Dawn News

Fault-line fantasies

NOT even the seasonal patriotism of Independence Day would make one deny that Pakistan has faced a decade-long crisis of leadership and poor governance.

Nor can one gloss over the weakening of institutions, degradation of infrastructure and environment, and the marked impoverishment of large segments of its urban and rural population.

This extraordinary decline would have tarnished the country’s image anyway; the image has also suffered grievously, and often unfairly, because the very idea of Pakistan has been under attack. It is targeted partly because its status as a nuclear power is to be discredited and partly because it is kept under relentless pressure in the context of the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan.

Only once in a while an unbiased western scholar, like Anatol Lieven (Pakistan: A Hard Country), looks at the factors that sustain it and make it remarkably resilient.

Consider the vectors of the ‘failed state’ thesis. First and foremost, since Independence doomsday scenarios have been constructed around the view that Pakistan is a geographical anomaly. There was substance in it as long as East Pakistan constituted its far-off wing. Even here, my four-year tour of duty in Dhaka (1982-86) convinced me that the project foundered not so much on the rock of geography as on that of an authoritarian, unitary-at-heart political dispensation masquerading as federalism.

Pakistani federalism has always warranted high devolution of power to the constituent provinces. A longish article published by me in Lahore in 1960 argued that the Pakistan of 1947 could flourish only as a virtual confederation. Robert Kaplan has recently analysed at length (and rejected) the view that Pakistan is geographically non-viable because it is “a cartographic puzzle piece sandwiched between India and Central Asia that splits apart what the British Empire ruled as one indivisible subcontinent.” Devolution is still the basic challenge.

The ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity of post-1971 Pakistan is found in great many other nations where it is not trumpeted as a fault-line. And yet few of these nations are held together as cohesively as Pakistan — a hallowed land of great antiquity — by the mighty Indus and its tributaries. The enduring Orientalist tradition of the West has historically sought endless fragmentation and miniaturisation of Muslim countries. Pakistan’s enemy is not geography but the lust for power, venality, corruption and incompetence in its management.

Islam has also been cited as the source of three ‘fault-lines’: one, it divides Pakistan literally into mediaeval and modern entities; two, the gulf between conservatives (read literalists) and liberals is unbridgeable; and three, sectarianism foredooms Pakistan.

This polarisation is frequently echoed in a superficial and largely unproductive debate in Pakistan, notable mainly for intolerance. There is little doubt that the instrumentalisation of religion for justifying the policies of non-democratic regimes contributed to the current polarisation.

The rancorous voices of ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ reveal how far Pakistan has got disconnected from a time-honoured dialectical tradition in Islam to explore the interaction of faith and reason; in South Asia, the finest flower of that tradition was the poetry and philosophical work of Iqbal. Can we step back from this artificial divide produced mostly by a particular phase of our national and regional history?

In his erudite studies Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes, Michael Burleigh revisited the battle between secular revolutions and the Church in Europe and described how religion survived and continued to shape politics.

He makes us walk with some of the greatest minds of the 19th century who rejected the raw atheism of the French Revolution. Many of them tried to synthesise Christianity with rapidly expanding new learning, an enterprise undertaken by Islam centuries earlier. In Desecularisation of the World, edited by American sociologist Peter L. Berger, he states that “the assumption we live in a secularised world is false”, and that “the world is as furiously religious as it ever was”.

The great fallacy of the Islamism vs secularism debate in Pakistan is that it is often conducted in western terms. In the world of Islam, history has run a different trajectory. Political Islam began as a conscious resistance to the multi-dimensional colonial agenda. Emerging in widely separated geographical spaces, it sought coherence as a universal project by declaring Islamic states regulated by the Sharia as its mission.

With divergent approaches to the struggle and its outcome, it was never a monolithic enterprise. Most movements steered clear of secularism (laïcité in Francophone communities). Secularism came to be identified not with the Enlightenment, but with Kemal Ataturk’s republic and subsequently with Arab socialism, though the latter seldom repudiated an Islamic reference. Even in Turkey, survival of Islamic mores and values is an outstanding feature of its contemporary history.

In recent years, political Islam has fragmented with some segments drifting into violence and others reaching out bravely to the goal of a civil state located within Islam’s cardinal mission of peace and justice. It is the latter that offers hope; it is no different from the agenda underlying Quaid-i-Azam’s historic speech of August 11, 1947.

In his latest book The Arab Awakening, Tariq Ramadan cautions the Arabs as follows: “By presenting the debate over secularisation as the primary challenge, the secularised elites of the Arab world not only display their disconnectedness from their memories and traditions, but also present a thoroughly distorted image of the fundamental dysfunction that afflicts western society as a whole.”

