Let no one say we have no gift for black humour. There may be gloom all around and frustration may be on the rise. But, Allah be praised, comedy is never far away.
Ever heard of a Ministry of National Regulation and Services, or a Ministry of Capital Administration and Development? After the latest cabinet expansion, and it seems forever to be expanding, these are the gifts from what now deserves to be called our government of national salvation. The cue seems to be: when in doubt invent a few more ministries.
Every time I walk into the National Assembly and sit on one of those revolving chairs which are so comfortable, I get the feeling that this is not for real, the atmosphere in that hallowed chamber so far removed from the dust and noise of the real Pakistan. It’s not just the National Assembly but government as a whole, the whole business of it, which seems to function, if this is the right word, in some kind of a bubble. I suppose in this unreal world it makes perfect sense to come up with inventions no one has ever heard of.
The more I see of Islamabad the more I am convinced that this was a bad idea from the start. The city has grown and expanded and there are too many roads in it, most of them running parallel to each other. If it is a Greek who planned it he obviously drew little inspiration from what we know of ancient Greek architecture, its harmony and sense of form. The spirit of the Parthenon: the last thing likely to touch you in this necropolis dedicated to boredom and the big yawn.
In countries like ours there is always a gulf between rulers and the ruled. But in Islamabad this gulf has been consecrated, turned into one of the principal landmarks of the Islamic Republic.
From a cocoon how do we get the real measure of things? Our dictators may depart in ignominy but their legacies have proven enduring. Ayub Khan’s major legacies are two: (1) all the fiction we’ve swallowed about the 1965 war and (2) Islamabad. We are slowly unlearning the fiction but we are stuck with the city.
We could have humanised the latter but reactionary winds have proved too strong. Chinese massage parlours and a few restaurants relaxing the strict bonds of prohibition were promising beginnings, pointing the way to a less boring future. But the Lal Masjid adventure put paid to the parlours and the places turning a blind eye to a surreptitious sip remain few and far between. The bootleg business is turning into a rip-off. Ask me.
My friend Malik Riaz, surely one of Pakistan’s most dynamic personalities, has just won a court victory against the Capital Development Authority – or more accurately the CDA has simply downed its arms – allowing him to work unhindered in the capital. Islamabad was always a vast and growing housing colony, mostly for the privileged or the slightly better off. In the end we’ll be left with an endless vista of housing colonies and that is all. And it is from such a place that we hope to turn around the fortunes of the Republic.
Is there any cure for Pakistani hypocrisy? We are not more corrupt than other countries. We should be clear on this score. It’s our piety, the rhetoric at which we are so good, which sticks in the throat and causes a form of moral dyspepsia.
The ordinary man here is like ordinary folk elsewhere: trying to earn a living and support his family. This is the way of our species. But if we could only tone down our loudspeakers a bit and pretend a little less that we are Allah’s chosen and anointed the spiritual health of the land would improve. A gap between words and deeds exists everywhere. But on a comparative scale we outdo all competitors.
The killing of Shias at the altar of a perverted interpretation of the faith beats everything. Sectarianism gone wild, we know the seeds were sown long ago, the legacy of another dictator, but the disease instead of abating seems to have grown worse. The killings in Quetta and Gilgit-Baltistan are a chilling reminder that the armies of sectarianism and religious extremism far from weakening are there in strength amongst the shadows, willing and able to strike when the impulse moves them.
The Bannu jailbreak is a reminder of the same thing. The state hasn’t broken down. It’s just that forces opposed to it, their worldview honed in the crucible of their own version of the faith, have become more powerful. Half a battalion-strength of fighters attacking the jail is no mean undertaking. It took a full-fledged military operation to oust the Taliban from Swat and South Waziristan. But far from being defeated, much less wiped out, they have relocated – as guerrilla armies do in the face of superior odds.
I shudder to think what will happen when the American drawdown or withdrawal in Afghanistan is complete. The Taliban will bide their time and wait for the moment to come out in force. The Americans think the Karzai setup, or whatever stands for it in two years time, will be able to hold its own. That’s what they thought in South Vietnam when they were about to scuttle and run. When the North Vietnamese swept down from the north two years later it didn’t take long for the regime in the south to crumble. Analogies are never perfect but they can come close. The Americans are investing a lot in beefing up Afghan security forces. Let’s hope their investment pays off.
We should be more worried about our homegrown armies. How much more emboldened they would be when American troops leave or are holed up in their bases? The curse of Afghanistan...it will be a testing time for us as well. Our militants too will have reason to become bolder.
Those who think that the American presence is the sole cause of militancy are living in a world of their own. Will Hakeemullah Mehsud lay down his arms and rush to pay his respects to the corps commander Peshawar? Will the leaders of the Punjabi Taliban bow their heads in thanksgiving at the Faisal Mosque?
The Afghan resistance may have nationalist overtones but there is nothing nationalist about the Pakistani Taliban. What drives them is their vision of an Islamic state, Islam as interpreted by them. Our nightmare will not end. With the American withdrawal another phase of it, perhaps a more dangerous one, will begin. A bleak prognosis but one lent weight by the stars.
In Turkey Mustafa Kemal implanted a rigid form of secularism. At least that is what many Islamists think. For a time he had even the azaan, the call to prayer, delivered in Turkish. With the ascendancy of the ruling Justice and Development Party led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan the people of Turkey are trying to discover a new equilibrium.
Our problem is different. We have had too much by way of the ideology of Pakistan. Our search for a fresh equilibrium lies in the modernisation of the Pakistani nation – the debunking of the old theories and a shift to secularism, whether we call it that or something else. A tradeoff with the Turks would be mutually beneficial, importing some of their secularism and exporting to them some of our religion-based ideology of Pakistan. We have a surplus of that and related items. Respected Hafiz Saeed...any takers for him in Turkey?
Tailpiece: I got my history seriously wrong last week. As Qasim Jafri (everyone knows him in Lahore) and Aaker Patel have pointed out, Akbar the Great walked not to Ajmer Sharif, a whole country away, but to Fatehpur Sikri from Agra (a distance of about 40 kms) to pay homage to his patron saint, Hazrat Salim Chisti, and pray for a son. When Jodhabai gave birth to a boy he was named Salim. My apologies.