Identity, nationalism and the Middle East: LLF looks at the Contemporary Great Game

Former Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Steve Coll, Qaiser Mahmood and others sitting on the stage during Lahore Literacy Festival. ONLINE

A star-studded panel of dignitaries and journalists led the audience in a discussion on the “Contemporary Great Game” on the opening day of the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF).

Moderated by Ahmed Rashid, the panel included former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Swedish-Pakistani writer Qaisar Mahmood, former president of Kyrgyzstan Roza Isakovna Otunbayeva, Pulitzer Prize Winner Steve Coll and Italian journalist Viviana Mazza.

The panel’s discussion revolved around the sense of identity, nationalism, radicalisation in religion and the developing situation in the Middle East, with each of the panel members weighing in with their own experiences and opinions.

“I come from a very nationalistic country,” Steve Coll, the Pulitzer prize winning journalist from the US, said at the top of the session.

“We wave a lot of flags and we sing a lot of songs,” he grinned. In all his travels, he said, Pakistan was one of the few countries that shared that nationalistic spirit. “It’s why I’m here… although my Pakistani friends forget how important that (nationalism) is.”

As the talk turned to the conflict-ridden Middle East, former foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar drew the audience’s attention to a new kind of actor at play.

“Today’s ‘great game’ is not played only by the states, but also, increasingly, by the non-state actors, who are the game’s biggest players,” she said.

Talking to Pakistan Today, Steve Coll elaborated on the idea, explaining how social media had helped these groups bring their message to practically anyone in the world.

Regarding Saudi Arabia’s proposed ground operation, he said: “I think it’s unrealistic. I don’t think it’s going to happen. Saudis don’t have the capacity for any ground operation. The Turks don’t want to get into a long war on these borders and Turkey’s involvement could make this worse, because they’re upset with the Kurds.”

A settlement, he said, would have to be reached to achieve a diplomatic resolution. “That would be the only favourable outcome.”

Former Kyrgyzstan president Roza Otunbayeva agreed with Hina Rabbani Khar.

“Non-government actors are strong, they’re mobile,” she said.

Roza cautioned against the “landslide” of radical Islam, using her own country as an example and ended with the hope that with 70 years of experience behind it, Pakistan would learn from the collective experience, and grow away from extremism.

Talking to Pakistan Today after the discussion, the former president shared her views about the escalating situation in the Arab world, particularly on how she felt the lack of education contributed to it – particularly religious education. “What is this Jihad? Why would you teach women with babies, children, to fight in war?”

Qaisar Mahmood talked about the importance of identity in moulding the minds, especially among second generation migrants.

Talking to Pakistan Today after the discussion, he explained how his own experiences shaped that perspective.

“When my parents left Pakistan, they were in their 30’s. I was 4. For them, their core identity is that they’re Pakistanis. For me, it’s different: I want to be Swedish. I also want to celebrate Eid and be a Muslim,” he said. “But,” he laughed, “they’ll also say ‘no, you’re a Pakistani.’” It was difficult making his own identity, he admitted. “When I wrote my book, the media didn’t know what to make of me,” he chuckled, explaining how its content read like a right wing person’s perspective. “But, they’d look at” he gestured to himself, grinning, “All long hair, and they’d go, no, that guy doesn’t look like a right wing Swede.”

“There are three questions that religious people and philosophers fail to answer: where do I come from, what are we now and where are we heading. Whenever you define yourself, whether as a nation, individual or a group, these questions have to be answered. The idea of the same religion or race being the basis for identity is being challenged by globalisation. It will take time but I’m optimistic we’ll find a new way to identify ourselves,” Mehmood said.

Viviana’s views in the panel discussion ran along the same vein as she explained how, in Italy, second generation immigrants would still face discrimination and problems in being accepted as Italian. “There are some who’ll accept you and then some who’ll say ‘no, you have to have this bloodline, and your parents and family are different, etc,’” she said.

Addressing concerns over Europe possibly closing its borders in the face of increasing terrorist attacks, Viviana Mazza talked about the migrant crisis and how important a role knowledge and analysis played in resolving the issue.

“Another problem is how people use the words migrants and refugees, thinking they mean the same thing.” People were vary and confused, especially in the face of the attacks in Paris, and “lack of analysis and knowledge, and the right wing parties”, she explained, weren’t helping matters. As a journalist, she also talked about the role of the media in this confusion. Europe, she explained in conclusion, was torn between its perceived “humanitarian duty to welcome these people (refugees)” and the fact that it has in fact taken a huge “political hit”. “Europe is changing”, she said “we’ll have to see what form it takes.”

Steve Coll expressed similar concerns regarding the refugee crisis from the American perspective.

“The problem is politics. It’s embarrassing. The US has accepted less than 20,000 refugees. It may offer a pathway to citizenship for as many as a 100,000 eventually but, in an election year and with Donald Trump campaigning on a fear of outsiders coming in, I think it’s difficult. There are many Americans who are in favour of immigration. The history of America is a history of immigration,” Coll elaborated.

Regarding the long lasting effect of Donald Trump’s campaign on America, he said: “Oh, he has support, roughly the same as the National Front in France – about 20 per cent – no, the real danger is that he’s changed what it was permissible to say in public and in politics. He’s taken racism and bigotry and intolerance and made them look normal – like a form of entertainment.”

On the question of the success of this campaign, he grinned: “I’ve given up trying to predict this election because it is so outside the norm of American politics. He’s probably going to win in North Carolina, and seems most likely to be the Republican nominee. If it’s him, and Hillary becomes the Democratic candidate, I think she can handle him. But if it’s Bernie,” he laughed, throwing up his hands, “then I don’t know what’s going to happen!”


The aforementioned panel discussion had to take place in a stifling hall with barely any standing room, let alone room to sit. Attendees grew upset as they were misdirected and got lost trying to find the sessions of their choosing.

“Avari wasn’t built to accommodate this crowd,” one complained.

“I think, in the attempt to get this on track, they’ve compromised on quality,” agreed another. “We were sitting upfront – not on the seats, but in front of the stage on the ground.”

Moreover, several attendees Pakistan Today spoke to complained about ‘sound problems’ in the halls.

The LLF was cut down by a day due to security concerns, and shifted from Al Hamra, the original venue, to Avari Hotel, which is just next to it. This caused some problems, and displeasure in the crowds attending the sessions. On the whole, however, people were positive, admitting that while the problems did exist, it was better than having the event cancelled altogether.

“LLF is the best example of Pakistan’s resilience,” said Steve Coll to a packed hall. “That’s why I’m here. The festival was shifted, days were cut and the schedule was truncated, but here we are!”