Little monsters

Published December 3, 2009

There is nothing new anymore about the suggestion that over a span of about 30 odd years, the Pakistani military and its establishmentarian allies in the intelligence agencies, the politicised clergy, conservative political parties and the media have, in the name of Islam and patriotism, given birth to a number of unrestrained demons which have now become full-fledged monsters threatening the very core of the state and society in Pakistan.

A widespread consensus across various academic and intellectual circles (both within and outside Pakistan), now states that violent entities such as the Taliban and assorted Islamist organisations involved in scores of anti-state, sectarian and related violence in the country are the pitfalls of policies and propaganda undertaken by the Pakistani state and its various intelligence agencies to supposedly safeguard Pakistan’s ‘strategic interests’ in the region and more superficially, Pakistan’s own ideological interest.

This supposed ideology was convolutedly constructed by the state and the ‘establishment’ of Pakistan many years after the painful birth of the new country. It is, however, still being used by intelligence agencies, certain politico-religious politicians, and media men to actually justify the folly of the Pakistani state and military in the past for not only patronising, but actually forming brutal Islamist organisations.

But whose ideology is it, really? Even though the answer to the question of what Jinnah envisioned is not easily proffered, Pakistan seemed to have a simple answer till about 1956. But this answer it seems did not suit the political and economic interests of the early Pakistani ruling elite consisting of the bureaucracy, the feudal-dominated political circles and eventually the military, and of course, the religious parties.

Till about the late 1960s it was normal to suggest that Pakistan as an idea and then a reality was carved as a country for the Muslims of the subcontinent who were largely seen (by Jinnah and his comrades in the Muslim League), as a distinct ethnic and cultural set of Indians whose political, economic and cultural distinctiveness might have been compromised in a post-colonial ‘Hindu-dominated’ set-up.

As Jinnah went about explaining his unfolding vision of what Pakistan as a political and ideological entity was supposed to mean, there is no doubt whatsoever in the historical validity of the notion that he imagined the new country as a cultural haven for the Muslims of the subcontinent where the state and politics would remain firmly secular, driven by a form of modern western democracy that also incorporated the egalitarian concepts of Islam such as charity, equality, unity and a healthy appreciation of intellectual pursuits.

Apart from the much quoted speeches of Jinnah in which he clearly outlines his desire to see Pakistan as a secular and progressive Muslim state, scholars have provided a number of other set of evidences as well capturing Jinnah’s mindset in this context.

For example, the Khilafat Movement that swung into being between 1919 and 1924 among the traditionalist Muslim activists of the subcontinent - as Mustapha Kamal went about dismantling the Ottoman Empire in Turkey labeling it as backwards and decadent - Jinnah is on record of being highly critical of the Khilafat Movement as well, describing it as a ‘false religious frenzy.’

According to Professor Aysha Jalal, Jinnah’s view of Islamic activism in the subcontinent was akin to him understanding it as a phenomenon that ‘derided the false and dangerous religious frenzy which had confused Indian politics, and the zealots who were harming the national cause.’

Jinnah’s death in 1949 and the internal infighting that his party, the Muslim League, suffered, reduced it from being a dynamic organisation of visionary action, into a rag-tag group of self-serving politicians who were in cahoots with a powerful bureaucracy and feudal interests. It became a pale and unimaginative reflection of its pre-independence past.

Gone too was the party’s ability to further define and, more so, bring into policy Jinnah’s secular-Muslim vision as the idea got increasingly muddled and out-voiced by the rising noise of the once anti-Pakistan Islamic forces who took the opportunity to start flexing their muscles in the face of a disintegrating Muslim League and the erosion of what its leader stood for.

The Jamat-i-Islami (JI) and the (now defunct) Islami Nizam Party went on a rampage in 1953 in Lahore, hungrily overseeing the country’s first major anti-Ahmadi riots.

Of course, by now the famous speech by Jinnah in which he underlined the idea of religious freedom in the new country was conveniently forgotten as the ruling elite grappled confusingly with the crises, first jailing and dishing out the death penalty to the main architect of the riots, JI’s founder, Abul Ala Maududdi, but then releasing him, and ultimately tamely capitulating to the demands of the handful of vocal Islamic leaders by officially declaring the country as an Islamic Republic in the 1956 Constitution.

It was classic ostrich behavior; the sort a number of Pakistani leaders continued to demonstrate whenever faced with the question of Pakistan and its relationship to Political Islam.

Misunderstanding Islamist activism as mere emotionalism that wont be able to sustain itself on a political level, and underestimating the Machiavellian traits of Islamic political organisations, the ruling elite gave the Islamists a hollow bone to play with, without bothering to explain to the rest of the people exactly what did an Islamic state or an Islamic Republic really meant in the Pakistani context.

