Alia Amirali: Change Agent in a Stuck Society

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Alia Amirali (27 minutes, 14 mb mp3)

ISLAMABAD — Alia Amirali is a second-generation change agent in a society that’s stuck — or maybe worse: scared, confused, depressed, afraid it might be sinking. Her project, she begins, is to “rebuild the left” in Pakistan. She is giving us just a hint of a program, and finally a sort of plea to her alienated family and friends: go out and meet a real Pakistani for a change. As if to say: let’s find in each other the land of milk and honey that our parents remember before the mosque and the military seized the country 30 years ago.

Alia Amirali is the general secretary of the Student Federation in the Punjab. She’s also a daughter with a very different spin on creative dissent from her eminent father Pervez Hoodbhoy. Most usefully for me, Alia Amirali is short-listing the obstacles the rising generation sees between here and a society you’d want to live in.

(1) the Post-Colonial State. The machinery of statehood was built by the British to administer a colony. So the “state” in Pakistan is older than the 64-year-old “nation,” and still a bad fit with a patchwork of Sindhis, Punjabis, Balochis and many more language and faith minorities that might likely choose a looser federation of provinces if they had the choice.

(2) Islamism. Mohammed Ali Jinnah‘s founding dream was of a homeland for India’s Muslims that would also be a secular state and a pluralistic society, but he died scarcely a year after Pakistan’s birth, leaving a “conceptual orphan,” as it’s been called. “Being Muslim,” Alia Amirali is saying gently, “is not enough to keep us all together as a nation.”

(3) The assassination habit. The most exalted powers in Pakistan, like Benazir Bhutto, and the humblest Balochi separatists face the same grim equalizers: torture, disappearance and/or death. The rule of the Army and the “deep state” in Pakistan, as Alia Amirali puts it, is: “if they cannot control it, they will crush it,” and they will not be held accountable.

(4) The void. Since the military outster and execution of the charismatic populist President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979, Pakistani politics has been a mostly closed brokerage of favors and commercial deals — proof against debatable national “issues,” proof against fresh talent, too.

(5) The USA. “The American presence,” which feels like “occupation” to Alia Amirali, “is the biggest contributor to this chaos, this back-to-the-cave situation that Pakistan is in.” For 30 years the United States has been at war in, through or around Pakistan; we embraced and enabled the Islamist martial-law President Zia-ul-Haq through the 1980s. It is this American imperial record that lends legitimacy to the Taliban, in Alia Amirali’s view, and more than anything else separates Alia Amirali from her father. “He is hoping somehow that this very same character who created this monster will do away with it.”

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  • nother

    Chris asks Ms. Amirali why there isn’t any fresh political talent arising in South Asia, which reminded me of a similar question: Why isn’t there any fresh political talent arising in the Republican Party? To gain entrance into these Parties (their side) you must declare your allegiance to the extreme. Anything other than that makes you a traitor (Just ask Rick Perry). And too often the same applies for the other “side.” It’s the “sides’ that we must delegitimize or at least knock down a couple notches.

    It was a pleasure to listen to Mr. Amirali and I feel more informed. I will say however that I found it instructive that she identifies her project’s identity as anti-____, anti-_____, etc. When we define and build our identity from what we are not, I fear that at the very least we end up treading water.

    With that said however, it was great to hear a great voice speaking with a great voice.

  • a ercelan

    Lucid and succinct. Do wish that alia would not write us old lefties so blthely — she would not be what she is without being nurtured in the progressive environment of her father’s uni. All power to her efforts.

  • nice

  • bakhshal

    she is commited progressive worker. best wishes for her

  • Sophia

    First of all, I would not have called the series, ANOTHER PAKISTAN, it suggests that it is not all the same Pakistan, as Alia says, not even modernity is monolithic, it is all part of the complicated and complex Pakistani society, like most societies, but for some reason both the conservatives and liberals from the West are unable to see Pakistani (or for that matter all “other” cultures that are not western) as somehow monolithic.

  • Brent

    Excellent dialogue. The distinction between “peoples” and “states” in closing was particularly incisive and illuminating. I’d love to know which theorists Amirali is reading/recommending.

  • chris

    Pervez Hoodbhoy writes to me about his gifted and articulate daughter Alia:

    She’s a lovely kid, warm and affectionate to her parents. That in spite of our strong disagreement on America and the Pakistan Army: she wants out for both. Her position is absolute; I feel ambivalent. As I see it, an Islamic takeover would be catastrophic for all: rich, poor, Left, Center, women, Shia, Christian, Hindu… Its all very well to say that the “people” will confront the militants who kidnap and kill at will, blow up mosques, hospitals, public places, schools, etc. Today’s newspaper records another girl’s school blown up somewhere…scarcely a news worthy item since there were 1200 -1300 since 2004. Only an organized force can counter these barbarians. I wish the Left could, but it can’t muster even 200 people for a demonstration. So who can prevent the kind of massacres that we saw in Swat? It was only when the Army moved in that a kind of peace was restored over there… The people of Swat may not like the Army, but find it infinitely preferable to Mullah Fazlullah and his bunch of murderous thugs.

