Saturday, August 11, 2007

Something is Rotten in the State of Pakistan

The following article was published in the Dominion Post in Wellington New Zealand on Tuesday 24 July 2007, a few days after the storming of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) by Pakistani security forces in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital ...

For the past month until early last week, over 1,000 theology students and their
instructors turned a mosque and adjoining religious colleges into a heavily
armed fortress. They kidnapped foreign nationals and enforced their own
vigilante brand of sharia law. They smuggled heavy weapons and took over
adjoining state-owned buildings, including a library. Burqa-clad female students
pledged martyrdom before international media

And all this in the
centre of Islamabad, within minutes of the National Assembly and within a block
of the headquarters of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
When Muslim militants can show such utter disregard to the rule of law,
something must surely be rotten in the state of Pakistan.

leaders of the rebellion, Maulana’s Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi (‘Maulana’
is an honorific title commonly given to religious scholars in the Indian
subcontinent), openly called for the introduction of hudood (capital punishment
for select crimes). Whilst holding mock crimina trials for rape cases, they
also defiled their mosque with threats of suicide bombing attacks. They sought
to inject their demented version of “Islamic” back into the Islamic Republic of
Pakistan, the country’s official title.

The siege ended when
Pakistani troops stormed the complex at 4:30am on Tuesday 10 July 2007 in what
was labelled Operation Sunrise. Reports vary on the number of persons killed.
The government puts the figure at less than 150, while the opposition religious
Jamaat-i-Islami party puts the figure in the thousands. Already nationwide
protests are being led by religious and other opposition

That a mosque could be turned into a fortress of lawless
militancy raises issues going to the heart of Pakistan ’s identity crisis. Just
how Islamic is Pakistan meant to be? Or rather, why kind of Islam do Pakistanis
want to see in their homeland? The Lal Masjid (literally ‘Red Mosque’) rebellion
and its bloody end reflect the deep ideological divide that has plagued the
country since independence.

Pakistan is a nation founded on the
basis of ethno-religious identity, on a presumption that Indian Muslims were
somehow a separate nation from the rest of India. Yet in his speech to Pakistan’s first parliament on 11 August 1947, Pakistan ’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah

“You are free … to go to your temples, you are free to
go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan.
You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the
business of the State … [I]n course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and
Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is
the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of
the State.”

Yet in the years leading upto Partition, the Pakistan
cause had little support from Muslim religious figures. The Indian Muslim League
was led by the very secular elitist Jinnah, a Bombay barrister who spent much of
his working life practising law in English courts. Although involved in Indian
secular politics since 1913, it was only in 1940 that Jinnah publicly announced
his support for a separate Muslim state.

Indian Muslim historian
Asghar Ali Engineer sums up Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan : “Thus politics, not
religion was responsible for partition … It is true that Mr Jinnah spearheaded
the movement and he articulated the aspirations of the Muslim elite, especially
of the Muslim minority areas”.

Jinnah’s secular modernist
vision of Pakistan very much resembled that of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of
modern Turkey . However, Ataturk was able to successfully control religious
orders and mosques due to Ottoman Turkey’s historic tradition of ensuring
religious bodies remained subservient to the state.

Unlike Turkey ,
South Asian Muslim religious institutions and figures have always fiercely
guarded their independence from any governmental authority. Prominent religious
leaders with close links to the impoverished Muslim masses opposed the Creation
of Pakistan. These included a prominent Indian religious scholar Syed Hussein
Ahmed Madani, known among Indian Muslims by the title of “Sheik al-Hind” or
spiritual elder of India .

Madni and his colleagues in the
Deobandi sect regarded Muslim separatism as forbidden in Islam. Another
prominent Islamic scholar, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, was close to Gandhi and
became India ’s first education minister. The founder of Pakistan ’s largest
religious party, Abul Ala Maududi, was himself opposed to Partition at first.
Indeed, only one major Deobandi scholar was known to have supported the creation
of Pakistan. It’s little wonder that more Muslims remained in India than move
to the new Muslim state.

Despite the elitism of the secular vision
for Pakistan, secular politics has done surprisingly well. Pakistan ’s
religious parties have, until recently, performed poorly at the polls. Secular
politics has thrived for a variety of reasons. Firstly, Pakistan’s Muslim
identity couldn’t overcome pre-existing tribal, linguistic and other
non-religious identities.

Secondly, Pakistan is still an
overwhelmingly rural society. The main secular parties are dominated by powerful
rural (almost feudal) landed families such as the Bhutto and Zardari clans.

