Last month, the chief of the Pakistan Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, spoke to the South Asian Strategic Stability Institute on “Security Outlook 2025: National Security and Defence Transformation”, and stated: “In contemporary geopolitics, the battles are no longer between state and non-state actors but with supra-individuals, those individuals who exploit both the national and international space for their desired objectives. These supra-individuals have the capacity to manipulate networks, organisations and state institutions to create waves of instability and create discord at the centre of the state institutions. Explosions are still a viable tool of war, but implosions are the new defeat mechanisms.”
Who are these supra-individuals endangering the nation-state and the world? He didn’t use the word supermen, as it has been squeezed of meaning somewhat by cinema, where flying men come to the help of beleaguered humanity. He definitely meant leaders who arouse violence, the one instinct all individuals are gifted with, but which is suppressed by a civilisation rising dazed from world wars conducted by supra-individual leaders.
Did the general refer only to leaders who create inter-state conflict? He also said Pakistan’s enemy was “within” rather than “without” — he “lives within us and looks like us”. One can name a few supra-individuals — unfortunately all Muslims today — killing Muslims and causing inter-state conflict. One can also look at the leaders within Pakistan who exercise personality cult and can be placed in the category of supra-individuals. In all cases, violence is the hallmark of their identity.
The birth of the violent supra-individual is unavoidable. Religion helps in his nurture. In the organised state, he takes his flock and occupies a sequestered space where he can mould his followers’ conduct without being challenged. Because he uses violence, he gets into trouble with the organised state sooner or later, is attacked in his stronghold, after which he kills himself like Hitler in the last face-off with the law. His followers remain loyal and embrace death; such is the power of the supra-individual.
In the unorganised state — General Sharif called such states “polarised” — he is almost irresistible and causes dysfunction. “Due to increased polarisation,” he said, “governments are unable to protect their people and national security.”
After World War II — which produced supra-individuals on both sides of the conflict, like Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, etc — democracy in Europe tried to prevent the rise of the charismatic leader. But the masses, living under democracy, never really suppressed their appetite for the “redeemer” type of leader who would bring about the “big change”. Where democracy falters and the state becomes weak through the loss of its writ, the redeemer promising “change” with “violence” makes his appearance, calling it “revolution”. No one listens to my favourite economists, Surjit S. Bhalla and Ijaz Nabi, saying that any significant change comes only from high growth rates, not revolution.
Even when pledging peaceful “protest” under the constitution, the “redeemer” uses a language full of violence. The peaceful protest invariably produces physical violence, a transition from verbal to physical, which has been recognised as a norm in politics. In Pakistan, most religious leaders tend to use “verbal” violence as sanctioned by Islam according to their lights. Frequently, it is followed by acts of great violence, including beheadings, the favourite mode of righteous punishment among Muslims these days.
In Pakistan, probably the most verbally violent leader in the recent politics of “peaceful protest” was the great religious leader, Allama Tahirul Qadri of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek. His cult followers agitated in Lahore and became violent. The administration lost its head and retaliated with bullets. The new normal is that you let the protesters inflict some damage and take it passively. Qadri was so violent in his speech that he damaged his heart nerves haranguing his flock, and
is now ill.
On the other hand, Imran Khan uses a lower grade of verbal pyrotechnics, but his followers, less subject to control, take the cue and become greatly agitated. His crowds always look like getting out of hand and are scary for an administration charged with the task of drawing the sting of “sit-ins”. Do the supra-leaders want violence, or is it the fault of the administration that forces their followers to become violent?
All commentators at some point concede that cult leaders want dead bodies on the ground as part of their planned rise to power. Is violence a needed ingredient of the politics of showdown threatened by deadlock? Gone are the days when leaders stepped down after feeling they had become unpopular. These days, most third-world states fail to deliver and become unpopular within six months. (Pardon me, but nowadays this happens in Europe too, especially to leftists like Hollande, who promise more “delivery” than is possible.)
The pattern in Pakistan is: hit the streets, become violent, disrupt the economy, scare the normal citizen into neutrality, and then expect the “arbitrator”, the army, to step in and ask the elected government to leave. Politicians have developed a conditioned reflex and probably never really want to rule when they try and topple each other from power. Clearly, they prefer the army to “arbitrate”, without really wanting the next election too much. When the army decides to stay a decade in power, they simply join its government. Most of them have this background.
The Muslim redeemers in Nigeria, Somalia and Iraq are not really very different. They routinely behead fellow Muslims, but they have learned the trick from our redeemers like Hakimullah Mehsud and Fazlullah. The army knows this and their commander, General Sharif, wants to tell the truth about people who are “within us and look like us”.
The state in Pakistan has become weak after decades of irredentism and asymmetrical war. In Afghanistan, the weak state produced warlords; in Pakistan, it has produced supra-individuals like Qadri, Khan, Altaf Hussain of the MQM, Hafiz Saeed of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa and, less visibly, Malik Ishaq of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Masood Azhar of Jaish-e-Muhammad, Ahmad Ludhianvi of erstwhile Sipah Sahaba, and Muhammad Ilyas Qadri of Dawat-e-Islami. An inspired Mumtaz Qadri can kill a governor and then dictate terms from the death cell as retired judges of the high court plead for his honourable release.
The supra-individual of Pakistan mobilises massive amounts of money and multitudes. They are well organised, funded by people who want change not written in the constitution. Some funding will come from the Gulf region, if you are willing to behead the Shia. But grabbing property and rentals will fill the coffers too, as the local administration shows less and less interest in confronting violent mobs that look increasingly like the Taliban.
General Sharif’s statement is an extraordinary diagnosis. His predecessor, Ashraf Kayani, caused a national double-take when, towards the end of his last extension, he conceded that Pakistan was “threatened from within”. He didn’t go into as much detail as the morally more courageous current commander has. Will the Pakistan army follow up on its latest “threat perception”? Pakistanis, helpless in the face of the supra-individuals, will be forever grateful.
The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’.