Can Sindh Save Pakistan

By Brown Pundits Archive 8 Comments
Whatever one may think of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, it is hard
to deny that his call to celebrate the heritage of Sindh in particular and
Pakistan in general has touched a chord. Perhaps it’s the fact that, after
years of paying homage to attitudes imported from the Arabia Deserta, someone
of prominence has had the guts to promote traditions with actual roots in
Pakistan, and to do it vociferously, without apology or qualification. In this
age of “Allah Hafiz” and Ansar Abbasi, this is no small relief. Two other
aspects of the festival are also especially important. First, the choice of
Moenjodaro as the site of the opening event – though understandably
controversial for archaeological reasons – sent a refreshingly clear signal of
the desire to own all of the region’s
history, not just that associated with Muslims or Pakistan. Second, the
inclusion of performers and languages from all over Pakistan – including Punjab
– turned the festival into a celebration of the country as a whole rather than
one focused on Sindh. Thus, it came to symbolize an alternative view of
Pakistan to place against the one promoted incessantly by those who seek to
turn the country into an ahistorical, joyless Salafist emirate. I have to
believe that this is exactly what the goal of the event was, and I think that
it is an extremely important one.
It has become conventional wisdom to blame the Taliban or
other extremist religious groups for Pakistan’s recent tragic turn towards becoming
a narrow-minded, intolerant society, but anyone with any knowledge of the facts
realizes that the extremists are just a visible symptom of an older, less
visible and far more insidious disease. The intolerant ideology that today is
being imposed on people through guns and bombs was nurtured for decades – even
centuries – in mosques and homes, courts and seminaries, conditioning millions
of people all over the Muslim world to equate piety with bigotry. But in South
Asia, it was always kept in check by two important forces: The living
multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies of the region; and a
fundamentally tolerant, open-minded and welcoming tradition within Islam, i.e.,
Sufism. And nowhere was this more true than in the regions that constitute the
country of Pakistan today. While the men occupying the shrines of the great
Sufi masters may no longer have been as inspiring as their ancestors, the ethos
of Islam in Punjab and Sindh, and to a lesser extent in other areas, was shaped
by the tradition of those masters and great Sufi poets like Shah Latif, Rahman
Baba and Bulleh Shah. This is not to say that all was wonderful – how wonderful
could things be in a feudal society? – but Islam was not a divisive factor.
Then came Pakistan – or rather, the movement to create
Pakistan. Perhaps its most harmful effect was to turn Islam into an ideological
weapon. Admittedly, India was not the only place where this happened (see Qutb,
Sayyid), but India was the only place
where it succeeded! An ideological state was created based on an inherently
exclusionary view of Islam – a land for Muslims and thus, by implication, a
land not for “others”. And once a society sets off on the path to purification,
there is no reason to stop at any particular point. What has followed – the
bombing of churches, the persecution of Ahmadis, the prejudice against Shias –
is a logical consequence of that first decision to draw the first boundary
between “us” and “them”. Ever since then, the disease has grown steadily,
helped along by the (necessary) creation of a mythological history to justify
the ideological state, feeding delusions of ancestral grandeur on the part of
presidents and generals seeking to replicate the triumphs of heroes past. The
Objectives Resolution of 1948, the anti-Ahmadi movement of the 1950s and their
being declared non-Muslim in 1974, the creation of the Council on Islamic
Ideology in 1962 and the Federal Shariat Court in 1980, the entire reign of
General Zia, the Hudood Ordinance, the Blasphemy law – the history of Pakistan
has traversed the path of increasing intolerance ever since the beginning. On
the one hand, it has led to the Taliban. On the other, it has gradually crushed
the older, more tolerant, more inclusive traditions that had dominated the
region for centuries. And that brings us back to the Sindh Festival.
There was a time some years ago when many of us believed that
the ideological fever would eventually subside and the natural, organic ethos
of the Pakistani region would reassert itself. However, for reasons that can be
understood in retrospect, that has not happened. Most of Pakistan has actually
succumbed to the ideological virus, with the old attitudes fighting a desperate
rearguard action. What used to be called the Northwest Frontier was lost during
and after the Afghan jihad; in the last fifteen years, Punjab too has mostly been
overrun by extremist groups and their political sympathizers; Baluchistan is
struggling with both extremism and insurgency; which leaves Sindh. If the
people of Pakistan – most of whom are still not extreme fundamentalists – are to
reclaim their country from the clutches of insanity, the reclamation project
