Pakistan’s search for identity

Three books by western journalists underline the terrible toll the religious-based nation has faced since independence

Victor Mallet NOVEMBER 3 2020

Since Pakistan’s parliament declared the world’s first Islamic republic in 1949, two years after the traumatic partition from India, liberal Pakistanis have yearned for their country to be more like the rest of the world. Now they are noticing with alarm that the rest of the world is instead becoming more like them.

For Pakistan, perhaps the most surprising and certainly the most important of recent changes in political culture around the world — complete with affirmations of nationalism, religious exceptionalism and even bigotry — has been in India, the neighbour and now enemy with which it shared thousands of years of history before independence from Britain in 1947.

India was able to boast for decades after partition that it had more Muslim citizens than the Muslim state set up for them next door — citizens, furthermore, who enjoyed equality in a secular and tolerant Indian republic.

Yet today the Indian government under the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi stands accused of persecuting Muslims as a matter of policy and of attempting to become a Hindu version of its Islamic neighbour.

Three new books on Pakistan, all by western journalists who know the country and some of its recent leaders well, underline the strength of the argument made by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, against India becoming a “Hindu Pakistan” and indeed against the creation of any nation based purely on religion. “The whole idea of a theocratic state is not only medieval but also stupid,” Nehru is quoted as saying by Declan Walsh in his chapter on Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, in The Nine Lives of Pakistan.

Many Pakistanis, including Jinnah himself, would agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment if not the man, for as these books make clear, the country’s 200m or more inhabitants have always been more easy-going, diverse and religiously heterogeneous than Pakistan’s grim international reputation as a cauldron of Islamist terror would suggest.

More concept than country, Pakistan strained under the forces of history, identity and faith. Could it hold?

Unfortunately, the primacy of religion as a founding principle of Pakistan — exploited and exacerbated by the army generals who have always had a heavy hand in running the country even in periods of ostensible parliamentary rule — has exacted a terrible toll in bloodshed, poverty and instability since independence.

“Depending on who you asked, Islam or the army were supposed to be the glue holding the place together. Yet both, in their own way, seemed to be tearing it apart,” Walsh writes about his first impressions of the country he covered for a decade. “More concept than country, Pakistan strained under the centrifugal forces of history, identity and faith. Could it hold? Pakistanis themselves seemed unsure . . . It was a country of sighs and regrets, the only I had been where some of its own citizens quietly regretted it had ever come into being.”

Among the lives witnessed and colourfully described by Walsh, a New York Times reporter expelled by the Pakistani security services in 2013 for knowing too much about how the country worked, are those of Salman Taseer, the flamboyant Punjab governor shot dead by one of his own bodyguards after defending a Christian woman falsely accused of blasphemy; Nawab Bugti, the literature-loving Baloch separatist leader killed by troops in his remote cave hide-out; Chaudhry Aslam, the gun-toting Karachi cop killed by a Taliban suicide truck bomb; “Colonel Imam”, the spy who saw himself as “a kind of Pakistani TE Lawrence” but was taken hostage and killed on video by the very Taliban jihadi organisation he had once helped to create; and Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the “reluctant fundamentalist” slain by government forces in the siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad in 2007.

The common theme of violent death is impossible to miss, as it is in books about the Bhutto family, whose members have been disproportionately victims of murder even by the tragic standards of south Asian dynasties and of Pakistan’s lethal politics.

In The Bhutto Dynasty, Owen Bennett-Jones, who reported for 30 years for the BBC, has written a scholarly history of the family, including the rise and fall of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the intelligent if sometimes arrogant and politically naive prime minister toppled and eventually ordered hanged in 1979 by Zia ul-Haq, the man he had appointed army chief and wrongly assumed was harmless.

Of the three books, Bennett-Jones’s also does the best job of investigating how Pakistan actually functions, or fails to function, whether the subject is the respective roles of the armed forces and the Taliban in the assassination of Zulfikar’s daughter Benazir — who was twice prime minister and the first woman prime minister in modern times of a majority Muslim state — or the egregious corruption of which she and later her husband Asif Ali Zardari were accused when in office.

Victoria Schofield’s The Fragrance of Tears does not delve deeply into these difficult areas, but describes instead her personal friendship with Benazir (who knew her at Oxford university and called her “Vicks”) and successfully sheds light on the human side of a courageous politician who could not escape her dynastic destiny and paid the ultimate price for her ambition when she was assassinated after a political rally in Rawalpindi in 2007.

Again and again, from Sindh to the Afghan border by way of Punjab or Balochistan, we are brought back to the vexed questions of religion and identity in Pakistan.

Jinnah, born a Shia Muslim and married to a Parsi, liked his whisky as much as many other Pakistanis, declared that Hindus and Christians should be free to worship in their own places, and once fondly imagined he would be able to regularly visit his mansion in Mumbai across the border in India after partition.

But as the years rolled by, the divisions hardened between India and Pakistan and within Pakistan itself. Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims and other religious minorities persecuted. Nor was there unity within Islam. Sunni fanatics have slaughtered Shias with bombs and guns, and even among Sunnis the Saudi-influenced puritans have denounced the Sufi mysticism and saint-worship practised by millions of Pakistanis (although some Sufis were also prone to violent extremism).

Walsh rightly points to the largely forgotten commission of inquiry led by Justice Muhammad Munir into Punjab’s anti-Ahmadi riots of 1953 as a fateful turning point. Munir asked his interviewees to say who counted as a true Muslim and was dismayed to hear each declare their own beliefs to be the only true path.

Munir’s conclusion was that Pakistani leaders needed to think carefully about how they were going to forge a successful nation on these shaky Islamic foundations. Such a masterful and lucidly argued report, says Walsh, “could never be written today” because since it was published Pakistan’s leaders have comprehensively hijacked Islam for their own pernicious ends.

The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Divided Nation, by Declan Walsh, Bloomsbury, RRP£20, 368 pages

The Bhutto Dynasty: The Struggle for Power in Pakistan, by Owen Bennett-Jones, Yale University Press, RRP£20, 320 pages

The Fragrance of Tears: My Friendship with Benazir Bhutto, by Victoria Schofield, Head of Zeus, RRP£25, 352 pages

Victor Mallet is the FT’s former south Asia bureau chief

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