People before Heroes

Pakistan does not lack talent; it lacks a direction to harness that talent. In every field, profession, and walk of life, the country has produced individuals that are at par with their global counterparts. In a competitive world of today, personal skill, consistency, mental capacity, and long hauled labor are part and parcel of ‘talent’. But its how that talent is utilized, projected, and appreciated is where nations rise (or fall) to the occasion.

As a nation, we liken our ‘talent’ to heroes. And by declaring them as heroes, we hold them a notch above everyone else; they represent all that is good, all that is capable, all that is courageous, and all that is endowed with great potential. But with that kind of devotion come even bigger expectations. We assign to them superhuman characteristics and noble qualities, and by doing so appropriate them as ‘archetypes’. This means our heroes and their lives belong to each one of us; we take active interest in their well-being. Yet, all too often that glass image breaks, and the fault it seems lies in our own grandiose conceptions of ‘greatness’.

In the weeks after the retirement of our army chief, General Raheel Sharif, it seems the entire country is publicly discussing, dissecting, and deliberating his post retirement plan. He is rumored to have been selected as an advisor to lead a so-called Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism created by the young and ambitious Saudi Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman. The IMAFT is a large bloc of 39 Muslim-majority countries that is focused on combating international terrorism. With his vast counter-insurgency and counter terrorism skills, the general could be an excellent choice to head such an alliance. But like every glorified person, ideology, or incident in the rich history of the region, this is not free of controversy either. In fact the focus from his career, policies, and accomplishments seem to have suddenly shifted to the curious tale of post-retirement employment.  And it seems the more global recognition he receives, the more we question his professionalism. The announcement to join the alliance has not only led to a flood of criticism on social media and public platforms but has also raised valid questions on the role of high-profile leaders and state agents after they have served the country, involvement in international military alliances, diplomatic efforts in the face of fluctuating regional politics, and the country’s contributions in highlighting the menace of terrorism and how best to counter it.

In the same breath, we broadcasted this exact sentimentality with Malala Yousafzai. Her international recognition and prominence spurred hard hitting criticism from not just political and social circles but also our intelligentsia. Her own personal fight against the Taliban and their form of vicious terrorism was equated with her exclusive need for publicity, and in turn a better life. While there is nothing wrong with that, some elements from our country accused her of being an ‘American puppet’. Not only did we shun her courageousness but in addition we did not extend to her the right every citizen has in this country: freedom of thought and speech, security from violence and aggression, a good education, and a safe environment to grow and thrive. We assigned her to oblivion; the more recognition she received globally, the more we made her into an outcast.

Truth is, we think we have an exclusive domain over the lives of our heroes. We see them as national assets, which they are, but more importantly we need to see them as humans who are a product of their time, society, and circumstances.

The fault lies more with the way we embalm our heroes, and less with the fear of them becoming anything less than our expectations of them. On the one hand, the political and social system does not allow public sentimentality to create heroes; but when there does exist an anomaly, we tend to project impeccability onto our ‘saviors’. It is time we move past such definitions, and view them through a temporal lens.