Paradox republic

Published April 20, 2010

Pakistan has been in the news for quite some time now. A country that (until about the early 1980s) was little known and usually mistaken for being a province of India in Europe and the United States, has rapidly risen to dramatically inform and fire the imagination of the western media.

Of course, its rise in this context has more to do with disasters like military regimes, religious fanatics, feared nuclear proliferation scenarios, the dreadful specter of being invaded by fanatical monsters that the state itself created, and the questionable conduct of its courts and law-enforcing agencies in matters of corruption and the treatment of women.

Not all of these are true, though. In fact, many Pakistanis both scoff at and smile away certain scenarios of the country that are laid out on the broadsheets and TV screens across the world in which it seems the country is brimming with fanatics who’ve loaded their camels with the most sophisticated weapons and are on their way to take over the state and government of Pakistan packed with rapists, thieves, smugglers, and other such colourful characters.

Pakistan continues to be understood in a myopic and one-dimensional manner.

It is correct that this country has strong tendencies to implode into a political inferno whose main agents would most likely be the military, the many Islamic terror groups that operate here, and the ethnic tensions that are always simmering just beneath its already wobbly surface.

But what is missed out in such apocalyptic narratives is the very factor that has actually kept this country from experiencing a drastic implosion.

Catch 22 ½

That which keeps a simmering and tense country like Pakistan from turning into the kind of holocaustic religious dystopia that many outside of Pakistan fear is a fascinating paradox. It is a paradox because it radiates certain political, social, and faith-related factors that not only trigger and encourage ethnic and religious groups to sprout, but also simultaneously ensure that such groups and tensions largely fail to break the country or turn it over to a group of mad religious fanatics.

In other words, what threatens to kill the country is also what saves it from being slaughtered.

Of course, there is the case of former East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh. But the bizarre geography of what constituted Pakistan before 1971 had a lot to do with this rupture. The physical separation (by thousands of miles) of the two wings of the old Pakistan magnified the west wing’s irresponsible and arrogant attitude towards its poorer but more populated east wing.

And cynicism apart, lessons (at least some of them), were learned by the state of what was left of the country, one of which was the importance of having a democratic system in place to take care of the remaining ethnic fault lines that still exist.

However, I’m afraid that the other lesson learned from the East Pakistan debacle wasn’t so enlightening. This involved a concentrated exaggeration of the importance of Islam in the existential narratives and rationale of the country.

The reaction in this respect of the Pakistani ‘establishment,’ stung by a liberation movement based on ethnicity in former East Pakistan, was rather simplistic. This reaction involved an intense propagation of a singular and homogeneous strain of Islam (supposedly to curb loyalties and political narratives based on ethnicity). ‘Hum sab Musalmaan hein’ (we are all Muslims); ‘Pakistan ka matlab kya, lailaha-ilalah’ (what does Pakistan mean? There is only one God); and other such poetic declarations began their quest to puncture politics based on ethnic identities.

By the time the 1973 constitution was signed, it again proclaimed the country to be an ‘Islamic Republic’ (a clause that was struck out by the secular Ayub Khan dictatorship in 1962, and, in fact, was nowhere in the plans and rhetoric of the country’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah).

The establishment that thought it might be able to control the politics of ethnicity with a widespread appeal to a nationalistic Islam, somehow forgot to access what impact such a homogeneous and state-sponsored strain of the faith would have on the other aspect of the socio-political multiplicity that dots this country: i.e. sectarian diversity.

Different strokes

The country’s sectarian diversity it seems did not come into play at all in the establishment’s post-1971 maneuvers, also thanks to the success of the ‘Islamic protest movement’ against the populist (and elected) regime of Z A. Bhutto who, ironically, too was party to the country’s new faith-based narrative.

The establishment encouraged taking the new narrative to the streets with the help of the politicised clergy and the anti-Bhutto industrialists. In their excitement they also decided to undo the first lesson learned from the East Pakistan debacle: i.e. the importance of democracy in a diverse country like Pakistan.

After Bhutto’s fall, it was believed that the state-sponsored national Islamic narrative had overpowered the politics of ethnicity, and that it was democracy that unleashed such destructive forces. However, it was conveniently forgotten that the call for a separate Bengali state emerged during eleven years of military dictatorship (Ayub Khan/Yahya Khan).

Buoyed by the ‘Islamic victory’ against ‘the forces of ethnicity and populism,’ the country’s third military dictator, Ziaul Haq, got down to the business of actually turning the state’s neo-Islamic narrative into practice. Fattened by US and Saudi aid to become a frontline player in the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad, the dictatorship unleashed a reign of terror on its populace through a series of highly controversial Islamic laws, still believing that the success of the post-1971 Islamic narrative over a democratic one gave the state the mandate required to turn Pakistan into a ‘true Islamic republic’ in which the reality of ethnic diversity was to be discouraged.

