by Omar Ali
Pakistan’s existing political and administrative system is based almost entirely on Western models. but the official national ideology is ambivalent or even hostile to Western civilization and its innovations. In the past this was less of a problem since “national ideology” was not very well developed (Jinnah himself was famously confused about what he wanted and while the Muslim League used Islamist slogans freely during the Pakistan movement, a number of its leaders and ideologues were happy to go along with vaguely left wing justifications for the state once they were comfortably in power after partition), but ever since the time of General Zia, there has been a steady push to establish a particular Islamist version of Pakistani nationalism as the default setting. The process has not gone entirely smoothly and significant sections of the super-elite intelligentsia remain wedded to Western left-liberal(and more rarely, frankly capitalist/”neo-liberal”)) ideologies while the deeper thinking Islamists tend towards Salafism, but it has gone further in the emerging middle class and within the armed forces. There, a superficially Islamist, hypernationalist vision has taken root and can be seen in its purest form on various “Paknationalist” websites.
This “paknationalism” is an extremely shallow and rather unstable construct. It is not classically Islamist but it regards Islam as the main unifying principle and ideological foundation of the state. In practice, it is more about hating India (and our own Indian-ness) that it is about any recognizable orthodox form of Islam. It is also very close to 1930s fascism in its worship of uniforms, authority and cleansing violence. People outside Pakistan rarely take it too seriously and prefer to get their versions of Pakistani nationalism from more liberal interpreters, but the “Paknationalists” are serious and one of these days, they are going to have a go at Pakistan if present suicidal trends persist in the civilian elite. Their interlude may not last very long, but it is likely to be exceptionally violent and may end in catastrophe.
Some idea of the ambitions and self-image of the Paknationalists can be gauged from a few recent examples; Pakistan's former ambassador to the United Nations, senior diplomat Munir Akram, penned a piece in “DAWN” on 27th May in which he repeated the usual “Paknationalist” themes but went a little further than usual by explicitly suggesting that if the US picks a fight with Pakistan, it may face an “asymmetrical nuclear war”. This, unfortunately, is not an isolated example of an Ambassador Sahib wandering off the reservation. Former director general of the ISI, Lieut. Gen. Assad Durrani, wrote a bellicose piece a few days earlier in which he suggested (among other things) that we could exchange Dr Afridi for Aafia Siddiqui and then give Aafia Siddiqui the Nishan e Haider (I am not kidding, check it out for yourself). Certified Paknationalist Ahmed Quraishi suggested that the CIA has been at war with Pakistan since 2002, though interestingly he also said that the CIA is doing this to “poison Pakistani-American ties”, (perhaps in a rogue operation not supported by the “good” or soft-touch faction of the US regime?).
Earlier, Humayun Gohar of “In the Line of Fire” fame wrote an exposition on the rules of Jihad in which he argued that siding with the US in 2001 was good Jihad, but opening NATO supplies now would be a violation of the rules of Jihad. I could go on and on with this, but the bottom line is that the Paknationalist faction of the Pakistani state (let us assume that the state has other factions, as Ahmed Quraishi implied about the American state) seems genuinely upset at the US and is in a confrontational mood. This is evident not just from the fusillade of op-eds issuing from their favored mouthpieces, but also in actions like the refusal to open NATO supply routes, the well-timed sentencing of Dr Afridi and the acquittal of the Faisal Shahzad co-accused.
But what is sending shivers up the remaining sane spines in Pakistan (see Nusrat Javeed’s superb column in the “Express”) is the fact that this confrontation is not going smoothly. These coordinated efforts could be read a sign of desperation, even of losing the script. Just see how the Afridi affair has proceeded: First he was sentenced to 33 years in prison for treason and the words “waging war against Pakistan” were used. Trial and sentence were handed out in the tribal areas, using archaic British-era laws (the Frontier Crimes Regulations or FCR) with zero transparency (even the charges were not fully revealed when the sentence was announced). When this led to a backlash in the US (and ironically, just as liberal American, British and Pakistani columnists had stepped forward to defend the right of the ISI to punish a traitor working for a foreign intelligence agency), the news suddenly changed. In a move worthy of a Lewis Carroll book, the charges upon which Afridi had been sentenced were revealed several days after the sentencing! And lo and behold, he had not been charged with working for the CIA or running a fake vaccination scheme at all. He had instead been sentenced for being in cahoots with notorious Pakistani Taliban militant Mangal Bagh. That Dr Afridi had spent time in Mangal Bagh’s captivity and paid him ransom was apparently evidence of his “support for Islamic militancy”. This farcical move was instantly applauded in Paknationalist circles as a master-stroke, pulling the rug out from under the Americans (incidentally, also pulling it out from under the liberals who had just defended Pakistan’s right to arrest and prosecute a “traitor”) and, in the words of a prominent anchor, brilliantly changed the script and left the Americans with egg on their face (the doctor they were defending was a militant!). That nobody outside the Paknationalist webring was buying this crap was, of course, not noticed.
