NOT even the seasonal patriotism of Independence Day would make one deny that Pakistan has faced a decade-long crisis of leadership and poor governance.
Nor can one gloss over the weakening of institutions, degradation of infrastructure and environment, and the marked impoverishment of large segments of its urban and rural population.
This extraordinary decline would have tarnished the country’s image anyway; the image has also suffered grievously, and often unfairly, because the very idea of Pakistan has been under attack. It is targeted partly because its status as a nuclear power is to be discredited and partly because it is kept under relentless pressure in the context of the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan.
Only once in a while an unbiased western scholar, like Anatol Lieven (Pakistan: A Hard Country), looks at the factors that sustain it and make it remarkably resilient.
Consider the vectors of the ‘failed state’ thesis. First and foremost, since Independence doomsday scenarios have been constructed around the view that Pakistan is a geographical anomaly. There was substance in it as long as East Pakistan constituted its far-off wing. Even here, my four-year tour of duty in Dhaka (1982-86) convinced me that the project foundered not so much on the rock of geography as on that of an authoritarian, unitary-at-heart political dispensation masquerading as federalism.
Pakistani federalism has always warranted high devolution of power to the constituent provinces. A longish article published by me in Lahore in 1960 argued that the Pakistan of 1947 could flourish only as a virtual confederation. Robert Kaplan has recently analysed at length (and rejected) the view that Pakistan is geographically non-viable because it is “a cartographic puzzle piece sandwiched between India and Central Asia that splits apart what the British Empire ruled as one indivisible subcontinent.” Devolution is still the basic challenge.
The ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity of post-1971 Pakistan is found in great many other nations where it is not trumpeted as a fault-line. And yet few of these nations are held together as cohesively as Pakistan — a hallowed land of great antiquity — by the mighty Indus and its tributaries. The enduring Orientalist tradition of the West has historically sought endless fragmentation and miniaturisation of Muslim countries. Pakistan’s enemy is not geography but the lust for power, venality, corruption and incompetence in its management.
Islam has also been cited as the source of three ‘fault-lines’: one, it divides Pakistan literally into mediaeval and modern entities; two, the gulf between conservatives (read literalists) and liberals is unbridgeable; and three, sectarianism foredooms Pakistan.
This polarisation is frequently echoed in a superficial and largely unproductive debate in Pakistan, notable mainly for intolerance. There is little doubt that the instrumentalisation of religion for justifying the policies of non-democratic regimes contributed to the current polarisation.
The rancorous voices of ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ reveal how far Pakistan has got disconnected from a time-honoured dialectical tradition in Islam to explore the interaction of faith and reason; in South Asia, the finest flower of that tradition was the poetry and philosophical work of Iqbal. Can we step back from this artificial divide produced mostly by a particular phase of our national and regional history?
In his erudite studies Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes, Michael Burleigh revisited the battle between secular revolutions and the Church in Europe and described how religion survived and continued to shape politics.
He makes us walk with some of the greatest minds of the 19th century who rejected the raw atheism of the French Revolution.
Many of them tried to synthesise Christianity with rapidly expanding new learning, an enterprise undertaken by Islam centuries earlier. In Desecularisation of the World, edited by American sociologist Peter L. Berger, he states that “the assumption we live in a secularised world is false”, and that “the world is as furiously religious as it ever was”.
The great fallacy of the Islamism vs secularism debate in Pakistan is that it is often conducted in western terms. In the world of Islam, history has run a different trajectory. Political Islam began as a conscious resistance to the multi-dimensional colonial agenda. Emerging in widely separated geographical spaces, it sought coherence as a universal project by declaring Islamic states regulated by the Sharia as its mission.
With divergent approaches to the struggle and its outcome, it was never a monolithic enterprise. Most movements steered clear of secularism (laïcité in Francophone communities). Secularism came to be identified not with the Enlightenment, but with Kemal Ataturk’s republic and subsequently with Arab socialism, though the latter seldom repudiated an Islamic reference. Even in Turkey, survival of Islamic mores and values is an outstanding feature of its contemporary history.
In recent years, political Islam has fragmented with some segments drifting into violence and others reaching out bravely to the goal of a civil state located within Islam’s cardinal mission of peace and justice. It is the latter that offers hope; it is no different from the agenda underlying Quaid-i-Azam’s historic speech of August 11, 1947.
In his latest book The Arab Awakening, Tariq Ramadan cautions the Arabs as follows: “By presenting the debate over secularisation as the primary challenge, the secularised elites of the Arab world not only display their disconnectedness from their memories and traditions, but also present a thoroughly distorted image of the fundamental dysfunction that afflicts western society as a whole.”
This is a warning that the people of Pakistan should also take to heart. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and sectarian militias are grave aberrations with a known temporal context. They do not point to Islam being a fault-line. The Pakistani liberal goes wrong when he demands a collective amnesia of the past and of faith-based ideas.
True ijtihad today would mean progress towards a just and democratic civil state that remains connected with the essence of our faith; at the apex of Muslim state organisation stands social justice. That, indeed, would prevent Pakistan from becoming a failed state.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.