Pakistan is a place at once familiar to me, and deeply unfamiliar.
I am half Indian, half Pakistani, though I knew neither my Pakistani father nor his country as I grew up with my mother in Delhi. My parents had parted after a brief relationship in 1980. And it was only in 2002, a year of great nuclear tension between Pakistan and India, that I made a journey to Lahore to seek out my father. Our relationship bloomed briefly, then fell apart in 2005 over – though it seems immaterial now – an article I had written for Prospect Magazine after the London bombings. The new period of estrangement between us prompted a book, Stranger to History, in which I discussed – more openly than my father would have liked – aspects of my parents’ relationship, my father’s attitude to Islam and Pakistan and things about family life in Lahore.
The book, even before it was published, made final the rift between us. The last time we met was in 2007, on the night Benazir Bhutto was killed. My father, once a dedicated PPP man, had by then returned to political life as a minister in General Musharraf’s caretaker government. The next year he was appointed governor of Punjab. Three years later, on a dismal January afternoon, he was dead. Shot over two dozen times, in a market in Islamabad, by a member of his own security detail, for his support of a Christian woman accused of blasphemy and his opposition to the laws that had condemned her.
Were this the end, it would have been violent and painful enough. But the horrors that followed my father’s death have equalled, if not surpassed, the tragedy of his passing; they have shown, contrary to what some would like to believe, that he did not so much die for Pakistan as for a dying idea of Pakistan; they have shown, too, that in the country founded for Muslims in 1947 – but not necessarily for Islam – religion has become an impediment to people being able to distinguish right from wrong.
The days that followed my father’s death brought a series of shocks. Each, by an ugly alchemy all its own, altered the complexion of his killing, turning what was first seen as the unlawful assassination of a sitting governor into the execution of a man fit to die: a man whom clerics, in the weeks before his death, had declared Wajib-al-qatal. It is a designation akin to the homo sacer of Roman Law, that figure of antiquity, who may be killed by anybody, but may not be sacrificed in religious ritual. The result was that when his assassin opened fire, the dozen or so men who comprised the rest of my father’s security detail stood by and watched. Not just this: they allowed his assassin to reload.
One after another, the components of a parallel morality began to fall into place. There was the killer, who, after he had laid down his gun, sang a song in praise of the Prophet. There were the lawyers, who greeted him a few days later at the courthouse with garlands and showers of rose petals. They were the same lawyers who, a few years ago, one had been led to believe were the forefront of a movement in favour of a free and just society; they came forward now to defend my father’s assassin pro bono. And there were the clerics, who would not perform the last rites, and forbade all good Muslims from mourning my father; that Friday, in mosques around the country, those same men of faith praised the killer’s actions in their sermons. By Sunday, the streets were filled with rallies of support for the killer, many times bigger than what ‘civil society’ could muster; blood money, equalling three crore (US $344,821), poured in from various quarters, some thrown freely over the wall of the killer’s house; billboards appeared outside it, depicting him as a holy warrior. The Prophet’s policeman.
In the end, it was not on the street but on the floor of the Senate that the fate of my father’s murder was decided. In a gesture absurd and grotesque, Weimarian in its self-debasement, the house failed to pass a simple motion to condemn the killing. The highest lawmaking body in the land found it had no opprobrium to express for the extra-legal killing of one of the state’s own officers. So high were tempers in the house that day, so of the tenor of ‘Let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood!’ that the Senate members – barring a few defiant souls – could not even be persuaded to offer prayers for my father.
The Pakistan I first visited in 2002 was already, in an important sense, a country undermined. There had been the founding disappointment of never truly being a homeland for all Indian Muslims, since just as many Muslims had stayed behind in India as were present in Pakistan. There had been the failure to install any form of legitimate government or to perform even one legal transfer of power. There had been the coups nearly every decade. There had been the violent and demoralising events of 1971, when the eastern wing of the Islamic Republic had fallen away to form Bangladesh. That decade had ended with the arrest and execution of a popular sitting prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. More military rule, this time with an Islamic cast, had followed under General Zia. There was the hopeful, but finally dispiriting struggle for democracy under Benazir, which brought in the ineffectual democratic governments of the Nineties. That period, and the hope that accompanied it, came to an end in 1999 with the coup that brought General Musharraf to power.
