Can Sindh Save Pakistan

Brown Pundits Archive
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.

Mathew Martoma = “Triple Package” + Sociopathy

Brown Pundits Archive

The extent of Mathew Martoma’s fraud at Harvard is almost farcical. The fact that someone like him (born Ajai Mathew Thomas) could succeed in high finance tells you something about high finance. But, it also tells you about the toxic brew of individuals with high intellectual competency but low moral compass. These are far more dangerous than garden variety sociopaths, because their success is contingent upon eating away at the fabric of civil society.

But another aspect hinted at in the story is the role that pressure driven Asian immigrant cultures play in incentivizing this sort of behavior.* To be frank I suspect many Asian immigrant parents might be able tolerate a little corner cutting if their child could make it to Harvard. Naturally when you have someone with sociopathic tendencies like Martoma that tends to be interpreted as carte blanche toward a success-at-any-price mode of operation.

Of course culture is not destiny. The man prosecuting Martoma is himself a 1.5 generation Indian American.

* This sort of problem also crops up in corporations where all rewards are based on outcomes. In which case there is a strong incentive to cheat the system.

The Act of Killing

Brown Pundits Archive

A must see documentary.
I have not seen it. I only saw the trailer (I have a weak stomach for massacres) but I have heard about it in detail from a friend who saw it and I have read about the movie as well as the massacres themselves.
Humans. What a frigging species.

We did our share of killing in 1947 and then in Bengal in 1971, but the way these Indonesians have not just honored the killers (which we did too, in many cases) but openly boast about their work..that does not seem to be our way (yet).
Somehow I always have the feeling that South-East Asian societies (Burma to Indonesia) are one step ahead of mother India in the mass-killing business, but maybe I am just prejudiced. I have certainly not done the math…

Pakistan: The Narratives Fall Apart

Brown Pundits Archive

I have to run, so this will have to  be fleshed out later, but a few quick points to start a discussion:

1. The government of Pakistan (GOP) has completely lost control of the narrative. They were always confused, but part of the confusion was by choice. Since Musharraf gave his famous Sulah Hudaybia speech, where he said we will cooperate with Western powers just like the nascent Islamic state in Medina signed a peace deal with the kafirs in Mecca as a temporary measure, there were always going to be things we had to hide or obfouscate. Then the more impatient jihadis started beheading armymen and brave levies soldiers, so they had to be fitted into the story somewhere. For that, the Hindu agent/Jewish conspiracy theme was activated and the Pakistani Taliban were described as agents of RAW and the CIA, fighting against our brave soldiers in order to undermine the world’s only Islamic nuclear power. This was never an easy sell outside of middle class Pakistan but it had a certain internal coherence. Now this whole convoluted scheme has fallen apart thanks to Mian Nawaz Sharif and Choudhry Nisar.

2. The Pakistani state recognized those very Taliban (hindu-jewish agents, CIA proxies) as negotiation partners and also conceded that they control a certain territory where they decide who comes and who negotiates. A team of negotiators who are generally sympathetic to the Taliban was appointed to talk to them. Mullahs of every stripe were activated (or activated themselves, after all, they have brains too) to prepare the ground for negotiations. Since no one in Pakistan can deny shariah law and the supremacy of Islam, this already puts the corrupt and double-dealing state apparatus at a disadvantage to the more shariah-compliant and Islamic Taliban. This blow was bad enough, but worse was to come.

3. The Taliban, displaying (as usual) more coherence and sense than the GOP, have put forward a list of people who can negotiate on their behalf. A list that includes Imran Khan and Maulana Samiul Haq. Not exactly people who can be easily dismissed as Hindu-Jewish agents. Then they have supposedly appointed a ten man committee to supervise these negotiators.THAT committee includes such luminaries as Asmatullah Muavia (the guy who ADMITTED to ordering the killing of Chinese and East European climbers on Nanga Parbat and admitted to a vicious church bombing as well) and Khalid Khurasani (whose video can be seen below). They will now issue lists of demands, some minor (and therefore impossible to resist…after all, can peace be sacrificed for such minor things?) , some major (like prisoner release) and some irresistible in principle (like the imposition of shariah). When negotiations fall apart (as they must), who will be blamed? Is there ANY chance that Sami ul Haq or Imran Khan will blame the Taliban for this failure? Of course, the TTP can also deny the committee or any other news as and when it suits them. They control the narrative, not Choudhry Nisar.

4. Where will this leave the whole Indian-agent theory on which any real operation against the TTP was to be based within the army?

The state will not surrender to these people. Yet. But one more step back has been taken.
What next?

btw, Fazlullah’s last set of demands for peace is in the second video below.

Cafe Le Whore and other stories

Brown Pundits Archive

A new book by Pakistani-American author Moazzam Sheikh.
I think its brilliant and original. Moazzam is not interested in writing “Pakistani” fiction or “Western” fiction. Just stories, about people, in strange places, sometimes doing strange things, but always human, all too human…
Funny too. Very funny at places.
All in all, a fresh, different and disturbing new Pakistani-American voice. Migration, migrants, Lahore, Samnabad and the People’s Republic of San Francisco play a role in most of the stories, as they do in the life of the author. But the themes are universal. Check it out.
 Full Disclosure: I am related to the author, who is also a friend.