This is a warning that the people of Pakistan should also take to heart. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and sectarian militias are grave aberrations with a known temporal context. They do not point to Islam being a fault-line. The Pakistani liberal goes wrong when he demands a collective amnesia of the past and of faith-based ideas.

True ijtihad today would mean progress towards a just and democratic civil state that remains connected with the essence of our faith; at the apex of Muslim state organisation stands social justice. That, indeed, would prevent Pakistan from becoming a failed state.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

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Comments (11) Closed

Aug 14, 2012 10:23am
Dear Sir, If it was only religion then may be Pakistan could have flourished. The problems is much deeper and rooted in the psche of its earlier incompetent leaders and military. Pak leaders had convinced themselves and a part of the population that a Muslim Pakistan can be better than a mainly Hindu India in all fields. The first priority became military partly out of a genuine fear and partly due to its ambition of achieving parity with India at the International level. Education, development, development of state institutions and welfare of the masses came last. With scare resources, Pakistan was never going to be punching at the same level as India though it managed for a few years. Pakistani masses can have a better life if the leadership change their perceptions and adjust priorities. They need to convince Pak army that parity with India is only a dream which must be abandoned because all nations have to cut cloth according to the size needed. The gap (read an article in today's Jang) with India has started to increase and will widen significantly in all fields unless Pakistan starts to implement rationality in all walks of life. Best wishes on your Independence Day.
Aug 14, 2012 05:23am
Pakistan may be physically part of a land of great antiquity (Classical India), but not since 1947 when it came to existence as a self-conscious and constructed new country. In 1947, conscious national choices made by its founders and leaders and intelligentsia - Islamic Republic; history beginning with Bin Qasim's invasion of Sindh; marginalisation of minorities (especially Hindus represented the connection to ancient people who lived in Pakistani territory for millenia before the arrival of "ancestors" of Pakistani people from the Miuddle East) - have emotionally, culturally, and historically (to the extent history only begins with Bin Qasim and his Arab army) excised itself from Ancient India.
Naeem Malik
Aug 14, 2012 07:12am
If Pakistan is an anomaly it is the one that came about for the "Indian" desire for a strong centre. What was the requirement of the times sixty five years ago was a loose federation of peoples of the sub-continent coming together voluntarily in order to fuse together a prosperous community within the sub-continent. Pakistan has suffered the same ailment. Its rulers have tried to create a strong centre and in the process have broken Pakistan where it is difficult if not impossible to put it together again.
Aug 14, 2012 07:27am
This is a powerful article. The problem that Pakistan faces are not geographical, economic or cultural - the source of woes that afflict this country are caused by a broken political system. Pakistan is not a failed state but a country with a failed political system. Without fixing the poltical system there is little long term prosperity and justice for the people of the Pakistan. The irony of politicans proclaiming democracy when their parties are run like absolute monarchies is beyond a joke.
Aug 14, 2012 07:30am
We have listened a lot about Pakistan becoming a failed state, it appears true thanks to decades of bad governance and feudalistic trends in our society. There is nothing wrong in the founding principles of Pakistan but dearth or even non availability of sincere / capable leadership has brought us to a point where our very survival appears to be in danger. The only thing that can prevent us from further decline is ISLAM and education. Pakistan has a vibrant youth capable of steering the country ahead provided we select appropriate people in next elections based on their morality and character, refusing to abide by caste and creed compulsions. Pakistan Zindabad.
Aug 14, 2012 09:43am
Bravo Tanvir Sahab. It is good to hear a sane voice once in a while. It is almost depressing to hear 24/7 from elitists around that we will fail because of our religion. We will succeed because of our determination, hard work, and commitment to the country in specific and humanity at large. It is tough but that is the only way forward!
Cyrus Howell
Aug 14, 2012 01:59pm
Suspect there is work to be done, isn't there?
Cyrus Howell
Aug 14, 2012 02:10pm
..."provided we select appropriate people in next elections based on their morality and character." Guess that would rule out the Pakistan Peoples Party.
Aug 14, 2012 03:49pm
@ Falcon I completely agree. Latin America was also written off as a 'basket case' . Tiny Singapore was also laughed at. Africa, raped and plundered for hundreds of years is now slowly realising that from self-reliance and hard work comes strength and power. Reading the letters, some from across the borders creates a chill in the spine. 1971 is just a crude reminder of what can happen to us if we are not on our own guard. We cannot always blame others for taking advantage.
Aug 14, 2012 10:40pm
Let us start now- at this very moment - by stopping all censorship... unless it uses unrelated and or offensive phrases and words
Cyrus Howell
Aug 14, 2012 02:11pm
Truer words were never spoken.