Deeper than all these disappointments, seeming almost to be their source, was a growing feeling that the country had never been the nation it had intended to be in 1947. This particular dissatisfaction framed itself as a question that was being asked in those days, by many newly emboldened voices, with increasing vehemence – an existential question of the kind that nations ask themselves in times of crisis – and one for which the country’s ruling class had no good answer: why, if being Muslim had been reason enough to form a nation apart from India, should the thing that made you Muslim in the first place – namely, Islam – not be the basis of the nation?
No intellectual response
To this demand, the country’s liberal elite, though they had many practical answers – and one historical one: the founder had not wished it to be so – had no intellectual response, none at least that they were willing to put into words. They had no way of saying ‘the country might have been founded on a notion of Islamic peoplehood, but that does not mean religion must now engulf the nation’. What they did instead – and still do to some extent – was fight faith with faith: they pretended that they believed no less ardently than the next man; that they, too, were committed to the cause of widening the role of Islam in the society. And from their unwillingness (or fear) to stand up for a truly secular vision of the country – as Turkey, for instance, had – they set the faith on a false footing in Pakistan. The society became one in which people, though they yearned for the fruits of science and modernity, had always to be seen to be planting Islamic seeds.
Because the faith was not the true basis for the country’s aspirations, because it could not be probed or questioned, or held to account for not providing real answers to modern dilemmas, it distracted Pakistanis from acquiring the tools and learning that might truly have held the solutions to their problems. It made the country focus instead on an endless list of enemies and impurities, which helped conceal what everyone knew: that political Islam, save for a few cosmetic elements – Islamic banking, punishment, a little sharia in some quarters of life, a hysteria about dress – had no plan. It was a frame and nothing else. A glove with which the unclean modern world could be handled.
In the first days of the republic, the enemies had been the country’s diverse population of Hindus and Sikhs, who were forced out to make room for a large population of Muslim immigrants from India that Pakistan was never able to assimilate. Later, once the nation had been born, new enemies were found: intellectual and literary life, the film industry, student unions, the syncretic Islam of the subcontinent, with its mysticism and inbuilt tolerance, music, Indian festivals, the country’s other Muslim sects and its minorities. Anything that would threaten the faith’s monopoly on the attention of men; anything that might be used to explain why Islam had not worked, why it had not been enough to found a nation for faith. For as much as political Islam failed as a positive concept, as a real manual for a modern country, it thrived as a negative one. It could always be used to identify those people or things in the country that were un-Islamic, or not Islamic enough, and were, by extension, the cause of its troubles.
India, America, Israel abroad. At home, in Pakistan, the absence of sharia, the laxity of blasphemy laws, the heresies of other Islamic sects, the crimes of a poor Christian woman, the impieties of a liberal Governor. To remake the world along Islamic lines was an impossible task, but it was less difficult to identify what was not Islamic and to root it out. And the Pakistan I visited in those years, over a dozen times from 2002-2007, was like an ever-shrinking circle, with less and less on the inside, and eventually the whole world, impure and threatening, on the outside.
The events of 9/11 had brought the Americans, after their brief disappearance in the post-Cold-War years – one that many in Pakistan felt as a desertion – back into the lives of Pakistanis. And with their return, the country entered a new cycle, where even as it depended more and more on American money, the mood against it turned violent and ugly. The Americans, with their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, were the ideal enemy – ‘the Great Satan’ – that could be evoked at any moment to turn the focus of the establishment away from the Islamic republic’s own failings and near collapse in the Nineties to the betrayals of the Americans. In the drawing rooms of Lahore, where now signs of Islamic piety were occasionally visible – here in a forehead calloused from prayer, there in the strict adherence to the hours of worship – grievance and conspiracy flourished. Mohammad Atta’s passport had not been found in the wreckage of 9/11; the hole in the Pentagon was too big to have been made by a plane; the Jews had not come to work that day. It was an endless list of comforting lies that permitted many in power to feel that they were not responsible for their country; that they were constantly being trifled with by an invisible hand against which they were helpless; and while the elite, impotent and without answers, gave themselves up to these notions, ground was ceded to the people who believed Pakistan had been founded for Islam, that more Islam was the solution.