Add to this the comedy of errors being perpetrated around the issue of the resumption of NATO supplies and one has the distinct impression that that the Pakistani establishment doesn’t know what it’s doing; are we haggling about price? Or about some principle? And what principle are we talking about? If Humayun Gohar is to be believed it is the principle of just versus unjust Jihad, but others have invoked more secular justifications for this blockade. In either case, psyops are not being managed too well. Even supporters are not sure which side is up. But to take this confusion as a sign that Pakistan will soon fold and sheepishly go back to Uncle Sam looking for petty cash may not be correct either. Pakistan is still a large, densely populated, productive land with many strengths. And the establishment still has cards to play. What we may be headed for is a “worse of both worlds” scenario; a confrontation where Pakistan is not strong enough to decisively defeat the Western world and reach the promised land, but is stronger than many outsiders imagine and gets into a prolonged and blood-soaked confrontation by stages such that it drags on for years and ends with anarchy and violence from Kazakhstan to Kolkata.
The security establishment and the new Punjabi Middle class it has nurtured are, in short, more capable than Irfan Hussein thinks, but less capable than THEY think. This is not a safe combination. The Germans, with Kant and Goethe under their belt, could commit national suicide in just 12 years and take 55 million people down with them. Our capabilities are clearly not at that level, but unlike North Korea we have a networked middle class, a large economy, and access to an Islamist ideology that has real historical roots and strengths. The establishment may be delusional in its belief that the Western world is in the throes of a terminal economic crisis and China is about to rule the world with our JF17 Thunders flying in the vanguard, but the bombs and missiles are real. It could get very ugly.
To circle back to the other side, one must emphasize that the Paknationalist narrative is NOT deep enough or solid enough to actually work. But it may be deep enough to make an almighty mess as it burns out. And instead of moving away from their dangerous national narrative and learning to live with our actually existing cultures and history, the establishment is doubling down on the effort to create a new culture and a new history out of little more than wishful thinking and pictures of Jinnah and Iqbal. To most outsiders (and many insiders) it seems hard to believe that they are serious. But for the supporters of the deep state, the current disorder and economic crisis is entirely due to the corruption and mismanagement of the hapless Zardari regime and of “failed politicians” in general. Believing their own propaganda, these people are convinced that Pakistan's cooperation with the United States in the so-called war on terror and its pro-Western policies in general are to blame for all its internal and external crises; once the current coterie of corrupt and treacherous foreign agents is removed from power and corrupt politicians in general are sidelined or beheaded, the state will magically transform into an Islamic version of the People's Republic of China. It will be run by the best and the brightest of the security establishment and its chosen technocrats, cleansed of corruption, economically vibrant, and able to assert its strategic priorities in the region in the face of any and all hostility from India, Iran or NATO. That this is not even remotely close to the real situation of Pakistan is neither here nor there. Unless the corrupt and venal civilian regime is able to assert some level of control, matters may be headed into uncharted territory. Not because everyone in the military high command has gone nuts, but because there is just enough nuttiness around to slip into disaster. We may be, as columnist Kamran Shafi says, in for a very tall high jump. Not for sure, but certainly “maybe”. And that is a very dangerous maybe. Behind the corruption and the material interests so beloved of leftists there is also a dream. And our “dream of the blue flower” may lead to dangerous places.
PS: Yes, I changed the title after this was posted. My original title was “things fall apart”, then that got used elsewhere so i was thinking of another one and some late night connection between Chakwal sufi fascism and the Iron Guard suggested itself, but the differences are much greater than the similarities and by morning it didnt look like a good idea. Neither does this one? Perhaps. Suggestions welcome.