Just when the military dictatorship of Field Martial Ayub Khan had begun its accent towards a peak, the Jamat-i-Islami brought back the question about Pakistan’s ideology in 1962.

By then the ruling establishment had been confident of burying the Islamist irritant with the 1956 proclamation, which, obviously meant nothing more than a change of name, as the matters of the state and the government continued to be handled in an overwhelmingly secular manner, especially by the pro-West Ayub Khan dictatorship.

But by now the military had also become overtly conscious about the supposed problems the diversified polity and milieu of Pakistan could create for the federation and homogenous institutions such as the Army.

Pakistan, quite like India, was not an ethnically and religiously homogenous entity, and it consisted of various distinct ethnicities, Islamic sects and sub-sects, apart from having its share of ‘minorities.’

The economic, cultural and political cleavages that began developing between various ethnicities - especially due to a lack of democratic representation of these varied peoples in the corridors of power - were attempted to be fixed and filled by the military and the state through the imposition of the ‘one unit’ system – an idea in which Pakistan was treated as a single unit of homogenous Muslims and a place where there was no room for provinces based on ethnic credentials.

The state seems to have naively undermined and underestimated the power and the hold the concept of ethnic identity had in the region – a hold, which in India, comparatively speaking, was more successfully addressed through democracy and democratic institutions that helped varied ethnicities have a stake in the affairs of the government and the state.

As the state cringed at the pro-democracy movement of the late 1960s that was searching for a Pakistan run on democratic lines and which, in turn, would give a vote and a voice to various ethnicities, the state suddenly turned towards its former nemesis, the Islamists.

The Yahya Khan dictatorship that replaced the fallen Ayub Khan regime, was the first in the country to start patronising leading Islamic parties in an attempt to thwart the largely left-leaning pro-democracy movement spearheaded by overtly secular leaders such as the Pakistan Peoples Party’s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, National Awami Party’s Moullana Bhashani and Wali Khan, Awami League’s Mujibur Rheman,  politicians like Asghar Khan, and leftist student parties such as the National Students Federation (NSF).

As far as the military was concerned democracy meant the disintegration of Pakistan; and more so, they saw democracy as a danger that would neutralise American and capitalist support that the military enjoyed, marginalising the military in the matters of the government.

For the Islamists, democracy meant the emergence of ethnic and religious plurality that would encourage secular politics and policies and further undermine the notion of Islamcentric Pakistani nationhood.

On the eve of the 1970 elections, as the state (under the military) went about explaining to its American allies its sudden bend towards patronising forces peddling Political Islam as a way to frustrate ‘Soviet influence’ and the ‘spread of communism’ in Pakistan, the Islamic parties began their bit by decrying that (in the wake of the pro-democracy movement) ‘Islam was in danger.’

But the nation seemed to be in no mood to respond to the conservative alarmist messages coming from the military dictatorship and its new-found Islamic allies as the people voted with their feet for left-leaning secular parties such as the Awami League (in former East Pakistan), and the PPP and NAP in West Pakistan.

However, as the results of the elections stood out to prove the inherent distrust a diverse Pakistan had for what the military establishment and the Islamic parties were defining as ‘Pakistan’s ideology’ and the ‘one unit,’ the consequence of the damage the two convolutions had already caused emerged in the shape of Civil War and cries of independence in former East Pakistan. In December 1971, East Pakistan violently broke away from the rest of the country to become Bangladesh.

Conveniently, the humiliated military and Islamic parties and pro-establishment politicians who had all been squarely defeated in the 1970 elections, put the blame on the purveyors of democracy who had risen in revolt against military dictatorship and the one unit system in the late 1960s.

Ironically, though the incoming PPP government led by the popular Z. A. Bhutto remained populist and secular, Bhutto couldn’t escape the question about Pakistan’s ideology that now seemed to have gained a lot more urgency in the face of the breakup of the country.

Staring the new government in the face was a disenchanted population and a disgraced Army. But Bhutto was clever to use a vital scapegoat to turn things around. His populist and socialist rhetoric was now punctuated with verbal attacks on India which had supported the Bengali nationalist movement. The Bhutto regime then gathered a number of (otherwise anti-Bhutto) conservative scholars and historians to turn his anti-India rhetoric into a common historical narrative in which India became the enemy behind most, if not all, political and economic ills befalling Pakistan. This episode has in it the seeds of what would grow into the rampant culture of denial and conspiracy theories in Pakistan.

The flammable narrative then eschewed provincialism as well, as Bhutto went after Pushtun and Baloch nationalists, blaming India and the Soviet Union for what was simply the result of Bhutto’s own rising autocracy.

