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A piece that appears on the 25th of December and addresses neither the birth of Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Quaid-e-Azam or the great leader to us) nor Christmas seems to be a waste of space. But here is the thing. It’s been 145 years since the Quaid’s birth, slightly over 74 since he created this homeland, and slightly over 73 since he passed. In these years voluminous books have been written on his life. Throughout my life, I have read works after works interpreting and often misinterpreting, quoting and often misquoting him. The worst form of mental lethargy is reserved for the writers who try to project their own views onto him. For the religious right, he is a staunch cleric without a beard, to liberals he is the epitome of social liberalism and progressive outlook. Sadly what it amounts to is a trial in absentia. Human lives are complicated. Our words and choices cannot be divorced from the lives we live and vice versa. Must we use his name for this moral cop-out? Any attempt to reduce the founder of the nation to a ventriloquist’s charge does not seem very becoming. The man gave you a nation. Its well-being and progress is your responsibility, not otherwise. So I fail to understand what I can contribute to the discussion, except that a father’s memory is best preserved through our accomplishments and happiness. Let’s try to do that then.

The problem is further complicated when you talk about Christmas. Christianity has been around for over two millennia. What can I possibly contribute to this discussion either except telling you that I have always loved the festivity and the merriment of the day? When it comes to celebrating religious holidays nobody does it better than our brethren in the west. Let us then wish everyone merry Christmas and happy birthday of the Quaid and move on.

There is a pressing issue at hand. That of the timeline we live in. When we take a look at our collective ordeals of recent years two elements stand out. The glum environment which brings to us one shock after another. And man’s undefeated spirit. The classic setting for a brilliant novel. Many of us made peace with the darkness of George W Bush’s eight years in office and his wars the day President Barack Obama got elected. It was proof that the world we lived in was not beyond repair. But even though we were not paying attention the lingering undercurrents did not go away. In 2015 we got a rude awakening. As he ran his campaign, Donald Trump was reopening all old wounds. Clashes between nations and faiths, anti-immigrant and anti-minority sentiments, weaknesses of globalisation and to our sheer panic and embarrassment the so-called race relations. Since then a debate has been quietly raging among the intellectual circles about the nature of our dystopia. Which one is it? There is near consensus among scholars that study the craft that no two authors have given us more perfect dystopias than George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World. While the former speaks of a highly repressed autocracy with a stratified society and suppression of information, the latter of a world given to the deliberate infantilisation of the human race through overindulgence and honing of information as a distraction. Writing a long time ago both could not foresee the pace of technological advancement (the title of Orwell’s book is a dead giveaway), but technology as a weapon and society being manipulated by it are the common threads.

Before we allow the debate about technology to distract us, it is time for some dishonourable mentions. For years I have told you that I blame Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilization thesis, his appropriation of Toynbee’s reductive definition of civilisation and then the weaponisation of the term for the mess we are in and have been for the past two decades. The methodology was simple. Identify the depressed identities of the time with nostalgia about a pristine past, throw the bait in the shape of attention and predictions of their rise and then sit back to see them going at it making your words self-fulfilling prophecies. Classic demand and supply relationship. You demand. We supply. For the Muslims of the world clamouring for a political identity since even before the fall of the Ottoman Empire this was fait accompli. For China struggling with the ghost of the century of shame, it was a callback to a past that transcended the immediate socialist experience. His construct of Judeo-Christian civilisation proved less tenable as is evident from his own work, Who are we, where he almost manages to reduce the American identity to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. But Trump’s allies mostly call themselves the defenders of the Judeo-Christian civilisation. Even notorious Proud Boys call themselves the ‘western chauvinists’. One who knows how hate cultures function could not be surprised when the word Judeo was surgically removed from the equation. India also chose that moment to start embracing the BJP’s Hindutva ideology.

I must confess I was not paying attention when I held Huntington solely responsible for this propaganda. He surely wasn’t pretending to obscure the source of it all after all. I must say my assessment of Arnold Toynbee was coloured by two books. Mukhtar Masood’s Awaz-e-dost that showers him with high praise and his own 12 volume Study of History. The latter takes you to such granular details of history that you stop paying attention to the author’s biases. It wasn’t until I read his Civilization on Trial that I realised that he was the source of the problem. As a historiographer, he believes in the inevitability of such clashes.

That brings us back to the question of the Huxley vs Orwell debate. So, which one are we living in? One or both? As long as you think there are multiple irreconcilable entities poised to clash you can have both. After all, doesn’t QAnon in the west remind you of Huxley? And does the fact that a Chinese citizen on the street cannot even recognise the picture of the Tank Man of the Tiananmen Square fame not remind you of Orwell? There is only one country where both Huxley and Orwell have been deployed rather successfully. In India. Orwell for the minorities and the poor. And Huxley for the majority and the affluent.

But rather than picking one dystopia or the other, I think I can do better. Technological advances cannot be stopped, nor pandemics or other shocks to the system. But whether we live in a dystopia or not depends on whether we are capable of learning from the mistakes of the past two decades. The great power relationship will be the key. If the only superpower (America) and the three great powers (China, Russia, Europe) learn to work in tandem and identities like Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jewish people and others can find a way to coexist in peace we will never be reduced to a dystopia. Otherwise take Huxley, Orwell, add some Margaret Atwood, Ayn Rand and some. And that would be the least of our worries.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 25th, 2021.

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