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Asia

The (holier) natives return to Pakistan

Decades ago, Pakistanis returning from Europe were seen as liberal, freewheeling and ultra-modern. These days, returnees pose as better Muslims than their compatriots in Pakistan, Nadeem F. Paracha observes.

Before the mid-1980s, Pakistanis who had lived in a western country and then returned home were usually perceived to have become more informed and "modern."

That's also apparent in the way the country's once-thriving Urdu cinema portrayed such Pakistanis. For example, across the 1950s and 1960s, most Urdu films that included a character who had returned from Europe or the US depicted that person as "wise and enlightened." These narratives went something like this: An educated city dweller was seen to be more level-headed and less religious than a person from the rural areas. And such a city dweller was usually a Pakistani who had gone to the West for studies or work.

Then, in the 1970s, Pakistan got its first popularly elected government, led by the left-liberal populist Z.A. Bhutto. Bhutto's populism meant a promotion of social democracy that was supposedly more rooted in the common wisdom of the "masses." It is even more interesting to note how Pakistani films treated this new phenomenon.

As the 1960s radical social youth movements in the West exhausted themselves, they became more faddish. These emerging fads and fashions also arrived in Pakistan. So, whereas in the 1960s most Urdu films had celebrated the Pakistani returnee from the US or Europe as a bastion of modern ideas, in the 1970s he/she began being portrayed as an unruly-haired, guitar-slinging and dope-smoking hippie!

In films during the Bhutto era, though the "level-headed" US/Europe Pakistani returnee was still perceived as being progressive, many of his more socially "liberated" contemporaries began being seen through the prism of the so-called masses.

This did not mean that Pakistani society had shifted to the religious right. Not quite yet. It was just that the urban liberal tenor of the Ayub Khan dictatorship (1958-1969) had mutated - through Bhutto - into becoming a more populist, mass-level notion.

Thus, Pakistani films of the 1970s came with a new narrative that now suggested that it was fine to be liberal, as long as one remained in contact with the traditions of his/her surroundings.

That's why whereas the Pakistani hippie who had returned from Europe was portrayed as a bumbling hippie buffoon in most 1970s films, an urban Pakistani who was equally liberal but managed to slip in a dialogue or two about "eastern values," became an admirable aspiration.

Arab influence

In the 1970s greater numbers of Pakistanis began traveling abroad. The difference this time was that many now began moving to the oil-rich Middle-Eastern countries rather than to Europe or the US - mainly to work.

Until the late 1970s, Pakistan was much more pluralistic and secular than most Arab countries. So Pakistanis who went there experienced places that were squarely under the yoke of puritanical monarchies and autocratic regimes whose states were still in the process of being "modernized." Soon these Pakistanis began sending impressive amounts of money to their families back home, triggering the emergence of a prosperous new urban middle class.

The process that saw these Pakistanis being exposed to puritanical strains of the faith practiced by Arab populations - as well as enjoying a sense of their rising economic statuses - generated a whole new type of Pakistani, one who now began identifying their former religious and social dispositions as having to do with low economic status.

This is one reason why, from 1980 onwards, a large number of urban middle and lower-middle class Pakistanis began adopting various shades of puritanical Islam. The process was hastened by the policies of a staunchly conservative military dictatorship that had toppled the Bhutto regime in July 1977.

A successful middle-class Pakistani now denoted an educated urbanite who was a trader, businessman, banker or white-collar employee, but who, at the same time, was now more likely to observe regular prayers and preferably adorn "Islamic attire."

Pakistanis living in the West, too, went through this transformation, especially after 9/11. No more were Pakistanis returnees from the West being associated with cultural modernism or liberalism, as such. And though this transformation had been more gradual and slower among the middle and lower-middle classes within Pakistan, it became more pronounced within the Pakistani diaspora in the Middle East, Europe and the US. It was accelerated mainly by the popularity of travelling Islamic evangelists catering to South Asian Muslims living in the West.

Righteous with a Western accent

Anecdotes abound about how the offspring of Pakistanis who had been living like "true Muslims" in Europe and the US from the 1980s were shocked to discover that Pakistan was not the kind of Islamic republic they had imagined it to be.

Pakistani returnees from the West are now perceived as "better Muslims" than those living in Pakistan, or at least that's how they like to set themselves apart from their compatriots.

Were Pakistani cinema thriving today, I'm sure our films would now portray the newly returned Pakistani from the West not as an enlightened modernist or a hippie buffoon, but as a shocked Muslim wagging a righteous finger at his countrymen and advising them to repent - in an American or European accent, of course.

Nadeem Farooq Paracha - popularly known as NFP - is one of Pakistan's most famous satirists and cultural critics. He tweets at @NadeemfParacha.

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