The narrative was adopted even by Bhutto’s staunchest opponents, especially the religious parties, who eventually galvanised a largely secular body of people into believing that the ills Pakistan was facing were due to ‘secularism,’ and the ‘betrayal of Pakistan’s ideology’ (Islam).

As General Ziaul Haq stumped the politicians by imposing Martial Law (1977) and bagged the Jamat-i-Islami to flaunt his rule as being ‘Islamic,’ the narrative spun out of the confines of text books and spontaneous speeches and took a whole new meaning with the emergence of Pakistan as a frontline state in America’s proxy war against the Soviet Union on the scorched grounds of Afghanistan. This was also the time that the state and its media literally turned the image of Jinnah on its head by making him spout unsubstantiated Islamist pearls!

The 1980s and the so-called anti-Soviet Afghan jihad is colored with deep nostalgic strokes by the Islamists and the military in Pakistan. Forgetting that the Afghans would have remained being nothing more than a defeated group of rag-tag militants without the millions of dollars worth of aid and weapons that the Americans provided, and Zia could not have survived even the first MRD movement in 1981 had it not been due to the unflinching support that he received from America and Saudi Arabia, Pakistani intelligence agencies and its Afghan and Arab militant allies were convinced that it was them alone who toppled the Soviet Union.

The above belief began looking more and more like a grave delusion by the time the Afghan mujahideen factions went to war against one another in the early 1990s and Pakistan was engulfed with serious sectarian and ethnic strife. But the post-1971 narrative that had now started to seep into the press and in many people’s minds, desperately attempted to drown out conflicting points of views about the Afghan war by once again blaming the usual suspects: democracy, secularism and India.

Many years and follies later, and in the midst of unprecedented violence being perpetrated in the name of Islam, Pakistanis today stand more confused and flabbergasted than ever before.

The seeds of the ideological schizophrenia that the 1956 proclamation of Pakistan being an ‘Islamic Republic’ sowed, have now grown into a chaotic and bloody tree that only bares delusions and denials as fruit.

As conservative parties, Islamic groups and reactionary journalists continue to use the flimsy and synthetic post-1971 historical narrative to consciously bury the harrowing truth behind the destruction and the chaos the so-called ‘ideology of Pakistan’ has managed to create within and outside Pakistan, a whole generation is growing up absorbing the narrative wholesale.

Whereas state-sanctioned history text books did the trick in this respect in the 1970s, and the state-owned media and the conservative press galvanised Pakistanis towards this narrative in the 1980s, today, just as the military and the state of Pakistan is searching for a suitable ground to tackle the ideological and physical monsters their own follies have unleashed, a whole new generation of post-90s young men and women and electronic media pundits have taken upon themselves to look for the answers. Unfortunately, the answers are being looked for in the old convoluted narrative of the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ which, ironically, is the source of the problem.

This schizophrenia is apparent in the military itself. On the one hand, as an institution, the Army seems to have come to terms with the importance of plurality and democracy as ways to harmoniously deal with the ethnic and sectarian diversity that is Pakistan; it has also realised the folly of turning a blind eye to Islamist organisations, believing they will be ‘helpful in Kashmir and Afghanistan.’

But since the Pakistan Army’s entire motivation revolves around a conflict with India (Islam vs. Hinduism), it has been tough for senior officers to justify to their men a war being fought with remorseless men who incidentally also call themselves Muslims.

Even though, General Pervez Kiyani has done well to finally make his men find a good reason to fight the monsters, but if one listens to the many characters who these days appear on private TV channels and conservative newspapers, one can at least partially understand what is the new narrative that is emerging to motivate the Pakistani state’s war with the Islamists.

If these always combusting characters on the mini-screen are to be believed, then even though Pakistan is facing the scrooge of extremism and related terrorism, the extremists and terrorists are ‘being sponsored and funded by enemies of Pakistan (i.e. India and Israel).’

So is it true that the same old India (and ‘Zionists’) bogy is being built into the emerging narrative as well to infuse the right amount of motivation into the troops and the nation in the fight against extremism which in reality is very much an internal demon? Perhaps. But more alarming however is, that if state follies in this respect ended up creating big monsters in the shape of extremist organisations, then the new added-on narrative being peddled so enthusiastically by colourful chameleons on popular TV is bound to generate a generation of young Pakistanis which – ironically in the ‘age of information’ – may be the most conditioned and reactionary culmination of young people to grace the social landscape of the country, passionately divorced from any reality that may  compromise this generation’s new-found mirage and misconceptions about the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ and Islam.

Little monsters are what we have in hand - a lucrative market for TV channels, and a weapon for the Islamists in their ongoing social and cultural war against ‘liberals.’

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.



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