Rome: Book shop on a street in the historical center of Rome, Italy. Photo: iStock
Rome: Book shop on a street in the historical center of Rome, Italy. Photo: iStock

Literature is a form or branch of knowledge that helps in the development of the mind by creating awareness and the ability to think freely. Be it fictional literature in the form of novels or non-fictional writing and journalism, it plays a vital role in creating the conceptions and perceptions of the general public.

During their academic years, or after completing their education, people are usually influenced by books, newspaper columns or analyses they are provided, building their thoughts and ideologies on this basis. Even teachers and professors generally offer their opinions and ideologies through books and other written forms of literature and journalism.

What one reads or watches defines his or her angle on perceiving the world. That is why books and reading in general are considered a fundamental part of intellectual growth and an integral part if the maturity in the collective thinking process of a society.

Unfortunately, literature and journalism in Pakistan have been used to spread narratives put forth by the state and have always been under the influence of writers and journalists from the conservative faction of society.

Saadat Hasan Manto, a famous Urdu short-story writer, was considered a cheap writer who used sex to promote his writings. In reality he was writing on the issues that were considered taboo in society. Ismat Chughtai, Qurratulain Hyder, Abdullah Hussain and Intizar Hussain were all sidelined, poets like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Habib Jalib and Ustad Daman considered treasonous.

Manto wrote specifically about our hypocritical attitude and exploitation of women and about our collective denial of the basic instincts of humans. He was labeled a cheap sex writer.

Faiz was considered a Soviet agent; Habib Jalib was declared a rebel and arrested many times. The famous Punjabi poet Ustad Daman had to face a case of possessing a hand grenade because of his poetry that was questioning the dictatorship of the day. Even the famous Urdu poet Ahmed Faraz, who was called a poet of love and fragrance, had to flee the country to avoid arrest.

This was how authors who tried to write naturally were treated if their vision was different from the narrative created and spread by the state.

In contrast, people like Altaf Gauhar and Qudrat Ullah Shahab who, while serving in the bureaucracy, facilitated the dictators and contributed to a conservative and fanatic mindset were presented as the greatest authors of their times.

Authors like Naseem Hijazi, Tariq Ismail Sagar are examples in this regard. These writers’ books are based mostly on self-imagined past battles and glory.

Even a writer like Ashfaq Ahmed used Sufism as a tool and spread the message that to kill desires is the main motive of humans and life after death is the only thing one should care about, thus contributing in creating a non-productive mindset that refuses to admit that it is natural for humans to go and attain their dreams.

This resulted in creation of a large number of conservative and extremist journalists, analysts and columnists who, instead of focusing on rationalism, creativity and the endless horizon of thinking beyond time and space, preferred just to write uncreative and self-loving columns and analysis

Literature was radicalized in the 1980s under the rule of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq with the abrupt Islamization of literature and journalism coming into play at the state level. Tariq Ismail Sagar and Naseem Hijazi became state-patronized authors, and a surge of nationalism, religious fanaticism and glorification of wars became the central topic of fiction and non-fiction. This resulted in creation of a large number of conservative and extremist journalists, analysts and columnists who, instead of focusing on rationalism, creativity and the endless horizon of thinking beyond time and space, preferred just to write uncreative and self-loving columns and analysis.

Any writer or journalist who tried to write independently or with his or her version of reality or ideology was termed a kafir or unpatriotic. The decline in creativity and inability to highlight the real issues faced by society, both in fiction and non-fiction forms, led to the low standards of literature and journalism in the country.

Likewise the new generation of Urdu fictional writers gave birth to stories based on marginalizing Ahmadis and other minorities, presenting women as a decoration piece whose only aim in life is to please men and, to do so, must submit to all the violence and torture committed against her. This hijacking of literature and journalism actually created a general acceptance in the collective behavior of society toward violence against women, honor killings, marginalizing minorities, living in the self-loving worship of our falsely created heroes, and self-created and perceived conspiracies.

On the other hand the writings of Ashfaq Ahmed and Qudrat Ullah Shahab gave the lesson of not addressing problems objectively but instead telling readers to think about all the individual and collective problems as a result of divine acts, hence asking for forgiveness from the divine instead of solving the problems. How easy it is to live in big houses enjoying all the luxuries of life, taking benefits from the state and preaching to millions of people not to strive for these same luxuries. This one-sided and conservative style of thinking remains dominant in the literature and journalism of Pakistan.

Non-fiction works and current-affairs columns and analysis create the mindset that a perfect person is one who only says yes to the customs and traditions set by society, along with hatred toward neighboring countries and the West. He or she would sacrifice everything in the name of jihad or nationalism, and in the case of Ashfaq Ahmed and Qudrat Ullah Shahab, ideal persons should always adhere to their defined or perceived divine Sufism and by killing their needs and instincts in the name of Sufism actually worship themselves.

So all these writers contributed to building a society that lives under an unjust and exploitative social order and where violent extremism or glorifying death is normal and where instead of looking for the solutions of individual and collective problems, running from them in the name of religion is considered highly appreciable.

Though authors like Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid, Wajahat Masood, Harris Khalique, Raza Rumi, Iftikhar Arif and Mohsin Naqvi have made efforts to break the inertia encircling literature and journalism, there is still a dire need for writers like them to counter the lifeless and uncreative pattern of writing prevalent in Pakistan today.

There is a saying that the mind grows on the books and literature it reads. By producing and nurturing rotten and visionless literature and journalism we have succeeded in created generations incapable of thinking and a society that usually accepts violence and extremism. It is high time that manipulative journalism and literature is stopped and that dissenting authors, poets and analysts are given space so we can take a step toward a pluralistic and peace-loving society.

Imad Zafar

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.