Soviet intervention in Afghanistan helped undermine secular
parties. Pakistan was a key ally of the United States, and was at the forefront
of supporting militant Afghan rebel groups. Pakistan also played host to Arab
mujahideen leaders supported by the United States, including a prominent member
of the Saudi bin-Ladin family.

For decades, the most radical
religious groups and parties have had the support of the army, ISI and state and
provincial governments. This cosy relationship worked well when supporting
religious radicals suited Pakistan ’s foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan
and Kashmir. However, supporting radicalism abroad eventually had adverse
consequences back home.

The Lal Masjid is not the first mosque to
be sympathetic to more radical versions of religion. So why did the army wait so
long before acting against the militants? And why were preliminary steps (such
as cutting off water and electricity to the mosque) not tried before the attack
and its consequential loss of life? Some Pakistani observers believe President
Musharraf acted deliberately so as to convince the West that he is the only
person able to stop Pakistan descending into a full-blown

Opposition figure and former Pakistan cricket captain
Imran Khan wrote in the Canberra Times on 13 July that Musharraf should keep in
mind “Indira Gandhi’s order for troops to attack the [Sikh] Golden Temple ”. Yet
the Red Mosque hardly plays an equivalent role to the holiest shrine of Sikhism.
Still, even those opposed to the theocratic politics of militant religious
parties will be upset by the desecration of a mosque.

The real test
for Musharraf and for Pakistan will be seen in the coming months. Pakistan’s
former Chief Justice, sacked by Musharraf, has become a key symbol for more
secular-minded forces in the opposition. Should they join forces with the
better-resourced and organised theocratic parties, Musharraf’s stated plans of
ridding Pakistan of Muslim extremism may come to naught. Ironically, this may
strengthen Musharraf’s support in the West. Yet again, a Muslim dictator might
just survive with Western backing. In the long run, such a development will only
strengthen the appeal of theocratic trends in Pakistan.

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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Paragraphs on Partition

As we lead up ro the 60th anniversary of the Partition of India, I will be expressing my own personal thoughts and reflections on the re-emergence of post-colonial India and the creation of what would become the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Perhaps a good place to start is to build upon what I’ve written already on the subject.

A year ago, I wrote the following lines in an article for

My family sits on the Partition fence.

My paternal grandfather was a Crown Prosecutor based in the outer-Delhi neighbourhood of Gurgaon. When the communal riots started in Delhi in 1947, he and his family were moved to the border town of Sialkot in Punjab. His family never managed to get back, and they ended up as accidental Pakistanis.

My maternal grandfather taught philosophy at the Aligarh Muslim University. He had no plans of leaving behind a cushy job and a nice home provided by the university. He remained in India with his family following Partition.

I grew up in Sydney, the son of mixed Indian and Pakistani parents. Most of our family friends were from the sub-Continent: Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Parsis, Catholics and even a Pakistani Anglican priest. We spoke the same language, listened to the same music, watched the same movies and ate the same food. We celebrated each other’s religious festivals.

I also grew up with harrowing stories told by my Hindu, Muslim and Sikh uncles of the communal bloodbath that claimed over 1 million lives during the 1947 Partition that created two independent States of India and Pakistan.

One image features prominently in these tales; trains arriving at Lahore and Amritsar filling the air with the stench of death, carriages turned into communal coffins filled with innocent Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs massacred by religious militants.

But were all these deaths caused by militants? Or were they caused by innocent people manipulated by militants spreading rumours? Or by survivors of massacres who saw family members massacred and raped and burnt alive before their eyes?

Who knows? My uncles certainly had no idea who started all the madness. But they did want me to know that it happened. And that members of all communities suffered.

The memory of ‘carriages of death’ runs deep in the sub-Continental psyche ...

As is often the case in the sub-Continent, the real terror begins when the shock of the initial terror subsides. Terror breeds a worse terror, out of all proportion with the initial terror. When religion is hijacked by terror, essential religious values are thrown with the enemy into the furnace of hatred.

Then in late July this year, I wrote these words about Indian communal violence in the Canberra Times ...

Communalist violence in the Indian subcontinent is a reality of which many Australians are unaware. Historically, the general rule is and always has been one of followers of different faiths living side by side peacefully. India is a religious country where believers often display their religious symbols. This generally doesn't hinder respect for each other and even taking part in each other's religious festivals.

Sadly, South Asia has also been the scene of ethno-religious intolerance which has led to organised and violent attacks on one group by the other, violence that makes our 2005 riots at Cronulla look relatively tame. The 1947 partition of the subcontinent saw about onemillion people massacred.

