Saturday, December 21, 2013

The danger of infallible heroes: On Jefferson and Jinnah

Aside:  I have been thinking on and off about this particular blog post from the inestimable (personal opinion alert!) Ta Nehisi Coates, which examines the tension between the anti slavery/abolitionist writings of Thomas Jefferson and his status as a slave owner in 18th century post independence American society. Here is a completed version of my thoughts

In the context of the American narrative (see American exceptionalism, the American Dream, Manifest Destiny, and Empire of Liberty), the liberation of (some of) the United States from British rule in the late 18th century is the cornerstone upon which the modern American identity is constructed. Within this framework, the American founding fathers enjoy a divinity of sorts, characterized by unmatched strength, wisdom, courage and a lack of moral failings.

In his writings, Ta Nehisi Coates points out a mismatch (a rather mild term in the context of slavery) between the anti abolitionist writings of Jefferson, where he passionately argues the moral and practical problems of slavery:
The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. 

This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. 

And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other. For if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labour for another: in which he must lock up the faculties of his nature, contribute as far as depends on his individual endeavours to the evanishment of the human race, or entail his own miserable condition on the endless generations proceeding from him. With the morals of the people, their industry also is destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. 

and his role as a slave owner, who "punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time".

This contradiction between Jefferson's "founding father" persona and his moral failings as an individual creates an unease within the American national narrative. Attempts to resolve this contradiction either utilize the "man of his times" trope to justify/contextualize his slave owning status (historically inaccurate since some slave owners at the time set their slaves free) or worse deliberately belittle it. Rejecting the individual moral failings of national leaders/icons rather than reworking the national narrative to embrace them is problematic.

Historical events, or rather public perception of them, play an important role in shaping national identity. This identity informs the social, political context from which politicians/policy makers arise, in turn influencing which domestic and foreign policies are instituted. This is especially relevant in the current social and political atmosphere in Pakistan. The creation narrative of Pakistan as a "Muslim" (an ever changing definition nowadays) state is the cornerstone of our national identity. It is central to current ad nauseum emphasis on Muslim religious devoutness within the public sphere and the exclusion of non-Muslim and non-believing Pakistanis from it.

I would like to argue that examining the founding fathers of Pakistan, especially Jinnah, through the lens of the national narrative rather than as historical individuals underpins the limited scope of our current domestic and foreign policy.  An example of this is the deliberate removal of Jinnah's affection for alcohol from state approved historical narratives. Akbar Ahmad suggests that notion of a Jinnah who enjoyed alcohol is seen as weakening his Islamic identity and by extension that of the state. As historian Ayesha Jalal has pointed out, examining Jinnah as a historical figure remains an exercise in hagiography rather than that of genuine scholarship. This emphasis on the Islamic identity of both Pakistan and it's creator(s) is largely responsible for the increasing religious fundamentalism in our society. Although, the forced inclusion of religion into the Pakistani public sphere is the result of General Zia ul-Haq's policies, the divine status afforded to Jinnah and his contemporaries in our national narrative provided the vertebrae upon which these policies could be clothed.

As Coates points out on Jefferson:

At some point we are going to have to develop something beyond an infantile desire to know whether Daddy was a "good guy" or a "bad guy." In fact, Daddy was an avowed white supremacist, whose words help inspire the black freedom movement. Daddy was an American slave-holder to the end, who brilliantly elucidated the moral and practical problem of American slavery. Daddy railed against miscegenation, while practicing it.
Let me contextualize this from a Pakistani perspective.

At some point we are going to have to develop something beyond an infantile desire to know whether Jinnah and the founders of our nations were "good Muslim men" or not. In fact, Jinnah was a secular individual who enjoyed his alcohol, while creating a state based on religion. Jinnah opined that Muslims were a separate people that neither inter-dined nor inter-wed with other religious communities while he married a Parsi woman. Jinnah dismantled the oppressive power of colonial rule, while imposing the Urdu language upon non Urdu speaking peoples. Jinnah adopted the language, dress and culture of his colonial oppressors while ensuring that Indian Muslims had a seat at the table in post-colonial India.

Lastly, I would like to point out that while both Jinnah and Jefferson were fallible, complex and contradictory individuals that are afforded a divine status in their respective societies, I am by no means implying that their actions are equivalent (secularism and language oppression ≠ slavery). I  do not view Jinnah's secular leanings as moral failings, but rather a representation of the complexity of his person and a refreshing contrast to his one dimensional persona within our Islamicized national narrative. However, I would also emphasize that Jinnah should not be afforded divine status within our society. A critical assessment of his politics is necessary for constructing a new national narrative, one that acknowledges the wrongs of our history and pushes to right them.