The Language of War
George Orwell and the Sword of the Prophet
One of my favorite essays is “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell; when I taught writing at a university in Karachi, I would inevitably include the essay on the syllabus each semester. In Pakistan politics are always the hottest topics of conversation and debate, and I wanted to show my students, who majored in media sciences and business studies, how language can be used to serve political ends.
- Pakistan is a country of contradictions – full of promise for growth, modernity and progress, yet shrouded by political, social and cultural issues that undermine its quest for identity and integrity. My bi-monthly column “Pakistan Unveiled” presents stories that showcase the Pakistani struggle for freedom of expression, an end to censorship, and a more open and balanced society.
- Bina Shah is a Karachi-based journalist and fiction writer and has taught writing at the university level. She is the author of four novels and two collections of short stories. She is a columnist for two major English-language newspapers in Pakistan, The Dawn and The Express Tribune, and she has contributed to international newspapers including The Independent, The Guardian, and The International Herald Tribune. She is an alumnus of the International Writers Workshop (IWP 2011).
I would watch my students’ faces when we were discussing this essay in class. Awareness moved across their features like clouds, and I could see their minds working as they realized that they had read phrases like the ones Orwell dissects in his magnificent essay, and they had swallowed them wholesale. I knew that they would never read the newspaper or political magazines the same way again.
Orwell’s essay comes to my mind again as I contemplate the Pakistan Army’s military operation against the Taliban and other militants, which began in June 2014. Within this conflict, I see two battles: one fought on the ground between human beings, and the other being fought for the minds of those observing. Artillery and weapons are being deployed in the first, and words and images in the second.
Despite the obvious costs our country has paid over the last ten years in the war against militant groups, there’s been great reluctance to begin an all-out war against them – they have their sympathizers in all walks of Pakistani society. Whether or not you could draw the difference between “good” Taliban and “bad” Taliban has been the subject of public debate, on television, at political speeches, in drawing rooms. For five years Pakistan’s leaders dithered, spent precious time in negotiations, dragged their feet on taking action while more and more civilians were being killed in terrorist attacks all over the nation.
Finally the military decided to take action, after the horrific attack on Jinnah International Airport in June. In order to combat the popularly-held belief that the Taliban is rightly guided by Islamic principles, the army named their military operation Zarb-e-Azb, which translates to “Strike of the Prophet’s Sword.” The Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) used his sword “Azb”, in the 7th century against enemies of the newly-established Muslim community. The choice of name was psychologically-motivated, in order to give a quasi-religious legitimacy to the army’s actions. The name proved to be popular and caught on very quickly in the public sphere, being used in newspaper reports, on billboards declaring support for the operation, and even as a trending hashtag on Twitter. It even has its own Wikipedia entry!
The action began with aerial bombardments, followed by a ground operation in North Waziristan to “clear the area” of militants. Other words I’ve seen being used: “eliminate” and “flush out,” implying that this is an operation that will “cleanse” the area of “undesirable elements.” The reports being put out by army spokespeople are quick to point out that there are many Uzbek and Turkmeni fighters amongst the Al-Qaeda and other militants, to make people aware that foreigners make up a large part of this nebulous enemy. Careful word choice makes the Pakistani public more comfortable with the military operation – public support had been weak in past years, but now there seems to be consensus on the issue, and the army is capitalizing on this by continuing to use the right words and phrases as the conflict goes on.
Immediately after the start of the operation, reports poured in about civilians being displaced and suffering great hardship and deprivation – the latest count shows 800,000 registered refugees. To counter the negativity of these realities, official reports from army and government spokespeople assure us that they’re working hard to “ensure speedy distribution of relief supplies and services so that no family [is] deprived of the facilities.” But it’s difficult to really know how the war is affecting those displaced or those still in North Waziristan because the military has banned journalists from entering the area – information control at its best.
One of the most interesting stories to come out of the area spoke of the habits and preferences of the Taliban, as told to reporters by refugees fleeing North Waziristan. Not only were the militants getting their beards and hair trimmed short in order to escape detection, but they loved French and Turkish perfumes, British detergent, and American cooking oil. Amusing as this is, this story paints a very different picture of the militants than the austere, West-hating force they are usually portrayed as. Portraying the militants as luxury-loving hypocrites sways public opinion against them, and support for them diminishes.
It’s impossible to say whether or not this operation will be successful; whether or not terrorism and its perpetrators will come to an end in Pakistan as a result of the military’s current action. But the army knows that it’s vital to keep up public support for this controversial state of affairs. In his essay, George Orwell wrote, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” The Pakistan Army has to make this war appear defensible in the eyes of the public, and in this particular battle, words are the weapons of choice, to be used as precisely as any missiles or bullets.