Pakistanis at the crossroads

Published on Nov 5, 2007 in the Dawn

PAKISTAN may have been at the crossroads for much of its history but now Pakistanis themselves stand at the crossroads. There are a whole lot of social critics, moralists and assorted men of learning who want to see a better Pakistan but they lack empowerment. More importantly, they do not even know in which direction to turn, and with what national vision.

The two commanding forces of change in the last six years, the army and the US, may have some idea of and stake in Pakistan.s future, for whatever purposes, but their agenda is at variance with the national mood. Even if they could bring their agenda in line with public aspirations they have lost credibility and support though they may have the capacity and will to help.

Clearly the 9/11 tragedy and the no less tragic and mindless US response have aroused much anger in Pakistan, and we can assign blame to it for many of our problems. But the fact is that trouble had been brewing in and around Pakistan even before. Pakistan was engulfed by many internal and external tensions, and religion was being invoked to sanctify violence. Unfortunately, the people.s religious sensibilities acted as a barrier to understanding, much less confronting, extremism.

Just when we saw the first signs of awareness that we had been living dangerously and were losing control of ourselves there came the Bush response to 9/11. As Muslims all over faced humiliating times, they started looking up to those who could pay back the West in the same coin. And who could do it better than the extremists? In their eyes, this legitimised extremist causes.

Yet there have been the stirrings of a change of another kind. Globalisation, greater connectivity and the movement of people across the globe, the spread of education, emergence of civil society, intermingling of cultures, the Internet and media revolution, and economic opportunities have made Pakistanis and populations of many other Islamic countries politically active. It has spurred nationalism and aspirations for democracy and progress, especially in Pakistan.

But the religious and democratic waves are not reconciling. There is a furtive sense of national failure, and people ask themselves in despondency .who are we.. In this sombre mood, religion serves as an anchor of stability and hope. But so does democracy. No wonder people want both but that is very hard to do. Politics has almost become a jihad. And jihad and the concept of honour have interloped our culture, and any attack on extremism is considered an attack on religion. Anti-Americanism has become a religious obligation.

Islam brought about a great humanitarian and ethical revolution and can still serve as a moral and spiritual force in our strife-torn and morally unjust society that is losing its bearings. But on the contrary, it has become a radicalising force and a focus of surrogate politics, giving strong expression to negativity in our national thinking.

Let us look us at the reaction to the Lal Masjid episode. It is true the government botched up the operation resulting in the death of many innocent people. That was not the way to do it perhaps. But in an atmosphere of charged emotions against the army, the debate on the issue took on the wrong colour. We ended up lionising the unhinged fanatics. Why? Because they stood up to the establishment. And secondly, we thought an attack on them would be tantamount to an attack on religion. That is where a clear moral stand that both sides were wrong would have been critical. But we came to impute innocence to one and evil to the other.

The country is facing three urgent national priorities . democratisation and end of the army-dominated political process; a crusade against extremism; and refashioning our alliance with the US to rectify the imbalance in benefits and costs. They are all worthy objectives and we should not express our support to one by opposing the other.

Pakistan can, but will not, change on its own. We need a relationship with the US that is mutually beneficial and respectful of each other.s interests and concerns. In order to have such normal relations we need to have governance in Pakistan that arises from among the people and does not represent the interests of one particular class or institution. We must know what it takes to get there: literacy, social change to bring about a just society, a renewed look at our national identity and the place of religion in our society, the health of our federation and the role of the army . above all, the observance of constitutional rule.

Criticism of US policies is valid and a degree of anti-Americanism is understandable but this focus on the oppressor/victim syndrome and America as the source of all our ills is harmful. It is taking the focus away from owning responsibility for our problems. It makes us vulnerable to extremist thoughts.

Democracy is fine and we must have it because without it we are jeopardising our long-term stability. But it faces serious roadblocks and threats . a regressive social structure, a predatory elite, an ambitious army and extremism. But let us not bank on democracy as a magic bullet against extremism for the simple reason that the quality of democracy that will be effective against it will not arrive early or easily. That is a separate struggle and it will not succeed without combating extremism as our leading priority. If the extremists succeed we all fail. So let us fight them with whatever means we can marshal and whoever we can get to help us in the fight.

We do not have to demonise the army to become democratic. I am not favouring an army/civilian alliance. Such an alliance in our system will become another name for army rule. We must have free, fair and inclusive elections but must be mindful of the limitations of the democracy that may emerge.

Last but not least we must have a mature attitude to our great religion. We need it but should not be obsessed by it. We should shed an attitude that defines or judges all our national issues through the lens of religion. We should defuse our nagging doubts as to whether we are religious enough. Such doubts force us to lean on an extreme version of Islam to attain certainty and reassurance.

Nor should we be negative about religion. Negativity is already expressing itself as a reaction against religion through enlightened moderation that may incite a class conflict in the country along cultural and religious lines. It could tragically multiply our national challenges.

The writer teaches at Georgetown and University of Virginia.