The nihilistic energy of faith
It was in those years, 2005-6, that I had begun to travel seriously in the country, and it was astonishing to see how deep the demand for more literal forms of Islam had seeped. The old syncretic Islam of the subcontinent, with its devotional forms of worship and shrines to local saints, was still alive, yes; but it was decaying; it was not the form of religion that was experiencing a revival. The faith that was ascendant, charged with a terrible nihilistic energy, was something apart. Though the problems that fed it were real enough – unemployment, illiteracy, feudalism, sectarian violence, a lack of clean, transparent government – the solutions were absorbed in that one illusory solution of a stricter, more literal faith. ‘Islam doesn’t depend on form,’ one influential ideologue told me in Karachi. ‘Form is not important. Essence is the main thing. If the essence is there, you can derive from it any kind of model.’
This simple assertion of faith, of believing that nothing had to be done, solutions would spring spontaneously from a closer adherence to religion, had been Pakistan’s undoing time and time again. The amazing thing for me as an outsider was that no amount of evidence, no amount of bad news – and there was so much in those days: the siege of the Red Mosque; the bombing of the Marriot Hotel; the assassination of Benazir Bhutto – could ever damage the reputation of the faith, or convince people that Islam, as a political aim for the country, had been a calamitous idea.
I began also around that time to feel a kind of distance between myself and the people I had first known there, the people who comprised the liberal world of my father. With every phone call from Pakistan, bringing more bad news, I found their account of what was going on in their country involved and incredible. It was the result, I suspect, of living for so many years at a great remove from Pakistan. Even as their world had fallen apart around them, they had looked outside themselves for a measure of their success and failure. They had coveted the rewards of one world while claiming to espouse the values of another. And it had led them into contradiction. Even as the state and its institutions were undermined and insecurity reached the heart of Punjab, the elite, with an insouciance akin to the last days of Rome, busied themselves with stagingThe Vagina Monologues (by invitation only, of course), organising fashion shows, and hosting GTs (get-togethers) and little balls. They wrote op-eds for the Western press, where from the safety of places like London and New York they mistook their homesickness for the fiction that things in Pakistan were not as bad as people made out. They inflated their numbers and the foreign press, ever hopeful, went along for the ride, giving people abroad the false impression that standing against the rising tide of fundamentalism was – as in places like Iran and Turkey – a substantial Pakistani middle class.
When the horrors had become too great, as with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, this same ragtag group of liberals – roshan khayaal in Urdu, literally ‘enlightened’ - would appear red-eyed at candlelight vigils, sing the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and return home to dimly-lit houses where they would lament the death of Jinnah’s Pakistan and wonder whatever happened to the Sufi Islam of Sind and Punjab.
They became addicted to the bad news out of their country and I felt they came to enjoy – though it was for all the most alarming reasons – being front page news in Europe and America; it gave them a kind of prestige. The vainest among them ventured to believe that there was a great battle being waged in their country between civil society and Islamic fundamentalists, which would decide the fate of Pakistan. But romantic as this notion seemed – and it was encouraged by many in both Europe and America – it was not a fair assessment of what was happening in Pakistan. There were not two competing ideas at all: there was just one bad idea, decaying into its baser elements. Jinnah’s un-thought-out nation for Muslims, which had been based on that vague sense of Islamic nationhood that can exist among even the most passive Muslims, was giving way to the religious ideology that had always been behind it. It could not be preserved in its mild form because it had no regenerative power that way; its survival depended on the reassertion of its foundation in faith.
