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Islamabad's moment of reckoning


DARK SKY: Recent history hasn't been too kind to Pakistan. Its people will now be desperately hoping something good comes from Osama's death


FARZANA SHAIKH is an Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, London, and the author of Making Sense of Pakistan (Hurst/Columbia University Press, 2009 FARZANA SHAIKH is an Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, London, and the author of Making Sense of Pakistan (Hurst/Columbia University Press, 2009

These are extraordinary times indeed for Pakistan. Not since 1971 when the country's ruling masters - the military - surrendered to foreign forces and left Pakistan divided has there been so palpable a sense of shame, confusion, and anger. The death of Osama bin Laden, which will long be savoured abroad as a moment of triumph, is likely to be forever seared in our national memory as a moment of abject humiliation.

For many in Pakistan this moment will also represent one of those familiar 'turning points' in the country's recent history to which it has grown accustomed. Like the shocking execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto;the assault on the Red Mosque;the assassination of Benazir Bhutto;the bombing of the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad (Pakistan's own 9/11); the attack on the revered shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh;and, most recently, the cold-blooded murder of governor Salman Taseer. It has amplified calls for national selfreflection and focussed fresh attention on the roots of Pakistan's current malaise.

Those roots have been allowed to fester in the midst of the interminable struggle between the country's military and civilian forces, and in recent years neglected by a population exhausted by the daily battle for survival in the face of a shattered economy and endemic violence. Yet, sooner or later, the big question (after the furore dies down over who in Pakistan's state apparatus knew what about bin Laden's presence and for how long) is bound to surface: can this 'turning point' become an opportunity for Pakistan to address the roots of its malaise and explore the possibilities for reform? If so, in these grave times, what is the way forward? Nothing short of a leap of imagination and a concerted move to resolve, once and for all, the enduring uncertainty over the role of Islam in the definition of Pakistan's constitutional identity will do. For that, Pakistan must now consider a fresh constitutional settlement that unequivocally rejects empowering the state and its citizens on the basis of their perceived relationship to Islam.

It is this that has nurtured the state's fatal attraction to the language of holy war, which has exacted so heavy a price from the people of Pakistan. Their loss has been the military's gain. Its futile quest to 'match' India abroad has not only deepened Pakistan's dependence on the United States, but left the country dangerously vulnerable to Islamist groups at home.

Pakistan's current predicament is dire indeed. But the catastrophe it now faces is the outcome of decades of state policy directed by the military. This policy, which ensured the convergence of militarism and militancy, was sustained and paid for by hiring out Pakistan's services to the highest bidder - namely, the United States.

Although far from equal in this relationship, Pakistan has proved to be a wily partner by successfully resisting the leverage of the United States (and assiduously cultivating China) while using the United States to establish parity with India on the battle-field and on the global stage. It is then Pakistan's rivalry with India that has facilitated US intervention in Pakistan - intervention largely encouraged by Pakistan's dominant military. For even when such intervention was at its most damaging for the country, as during Pakistan's alliance with the United States in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the gains - namely mastery over the execution of covert war against India in Kashmir - were judged to far outweigh the suffering inflicted on Pakistan's people. That brings us to the present day: for while it is no secret that hostility to America runs deep in Pakistan today, it stems as much from anger against what America is doing (whether fuelling the appalling loss of lives or violating Pakistan's sovereignty through drone strikes and the 'hot pursuit' of Osama bin Laden) as against what America isn't doing. And what America is seen not to be doing is taking on board its ally's concerns at India's burgeoning influence in Afghanistan. In this transactional relationship of mutual dependence rather than mutual respect, the price for services rendered is all that has really mattered. And Pakistan, in the form of its warped civil and military state structure, has concluded that it has been dealt a raw deal by America. To break this damaging nexus, Pakistan must engage directly with India and learn to fight its own battles rather than allow itself to use, and be used by, American power.

But for Pakistan to fight its own battles, at home and abroad, independently of American and other props, it must first clarify what it stands for. That will depend on the country's confidence to project an identity grounded in a clearer vision of the state's relationship to Islam, which has left it prey to deep divisions and vulnerable to the forces of extremism. For uncertainty over the state's precise relation to Islam has greatly undermined its capacity to confront the so-called 'existential threat' now posed by militant groups in the country, which claim to act in the name of Islam. The state's ambivalence over Islam - reflected in the acknowledgement of a public role for Islam while refusing to accept its implications - has given license to Islamic militants who now seek to hold the state up to its professed 'Islamic' standards.

This is not to say that Pakistan's leadership must try and co-opt one or other variant of 'true' or 'real' Islam. Consensus on this issue has always eluded, and will always elude, the country. Rather what must be sought is a new constitutional settlement that formally and categorically rejects any provision that would empower or grant special privileges to the country's citizens on the basis of their putative relationship to Islam.

This would not only strip religious hardliners of the moral high ground they seek to occupy, and thereby restore to all citizens of Pakistan the equality to which they are entitled, but clear up once and for all the question of what we in Pakistan are really fighting for.

