Hope and forgetting in Pakistan

Britta Petersen is country director for Pakistan of the Heinrich Boell Foundation based in Lahore. She writes regularly in The Express Tribune.

January 16, 2012
Britta Petersen
What has always struck me about Pakistan and the Pakistani people is their ability to generate political passion despite so many disappointments. In other places, hope is a marathon runner who drops dead the moment she reaches her goal — although the real test begins much later. In Pakistan, despite the fact that no politician seems to have ever delivered on the promises he or she made, hope refuses to die. It usually takes her a few years of regeneration and up she is again in the race for a better future.

I vividly remember the time after General Musharraf’s coup and how he was welcomed: finally a man at the top of the state who is honest, capable, professional and refreshingly unhypocritical. He violated the constitution but no one seemed to care too much about that and thought him to be a kind of a messiah. He was conveniently supported by the US and all the other powers that claim to be genuinely concerned about Pakistan. We all know the end of that story.

And what an end it was. In came Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, a well-deserved adversary for Musharraf and an appropriate antidote to an unlawful regime. The lawyer’s movement that supported him seemed a promise of justice to the downtrodden masses, but lost momentum when Chaudhry was reinstalled and finally drowned in a sea of the rose petals that were showered on the head of Mumtaz Qadri.

Last, but not least, Benazir Bhutto. Although her two stints as prime minister cannot entirely be deemed as successful (and she entered the country again in 2008 through a dubious deal with a military dictator), people preferred to elect her dead body instead of a living Nawaz Sharif. They ended up with her husband, who — and this might be his true historical achievement - never promised to be more than he was.

And now Imran Khan: a handsome, uncorrupt, philanthropic sportsman, a knight in shining armour. “Unhappy the country that needs heroes” said German dramatist Bertolt Brecht. But one might prefer to look at the phenomenon from another point of view.

The hero is venerated because he makes his admirers forget the dirty preconditions of his success. In history, these were often bloodshed and cruelty. Today, things are murkier. Change is unlikely to be brought about by a single person. American President Barack Obama is a good example. Nobody could live up to the expectations that he created and that was his true irresponsibility. Modern democracy is post-heroic in the sense that the system always stays intact, no matter who is at the top. And that is the reason for its stability and success.

The hero, by comparison succeeds because he manages to convince his followers by virtue of his charisma that he and he alone is the answer to all their problems. This requires a certain command over what Friedrich Nietzsche called “the force of forgetting”. The German philosopher, who was a true expert on “the will to power”, believed that forgetting is necessary to keep up the vitality that is required for life and success. Forgetting, according to Nietzsche does not happen accidentally. It is an active force in the service of life.

Psychoanalysis, a forefather of which Nietzsche was, proves him right. If we want to go on with life and start afresh, we need to get over past disappointments, broken relations, lost friendships and failed businesses. In short: we need to forget them. This (by the way) is quite the contrary of the official post-war German philosophy that has been acting on the assumption that “he who forgets the past is condemned to repeat it”. But we might as well be looking at two sides of the same coin here.

Nietzsche, for sure, would have preferred the vitality of the Pakistani people and their ability to forget their disappointments. If it inevitably leads to a repetition of the past, it’s again well in line with Nietzsche’s historical philosophy - based on the concept of an eternal return of the eternal same (which is also a subcontinental idea).

First published in The Express Tribune, January 7th, 2012. 
Bild: Stephan Röhl. Lizenz: Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0. Original: Flickr.

Britta Petersen

Britta Petersen is director of the Heinrich Boell Foundation office in Lahore, Pakistan.