Next year Pakistan turns 70 — a timespan arching over an entire human lifetime. A lifetime that would typically feature some measure of mistakes and regrets, along with some lessons, and a bit of wisdom in the end. Seventy years, after all, is a long time to become a bit wise. Imagine, then, the arch of wisdom for a whole nation — a nation of many million people. Yet are we any wiser today?
As it stands today, Pakistan is still confused on questions most fundamental to its existence; questions nation states ought to have resolved in their early stages of development. To this day, no one of serious merit has a clue as to what Pakistan stands for and where the country ultimately sees itself among the league of nations. The initial tinkering of the founding fathers and their successors with such ideas as the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ has defied reification. This should surprise no one, considering just how smudgy these ideas are the moment one begins to unpack them. Not secular, but not quite a theocracy either; not a welfare state, but no laissez-faire utopia either; not a monarchy, but not sufficiently democratic either — Pakistan in 2016 remains as much a liminal twilight zone as Pakistan in 1947. The confusion seems to emerge from two as yet unresolved issues. First, the role/composition of the state vis- a-vis the security establishment; second, the role of religion.
With regard to the former, not much will or can change so long as the prism of ‘National Security State’ continues to distort policy calculus at the highest levels. Pakistan’s great misfortune is that the civilian government, through its history, has remained subordinate to a security establishment of which every motive and strategy — from inception on down to the present — has emerged from an existential geopolitical paranoia which in a perverse feedback loop has fed the establishment’s legitimacy. Every past effort by the civvies to buck this trend has been sabotaged one way or the other. This is not to say that Pakistan in its infancy had no legitimate fears. At the time of Partition, Pakistan comprised 21 per cent of British India’s population but inherited only 17 per cent of the revenue base, which shrunk further with the subsequent flight of the non-Muslim entrepreneurial class and capital. The new country had neither a central government nor a functional capital. India didn’t help matters; Nehru and Sardar Patel contested for every last scrap of assets and liabilities — an already lopsided division in favour of India. It appeared to most Pakistanis that India wanted nothing more than the Pakistani project to fail; a legitimate concern at the time given India’s actions: holding back cash balances it owed to Pakistan or cutting the supply of water in 1948, and so on. But that was then, the intervening passage of time offered several opportunities to settle the dust of suspicion, yet policymakers in Pakistan have remained committed to a strategy of amplified fear and reaction — the knock-on from which has been devastating through and through.
The second issue — the role of religion — is a broader one. Here too we’ve seen only confusion. While privately secular, Jinnah employed religious idiom in the pre-Partition days to attract the religious-minded to the cause of Pakistan. His quotes were used selectively, especially during the Zia era as a prop for an Islamic Pakistan. After Jinnah, a bunch of men, all privately liberal — the Oxford educated Liaquat Ali Khan, the Sandhurst trained Ayub Khan, the rakish Yayha Khan, and the Berkeley alumnus Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, appeased the religious elements within the country by compromising secular ideals in the public sphere. Even Benazir Bhutto, a woman every bit the product of modernity, became an image of public piety. While in power in the 1990s, she, too, embraced the hard-right — Hikmetyar and Co — albeit under pressure from the establishment. One imagined Pervez Musharraf, personally inspired by Ataturk, would save the day with his call to “Enlightened Moderation”. Alas, even in his case self-interest eclipsed heady idealism via concessions to the hard-right. In all this, though, Pakistan isn’t alone. With the exception of Tunisia (until recently), almost every Muslim majority country has struggled with striking the right balance between secularism and religion. Even Malaysia and Indonesia, cited often as the less extreme cases, have had their struggles. Per a recent poll, 86 per cent and 72 per cent of Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia, respectively, are in favour of Islamic law. Malaysia has more sharia ordinances than many Arab states. And Turkey, another favourite of secularists, is struggling with the AKP’s flirtation with religion. Shadi Hamid, in his book Islamic Exceptionalism, makes a strong point: the idea that democracy and secular liberalism go hand in hand is a Western assumption. If democracy represents the will of the majority, then perhaps Muslim-majority countries will always reflect a yearning for Islamic law to some degree. Hamid goes on to explain the privatisation of religion, akin to what happened in Christendom, may not have a parallel in the Muslim world, owing to Islam’s distinction from the other monotheisms: its founding moment, the prophetic model, the immutability of scripture, and the comprehensive expatiation of matters legal, political and social within its mainstream tradition that combines the numinous and the quotidian to a degree difficult to breach. This would imply, at a minimum, a viable centrist approach be sought, one which requires liberal secularists to arm themselves with more than just angry snipes and mockery within their limited echo chambers to engage the traditionalists. And, likewise, for the religious-minded, informed scholarship of not just Islam but of the sciences and philosophy should qualify as a minimum requirement to be considered a serious theologian. That ought to dispense with most of our clerics stuck in a 7th-century time warp.
But for Pakistan, the issue isn’t as much the over-emphasis on religious piety, as it is the cynical use of the religious sentiment and its application as a geostrategic asset that’s blown up (literally so) in the country’s face today. These two issues — civil-military imbalance and the outsized role of religion — are part of a dangerous symbiosis from whose clutches Pakistan is yet to recover. To this day, ‘proscribed’ militant groups in Pakistan are at large, with the sort of swagger that ought to shame any state even slightly invested in the lives of the people it’s sworn to protect. The problem is how long will this go on? Rather, how long can this go on?
For a country that’s had its courtrooms attacked, its airports attacked, its naval base attacked, its schools attacked, its recreational parks attacked, its buses and bazaars attacked, its places of worship attacked, its military headquarters attacked, and now more recently a hospital attacked and with it an entire generation of lawyers, one wonders if ever in our lifetimes will we see an end to a strategy that hasn’t worked before, isn’t working today, and is almost guaranteed to fail in the future.
Seventy years is, after all, quite a long time to become a bit wise.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 23rd, 2016.
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