Too much politics, too much hypocrisy — Ayaz Amir

Islamabad diary

Friday, September 18, 2009
Ayaz Amir

How many doom-and-gloom stories can any reasonable person endure? More than a nation at war we are a nation in perpetual crisis, vaguely discontented if there is no real crisis at hand.

In no other country of the world would a Brigadier Imtiaz Billa, a spook who put up his gloves years ago, be taken seriously. Yet in recent days the media almost succeeded in turning him into a TV celebrity, an outcome which must have taken him by surprise most of all.

This is just by way of example to underline something obvious about Pakistan: there is too much politics in this country. Why is this so? Why is politics the staple of everyday conversation? Because — and here’s the paradox — there is too much religion in this country. By which, Heaven forbid, I do not mean the genuine article but religious cant and hypocrisy. The way we go on about religion an alien could be forgiven for thinking that the very concept of religion began in Pakistan.

This is General Ziaul Haq’s revenge from the grave. Revile him as much as we may, there is no escaping the fact that a good deal of the fake piety on display in the official life of the Islamic Republic is a continuation of the legacy whose baleful seeds —dragon’s teeth?—he scattered.

In art the counterweight to too much restraint, or too much order and discipline, is romanticism, a natural urge to reach for the opposite: freedom and perhaps even decadence. This also works the other way round. If there is too much freedom, too much artistic chaos, the desire arises to return to the comforts of order and discipline. This is how Hegel and Marx explained the universe: the combination, or clash, of opposites creating a synthesis or unity.

But with us what is the Hegelian counterweight to too much false piety? Alas, nothing more creative than an obsession with politics. In any other climate excessive piety would have led to a loosening of restraint, something like the atmosphere of the Sixties in Britain and elsewhere, when the Beatles were all the rage and permissiveness became a common word. I was in school then and used to scratch my head trying to figure out what permissive behaviour and promiscuity meant.

If we had experienced something like the Sixties it might have done us a world of good, perhaps saving us from such of our travails as the march to war with India in 1965 and, only six years later, war and defeat in East Pakistan.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s period at the helm was only a brief interlude. He could have reinvented the idea of Pakistan and secured the country’s future by making it safe for democracy. He had the opportunity but perhaps the times were hard or our good angels not sufficiently kind because events took a turn for the worse when Pakistan, not for the first time in its short existence, once more found itself under a military dictatorship. What is more, this one came with a sinister difference: it was steeped to its eyeballs in religious cant and hypocrisy.

As a result, it was not just physical repression which Pakistan suffered under Zia but moral and social repression. Instead of marching into the future, we travelled back in time. Talibanism in the form now familiar to us was a later phenomenon, but the attitudes giving rise to it were forged in the crucible of those dark years.

The army’s thinking became more conservative, fertile soil for the ‘jihadism’ that was to shape its outlook first in Afghanistan and then Kashmir, something from which it has yet to fully recover. The richest irony of that period of course is that our American mentors, now so bent on culturally reconditioning the Pakistani mind, were at that time the loudest cheerleaders of what passed for the spirit of ‘jihad’.

In the 1980s Americans in Islamabad (and I say this with a sense of wonderment) were amongst the most bigoted souls on the planet. About every subject under the sun they could endure scepticism, even cynicism, but the one thing beyond any criticism was the Afghan ‘jihad’. That was an article of faith, faith raised to the power of dogma. The demons they are now trying to exorcise in Afghanistan were born of that attitude.

Anyway, if any country was ripe for a social revolution — its Sixties and Beatle moment — it was Pakistan after Zia’s death. But instead of making a clean break with the past Pakistan slipped into a neo-Zia era, with the Establishment — as personified by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Army Chief Gen Aslam Beg — serving to put the brakes on any cultural revolution. No hundred flowers bloomed; no hundred schools of thought contended. The old dragons kept their vice-like grip on power. Pakistan remained imprisoned in the old strategic parameters — Afghan depth, holding down the Indian army in Kashmir, the space for adventure provided by our nuke capability, etc.

The Americans, ecstatic at the end of the Soviet empire, had walked on from Afghanistan, forgetting all about it (something which they now rue). But we did not march with the times. We kept holding on to the old certitudes. It was only a matter of time before the Mujahideen morphed into the Taliban and the Taliban provided a congenial setting for Al Qaeda to grow and prosper.

We only have a two years’ window. The Americans are not going to stay in Afghanistan forever. Support for the Afghan war is beginning to drop in the US. By the time Congressional elections come round next year, what is now a trickle could turn into something bigger. And by the time Obama’s first term is about to end, and he is up for re-election, America’s continued involvement in Afghanistan is likely to be one of the hottest topics of debate. We should be ready for that eventuality.

Our army has done a superb job of cleaning up Swat. Fazlullah’s Taliban are on the run. The FATA Taliban are also under pressure, the noose tightening around Waziristan and the army mounting operations at selected points. But for Pakistan to be fully cured of the mindset which drove it into the battlefields of ‘jihad’, the turning of the military tide is not enough. It must be matched by a lasting change of mind. We need a social revolution so that we jettison some of the spiritual baggage which has served to cloud our thinking.

Pakistan will never be fully free in its mind unless the fake piety introduced by Gen Zia into our law books is completely erased. We have to go back not to where the nation stood on Oct 12, 1999, when Musharraf took over, but where it was on July 5, 1977, when Zia and his generals seized power.

The aim should not be to hound anyone but to clear our spiritual decks. All the laws Zia introduced at the altar of a fake piety, including the Hadood Ordinance, need to be expunged. The historic task before this National Assembly, elected with such high hopes in Feb 2008, is this.

Hopefully, as a consequence, our nation will learn to lighten up a bit and discover a higher combination of opposites than religion and politics. There is too much gloom in Pakistan, too much darkness. We are too moralistic, too judgmental, often too self-righteous. That is why we endlessly preach and endlessly worry about the future while not being able to live in the present and make the most of what it has to offer.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Pakistanis at times give the impression of being forever on the cross. We have our problems but since when has the human race, from the dawn of history until today, been free of problems? When they walk the streets of their towns and cities, Pakistanis — both men and women — don’t act as if they are wholly free. In a social sense — and here I have to use my words carefully — they act in a constrained manner, as if a strict censor is watching their backs. Is it any wonder if they have cultivated the habit of doing so many things by stealth? This is no prescription for a free people.

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