Defining Pakistan

March 15, 2010

binoria girlsHistorian Manan Ahmed has a must-read column up at The National on a strengthening grassroots conservative Islamist ideology in Pakistani society, encouraged, he says, by the political thinking of the likes of TV host Zaid Hamid.

“A new narrative is ascendant in Pakistan. It is in the writings of major Urdu-language newspaper columnists, who purport to marshal anecdotal or textual evidence on its behalf. It is on television, where the hosts of religious and political talk shows polish it with slick production values.

“The basic elements of the story – which has often, and erroneously, been called a conspiracy theory – are simple. Local agents (or terrorists, or soldiers, or Blackwater employees) representing a foreign power (India, or the United States, or Israel) are intent on destroying Pakistan because they fear that it will otherwise emerge as the powerful leader of the Muslim world, just as the country’s past leaders had predicted. The ascendant narrative is prophetic and self-pitying, nationalist and martial; it is a way to interpret current events and a call for activism to restore the country’s interrupted rise to glory.

“The consumers of this narrative represent the largest demographic slice of Pakistan – young, urban men and women under the age of 30. They came of age under a military dictatorship with a war on their borders, and, more recently, almost daily terrorist attacks in their major cities. The twin poles of their civic identity – Pakistan and Islam – are under immense stress. They love Pakistan; they want to take Islam back from the jihadists. But there is no national dialogue, and no vision for the state: no place, in other words, where the young can make sense of their own country. Pakistan is ideologically adrift and headed toward incoherence, unable to articulate its own meaning as either a state or a nation. To the anguished question “Whither Pakistan?” the country’s leaders provide no response.

“A man named Zaid Hamid, who has perhaps done more than anyone else to promote the new narrative of national victimhood, says that he has a clear answer. We are, he argues, living in the apocalyptic end-times – and Pakistan must emerge as the leader of the last struggle. Clad in his trademark red hat, he is leading rallies on campuses and in auditoriums across the country. His words – and the excited reactions of his audiences – are captured by camera crews, and the footage posted on YouTube and Facebook.”

Do please read the whole article along with his very detailed follow-up on Islamic history at his blog Chapati Mystery.

The notion of Pakistan as a victim has been around for a long time. It goes back at least as far as partition in 1947 when Pakistan began its life as what its founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah called a “moth-eaten state”.  In his 1933 pamphlet Now or Never, after which this blog is named,  Choudhary Rehmat Ali  spoke apocalyptically of the threat to Islamic culture and history in South Asia were the Muslims of India not to be given control of their own affairs when the British colonial rulers departed. “We are face-to-face with a first-rate tragedy, the like of which has not been seen in the long and eventual history of Islam,” he wrote. “The issue is now or never.  Either we live or perish forever.”

Scholars and politicians can — and do — debate at length as to whether the many arguments that led to the creation of Pakistan were justified or not. But without going into history, the question is whether what is happening now in Pakistan feeds into the kind of world view that the likes of Zaid Hamid promote.

Back in December, Ayesha Siddiqa at Dawn newspaper wrote of the dangers to Pakistan of subscribing to the notion of a clash of civilisation, which she dates to the support given by late Pakistani ruler Zia ul-Haq to the mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-1989.

“Two decades after Ziaul Haq the general is still remembered for changing the nature of state and society. We have not even begun to think about the generation that is being fed on erroneous dreams of attaining national and civilisational glory through brute force. They are being fed tales of Pakistan and the Mujahideen defeating the communist superpower. They hope to perform a similar feat.

“Just imagine what will happen inside Pakistan after the US forces begin to withdraw in 2011 — in fact, how about a withdrawal from Afghanistan accompanied by a drastic reduction in America’s financial power which is already happening? This is not to say that the Americans should remain there but that there are elements who will don the victor’s mantle and trample on the rest of society in Afghanistan, and try to do the same in the rest of the world. Choosing sides is no longer an easy task.