The conventional view is that the attacks were largely orchestrated by religious fanatics on all sides. But how many were the work of militants? And how many were caused by otherwise innocent people manipulated by militants spreading rumours? Or by survivors of massacres who saw family members massacred and raped and burnt alive before their eyes?

India's 20th century political saint Mahatma Gandhi was himself assassinated. His killers emerged not from a disgruntled extremist element from a religious minority but from a movement wishing to establish a Hindutva nation, a Hindu theocratic state in which non-Hindus would become second-class citizens. Just as extremists have hijacked Islam for their own ends, similarly the peaceful and tolerant theology of Hinduism has been held hostage by an array of extremist groups misusing Hindu symbols to rape, pillage and murder.

India has its own groups of religious extremists, many of which are not afraid of using both electoral politics and communal violence to achieve their goals. Indeed, voters in this largest democracy in the world have been known to elect religious fanatics at both state and federal level.

Before the May 2004 elections, India's Federal Government (and many of its state governments) was ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist coalition that was arguably dominated by religious fanatics who inherited the militant ideology of Gandhi's assassins. In India's commercial hub of Mumbai, former leader Bal Thackeray openly expressed his admiration for Adolf Hitler.

Some Indian commentators make much of Pakistan's previous support for the Taliban (and indirectly for al-Qaeda). The al-Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001 resulted in some 3000 deaths. Human Rights groups estimate that a similar number of members of India's Muslim and other minority communities were massacred during the riots in Gujrat in February and March 2002.

What made the Gujrat massacres even more disturbing was the involvement of governments. Human Rights Watch reports that some rioters were guided by voter lists and printouts of addresses of Muslim-owned properties and businesses obtained from local municipal administration. Police and soldiers stood idly and in some cases participated in the carnage.

Yet religious fanaticism is generally the exception and not the rule. Indian voters showed this in March 2004 when they elected a government led by India's first prime minister from a religious minority. The significance of this event cannot be underestimated.

Some 23 years ago, the holiest shrine of Sikhism was stormed by Indian troops. Within five months, prime minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguard. Thousands of innocent Sikhs in Delhi and across the country were massacred in reprisal attacks. Now, 23 years later, Mrs Gandhi's own party is led by a member of this faith minority.

So what does Partition mean to an Aussie kid who hardly stayed in Pakistan for 5 weeks before being whisked away on a cruise ship bound for Circular Quay? I have spent some considerable time in Pakistan. Well, that's if you call a combined period of 9 months (consisting of 7 months when I was 6 years old plus 2 or 3 holidays, each of 3-6 weeks duration) to be significant. I've hardly spent a week in Bombay.

Yet I still have this enormous sense of nostalgia for South Asia. If someone asked me what my religion was, it would be insufficient to describe it as "Muslim". Really, I am a "Mussalman" (an Urdu word for "Muslim" but perhaps the best word to use to denote that unique kind of Muslim from South Asia).

When wanting to define what kind of Muslim I am, in my mind I don't go for the usual divisions of Sunni or Salafi or Shi'i as many Western Muslim kids do. Rather, I think in terms of South Asian maslaq differences - Deobandi, Barelwi, etc.

Yet somehow, I don't quite feel Indian or Pakistani. If I feel anything South Asian, I feel somehow in between the two.

But who gives a stuff about what I think? After all, at best I have an emotional attachment to South Asian culture, music and language. And food, of course. But it wasn't until recently that I discovered things about my own ancestral heritage. And the sources I used were hardly the sort of stuff Pakistani and Indian kids would study at school.

The first book I read about the Partition was Freedom At Midnight. It was a rivetting read, though I couldn't help but wonder while I was reading the book at why the authors always presumed communal riots could only be initiated by Muslims.

The first book I read about Delhi was William Dalrymple's terrific City of Djinns. In fact, much of my understanding of Indian history comes from Dalrymple. In a later instalment, I might share some of what Dalrymple told an audience at Macquarie University when he was here for the Sydney Writers' Festival.

Perhaps the most important book I read on Indian Muslims was a set of biographies entitled Eight Lives by an Indian journalist who also happened to be Mahatma Gandhi's grandson. It was the first time I had read a coherent biography of Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (rahimahullah - God have mercy on him).

So for the next week or so, this blog will focus on South Asia, its history, religions, cultures and politics. Hopefully by the end of this, I'll be able to make some sense of the South Asian part of my jumbled-up identity!

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

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