When I left Pakistan that last time in early 2008, following the death of Benazir Bhutto, I wanted very much not to return. My reason – and this may sound shocking – was that I felt that under the outpouring of sorrow and grief that had followed Benazir’s death there lay a kind of euphoria, a feeling of release at the interruption from the malaise of everyday life in Pakistan. It was an air akin to that of festival or carnival. And it was from this corrosive kind of mourning, under which I sensed a nation glorying in blood, that I wished to escape.
What perhaps had been only latent then has, three years later, with my father’s assassination, come brightly into the open. The faith, once again – as it has always done in Pakistan – gives its stricter adherents a convenient cover. Religious people can pretend that instead of feeding their bloodlust, and cooling the rage that is felt every day in that country, they are defending the faith from its enemies: a poor Christian woman – who will now probably die, either by the hand of the law or by the vigilante justice that has claimed other people convicted of blasphemy – and the governor who took up her cause.
The liberals have excuses of their own. One hears things now, which though said perhaps out of defensiveness or from a desire to downplay the danger, are alarming and ugly to the outsider. My uncle, for instance, only days after my father’s death, said: ‘You know, he went too far, your abba. Religion is a sensitive matter in this country. I think he wanted, in the end, to make amends, but it was too late. The media also played their part. “It’s a black law. It’s a black law. It’s a black law.” Again and again till the people were up in arms. And the people, you know, just like in India, are ignorant.’
He referred to a sound bite of my father that had been played in a continuous loop in the days before his death. The frenzy it had ignited culminated in a December rally, attended by the killer, where clerics asked openly for my father’s head.
My sister, pregnant and days away from giving birth, now rushed about collecting what information she could for a report on the role the press had played in turning the street against my father.
But for all her efforts, there was no great hope of justice. It had been difficult enough to find a lawyer willing to take the case, let alone a judge with enough courage to pass a conviction. Some weeks before, I had thought it chilling to consider a day when, instead of a street named after my father, there would be one named after his killer. But that thought, after the Senate had just stopped short of honouring the man, was already mundane. Pakistan had anticipated me.
Homeland for Muslims – or for Islam?
And of the place I first visited in 2002, a year after 9/11, to seek out my father, the Pakistan that then still had some vestiges of the nation Jinnah founded, very little remained. A decade later – my father found, lost and lost again – it was game over for those Pakistanis who, though they acknowledged the nation was made for faith, did not want faith to engulf the nation. Their inherited dream of a homeland for Muslims, but not necessarily for Islam, had dissolved into a cry, far louder than theirs, for a purer faith. For them, Jinnah’s children, liberal Pakistan, civil society, if you will, it was time to leave. And it didn’t even seem as though there would be anybody to mourn them, or to speak of the old Pakistan, as there had been (at least a few) to speak of the old Russia and the old Iran. My sister herself wanted to have her baby and go away. ‘Losing my father was one thing,’ she said down the phone from Lahore, ‘losing my country has been another. Everyone who can is leaving. What do we have in common with these people?’
‘Peace prosperity and happiness for new year (1 1 11),’ my father had tweeted four days before he died. ‘I’m full of optimism.’ A month later, after the horrors his death has revealed and the silence it has cast over the expression of free opinion in Pakistan, I’ve tried hard to find a way to share his optimism. The only little hope I can find comes from the feeling that the present religious darkness masks the seeds of a much-needed class upheaval to which the faith brings a kind of legitimacy. One fears, however, the depth of this Islamic night, and how much it will obscure – not just from the outside world, but from the people of Pakistan – and the blood and anarchy to which it will give cover before it ends. But end it will, for no reason other than that political Islam will exhaust the fixed set of ideas on which it is based. It is as the Pakistani poet Suroor Barabankvi writes:
‘For I, Suroor, have known too the outcome of night; a thousandfold might it exceed its bounds, no further than morning can it ever extend.’
was born in 1980. A writer and journalist, he lives in London and New Delhi. His book Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands (2009) was translated into many languages. His most recent book, The Temple-Goers, was published by Viking in 2010.
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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