The Politics Of Naming

The dynamics of organized power, and indeed, the global regime of states in the 21st century, can only be understood by recognizing the distinctive characteristics of the modern surveillance state. Amidst all the celebratory talk of the information revolution changing the face of settled society, it is more than a little ironic that this same revolution has reinforced the power of the state to control human populations.

This enhanced power has been normalized by way of a nomenclature that is propagated widely through the corporate media and thereby internalized by a wide cross-section of people around the world. The almost complete hegemony of the dominant surveillance regime makes it close to impossible for the most affected to protect themselves. Since 9/11, systematic violence and political repression has been visited upon people all over the world under the guise of the so-called “war on terror.” In contemporary Pakistan, no single group has been more subject to the whims of organized power than the so-called “internally displaced persons,” or IDPs.

The term “IDPs” entered the popular lexicon only a few years ago, following the onset of military operations in Pashtun-majority regions in the northwest of the country that displaced hundreds of thousands, if not millions. (Consider the term in quotation marks throughout this article.) The largest such operation took place in the Swat Valley in 2009, and the latest is currently ongoing in North Waziristan. In actuality, virtually no agency or settled Pashtun region has been spared, with Khyber, Mohmand, Bajaur, Kurram and South Waziristan agencies subjected to innumerable offensives. There is, as such, no verifiable figure of the number of people who have been affected by these operations, including the numbers that have been forced to leave their homes.

As the fallouts of each military operation become clear, human rights defenders start to decry the tragedy of the IDPs. An outpouring of charity follows along with a lambasting of governmental authorities for not properly planning for the IDPs’ plight. Many also attach a rather morbid heroism to the IDP experience inasmuch as the affected communities are considered to be making a noble sacrifice for the greater common good.

What this greater common good is, why military operations are inevitable and the extent to which the IDPs even accede to the logic of what is termed “anti-terrorism” is not subject to any kind of critical interrogation. In short, the brutal truths about the political economy of war are conveniently swept under the carpet as real human beings are reduced to an epithet – IDPs – that renders them nameless victims.

The dissenting voices of the so-called IDPs are deliberately suppressed because they do not conform to the script. Over the past decade or so, Pashtun populations have been variously spoken for by the three principal protagonists of a treacherous fight over the spoils of war. All of the three – the Pakistani military, the religious right and the American empire – are responsible for the immiseration of a wide cross-section of Pashtun society.

All three protagonists pigeon-hole the Pashtun people into two diametrically opposed categories. For the militant right, they are either righteous members of the ummah, the imagined, global Muslim religious community, who need to be defended from the whims of infidels or traitors who need to be eliminated as per the ideology of takfeer (excommunication.) For Pakistani and American generals the Pashtun people are either “terrorists” or at best hapless IDPs deserving of our ending pity.

In truth, all of these categories obfuscate a complex reality, one that cannot be discerned without delving into history. Indeed even a cursory investigation into the recent past confirms that the ongoing conflict has a history that can be traced back at least as far as 1972. In short, the systematic displacement of millions of Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns in both Afghanistan and Pakistan has been ongoing for almost four decades.

Seen in such historical terms, the concoction of terms like “IDP” is hardly surprising. Since the 1970s, Pashtuns and many other populations in the throes of imperialist war have been subject to a politics of naming of almost absurd proportions. Most of the terminology currently in vogue followed the end of the Cold War and the banishing of the 20th century bogeyman, communism, into the dustbin of history.

With the emergence of “terrorism” as the biggest threat to the so-called civilized world, we have been witness to innumerable “humanitarian interventions” to foment regime change—and to its doublespeak. In this humanitarian world, there are “post-conflict zones”, graciously rebuilt by relief and reconstruction experts, and there are the “IDPs,” a-historicized victims who seem to suddenly appear before the television-watching public, which is then moved to try and ameliorate their suffering.

As happened in the case of the “free world” versus “communism,” the fight for democracy and freedom vis å vis “terrorism” could also go on for decades. Pakistanis, particularly of the liberal bent of mind, appear to have accepted the fact that IDPs are now a fact of life, along with military operations and the various other expressions of coercive power that are necessary so as to reestablish the writ of the state.

That the state, both local and global, is in fact the primary agency visiting death and destruction on Pashtun populations – and, for that matter, many other ethnic groups as well – does not appear to register. Or perhaps it does, and the chattering classes are actually content in the knowledge that anyone and everyone who potentially might be a “terrorist” is deserving of a bomb falling on their heads (and therefore of being made into an IDP if the bombing is survived).

If that is the case, and it appears increasingly to be so, then alongside the three principal protagonists of this cynical war must be added a fourth: a self-serving liberal rentier class residing in elite ghettoes (literally and figuratively) with a concern only for preserving its way of life, at any cost. These drawing-room experts on war and civilization may as well be the empire’s organic intellectuals. After all, they are engaged in a politics of naming that makes them indistinguishable from the organized powers that are forever devising more efficient ways to subjugate the world’s people and continue their loot and plunder.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar is the secretary general of the Awami Workers Party-Punjab, and Assistant Professor in Political Economy at the National Institute of Pakistan Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan. 

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41 Responses to The Politics Of Naming

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  2. […] government mishandling rather than the operation that forced people to move in the first place. The reluctance to connect the military attack and the displacement demonstrates a specific pro-army narrative […]

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    […] and bullets are extinguishing lives in Waziristan. Check out Tanqeed’s publications from the last week(ish) on […]

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