    If the Army can stop the kind of serious blood-letting (gang-warfare, ethnic) that has gone on for the last month in Karachi, would I still “on principle” insist that it stay out? Not me. What’s that holy principle and who sanctified it?

    On the other hand, the Army definitely needs to be out of Baluchistan where it behaves as an occupation force and has entered into an abduct, torture, and dump mode.

    On America: in my opinion it stands guilty of having actively initiated jihad and religious terrorism in the 1980’s, and of using all means, fair and foul, to run this part of the world. Of course Pakistan must refuse its diktat, cease giving business to its defence industries, and stop being a lapdog that is obsequious and obedient at times, aggressive and snarling at other times. But its a huge exaggeration to lay all (or most) of Pakistan’s problems on the US. Worse, this distracts from issues that Pakistanis really need to be worried about: constitutionally prescribed discrimination against non-Muslims, huge income disparities, dysfunctional justice system, a failed education system, out of control population growth, and violence against women. These aren’t “lifestyle” issues…they’re fundamental – and have nothing to do with the US. Unfortunately, for the most part, the Left simply apes the Right in hysterical US-bashing. But I doubt that this simple populism will pay. All this does is add to the layers of confusion. My fear is that if and when the Islamists take over, they will go for the Left first…let’s not forget Iran.

    Anyway, I thought that I should explain my position, a difficult one to hold when there’s anti-American hysteria all around.



  • I find myself agreeing with both Pervez Hoodbhoy AND his daughter. This does not have to be an either/or position or analysis, surely? Why not acknowledge that it is best the Army and US stop interfering in the business of running the Pakistani state covertly or overtly, BUT simultaneously admitting that Pakistani citizens need to face the fact that the demons (unleashed by these powers to be sure, ie Taliban etc)–have taken on a life of their own and are indeed now part and parcel of the mental make-up of most Pakistanis who refuse to blame religious extremist thinking for leading them down a path of confusion? The Left’s (yes, I know its not a monolith, but there are some positions all progressive left groups seem to hold in common) general refusal to call Islamism for what it is and hold it accountable for the destruction and violence within the country, and focus only on the Army and the US as colluders in this violence, is, in my humble opinion, not an analysis that can lead to clarity of action.

  • manoj

    rebuilding left is almost impossible in Pakistan, i wish she could success in her pursuit, but after a decade of resurgent talbanization, people have become so much saturated that any thing or idea which seems to differ their views, not only it will get instant rejection but also violence reaction may emerge. of course universities and academic environment (private) are place to hold on discussions, i am really pessimistic about the intellectual growth of pakistan

  • Sabir Arif

    Dear Alia Amir Ali
    I appreciate you from depth of my heart that you fought your case so well in this interview and showed the true nature of affairs that our establishment keeps on concealing from the outer world. I have a little piece of contradiction with some of your ideas and hope that you would tolerate me for this and would try to clear it in your reply.

    I agree with you that we should check the role of USA in our country and in the region as a whole. But it is my opinion that we need to understand the role of (military ) establishment and its strategic interests in the country. Army men can support anyone who is ready to play at their tones no matter it is Imran Khan or so called “Good Taliban”, later ones are supported that in future they would be ‘Mujahid’ for Ghazva Hind’.
    Here we should need to make it clear that it is not the only USA that is leading character in the stage set in Pakistan. But there are so many other States those have their own interests and agends and our establishment plays in their hands for lollypops to carry on their tasks. And you know who the sole supporters of our militery establishment are. Dear you know it very well. These are Saudi Arabia, USA, China and other regional powers. Suppose what would happen to our military establishment if USA stops supplying military aid and aid of billions of dollars, Saudi Arabia stop providing its Petro-Dollar to Pakistan keep a check on Iran, and China draws back her hand for staging Pakistan as its ‘Satellite State’ to ‘engage’ India. Surely the military incorporation of Pakistan would collapse at once.
    But these army men are not foolish anymore they have acquired and captured assets of trillion of dollars to pursue their Agenda: ‘Strategic Depth in Afghanistan and Ghazava e Hind with India.’

    Sabir Arif
    Awami Jamhoori Forum

  • Maniza

    I listened to this twice. And will listen to it again. Alia you sound like the voice inside my head..only more articulate, more courageous and more coherent. You are wonderful, I wish you all the best. You are sincere and you are trying to live up to you ideals. You are knowledgeable, thoughtful and you are spot have compassion and you have your facts straight. Good for you! May you succeed in all that you do. With admiration,

  • khan

    Hi Alia…….i am looking a great revolutionary is developing into you, your father has a great struggle to expose the evils before the masses and i hope you should keep on your struggle alive and i am sure Communism will change the society.

  • Potter

    I am with her!

    And let people solve their own problems. Americans just want to protect their own interests.

    Good interview.

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  • Masha Allah Alia,


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  • piryanka

    All the best comrade..