Foreign policy in a historical perspective

November 15, 2020

The new bloc being formed is a step in the right direction; at least that is the imperative of history

The transition in Pakistan’s foreign policy imperatives points towards the departure from the course that it has treaded throughout its 73-years history. Strengthening of its ties with Turkey and mending of fences with Iran under the current political dispensation constitute two of the three cardinal postulates of Pakistan’s recent shift in its foreign policy.

The third cardinal postulate is friendly relations with China. Pakistan is sticking out the hand of cordiality towards Russia, too. Thus, a stark revision in Pakistan’s foreign policy has almost crystallised, resulting in its distancing from United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Pakistan has long had uneasy, if not troubled, relations with the countries geographically contiguous to it. The moot point now is whether Pakistan has embarked on the path of course correction with respect to the foreign policy imperatives or is treading on a slippery slope. Only time will tell. However, with the benefit of hindsight, these foreign policy initiatives ought to be appreciated.

Since 1192 AD when the Muslims first established a polity in northern India, it has had a distinct shape and character. Shahab ud Din Ghauri (1149-1206), the first Muslim suzerain in the subcontinent was from Ghaur in Khorasan region (present-day Afghanistan). But he reigned over a territory spanning over parts of modern-day Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, northern India, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. He was followed by a long chain of rulers of Turkish origin. The circumstances led to a socio-cultural synthesis between the subcontinent, Turkish territories of Central Asia and Iran.

Consequently, northern India emerged as a cultural melting-pot, culminating in an Indo-Muslim civilisation that established its distinctness with respect to its culture, epistemology, and historical consciousness. Amir Khusrau is an early representative of that civilisation with its specificities and peculiarities.

Most of the rulers from the 12th century onwards were Turkish. They knew rather well that if they wanted to sustain their political and social power, Iranian and Indian elements had to be counted in, as an essential component in the ruling elite. In the royal court, the nobility comprised people from Turkish, Iranian and Indian descent.

Arabian influence remained quite marginal. After 120 years of Arab rule the centre of political power had shifted so that the core of Muslim civilisation was located in Baghdad, Cordoba and then Constantinople and Delhi. In the unfolding of events, the leadership of the Muslims was assumed by people of other ethnicities than Arabs.

Even religious influences that affected India percolated from either Samarkand or Bokhara or in odd cases, Baghdad. All said and done, the collective cultural/civilisational identity of the South Asian Muslims had conspicuous Iranian and Turkish elements. During the Mughal era, from Akbar’s reign to Aurangzeb, Muslim civilisational character was typified by Mongol, Iranian and Turkish influences which, after mingling with the indigenous cultural traditions became extremely rich and multi-layered.

The decline of the Mughals from the 18th century onwards was a clear indication that the time had come for the political, economic and social reforms. As luck would have it, colonial companies switched roles from being traders to exercising political power. While they were plying their trade in the subcontinent, the industrial revolution took place in Europe and made it impregnable. It was only in the 19th century that the Muslim reformers came to the fore with their agenda to bring back the glory of the days gone by.

Our severance with the past (Perso-Turkic Islamicate as it is called) has robbed us of our classical tradition. Saadi, Rumi, Hafiz, Bedil, Mir, Ghalib and Iqbal have become virtually irrelevant for us.

None of the reformers thought of reforming the decadent socio-political dispensation which had a long history and the classical epistemic tradition. They instead either subscribed to going back to the basics, which meant re-aligning Indian Muslims with Hijaz or embracing modernism that was essentially Western in its orientation and trajectory.

The real problem has been our moving away from the cultural tradition and instead of reforming it, shunning it altogether and substituting it with the traditions of a people having no cultural affinity with us.

Here, I would like to underscore the impact of Pan-Islamism which proved quite inimical to the indigenous north Indian Muslim culture. Pan Islamism was conjured up in the 19th century Turkey but managed to get considerable traction in the subcontinent. It later led to what is now called ‘Islamism’.

The Islamism brought an aggressive creed espoused by Saudi Arabia to the centre stage of Muslim tradition in the 20th century. The determinants of the identity for the modern Muslims, particularly hailing from the subcontinent were the edicts and injunctions prescribed in the foundational texts. Lamentably, the historical experience that spanned over several centuries which could be capitalised upon as a valuable cultural legacy, was shunned. All of us as a result turned into ahistorical beings.

Every aspect of the social life - culture, politics, education and economy - needs continuous reformation. However, the reforms bring about positive results only when the tradition is anchored in history and the consciousness emanating from it. Our severance with the past (Perso-Turkic Islamicate) has robbed us of our classical tradition. Saadi, Rumi, Hafiz, Bedil, Mir, Ghalib and Iqbal have become virtually irrelevant for us. Waris Shah, Shah Hussain and Mian Muhammad Bakhsh are given lip service only. Sachal Sarmast, Latif Bhittai, Rehman Baba and Khwaja Farid hardly matter to the Pakistanis of this day and age.

We feel living only with the tools of (Western) modernity which has convinced us to discount our tradition. Of course, medieval has lost touch with the modern and that exactly is the crux of the problem. I wish that all major universities should think of establishing departments of classical studies.

In view of what has been said, the current initiatives in foreign policy are a reorientation towards reclaiming the cultural roots of the region and its inhabitants. The new bloc being formed is a step in the right direction; that is the imperative of history.

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Foreign policy in a historical perspective