“Such people, who subscribe to the ideology of Hameed Gul — Pakistan’s indigenous version of Osama bin Laden — see the battle in terms of a clash of civilisations. From the point of view of such people, the world is back to the days of the Crusades except that this time it is the Muslim world up in arms against all other civilisations. Therefore, an American withdrawal would be tantamount to the supremacy of one race over another. Sadly, they are not alone in their adventure.

“It is sadder to observe some of those, who were formerly from what was deemed as the liberal left in Pakistan, arguing that the Taliban should not be pushed until the Americans are out. Such an argument is made without recalling that the partnership between the liberal left and the extreme right in Iran was at the cost of the former.”

In Britain’s The Guardian newspaper last week, Amil Khan wrote of how a conservative Islamic ideology is catching on among the country’s youth:

“In a restaurant tucked away in a corner of Islamabad’s upscale shopping district I met a 20-something Pakistani friend with an encyclopaedic knowledge of rap lyrics and Indian movie starlets. After ordering a beer from the restaurant’s illicit stash, he told me why he thought his more conservative relatives held the answer to Pakistan’s social and economic problems. ‘In my uncle’s family the women cover their faces and they have thrown out their television, banned music and disconnected the internet … They had the strength to follow Islam properly. I wish I had. If we all did, Pakistan would no longer be weak,’ he said.”

In a different vein, Pakistan’s most respected charitable worker Abdul Sattar Edhi spoke in an interview with Dawn of the need for radical change in the country to meet the needs of its 170-million strong population. “Pakistan is now at a critical make-or-break stage, and if the system does not undergo a major overhaul, I am afraid that the country may even break up. Given the current conditions, it will take nothing short of a calculated, studied revolution to change things and save Pakistan,” he said.

Once again, the debate about the nature of Pakistan goes back for at least 60 years, between a secular and an Islamic society, between a notion of victimhood and empowerment as only Muslim state with a nuclear bomb. It is a country which has always managed to defy the direst predictions and still seen as likely to “muddle through”.

Yet at the same time, the way in which Pakistan defines itself in the coming years will be crucial not just to the region, but to the wider Muslim world and to countries like Britain with a big Pakistani diaspora. So after this very long preamble, try looking at the current debates on western policy towards Pakistan through the lens offered by the likes of Zaid Hamid and others.

First up, you have The New York Times reporting on a network of private contractors allegedly set up to track and kill suspected militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Stories like this have been doing the rounds for years in Pakistan, usually dismissed, including here on this blog, as conspiracy theories.  The NYT report, if confirmed, helps add fuel to those conspiracy theories on the spurious logic that “if some of what we said was true, the rest is also true.”

Secondly, you have the drone attacks which are officially condemned by the Pakistan government and according to many analysts unofficially condoned. (Joshua Foust at has a round-up of views on the drone attacks here.)  Much as these have become common practice in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, it is worth considering – whatever you might think about the usefulness of these attacks — that it is quite unusual for the United States to fire missiles into the sovereign territory of one of its allies. That in itself is fodder for those who feel that Pakistan has lost control of its own destiny.

Finally, remember that intelligence agencies have had a field day in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region, especially since the 1979 Soviet invasion when Pakistan, the United States and Saudi Arabia covertly supported the mujahideen. The result is that nobody, even nowadays, knows what each country is doing there and generally regards everyone else with suspicion. That in turn fuels Islamabad’s concerns that Indian and Afghan intelligence are arming and funding both Islamist militants and/or Baluch separatists in order to destabilise Pakistan — charges they deny. It also gives oxygen to the “Pakistan as victim” view.

So let’s get back to the starting point of this article – the “new narrative” described by Manan Ahmed. We’ve had much discussion about how policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan needs to move forwards in order to stabilise the region and pave the way for an eventual withdrawal of western troops.  How about flipping that around and thinking backwards from the end-goal and then deciding the means to achieve it? How do you want Pakistan to turn out once all this is over?  What do we want the current generation of Pakistani youth to tell their children? And then once, and only after, you have worked that out, how do you get there?

(File photo of a girl in Biniora school in Karachi)


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