Pakistan’s slow-motion slide into sectarian hell has, so far, met with studied silence from all the major political players.
In the case of the PPP, the silence is mere cowardice. In the case of the PML-N and the PTI, the silence is calculated; a cold-blooded conclusion that there are seats to be gained from turning a blind eye. What is more interesting though is the silence of the khakis. Because of all institutions, it is the Army that has the most to lose.
The fact of the matter is that the armed forces are a pluralistic institution. Our officer corps includes not just Muslims of every shade but also Christians, Parsis and even Ahmadis. More importantly, while Shias form 25 per cent of Pakistan’s population, there is some evidence that they form an even larger part of the officer cadre. The Army may, therefore, be able to survive the day when Muslims refuse to obey Christians. But it will not survive the day when Sunnis refuse to obey Shias. Assuming that the Army knows this, the question arises as to why it is doing nothing. My understanding is that there are two reasons — one official, one unofficial.
The official reason is that it is not the Army’s job to determine the ideological contours of this country. Instead, that is the job of the civilian leadership.
Pardon the language but I am going to call ‘bullshit’ on that one. This country has been ruled for decades at a time by the military. Even otherwise, the military has generally been the single-most important political force in Pakistan. More importantly, while the roots of discrimination in our Constitution were introduced by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the reason why those seedlings of hate took hold and spread is because of General Ziaul Haq and his minions. If the Army is now troubled by sectarianism in Pakistan, it cannot wash its hands of the matter.
What, then, is the real argument?
The real argument is that the rank and file of the Army have been deliberately indoctrinated with the belief that they are warriors of Allah whose job is to keep infidels at bay. In other words, the average soldier’s patriotism has a distinctly religious tinge in which Pakistan is a fortress of Islam and its enemies are also enemies of Islam.
Now this worldview is certainly useful in motivating people to kill Indians. At the same time, it has limited utility when it comes to jihadis because the jihadis claim to be even better Muslims than us.
Till date, the Army has tried to deal with this problem not by changing its propaganda but by painting jihadis as Indian stooges. It has done so because it believes the present moment is simply too delicate for wholesale ideological retooling. In other words, the Army thinks that telling the jawans to protect a pluralistic ideal could well result in mass mutiny. At a practical level, this is undoubtedly a very powerful argument. There is also ample historical precedent for not worrying about subtleties in the middle of a war.
To take one famous example, the Bolsheviks spent 1917-1942 preaching to the world that nationalism was a bourgeois disease. However, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, Marxist orthodoxy was swiftly jettisoned in favour of a full-throated nationalism and the cult of ‘Mother Russia’. This was because the average Soviet soldier was far more willing to die for his country than for the sake of class solidarity.
But does this strategy make any sense in the case of Pakistan’s current situation? Not in my view.
The whole point of a military ideology is to objectify the enemy, i.e., to reduce the opponent to an evil caricature who can be killed without compunction. Accordingly, the most important function of a military ideology is to allow differentiation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ so that the others can then be caricatured and killed.
In the case of the Germans, hyper-nationalism made sense because it allowed Joseph Stalin to portray the invaders as evil Huns. Similarly, jihadi nationalism makes some sense as a military ideology if the enemy is India because Indian troops can all be lumped into the category of ‘kafirs’. However, in the case of the TTP, jihadi nationalism is useless because it fails to adequately differentiate the enemy from ourselves.
Our current national ideology is a muddled mess in which we have decided both, that all citizens shall have the right of freedom of religion and that the state will decide their religion for them. This really doesn’t work.
Let me be more blunt. By stating in our Constitution that certain people (i.e. Ahmadis) do not have the right to consider themselves Muslims, we have accepted the argument that an individual’s religious identity is a political matter. It is not possible to reconcile that argument with what the rest of the world considers to be freedom of religion. Moreover, this conflict is not just theoretical: we have thoroughly legalised persecution of Ahmadis and yawned in the face of their suffering.
The net result is that there is only a difference of degree, and not a difference of principle, between the state of Pakistan and the emirate envisioned by the TTP. The state excommunicates Ahmadis. The TTP excommunicates both Ahmadis and Shias.
Pakistan, therefore, has two options. The rational option is to move in a more pluralistic direction where the state doesn’t have the right to define anyone as a non-Muslim. The politically feasible option is to continue with the status quo but to try and differentiate our particular brand of witch-hunting from the tactics of the TTP. I understand that the rational option is politically dangerous. Unfortunately, the politically feasible option doesn’t work for Shias like me. That’s because we’re likely to wind up dead under that option. Furthermore, while preserving the status quo may work in the short term, the long-term result of such cowardice is likely to be civil war.
Rationally speaking, the Army no longer has the option of staying silent. Yes, it is not the Army’s job to fix our muddled and hateful beliefs. But if the Army doesn’t at least prod the civilians into acting, this country will fall apart. When that happens, there will be no Pakistan. And no Pakistan Army either.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 29th, 2012.
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