Mar 5, 2009

A match abandoned or a battle lost?

By Jawed Naqvi

Had the Sri Lankan players not been so jolted by the vicious attack in Lahore, I would have wanted them to go and play the match to the finish for that would be the best way to lead the counter attack on terrorism.
The din of the applause would be enough to pulverise the terrorists in their lair. Abandoning the match was the easier option, but then we are used to more grievous compromises.
We have abandoned elementary civility, not to speak of basic human rights or higher purposes of democracy, in our search for an antidote to the scourge of religious terrorism. Fear of sounding facetious will not stop me from likening the current overall anti-terror strategy to the hunt for a bandicoot that turned an agreeable home into a pile of wreckage.
Not everything happening on Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan can be explained by recourse to religious metaphors. Any school kid who wrote the Senior Cambridge history exam would remember the question repeated year after year: The retreat became a rout, the rout a massacre — who said that and why? I think it was Stanley Lane-Poole who said it, and he said it in the context of one of colonial Britain’s disastrous campaigns in Afghanistan. In that outing the rented troops — you can still read their names on India Gate — were routed and only a solitary English doctor survived to tell the tale of the nightmare.
The Pakhtuns were even then devout Muslims and their adversaries in the battlefield mainly Christian with a motley sprinkling of Sikh, Hindu and Muslim soldiers. Did anyone call the British campaigns a crusade or the resistance a jihad? Afghan women still observed hijab, perhaps more voluntarily than they do in today’s Saudi Arabia. And if the Taliban were so insufferable why were they received so warmly in 1997 in Houston by the then Texan governor George W. Bush? There’s something we are missing in the narrative.
I do not know how others saw it, but from New Delhi middle-class Pakistanis looked a nicely liberal lot, convivial to a fault and with social graces that were missing in some other civilised societies in the neighbourhood. India was feting a great Pakhtun leader from Pakistan whose secularism was unimpeachable. This is where it seems the fine balance between tradition and modernity was upset by a Pakistani general and his American minders. They contracted him to carry out the world’s first completely outsourced war, and called it a jihad.
From the way the world is now concerned about the Taliban menace, it seems that all other routes to return to the cave days have been safely blocked. This is obviously a fallacy, particularly when we know that countless attempts were made, and more are still being considered, by the supposedly civilised hemisphere to destroy the world many times over. Remember that the two world wars were fought way before Muslim zealots arrived on the global centre-stage. The next one, if our luck fails, would be a nuclear one.
But Pakistan is in trouble, serious trouble today. A spokesman for India’s Congress party, speaking after the Lahore attack, described it as a Somalia of South Asia. It was a comment bereft of any historical context and seems to have been inspired by communal rhetoric before the general elections in India.However, the unnecessary and concocted debate between tradition and modernity reminds me of the actual battle-line in Iran in 1978. The Shah had projected himself as the saviour of modernity in Iran. He together with his American gurus missed the undercurrent of resentment against western-backed intrusions on a largely conservative society.
In a nutshell, religious fanaticism in the duplicitous world of high sentence and underhand diplomacy is not only good but also desirable, as long as it does not threaten some of the world’s more powerful nations. The Iranian mullahs soon found themselves not just leading a campaign for Islam but one that was essentially against the West.
Is that not the lesson to draw from the American support for Saudi Arabia and its simultaneous rejection of the Iranian revolution? What is the worst-case scenario if the Taliban do take over Pakistan, as President Asif Zardari fears they could? Would there be Islamic law in Pakistan? Is that the worry? But then the western hemisphere had shored up Gen Ziaul Haq with his views on Islamic law in the same Pakistan, and with great aplomb.
Much of Pakistan’s steel frame system was indoctrinated with zealotry in its mission to fight Soviet communism in Afghanistan. If the world can live happily with the medieval laws of Saudi Arabia, and if it could engineer out of virtually nothing the fanatically driven leadership of Gen Zia then why this current fuss about the Taliban? It’s true that their ways are medieval, but there is so much medievalism that is already a core part of the stable world order.
If the Taliban do get to rule Pakistan, of which there is a very remote academic possibility, they will have followed the route of Iran’s Islamic rulers. Imagine that the CIA coup against the moderate Iranian government of Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953 was replicated in Pakistan by the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979.
Against this backdrop, can we regard Gen Pervez Musharraf as the modernist Shah? Both were secular and arrogant about their self-perceived invincibility. The Shah fell after a combination of social classes opposed him, with the help of the pro-Soviet Tudeh party of Nooruddin Kianoori. There were pro-China Maoists — the Mujahideen-i-Khalq — and, of course, the mullahs, followed by a large number of pro-democracy liberals who rallied against the Shah. Does that have an eerie resemblance to the lawyers’ movement in Pakistan, which toppled Musharraf? The lawyers too commanded support from the Left to the Right of the spectrum.
In this replication of an Iran-like scenario, someone has to play Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan who followed the Shah. After his deal with the Taliban in Swat, Zardari does look more like this Iranian leader. Bazargan was a genial man with friends within the Iranian clergy and among the liberal lot. Another liberal who claimed even greater proximity with the mullahs eased him out. That was Abol Hasan Ban-Sadr, who was soon dispatched to exile in France.
Where does India stand in this? On a wider canvass within the Muslim world, India has shifted its loyalties from Iran to Saudi Arabia at someone’s behest. The very principles that prompted the sea change would propel it to support the Taliban if that is what American policy dictates. In other words, there are no great principles underpinning the Indian decision to oppose the Taliban takeover of Swat. It is just a convenient posturing that would be directed not by New Delhi but by the exigencies of the White House.
By abandoning the cricket match in Lahore and also signalling that no international team would visit Pakistan in the foreseeable future the world has shown its readiness to accept the worst in its battle against otherwise ordinary bandicoots. Every abandoned match betrays a willingness to accept defeat.

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