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March 18, 2014

Which side are we on?

Opinion

March 18, 2014

Islamabad diary
The Lord gave us some of the world’s most fascinating rivers, the tallest mountains, and a broad expanse of the bountiful sea. What the Lord did not give us, for reasons best known to Him, was boldness of spirit – the ability to think big, take the paths less trodden. Something in our genes, our climate or our history predisposed the people inhabiting these lands to always go for the familiar and seize the dullest options.
Throughout history these lands never knew anything approximating to freedom and independence. Through the mountain passes and across the plains of Punjab marched foreign armies eager for conquest and plunder. The Punjabi and the Pakhtun did not resist these foreign invaders. Instead he made a virtue of accommodation, adjusting himself to each change of kingdom or empire.
When the last of these conquerors arrived not from the west but this time from the east where the Britisher had first established his foothold, the Punjabi and the Pakthtun felt no qualms in enlisting in his armies and fighting under the foreign flag not only in India but in distant lands. This was not soil from which could readily sprout the seeds of revolution.
So when the subcontinent was partitioned and the new state of Pakistan came into being – the demand for statehood sounded through the loudspeaker of religious separatism – it was scarcely surprising that the new ruling class, in whose hands Providence had placed the destiny of this new state, should be deeply conservative and pro-west.
Pakistan did not choose to be pro-west. It was born that way, given its landlord and reactionary ruling class, including the achkan-wearing Muslim elite sensing the social and economic opportunities that the new state would provide and rushing over from India. The reactionary and regressive option is thus part of our inheritance, embedded in our genes.
Whenever something new comes up, trust us to remain true to this inheritance. Take the current

split in the world of Islam, the split playing out most violently in the killing fields of Syria. All the conservative Arab states, with no small help from Turkey, are ranged on one side, supporting the opposition to Bashar Al-Assad, and a slightly radical coalition on the other side represented by the Assad regime, and its principal backers: Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. And Pakistan has to be on the conservative side.
What may or may not have been agreed with our friends from the holy kingdom we do not know. But in a joint communiqué we have called for an interim regime in Syria which amounts to saying that Assad must go. And our friends have given us a cash transfer which has helped bolster the falling fortunes of the rupee. So it doesn’t take much to conclude that our sympathies now lie with the anti-Assad camp. What is also fairly visible is the coolness which has descended on our ties with Iran – this for no interest of our own but merely to please our desert friends.
Bashar Al-Assad is no angel but then who is? Meanwhile the opposition to him is attracting the worst extremist elements in the Islamic pantheon, kindred in spirit to what used to be the Afghan mujahideen. From across the world of Islam the worst bigots were drawn to the Afghan ‘jihad’ as they are now being drawn to the Syrian civil war and Pakistan, thanks to its historic conservatism and its desert friends, finds itself in this august company.
The sound of conservative drums and the jingle of petrodollars and it doesn’t take long for Pakistan to make up its mind. Pakistan was the principal drumbeater of the first Afghan ‘jihad’ not only because of Gen Zia’s pro-Islamic sympathies but because with the CIA and Saudi Arabia also marching to the same music and with all the stuff knocked into the official Pakistani mind about the Russian bear and his relentless drive towards the warm waters of the Indian Ocean it was almost a foregone conclusion that we would jump into that fray heedless of the consequences.
Musharraf eagerly jumping into the American lap, without properly weighing the costs and benefits, and then sending troops into the tribal areas was also largely because of the conservative programming of the Pakistan army. Iran is as much a neighbour of Afghanistan as we are. But why in the context of Afghanistan’s troubles have our responses been so different? Iran never gave Afghan refugees or ‘mujahideen’ a free run of that country as we did of ours. But we thought we were playing for the greater glory of Islam without realising the mess we were preparing for ourselves. And so it goes on. We have a fascination for the beaten track.
About the one bold thing Pakistan ever did in its history was under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto when at the time of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war PAF fighter pilots were sent to Syria where they took to the skies and performed meritorious service, earning the undying gratitude of Bashar’s father, the ‘Lion of Damascus’ Hafez Al-Assad. If we wrack our minds other instances too might come to the fore but this stands out. But then that was Bhutto who, for all his faults, was no run-of-the-mill politician. If only he had been able to check his overweening ambition and live with the Baloch nationalist leadership the history of Pakistan might have been different.
Baloch nationalists were a different breed – Attaullah Mengal, Bizenjo, Khair Bux Marri. In their pride and self-respect they were a world apart from the typical Punjabi, Sindhi and Pakhtun politician. Our Bengali brothers and sisters were different too, readier to stand up for their rights, readier to take to the barricades. But the Pakistani state crushed the Baloch and got rid of the Bengalis. Left behind was the ‘kachra’ – the dregs – of limited outlook and less imagination which is our lot today. The stars did not shape our fate. This is our own handiwork.
The press was muzzled under Ayub and censored under Zia. Today the media is free, free for the most part to write what it wants. But even in the old days radical things were said, alternatives were discussed, the meaning of revolution sought. Today for all the nominal freedom available the landscape of ideas is barren of everything as if a destroying wind had blown over it leaving nothing behind. When a definitive history of these times is written one of the chapter headings is likely to be the triumph of mediocrity – and the triumph of real estate, I suppose, because this seems to be the one activity which lightens a fire in the Pakistani soul.
And never, ever forget that most conservative institution of all, the army, which had it remained faithful to its secular British roots would have been in the forefront of the modernisation of the Pakistani state but which, again through limited outlook and the fascination with strange theories, has served to keep the Pakistani mind dated and backward-looking. Can the military mind liberate itself from the yoke of Afghanistan? Can it finally bid farewell to the siren-call of ‘jihad’?
The most dynamic military element in the world of Islam today is Hezbollah, the only armed organisation to have earned the respect of the Israeli military. Israel takes none of the Arab states seriously. It takes Hezbollah seriously. If Bhutto had been around Pakistan would have forged close ties with Hezbollah. But a primitive sectarianism has taken hold of the Islamic mind and because Pakistan’s vulnerabilities make it a hostage to outside influences it is on the other side of Hezbollah in Syria. So be it.
Things are changing. The centre of gravity of global power is shifting slightly to the east. China continues to rise. Russia under Putin is asserting itself as a great power which, let us never forget, it has been since the times of Peter the Great. But the Muslim world remains backward and Pakistan remains a bastion less of Islam than of primitive conservatism. And in our more heady moments we talks of a renaissance – nishat-e-sania. Nothing suggests that it is coming any time soon.
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