The answer is clear: the fight against terrorism in Pakistan is not a struggle for the defence of Islam nor a war designed to pit 'good' Muslims supported by the state against 'bad' Muslims allied to the Taliban or al-Qaida. Rather it is a struggle for the survival of Pakistan against those who aim to subvert, and seek to operate in defiance of its laws.

Reader's opinion (17)

Chinmay VermaMay 16th, 2011 at 13:56 PM

there is one basic difference between india and pakistan.............we look to elevate ourselves to developed country standadrds....they seek to take down india and themselves back to dark ages under an islamic theocratic rule.......just one advice to pakistan.....grow up guys

Meghana DayanandaMay 14th, 2011 at 19:45 PM

It is time Pakistan shifted its focus from bringing down India to more important things such as stabilizing their own doomed economy, upgrading their own thought process about various aspects which might bring some harmony and getting rid of those terrorists who belong to no religion whatsoever

Meghana DayanandaMay 14th, 2011 at 19:41 PM

Until Pakistan sees itself as a nation which can exist without the help of USA the situations will not improve. America is doing no good to the country. It is not even trying to be much of an older brother to Pakistan on the international arena.

Anil ShethMay 14th, 2011 at 03:36 AM

Nukes,Nukes,Nukes and they are the sole reasons why the world pays so much attention to Pakistan! Remember, Nixon/Kissingen anti india policy h ad a lot to do with this. US was quite aware of Pakistan developing nukes. They simply looked the othenr way as Pakistan did for Osama.

Sanjay LokurMay 12th, 2011 at 16:11 PM

The killing of OBL could hopefully be a turning point in Pak's troubled history. Pak citizens are dismayed at the duplicity of the army-ISI combine in sheltering Osama while accepting billions of dollars in aid for breaking the back of terrorism. No amount of double-speak can restore its fig-leaf.

Sanjay LokurMay 12th, 2011 at 15:59 PM

Pak citizens should take a leaf from the Jasmine revolution sweeping the Arab world, and also from India's show of solidarity behind Anna Hazare, to show their displeasure with the hate-India policy of the Pak army and ISI. I believe Pak politicians are moderate but fear to mend fences with India -4

Sanjay LokurMay 12th, 2011 at 14:55 PM

At Partition, both India and Pak were on a similar economic footing. After several hiccups, India is on the road to a strong economy. Whereas Pak, blinded by its hate for India, has squandered money on inflicting a thousand cuts on India, and in the process is itself bleeding - perhaps to death. - 3

Sanjay LokurMay 12th, 2011 at 14:44 PM

Perhaps, seen after a period of about a hundred years, when I hope the terror diplomacy of Pak would have been long buried, future citizens of both Pak and India would wonder why the Pak leadership hated India to the extent of pulling down their own country. (cont'd) - 2

Kuldipinder MannMay 8th, 2011 at 18:29 PM

Very well analysed and written

Salil RoyMay 8th, 2011 at 17:18 PM

the article does not address the carnage
at Mumbai caused by Pakistan and shielding the anti India terrorists in her soil.
the fact of the matter is that Pakistan can never be trusted by any nation on earth. its rabid anti India policy has set the stage of self destruction too late for reversal.

Gopalsriniwasan SriniwasanMay 8th, 2011 at 15:42 PM

We live in a technology driven era where religion plays a secondary role,evidence of it is the Jasmine Revolution which has erupted in the Arab World. Pakistan needs to focuss its resources on Secular Universal Education at all levels,otherwise it is doomed to be a
declared a Failed State.

Sharat SahuMay 8th, 2011 at 13:56 PM

Yet another well-meaning article. It will require pakistan's leaders to be well meaning and bold enough to push for reforms, which presently look impossible. My sense is that, it will go deeper and deeper into it's quagmire and become another Afghanistan very soon.

Pradeep GoorhaMay 8th, 2011 at 12:26 PM

Ms Shaikh misses to mention cold-blooded murders in Mumbai 26/11, attack on Lok Sabha and Kargil. It is not the mayhem on your own soil, Ms Shaikh your establishment perpetrates that on foreign soil. Terror kingpins are treated as strategic assets (you know, whose phrase that is, don't you?).

Vishnu DasMay 8th, 2011 at 12:08 PM

As an Indian, I fail to see what it is we are trying to salvage by engaging with Pakistan. If I was given charge of India, I would seal the border with Pakistan, cut off all political and economic ties and focus solely on internal security. Let Pakistan descend back into the Dark Ages..

Sanjay LokurMay 12th, 2011 at 14:40 PM

Yes, I agree. Our PM must explain to the nation why he insists on engaging this rogue country when there is absolutely no evidence of letting up on their terror diplomacy.

Vijay BhatiaMay 8th, 2011 at 11:33 AM

Although I agree with most of what Ms. Shaikh has stated her treatise is long on generalities and short on specifics. Like it or not Pakistan has to get over it's obsession with annexing Kashmir. It is not going to happen, and all the expense incurred for that objective is an excercise infutility.

Ashok Kumar ChordiaMay 7th, 2011 at 21:31 PM

Farzana has analysed the Pakistani options well. I hope essence of what she say influences the decision makers in Islamabad.

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