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Pakistan ka matlab kya?


Today is Pakistan Day, the day on which one is supposed to celebrate Pakistan’s independence both from India and from the British Raj. For my own part, I think Pakistan Day should be the day on which Pakistanis and hyphenated Pakistanis–and anyone else who’d like to come along for the ride–ought seriously to consider the possibility that the creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan was one of the biggest mistakes of the twentieth century.

Pakistan was created as a quasi-non-sectarian sanctuary for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, with the proviso that non-Muslims would be left free as well. The point was supposed to be that Muslims could not live as equal citizens of a secular India. A secular India was just a Hindu Raj in place of a British one. So Muslim well-being required a Muslim country that would nonetheless preserve the distinction between mosque and state. Once created, all would be well, or at least all would be better than India.

How safe are the Muslims of Pakistan? Pakistan was born in the trauma of partition–ethnic cleansing, forced migration, mass death. No one knows how many people died in that first act of “liberation,” but the estimates range from 200,000 to one million. As I’ve mentioned before, my own family was involved in that mass movement, having lost their home and business to ethnic violence, having been shepherded into refugee camps, and then having been forced to flee India for Pakistan at gunpoint, leaving behind one member of the family in the rush to escape. (He eventually made his way over to Pakistan.) I suppose I should be grateful for the creation of Pakistan, since (on one counterfactual reading of history), had Pakistan not been created, my family would probably have been killed, and I would never have been born. On the other hand, the threat of ethnic cleansing itself arose from the threat perceived by the ethnic cleansers of partition. So on another counterfactual reading of history, had Pakistan never arisen as an idea, partition would never have loomed as a threat in anyone’s minds, the ethnic cleansing sequence might never have arisen in the first place, and I’d have been fine. (Of course, I wouldn’t precisely have been me, but never mind.)

We have family arguments about partition to this day. Those who lived in the old India and had to flee say that ethnic co-existence was impossible, and Pakistan was the only solution. The youngsters (those younger than 55), especially those who have to live in contemporary Pakistan, disagree. Why was co-existence impossible?  “Well,” comes the response, “just take a look at the destruction of the Babri Mosque in 1992, or events in Gujarat in 2002. Muslims aren’t safe in India under Hindu nationalist regimes.” There’s something to that–until you compare it with how man qua man fares in Pakistan itself.

Since its birth in 1947, Pakistan’s military has begun–and lost–four wars, one of them eventuating in a genocide perpetrated by West Pakistanis against East Pakistanis. Starting and losing wars are, as far as I can see, the only activities at which Pakistan’s military excels–unless you count starting and losing proxy wars, or dabbling in the real estate market, which it does quite well.  This is a military establishment  fully willing to court nuclear war over uninhabitable chunks of ice on the India/Pakistan border, but can’t protect Pakistan against the one actual unprovoked invasion it’s suffered since its birth–by the Taliban. Pakistan loudly claims “sovereignty” over Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, but simultaneously asserts that it’s forced to negotiate with the Taliban there because it can’t militarily defeat them in, this, its “sovereign” territory. Pakistan’s idea of PR about its war against the Taliban is to brag not about how many Taliban fighters it has killed (the American metric in Vietnam, and stupid enough) but to brag about how many of its own soldiers it has managed to get killed! Needless to say, the numbers of soldiers you lose is not an indication of the gains you’ve made in war, but rather an indication of how easily you’re willing to throw lives away in a cynical attempt to fight, or appear to everyone to be fighting, while your elite mustachioed officer class wonders (sometimes out loud) whether the war is really worth winning.

English: Flag of Federally Administered Tribal...

English: Flag of Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, every other day brings news of a new terrorist atrocity somewhere in the country–and of indifference and resignation where the bombs haven’t gone off. (Then there’s the kidnapping: one family friend of ours has so far been kidnapped twice by the Taliban. “Their ransom prices keep going up,” his wife told us, with some annoyance.) The north of the country, once a tourist trap, is in parts a death trap. Karachi is a war zone. Quetta is a no-go zone. Even Lahore and Islamabad (even!) are under security alert. As the fight (or “fight”) against the Taliban drags on, an insurgency has arisen in Baluchistan. But even if you put aside the war and the violence, there’s the fact that are rolling electricity blackouts during the deadening heat of summer. Could it be safer?

How about religious freedom (to pick one vaunted freedom out of the topi)? The Sikhs and Hindus were mostly cleansed in 1947, so there aren’t all that many left to persecute. There are Christians; they’re regularly persecuted. There are no Jews, but there’s plenty of anti-Semitism: in a recent controversy, Fazlur Rahman (a Muslim fundamentalist cleric) has accused Imran Khan (a popular politician) of being a Jewish agent because Imran’s ex-wife was (supposedly) Jewish. (Actually, she’s not really Jewish; she’s pseudo-Anglican, but her maiden name was “Goldsmith,” and her paternal grandfather was Jewish. In Pakistan, land of the Jewish one-drop rule, a Jewish name and a Jewish grandfather make you Jewish, while being Jewish makes you problematic. Imran sahib is suing, God bless him.) Muslim sects are persecuted, as well, as the Shias of Dera Ismail Khan, or the Ahmadis of Lahore, know to their regret. Of course, everyone lives under the blasphemy laws, and lives alongside the sort of people who will assassinate you for criticizing them. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Buddhist heritage consists of relics in the museums of Lahore and Taxila. I’ve met Tibetan Buddhists in New York who speak fluent Urdu and have a flourishing trade with Pakistanis, but how many Tibetan Buddhists would want to move to Pakistan, or would even be allowed to immigrate?

What happens when one Pakistani–a sixteen year old girl–rises from the ashes, achieves prominence in the world’s eyes, and brings distinction to Pakistan? What would you expect to happen? One of Pakistan’s most prominent politicians makes sure to criticize her, and suspicion arises among the political class that she’s become a “tool of the West.” Shabash! (“Good going!”).

Map of Pakistan

Map of Pakistan (Photo credit: Omer Wazir)

The title of my post refers to a patriotic Pakistani call-and-response slogan. “Pakistan ka matlab kya?”La illaha illal la!” “What is the meaning of Pakistan?” is the call (in Urdu). “There is no deity but God!” is the accredited, rhyming response (in Arabic).

I have my own version, entirely in Urdu: “Pakistan ka matlab kya?– Koi matlab nahin raha!” What is the meaning of Pakistan? No meaning remains.

Ironically, I think some meaning might return to Pakistan if it were to get rid of the baggage it’s acquired in recent years. Delete the “Islamic” from the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” and we’re left with something worth saving.

Don’t get me wrong. I rant about Pakistan because I love it so much. In fact, I’m planning on going back in January, inshallah. I can’t get enough of the place. I was there in 2012, and t’s actually pretty safe for tourists. Just set aside a ransom fund and designate someone to pay it, and you’ll be fine. Then book your ticket on PIA. As all Pakistanis know, the acronym stands for “Perhaps I’ll Arrive.” And that, as all Pakistanis know, is all you can ask.


P.S., September 7, 2013: I can’t, given the preceding, resist quoting this passage I encountered in a paper on moral luck:

One ‘condition of moral judgment’ is that matters beyond a person’s control cannot bear on what he deserves. For example, to be born in Pakistan cannot make you deserve to fare less well than if you had been born somewhere else. (Norvin Richards, “Luck and Desert,” Mind 65 [1986], p. 198).

Right: cannot make you deserve to fare less well, but can certainly make it the case that you do! I highly recommend the paper, and I’m grateful for the example.


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