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Pakistan's liberal folly

Pakistan's liberal folly

Author: Ayaz Amir
Publication: Mid-Day
Date: December 1, 2001

Introduction: The problem lies not in the minds 'chained to the past' but in the 'liberal' establishment which has had its eyes on the future

The Afghan situation has presented a unique opportunity to draw a line in the sand against a tiny minority of unenlightened, obscurantist and backward-looking religious extremists who hold the majority of moderate, dynamic and futuristic-looking Pakistanis hostage." - General Pervez Musharraf in New York

Who's held a gun to the nation's head? It cannot be the Beards who have never held power in the state. While they can be accused of many things - principally of being a nuisance and of filling the airwaves with rhetoric we could all have done without - mismanaging the nation's affairs is not a sin that can be laid at their door.

For this feat of endurance - ineptitude and folly spread over 50 years the English-speaking governing elite in power since 1947 has to carry all the blame. In Pakistan's power structure, the Beards have been outsiders. All the institutions of state - political, military bureaucratic, judicial - have been the exclusive preserve of a governing class whose greatest achievements have been self-perpetuation, corruption and an incompetence that often defies analysis. What have the Beards to do with this record?

The Beards had no representation in to be blamed for the delays in framing a Constitution which plagued the nation's early years. They did not elevate Ghulam Muhammad to the governor generalship or Iskander Mirza to the presidency. They had no hand in Ayub Khan's military coup, which really derailed the country and set the stage for its dismemberment in 1971. It was not the Beards who led the country into the folly of the 1965 war but the quintessential liberal elite represented by Ayub Khan and his coterie of advisers.

It bears asking at this point as to who is a liberal in the Pakistani context and who a fundo or a fundamentalist? A liberal is someone who has climbed the ladder of an English education for social and other forms of preferment, Pakistani liberalism having nothing to do with any intellectual tradition, much less with the Whig tradition of British history. It is all form and no substance. Crackling thunder, no rain.

Conversely, a fundo means someone who is (mostly) from the other side of the tracks and seeks solace, or a solution to the world's problems, in a literal and narrow rendering of the tenets of Islam.

What is the touchstone of the liberal credo? An end to prohibition (something with which I agree but for different reasons). That's about it. It's more fun being sentimental about the national interest in a crowded bar or a dub than in the enforced privacy of one's home.

Pakistan's most famous generals Ayub, Yahya, Niazi, and so on - fought their most successful battles on bar stools. Much as Pakistan's bureaucrats and politicians, positively lyrical when the right stuff flows, have rivalled the achievements of Pericles in similar settings. Prohibition has not just been hard on the nation's drinkers (a touchy issue with which it is possible to sympathise). It has also ruined the tone of Pakistani metaphysics.

The fundamentalist, on the other hand, is a creature of rage. Not because his ideology predisposes him to this attitude but because rage, helpless anger and frustration are the typical responses of the outsider who wants to be in but is not and who therefore enjoys the luxury of denunciation without the burden of responsibility.

It should be a sobering thought that all the debacles which stand out in our history were the products of 'liberal' endeavour: from the war of 1971 to the more recent adventure in Kargil. Sure the religious right had something to do with some of these ventures but only as cannon fodder and foot soldiers. The actual decisions were made over their heads by the country's liberal', English-speaking establishment.

The Jamaat-I-Islami played the role of an auxiliary militia in East Pakistan in 1971 and a leading role in the agitation against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977. Some of the religious outfits were deeply involved in the first Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation. But in all these ventures the religious right was playing out roles scripted and directed by General Headquarters or Inter-Services Intelligence. While the religions parties and, later, the madrassas proved useful to the state, they were never the state.

How strange then that today they should be demonised as the source of all our problems. Who held whom hostage? It was not the madrassas which forced any government to support the Taliban. This was a decision taken by the national security establishment in pursuit of 'strategic depth' and similar notions which have characterised our Afghan policy.

The madrassas had it not in their power to hold the nation hostage. It was the army and the intelligence services which brooked no assault on the "obscurantist elements" because they were seen as serving the 'national interest'- a bogey in whose name every last lunacy can be justified.

Of course after the change of political climate in Pakistan, it is near-treason to suggest that prior to September 11 Musharraf subscribed to the same philosophy he now so stoutly berates. His own words on numerous occasions testify to the fact that on Afghanistan, Kashmir and the great strategic space provided to Pakistan by its nuclear capability his views were no different from that of the Beards. Both sides, the army and the Beards, swore by the same strategic orthodoxy (this adjective, strategic, deserving close examination for all the mischief it has caused).

It goes to Musharrafs credit that he changed his mind quickly when circumstances changed. Consistency, after all, as Mullah Omar might reflect, is not a virtue at all times. Even so, he could try putting Pakistan's peculiar brand of obscurantism in perspective. When the very bastions of national security are infected by the spirit of holy war, does obscurantism reside in the madrassas or in the bastions standing guard against the enemy?

So there we have it. Pakistan's problem lies not amongst its bearded population or in the obscure curriculum taught in its religious seminaries. If it did, the solution would be simple: bulldozing the madrassas and perhaps press-ganging their students into the army. The problem lies elsewhere: not in the minds supposedly chained to the past but in the 'liberal' establishment which has always prided itself on having its eyes on the future.

The best that this establishment produced has served Pakistan ill: taking it into useless defence pacts, fighting useless wars, making the country hostage to one futile ambition after another. The madrassas and the Beards while responding emotionally to many senseless ideas have had no part in creating this sorry legacy.

Even now, we are clutching at the wrong end of the argument. Our problem is not joining or staying out of the international mainstream, spawned by our decision to join the American war on Afghanistan. For most of our 53 years as a nation we were amongst the most allied of America's allies and thus in the very centre of the international mainstream.

What good did that do us? The Beards had not arrived on the national scene by then. It was the old governing class - crack English, premium whisky (alas) and all - which made a mess of the nation's affairs.

It is not the elimination of the Beards which is our foremost problem but the eradication of obscurantism from the hearts and minds of the national security establishment.

If the attention showered on Pakistan becomes another instrument for self-perpetuation, and for the lengthening of the Musharraf order, then Pakistan has gained nothing from this crisis. With the fall of Kabul and other cities our importance as a frontline state has already gone. The rest of the bubble will also burst because bubbles never last.

Only if the army pursues a Kemalist agenda and sets the country on the path to an enduring democracy will we be able to say that we took the right turning and exploited the situation to our advantage.

But for this to happen and for us to start on this journey, the first essential is to stop pretending that the Beards and madrassas have been the source of our problems.

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