Learning little from our desert infatuation

Islamabad diary

Pakistan has still to recover from its last troop export to the holy kingdom. This was in the 1980s when Mard-e-Momin Gen Ziaul Haq was reconverting the Islamic Republic to Islam – or, to be accurate, his version of Islam. His understanding of Islam, understandably, was of the most primitive kind. Maulana Maudoodi he took to be his guide and, if imperfect memory serves, lectures on Maudoodi were dished out on Radio Pakistan.

And we on whom these experiments in re-Islamisation were being carried out were helpless…because the spirit had been taken out of us and the army was all-powerful, much more powerful than today, the remotest criticism of the army unheard of in those distant and less complicated days. When the army backed something that was it…no questions were asked. And the army was totally behind Zia’s brand of hypocrisy.

The army’s motto was changed from Jinnah’s ‘unity, faith and discipline’ to ‘iman, taqwa, jihad fi-sabeel-Allah’. That is how it remains until today. (Going back to Jinnah…is that asking for too much?)

Zia did many things but three stand out.

(1) He unlocked the mullah, empowered him and brought him on the airwaves where, to our lasting discomfort, he remains to this day. Zealotry, bigotry and their close cousin, stupidity, are now interwoven into the national fabric of thought and sentiment. We were never amongst the first ranks of the enlightened to begin with. Our experiments in reborn Islam made sure that we stood firmly at the back of the class.

(2) He stoked the embers of ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan on the strength of American dollars and Saudi riyals. Far from recovering from that bit of holy adventurism, Pakistan finds itself deeper in the hole dug then.

(3) He sent Pakistani troops to the holy land where on fat salaries they stayed for many years. A percentage of the salaries went to an army fund spent on such necessities as the building of army messes. The Armour Mess bang opposite the Fatima Jinnah Women’s University in Rawalpindi Saddar is an example of this utilisation.

In my army days for love or money you saw no beard on an officer’s or a soldier’s face. Not that the army, perish the thought, was any kind of a freethinking fraternity…far from it. But military beards looked odd, so hardly anyone wore them. Not only that but no one paraded his religion. Anyone wanting to say his prayers said them. In the PMA those who wanted to fast fasted. There were so many of us who didn’t. But the heavens remained where they were, the mountains did not move. 

All this changed with re-Islamisation. What with troops in the holy land and ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan and clerics set loose on TV, you started seeing more beards in the forces. Go to any gathering of military officers today and the number of beards will amaze you. God’s holy warriors…that’s the impression you get.

All this outward religiosity would be slightly more convincing if military Islam also meant less of a focus on plots and the undoubted charms of real estate. The ordinary soldier is entitled only to his pension. So this is not about him. This is not about young officers and soldiers laying down their lives on our western marches. But senior ranks, the top echelons – that’s a different story: too much privilege, too much entitlement. Therefore, hardly a surprise that no one is really serious about the Taliban. It’s too tough a call and too much would be at stake.

Outside the hallowed ranks of the military again an excess of outward religiosity. We really have taken to wearing things on our sleeves but please no taxes. Bazaar, business class, small traders, captains of industry, pillars of the government itself…all get cold feet when it comes to broadening the tax base.

If this is the nation’s outlook, or the outlook of its dominating classes, the begging bowl must somehow be filled. So no surprises if Pakistan has perfected the art of hiring out its services. Only problem is that even this – the mercenary bit – we do not do very well, ending up by selling our services too cheaply.

What do we have to show for our various ‘jihad’ enterprises? Very little. What do we have to show for our first troop export to the holy land (1980s)? Apart from the Armour Mess I can think of nothing. What did Musharraf get for his pains? Again not much. Of course one should not take to streetwalking. But if compelled by circumstances the least one can do is put a proper price on one’s about-to-be-outraged modesty and virtue. But learning nothing from the past we are again about to seal a cheap bargain.

After Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in Egypt our desert friends lost little time in giving five billion dollars to the new dispensation. Compare that to our 1.5 billion dollars and it is less than flattering.

What is it with us? Why can’t we do things properly? Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may be beholden to his Saudi benefactors. After all, they got him out of a tight spot in Musharraf’s time. But business is business. Learn this from Heera Mandi. Shower any benefits on a denizen of that quarter but when it comes to business, in this case the oldest trade, the principles of the trade are not compromised, let alone violated.

A ribbon is put around the army chief’s neck and he also comes on board. And the finance minister thinks he is the ultimate wizard because of a relatively paltry gift from the desert sands. Tiny Cyprus gets a 10 billion euro bailout from the European community. Hosni Mubarak got seven billion dollars in loans written off during the Gulf War (after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait). Turkey demanded 25 billion dollars from the US for allowing ground access to US troops during the Iraq War. The Americans did not agree and the Turks gave no land access. We are crowing about 1.5 billion dollars.

And when we do start performing sentry duty our friends will insist on one thing: no violation of ‘maslak’ or sect. I hope my meaning is clear. Only the proper sect will be welcomed. More strength to our army.

As I said, we still haven’t recovered from our first troop export to the desert sands. What will this second dose do to us? More beards, more outward piety, deeper homage at the altar of hypocrisy? Already we have taken sides in the Syrian conflict when that was none of our business. But there is no end to our delight as we get ready to perform sentry duty again.

And while this lasts forget about any serious action against the Taliban. The two just do not go together.

Tailpiece: I was wrong about Shaheed-e-Azam Sardar Udham Singh. He killed Michael O’ Dwyer, Lt Gov of Punjab at the time of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and not Brig-Gen Reginald Dyer the man on the spot who ordered the shooting. My apologies. I was surprised by the number of people who corrected me. By the way, at his trial Udham Singh gave his name as Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, signifying his reverence for all faiths.

This response to my column from Motilal Raina I thought worth noting: “Your dismay at Iqbal’s lack of commitment to contemporary history is well taken. Of course Tagore returned his knighthood after the Massacre while Iqbal accepted it, but acceptance by one and repudiation by another does not detract from the intrinsic merit of their work. I am not sure if overt political allegiances would have added to the rhetoric of Iqbal’s public poetry. It might have led to a shrillness of tone that would lower the poetry’s impact. 

“I would rather accept W H Auden’s verdict on Kipling: ‘Time will pardon Kipling for writing well’. I would like to read Iqbal in that spirit. ‘Tu Shaheen hai parwaz hai kaam tera/tere saamne aasman aur bhi hain’…incidentally these lines stand next to the image of Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, on my working desk – I don’t think these lines call for an open declaration of one’s response to contemporary history. Rather they invite us to transcend history’s sheer immediacy.”


Email: winlust@yahoo.com 

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