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Who says countries are permanent?

We should know this more than others. The Pakistan of 1947 is not the Pakistan which exists today, one half of it having broken away to form another country. I served in Moscow in the seventies and nothing seemed more solid or permanent than the Soviet Union, a mighty power which cast a shadow far and wide. Who could have thought that in a few years’ time it would fracture, leaving a trail of small, independent republics behind?

Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall was two countries. Now it is back to being one. Czechoslovakia was one country then. Now it is two. In the UK, of all places, the Scots, or a goodly part of them, are demanding independence. A referendum is set to decide this question in 2014.

After the fall of the Soviet Union it seemed as if American pre-eminence was an assured thing, lasting for the next hundred years. Bright-eyed scholars announced not just the closing of an era but the end of history. As hubris goes, this had few equals. There were other Americans who said that reality would be what America wanted it to be. Yet American power has declined before our eyes, nothing more contributing to this than the wars President Bush ventured upon in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Clash of civilisations was another phrase current just ten years. Something of the sort has happened but not in a way that the US could have intended. Wouldn’t the Taliban, wouldn’t Al-Qaeda, define their struggle as a clash of civilisations?

Ten years ago in a Jamaat-ud-Dawaah mosque in Chakwal (not far from my house) I heard one of their leaders talking of America’s eventual but sure defeat in Afghanistan. I thought his rhetoric too fanciful then. It sounds much closer to home now.

I have just read a longish review of Norman Davies’ ‘Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations’. This book should be required reading for anyone concerned about the future of Pakistan. For the lesson it emphasises is that history does not promise progress. All it promises is change. Nothing is fixed, all is movement, nations rising and falling, the old disappearing to make way for the new, the new in turn becoming the old and morphing into something else – the philosophy of Heraclitus and Hegel, even of Marx.

Applied to nations this can be a slightly unnerving philosophy, more so for nations or states which have had their share of trauma, or whose existence for various reasons continues to be fragile. Canada could countenance a referendum on Quebec’s independence, the UK a referendum on Scottish independence, because these are self-confident societies not threatened by such questions. But when the Baloch speak a language which sounds strange to our ears we feel threatened. When the people of Kashmir give voice to their aspirations India feels threatened, huge population and geography notwithstanding. Ours are not very confident societies.

Forgetting the larger canvas, we must look to ourselves for our problems, mostly self-created, are immense. Far from becoming more cohesive and overcoming the problems of the past, Pakistani society seems afflicted by a strange death-wish. It is not just that sectarianism and violence are tearing this society apart. Our minds seem closed and we seem to be living in a different world. Those who care to think are probably concerned about this state of affairs. But at the level of government, at the level of the governing class, civil and military, this concern, or the right amount of it, seems to be missing.

Fires are burning everywhere. We know the list of problem areas. We know where terrorism is striking. But are we getting the import of this message? Are we girding up for the future? Are we getting ready for the time when the Americans are finally out of Afghanistan and the forces of Islamic radicalism have the field to themselves?

I visited Kabul for the first time in 1974. What a beautiful city it was. Then I returned in 1978, soon after the Taraki coup. Although it was still a beautiful place one had a sense of the shadows over it. By 1989 when the Soviet army had withdrawn it was a different place, the old Afghani elite having disappeared, scattered to the four corners of the globe.

In 1930, to take a random year, could anyone then living have imagined the horrors that would unfold in Punjab in 1947? In 1947, or even 1965, could anyone in Pakistan have imagined the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971? We are living witnesses to this history. We, the children of the first post-Partition generation, grew to adulthood in a Pakistan which seems so strange compared to the Pakistan of today.

This is not mere nostalgia. Things were actually different in Karachi, Lahore and ‘Pindi. The atmosphere was not sinful – there is probably more sin now than then, despite our descent into a fake religiosity – it was secular. Despite the curse of military authoritarianism, the atmosphere was more rational.

The warning signs were there. The Jamaat ruled the campuses, promoting amongst the youth of that day its own brand of intolerance and bigotry. And without really knowing why, we stepped into the minefield of the 1965 war. The only good to come out of that disaster were the war songs of Madam Noor Jahan. But we took no heed of those signals. The walls went up in our minds, militarism received a boost and the intelligentsia of East Pakistan began thinking hard of the merits of staying within the confines of Pakistan.

Islam is not a problem in Iran. It is not a problem in the UAE, the fleshpots of Dubai existing happily within the bosom of a strict Islamic society. Why have we made it into a problem in Pakistan? We who could have been a beacon for others, the cross-roads of east and west, starting point of a new golden road to Samarkand, why did we allow ourselves to become almost the leading example of a promising experiment gone hopelessly wrong? We should have been a laboratory of Islamic modernity.

What evil star turned us into a laboratory of CIA-directed and Saudi-financed jihad?

But since we have travelled down this path, and what is over is over, isn’t it time now to change direction, if at all we are interested in saving what remains? The Taliban are a symptom of a larger problem. The economy is one facet of a larger situation. Before all else we must look to the causes of things and change our old ways of thinking.

We don’t have to proclaim the birth of a secular republic. That would be to court an unnecessary backlash. But if Pakistan is to become a going concern, and extremist fires are to be doused, and the challenge of the Taliban met, then we will have to get rid of all our past shibboleths.

The army remains a prisoner of the past. It will have to break those shackles. The political parties could begin by reading Norman Davies book, which will tell them that nothing can be taken for granted. Ordinary people, I think, are ready to explore new frontiers. But will anyone show them the way?

Iqbal and Jinnah, giants among their Muslim contemporaries, were right for their times. Each epoch of history brings forth its own challenges. Pakistan stands direly in need of an intellectual revival, discarding the old and adopting new ways of thinking. If any better destiny awaits it, it may then be in a position to fulfil it.

Tailpiece: Hugo Chavez is dead. “Quiet consummation have, And renowned be thy grave.” He was a soldier. What is it in the Latin American air which can produce someone like him? What is it in our air to produce only dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries?

Email: winlust@yahoo.com

Ayaz Amir, "Who says countries are permanent?," The News. 2013-03-08.