Pakistan is going through a violent time as its own citizens are killed on a daily basis in terror attacks. The newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stated in his address to the nation that terrorism is an existential threat to Pakistan that has consumed 40,000 lives so far. Investment in Pakistan has dropped drastically and brain drain along with the flight of capital from the country has increased. The religious intolerance first against the Ahmadis, then the minorities and the Shias, and now among Deobandis and Barelvis has increased. Any liberal voice which advocates secularism or modernisation is forcefully muffled.
What’s wrong with Pakistan? Why and how has Pakistan arrived at this juncture? Puzzled with such questions veteran journalist Babar Ayaz aims to present a “dispassionate and unbiased account” of Pakistan’s predicament. In this book which is his first, he diagnoses Pakistan with “genetic defects” and shares the view that “extremism is embedded in Pakistan’s DNA”. This malice is negative fallout of promoting religious fervor and policies of pandering mullahs. With several case studies the author exhibits how the state has become feeble to the extent that it meekly succumbs to the dictate of extremists. Since the state has a religion (Islam) any rational discussion outside the realm of Islam is unacceptable. This has obstructed any “organic growth of laws” amid a changing world that would lead to human progress.
Ayaz correlates life in the shadow of terror with uncontrolled growth of madaris which produce students without any vocational skills and contradictory social view – except one – that they find themselves misfit in the job market. They are psychologically good “mujahid material” and are more likely to join jihadi groups. They are also bought-out for street protest and to join religious parties. The madrasa economy thrives on Arab and local donors as well as on state grant and subsidy. The Arab money, as he puts it, promotes Saudisation of Islamic thought and culture. With the pouring of Iranian money the Shia-Sunni strife has also intensified.
Ayaz sees “genetic defects” in the state of Pakistan that was created in the name of religion and the consequent policies of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Zia ul Haq which paved the way for extremism. Extremists derive their strength from the founding principle of Pakistan, and add that a demand for an Islamic constitution by ulema flows as a natural corollary. Unless this very principle is reframed, argues the author, the prognosis will not appear well. The consecutive governments have armed these extremists to operate with impunity for their own vested interest. All these groups claim to act in the name of Islamic ideology but are, in fact, anti-democratic and have sectarian agenda. The media plays a diabolical role in favour of this narrative. The religious propaganda is disseminated through mainstream media as well as parallel alternative platforms.
Ayaz does not say anything radically different from what most historians offer on the history of partition but courageously accepts that the root cause of it is generally disguised. Skimming through pages of history as an astute observer, he says that the Muslim elite of India upon realizing an attrition of their political power sought their own political order where power could be enjoyed. They coined the “two nation theory” and mobilized fellow Muslims using slogans of Islam, Pirs, Ulema and their edicts to garner political gain. Even today they continue to justify it through school syllabi.
This political formulation that Muslims are a homogeneous ummah allowed the propagators to impose uniformity of practices influenced by Saudi-Wahabi culture that contradicted the socio-cultural practices of different communities. As a result of this formulation ethnic communities like Bengalis, Baloch, Sindhis and Pakhtoons were denied their share of power and resources. With the help of several case studies, the book illustrates how a betrayal by the Centre disenchanted them from the very idea of Pakistan which led them to revolt against the Centre.
Flipping the pages of foreign policy design he substantiates with anecdotes how the perceived threat of India led Pakistan to join the US to balance India. Once felt betrayed by the US it moved close to China which rendered unconditional financial and military assistance to counterbalance India. The search for strategic depth in Afghanistan against India led Pakistan to meddle in its internal politics. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has urged to review its foreign policy particularly towards Afghanistan. The Afghan experiment caused immense harm to Pakistan as its fallout created persistent instability in the country. Its ideological perception led Pakistan seek alliance with the Muslim World, particularly Saudi Arabia. Backing from Saudi came in terms of remittances and moral support for Kashmir movement and oil on deferred payment. Along with the petro-dollar came the Saudi cultural influences that aggravated sectarian violence in Pakistan.
The author impresses courageously to engage in debate on no-talk area of military-jihadi relationship. He boldly attributes national security policy and use of religion for the unrest and malice in Pakistani society. To salvage its own interest the Pakistan army created Jihadi groups which were and are used in Afghanistan and Kashmir. In this process Pakistan was weaponised and turned into a great “terrorist training university”. The jihadi elements have infiltrated into the civilian and military institutions as well. The future of Pakistan is now mortgaged in the hands of the jihadis it helped create. In its political history, Pakistan has initiated six Jihads of which only one was against the godless communists in Afghanistan while the rest were against the “official enemy” – India. The Mujahids won in Afghanistan but lost four against India. One is still continuing. Their adventure on the Western border caused more damage to them than any good. If Pakistan has to prosper these groups need to be stopped, argues the author passionately.
The book debunks the populist image of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and shows how his policies caused more harm than any other. His regime systematically eliminated the left intellectuals and parties, promoted religious extremism and sectarianism, strengthened centrifugal forces and lost half of the country. In parts, he also sketches accounts of how and why left-oriented politics eroded and how the power elite systematically eliminated left leadership and supporters. Although he touches on the dimension that the leadership is quasi-feudal, he does not deal with it in detail. He ignores the aspect that social background of political leadership is instrumental in the progress of democracy or its destruction. However, he rightly points outs that people are disenchanted with high inflation and increasing social inequality.
Ayaz, who has been working as a journalist for over four decades and has seen things first hand, shows immense faith and hope in the democratic processes in Pakistan. He sees democracy maturing in Pakistan with institutions taking roots and political parties coming to consensus to keep the military at bay. He refuses to call Pakistan a failed state but humbly accepts that it is on the verge of being one, unless democratic and secular values are promoted. He puts forth the caveat that if Pakistan has to survive being consumed by “hyper-religiosity,” it must separate religion from the state. And that would mean the daunting task of ideological reformulation.