must start from Sindh.
Of course, no cultural festival – however delightful – or a photogenic
young leader with a famous name can accomplish what needs to be done. The rot
of decades will take a long time to reverse, and will require active
participation from millions of people. However, one of the most important components
of any rearguard action must be to provide a positive alternative to the unacceptable situation. Ideas must be
opposed by ideas, not just by refusal. The extremist ideology that has gained
ground in Pakistan must be met with an alternative ethos with content – something that people can hold
and cherish and celebrate and identify with as Pakistanis. And for this
alternative to have any chance of prevailing, it must be able to excite people
viscerally, to attract them in ways beyond naming, to resonate with their
being. It must be something that they already carry in their hearts so that
when they are reminded of it, they recognize it as their own and love it for
that reason. Principles such as “rule of law” and “human rights” are extremely
important, but, unfortunately, they do not move populations. They must ride in
on something more primeval, something more intertwined with peoples’ sense of
themselves. Faith, art, community and tradition are such things. These, after
all, are the things that the other side is using (in addition to guns and
bombs, of course). They must also be deployed in the cause of good – but very
carefully. The last thing Pakistan needs is another ideology with its own
purity tests and its own interference in governance. The ideology of oppression
must be countered with a gospel of liberation – one that actively seeks to
include rather than exclude; that is based on allowing people the freedom to
make their own choices and find their own truths. This is something that the
great Sufis and poets understood well, which is why they are still loved by
millions hundreds of years after their death. No king or cleric has that love,
and that is a fact!
Pakistan is a region rich in history. Unfortunately, most
Pakistanis are only familiar with its cartoon version. They do not know of all
the great civilizations – Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim – that rose and fell in the
area over three thousand years. Of the even older Indus Valley civilization,
they know only the words “Moenjodaro” and “Harappa”. They are not aware that
Alexander’s armies sailed down the Indus; that Iranian kings ruled over Sindh; that
Sialkot was the capital of King Menander; that major international trade routes
ran through Sindh and Baluchistan two thousand years ago; that whole new
schools of Hindu and Buddhist and Muslim thought developed in places where gas
stations stand today. But history never truly dies; it lives in the traditions
of the people, in their art, in their languages. If a leader should rise to
reclaim all that history, to revive the arts of the people, to welcome people
of all creeds, to celebrate the open-minded ethos of Sufi Islam and its poets, and
to do it in a broad, national and inclusive way, he or she could truly begin to
turn back the tide of obscurantism that is engulfing Pakistan. It will take
years, perhaps decades. And it will be dangerous. It will require not only the use
of the creative arts but also the exercise of military power, because people
with guns cannot be defeated with just songs and Sufism. But the process will
begin, and people will have something to stand for, not just against.
It is hard to say if Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is – or can even
become – the leader that Pakistan needs. I am skeptical – change that to very
skeptical, given recent history and the tragic tradition of unfulfilled promise
that is his legacy. But one, skeptics can be wrong; and two, there may be
others. What I do know is that the attitude exemplified by the Sindh Festival
and Bilawal’s recent statements is exactly what Pakistan needs, and that Sindh
is the only place where the counter-offensive can be based. Fortuitously, Sindh
is also home to Karachi, which is not only the largest city in Pakistan but
also its economic center and home to the largest secular urban population in
the country.  If the ethos of secular
commerce can be married to a new cultural awakening, an alternative history of
Pakistan may yet be possible.
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8 Replies to “Can Sindh Save Pakistan”

    1. Thank you. I hope you do get a chance to visit Pakistan in happier times. There's so much to see that even I, as one who grew up in Pakistan, have just been discovering!

  1. So beautifully written, Ali. Begs the question- what is it that defines the identity of a people? if a shared history/ culture/ monuments/music/ food and language shaped by faith are enough to withstand narrow religious ideology and blatant re-writing of textbooks, if the voices of simple bards can drown out raucous clerics- then there is hope- I feel.

    1. Thanks, Sarita. Identity is a slippery idea, isn't it? But I do hope that the things that the people of the region have shared for millennia will prove stronger than newly invented or imported prejudices.

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