were looking at each other, as this clapping could cause damage to that 'national interest' for which we, along with the U.S., have brought the Northern Alliance to power in Afghanistan," Mir wrote.

"Last night I hailed Chomsky at a reception for his courageous stand. He laughed and replied that he said nothing new. According to him, he was saying the same that the people of Pakistan had in their hearts and minds. The only difference, he said, is that if you compare Musharraf with Saddam and Suharto, you would have to face charges of rebellion. But when I say, he continued, the people would appreciate and clap, as I have an American passport. In fact, some Pakistani intellectuals deserved the praise that you are giving to me, he added. I am receiving all praise because nobody in your country has the courage. Noam Chomsky has embarrassed us," wrote the editor of Ausaf.

That Chomsky had hit his country where it hurts most was evident from the reaction of the U.S. coalition spokesperson, Ambassador Kenton W. Keith, to the lecture tour of Chomsky. When a reporter wanted him to answer some of the questions raised by Chomsky on the war in Afghanistan, Ambassador Keith paused and said: "I have stopped commenting on Chomsky since 1963. He is a boring lecturer." He said this amid giggles from the American Information Centre staff in Islamabad.

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