Which Planet Does Pakistan Inhabit?

Massacre in Cairo, blood in the streets, hundreds dead. But you would suspect nothing of this from TV channels here. Rains, yes, and coverage of that necessary. But endless talk-shows about ‘kya khoya, kya paaya?’ on Independence Day, very little if any at all about an event that has shaken the Middle East and will have implications far and wide.
This could have been a peg for discussing our own troubled journey as a nation, still groping to discover its identity, still caught in the debate about tradition and modernity. But perhaps that would have required imagination, a tough call in a republic still confused about where it has come from and where it may be headed.
Media channels are not starved for money. If we could have had Pakistani newsmen in Cairo…they would have gained experience and our eyes would have been opened to the world outside our borders. Forget Cairo. Is it not strange that a war should be raging in Afghanistan for the last ten years and not a single Pakistani reporter there?
We say we are a ‘strategic’ hotspot, a crossroads between this and that. Wouldn’t seem like it, judging by our mental insularity, one of our distinctive trademarks. Of New York and London we talk more familiarly than the capitals of the region. And of phenomena like the Arab spring or the coup and violence in Egypt we hear – that is, when we choose to listen – from outside sources. No wonder, the best books about Pakistan, or for that matter Afghanistan, are written by foreigners.
There is an entire library of books on Afghanistan since 9/11, some indifferent, others exceedingly good. But for us all that effort – tracking down sources, accumulating information and making sense of it – could be a world away. This explains our curious disengagement from a war of whose fallout we remain a victim.
No wonder our best and brightest sound so amateurish when holding forth on these things, speaking with a sense of wonder…as if the mysteries of the terrorism, violence and extremism tearing Pakistan apart have only been revealed to them now.
Then in anguished tones we talk of civil-military relations and of finding the magic wand which would ensure civilian supremacy. Makes one laugh. The army may get it wrong and one may have every reason to question its conclusions (and we know that the army and our intelligence outfits are the ancient sources of much of our present distress). But the army for all its faults does some homework – let us put it no stronger than this. On the civilian side, and I say this from some experience, there is not even the pretence of that.
Hence the regular spectacle of learning on the job, and making do with clichés and generalities. Do this for the next half-century and the military will still be calling the shots, not so much because it has the guns but because there is not much of a real challenge, anything that would tax the mind, from the other side.
Twice Gen Pasha, former head of the ISI, gave closed-door briefings to parliament and it was funny seeing his preparedness, his facility with words, and the blank faces he addressed. Not that I am proud of that moment, but there it is.
Some clichés we have honed to perfection: parliamentary sovereignty (indeed), the need to forge a consensus (which makes me reach for a stick), the necessity of taking all ‘stakeholders’ on board (on what Battleship Bismarck, it is seldom spelt out clearly). At the end comes usually a call for an all-parties conference. If this is the best politicians can do, it will be some time before parliamentary sovereignty can come into its own.
Incidentally, I can’t help thinking that if Gen Pasha was indeed behind the rocket-launchings he is credited with, or accused of – the boosting of Imran Khan, the skylab appearance of Allama Tahirul Qadri – it indicates a gift for political innovation and ingenuity. If I were in that position, I would utilise his services.
Generals, of course, should not play games but then politicians should know how to defend their goalposts. In Turkey the political class, headed by Erdogan, has given proof of its superiority. If only the same could be said of the political class in our ideological republic.
But talking of Erdogan, why is it that from Turkey to Pakistan, and indeed across the blessed crescent which is the world of Islam, Islam must be reduced to two things: booze and the hijab? Why are we so obsessed with booze? Or, more to the point, why does it bother us so much? And why is it that the image of woman, image of Eve – Venus seems more like it – is so disturbing for most knights of the faith? Is it some deeply-ingrained insecurity or the mark of a higher morality? I suspect it is the former.
Bhutto banned booze once. Zia banned it twice more. The holy fathers of the MMA formed a government in the Frontier and banned it one more time. And in moves that I suppose would have been counted as revolutionary, they had music players in trucks seized and smashed, and in bus stops they saw to it that there were separate spaces for women. Indeed, our central obsessions constitute a triad: booze, the hijab and music. And I say all this because the Erdogan government, while not in a position to ban booze altogether in Ataturk’s Turkey (his spirit would frown on it), has ordered health warnings to be put on booze bottles.
If only these devices were to work. Sadly, they don’t. Human history as we know it – recorded history, history for which there is some evidence – is hardly 4000-5000 years old. That’s about it. Set this against the 15 billion years which is the age of our universe, and the 150,000 years when man and woman, of the species Homo sapiens, emerging from the African forest first walked the earth, and recorded history is just a speck, barely a stain, on this extensive panorama.
This should teach us humility and tolerance. We haven’t been around for too long and we are playing havoc with this planet, the only home we know, given to us by nature or the cosmos. Yet our arrogance knows no bounds and we are given to folly (the tendency over the ages magisterially examined by Barbara Tuchman in The March of Folly.)
Yes, our very existence imposes on us the duty to place human society on sound lines. This is why the Greeks and the Romans placed such a high value on politics, which in its essence means the organisation of human society, not lies, deception and plunder as we have come to understand it. In their eyes it was the first of callings, everything else coming afterwards.
But the organisation of human society is something more than placing labels on raki bottles, glorifying the hijab or seeing to the segregation, along gender lines, of human society.
On heights taller than Olympus, in the halls of heaven, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner too; even Amir Khusro and Tansen; the great painters who created magic on canvas; sculptors who created miracles out of stone and marble; will be noticed and, I daresay, honoured. What about the poets? There will be wide spaces reserved for them too. What makes human history worthwhile? Only these gifted beings and their divine creations. In the celestial shades, will anyone have time for bottle-labellers and the like, holy fathers thundering about damnation and everlasting fires?
Wayward Europe had its Renaissance and that was some time ago, and because of that in the race of nations it went far ahead. We were great too once upon a time. But then in their time were great Egyptians and Aztecs and the other god-kings of the southern hemisphere. Then we were left behind and today, from Cairo to North Waziristan, our problems seem too big for us. When will the world of Islam have its Renaissance?