Wed September 19, 2018
Can't connect right now! retry

add The News to homescreen

tap to bring up your browser menu and select 'Add to homescreen' to pin the The News web app

Got it!

add The News to homescreen

tap to bring up your browser menu and select 'Add to homescreen' to pin the The News web app

Got it!
Must Read


November 10, 2015



An interesting mailbag

My last column for The News triggered a set of unusually thought-provoking responses which merit further discussion. The article argued that in the face of Modi’s politics, Pakistan has a choice of responding with nationalism or Islamism.
The army, I argued, had opted for a brash, militaristic nationalism. And while this carried dangers, it could be worse – because any recourse to Islamism would raise difficult questions about which kind of Islam should be taken as representative of Pakistan. Failure to settle that issue would risk sectarianism.
Needless to say, as usual, some of the responses to my article were so daft as to merit no response. For example, the fact that I raised the threat of increased sectarianism was taken as evidence that I desired that outcome. Obviously that is not the case. And given that what follows treads on sensitive territory let me make it clear at the outset that the more controversial opinions are those of my Pakistani correspondents and interlocutors and not my own.
The most interesting remarks concerned the purpose of Pakistan. I have been surprised – and a little shocked – in recent years to attend dinner parties in Lahore and Islamabad in which people have expressed doubts about the very existence of the country. Fifteen years ago it would have been unthinkable to hear any Pakistani talking in these terms but the violence, corruption and lack of governance have left some Pakistanis exhausted and dispirited. And it was striking that one of the comments I received in response to the article praised Maulana Abul Kalam Azad – a man who consistently opposed Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s Pakistan project.
But such views are held by a tiny minority.
Far more sympathise with the opinion of a retired senior military officer who wrote to me about his family history. His forebears split at the time of Partition. The branch of the family that opted for Pakistan joined the military and went on to positions of national

distinction. Those who remained in India failed to achieve anything approaching similar social status.
Of course it is difficult to quantify all the relevant factors in such a comparison. Unlike virtually every other Pakistani institution, the army has a history of promoting talent on the basis of merit. Had my correspondent joined, let’s say, the bureaucracy rather than the army, his career path might have been unfairly blocked by capricious political interference.
But what of the factor my correspondent really wanted to highlight – anti-Muslim discrimination in India? There is no question that the fears of many Indian Muslims about what the future may hold are not only real but also becoming more intense. Having said that Pakistanis may be surprised to learn that Deobandi clerical leaders in India call on their followers to fly the Indian flag on national day. The case of Pakistani patriots would be strengthened if a substantial number of Indian Muslims started expressing the desire to seek sanctuary in Pakistan.
There is also the question of what would have happened to India’s Muslims had Partition not happened. It is one of history’s unknowable ‘What ifs…’ but one can at least speculate that had Muslims constituted a much larger minority in a united India, then they would have been perceived as a greater threat and faced greater levels of discrimination than is the case today.
The second substantial issue to come out of the correspondence concerned the relationship between faith and nationalism. It is wrong, some argued, to draw a clear distinction between the two: after all, many Pakistanis are both fervently patriotic and highly religious.
And, of course, that is true. But it misses the point. Islamism has never been a dominant force in Pakistani politics. Religious parties have not fared well.
True there is confusion about the role of Islam in the state. And, yes, there was for decades a reluctance to confront (and even a desire to promote) those elements – such as the Lal Masjid clerics – who had a vision of Pakistan as an ideologically based Islamic state.
But despite all that, most Pakistanis have doggedly voted for non-religious parties. And even if many people in the country have a sneaking admiration for those who sacrifice everything by giving their lives to jihad, most are also supporting the army’s struggle against the Pakistani Taliban.
So what about the opinion polls consistently showing support for Shariah law in Pakistan? It all depends on how the pollsters’ question is perceived. Are people seeing Shariah as a strict code of laws to be imposed by clerics or as a loosely defined vision of better society in which some kind of genuine justice prevails?
Let’s not forget that whenever Pakistanis have experienced Shariah (or at least a version of it) – for example in the Swat Valley – they have very rapidly come to the conclusion that they would prefer to revert back to the old arrangements, however unsatisfactory they are. Similarly when the MMA was in power in Peshawar, it didn’t take long for the voters to decide they would rather have something else.
It is not impossible that Islamists will at some stage govern Pakistan. But they would only be able to achieve power by hijacking rather than initiating mass protests. And all the evidence suggests that if they did achieve power they would soon face demands to give it up. And in the meantime nationalism remains a more powerful mobilising force.
As I said: interesting mailbag.
The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @OwenBennettJone