However, the irony is that politics based on ethnicity reared its head the highest during the Zia dictatorship in which anti-Zia sentiments usually emerged as ethnic movements, mainly Sindhi, Mohajir, and Baloch.

What’s more, it was also during the Zia regime that certain political corners of Pakistan’s largest province, the Punjab, too began asserting their position in the name of Punjabi nationalism. The slogan of Jag Punjabi Jag (Wake up, Punjabis!) first heard in the many Pakistan Muslim League rallies in the Punjab during the 1988 election campaign was a consequence of this development. The Zia regime’s policies based on the post-1971 national Islamic narrative had completely failed to defeat the monster it set out to slay.

The second front

As the dictatorship got busy ‘Islamising’ everything from banking to laws to TV and even Jinnah (whose quotes were reworked to sound [suspiciously] Islamic in context), the regime suddenly hit another boulder.

This boulder was the first expression of what the establishment had missed to take into account while constructing its post-1971 narrative: sectarian diversity and its relationship with the singular state-sponsored Islam.

When the Zia regime announced an Islamic law that had to do with a form of ‘Islamic taxation’ (based on the charitable Islamic concept of the zakat), the Shia sect that constitutes about 15 to 20 per cent of the Muslim population in Pakistan rose in protest because their particular set of traditional fiqh (jurisprudence) differed from the conservative Sunni fiqh on which Zia claimed to have based his new law.

Zia had to backtrack and exempt the Shia from the law, but this episode still did not make the state realise the impact its Islamic maneuvers were having on Pakistan’s sectarian divide.

Just as lack of democracy and a highly centralised dictatorship left the country’s various non-Punjabi ethnicities calling for an end to ‘Punjab’s political and economic hegemony,’ Pakistan’s majority Barelvi Islamic sect (that constitutes more than 60 per cent of the country’s Muslim population), wasn’t all that pleased when, to bolster the concept of an armed jihad to meet the demands of the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan, the dictatorship began to aggressively patronise Islamic sects that culturally and theologically clashed with the Barelvi school of thought.

Highly politicised and militant strains of puritanical Islam such as Wahabism and Salafism (that were on the fringe in Pakistan) were imported from totalitarian Arab states like Saudi Arabia and their advocates were given a free reign to set up madrassahs and recruiting centers.

Not only did these strains begin to eat into the traditional edifice of the comparatively more lax and tolerant Barelvi sect, it also began to radicalise it when, as a reaction to aggressive Wahabi/Salafi maneuvers, sections of the Baralvi sect began constructing their own militant side, of which the violent Sunni Tehreek is one expression.

There is thus no surprise in the fact that sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shias and between Baralvi and Salafi groups rose three-fold during the Zia dictatorship.

The paradox

Sectarian and ethnic violence continued even after Zia’s brutal demise, and the specter of the collapse of the state in the face of the maddening campaign of mass murder perpetrated by the offspring of the same Salafi/Wahabi groups that the state itself had fattened became ever more tangible.

This was a loud enough indication suggesting the abject failure of whatever that was propagated in the name of Islam and patriotism by the establishment (through post-1971 politics, history text books and the media). But what has stopped Pakistan from being taken over by extremist groups? What has stopped its balkanisation on ethnic lines?

To begin with, recently, the first lesson learned from the East Pakistan debacle (democracy) has made a roaring comeback. The major political expressions associated with almost all ethnic groups, and with the country’s dominant Barelvi sect, have realised that their survival in a country that feeds and shelters their supporters and themselves depends on the whole idea of the democratic acceptance and a consensual inter-sectarian/ethnic engagement between the sects, religions and ethnicities that exist in this country.

Again, though the kind of ethnic, religious, and sectarian diversity that this country shimmers with can be pointed out as being the very reason which keeps encouraging various ethnic and sectarian fault lines to develop, the paradox is that if this animated diversity is channeled and managed through a continuous democratic process and consensus, there is no doubt that this very diversity then has the potential to turn Pakistan into one of the most positively diversified, dynamic and progressive states in the Muslim world.

The nation (especially its youth) should be encouraged to invest its energies and ego in cultivating a democratic appreciation of the country’s ethnic and sectarian diversity, instead of continuing to harbor a belief in a now archaic national and religious ideology that has only managed to generate ethnic alienation, sectarian tensions, religious distortions, dictatorships, and sheer demagoguery.

We need to embrace what we have been told to fear the most: i.e. diversity, democracy, and a national identity that has nothing to do with what was hammered into our heads as ‘Islam’ and ‘patriotism.’ Here lies the country’s survival and salvation, and not in the glorification of nuclear bombs and jihad and fantasies of becoming the centrepoint of a universal neo-caliphate.

These delusions are no more than urban middle-class fantasies carefully prepared by groups of military men, bureaucrats, politicians, and historians who failed to recover from the identity crises they fell into after the East Pakistan debacle.

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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