Feb 21, 2009

National interest

PATRIOTISM and ‘national interest’ are amorphous ideas that defy definition. Dictionaries equate patriotism with a love of your country and a willingness to defend it, but that only lands us in even murkier territory. Besides implying a person’s affinity for the land where he or she was born or raised, what exactly does ‘love of your country’ mean? Does it make a citizen duty-bound to expose the nation’s most deep-rooted and abhorrent problems or to hush them up so that the country’s image is not tarnished? Then there is the question of defending the country. Battlefield combat and fighting off invaders is the preserve of the military. But on the civilian level, are Pakistanis obliged to defend their country in the face of criticism even if the case for the defence is based on denial or half-truths? Some say that patriotism and national interest, as defined by the entrenched elite, involves going about life with blinkers on, ignoring the inequity, injustice, hypocrisy and religious bigotry that, unfortunately, are the hallmarks of today’s Pakistan. Others, usually those who benefit most from the system as it stands, disagree. We should count our blessings and focus on what is good, they insist, instead of highlighting the country’s shortcomings however grave they may be. These are deep waters, for one man’s meat is another’s poison.
The media at large was asked at a seminar on Thursday to question the definition of national interest. As one speaker put it, 'there are many centres of power — [the] army, politicians, agencies, religious groups and the government — and they define and redefine national interest from their own perspectives.' This assessment is spot on. Vested interest has long been conflated in Pakistan with the public or national good, to the political or monetary enrichment of the powerful and the detriment of the people. This was inevitable in a country that has been ruled by military dictators and inept or corrupt politicians in the grip of delusions of grandeur. Some, it could be argued, didn’t really lose touch with reality, as it so often happens with those entombed in the corridors of power and surrounded by sycophants. They were just individuals with nobody’s interest at heart except their own.
Questioning national interest is one thing. Defining it, for reasons outlined at the outset, is another matter altogether. We are citizens of a country whose very identity is still open to question some 62 years after independence. Do we lean towards the Middle East or the immediate east or are we somehow unique in ourselves? Some soul-searching is in order if we are to escape the web of deceit and deception that has imprisoned us and our country. Patriotism, after all, can be the last refuge of scoundrels.

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