By Saad Hafiz
Pakistan has become a favourite international punching bag. One critical portrayal of the country is that it is far from being the ‘land of the pure’; instead, it is one of the clearest demonstrations of the futility of defining a nation by religion and one of the textbook failures of a state and society, doomed to be a dysfunctional military theocracy from day one. M J Akbar, an eloquent Indian journalist and author of a book on Pakistan, summed up the country as dangerous and fragile, a “toxic jelly state”, a quivering country that will neither collapse nor stabilise. It is no surprise, therefore, that extreme remedies to fix the Pakistan ‘problem’ periodically make the rounds, essentially offering to save the country from itself. A solution suggested is for Balkanising Pakistan or, more specifically, fragmenting the Islamic Republic so it is easier to police and develop economically. To some, the concept is looking more appealing by the day, because, as a result of flawed boundaries combined with the nexus between military rule and Islamic extremism, Pakistan now finds itself on a rapid descent towards certain collapse and the country’s leaders stubbornly refuse to do the things required to change course. But before allowing Pakistan to commit state suicide, self-disintegrate and further destabilise the region, the international community can beat it to the punch and deconstruct the country less violently.
Previously, such interventionist solutions have been forced by victors on defeated nations and societies such as Germany and Japan, and more recently Iraq. Political reconstruction in these countries was disguised as pedagogical and reformist and not vengeful and retributive. Certainly, Pakistan cannot be lumped with the aforementioned examples of defeated countries that required extreme solutions. However, a case can be made for Pakistan to attempt to re-invent its image of a lumbering international pariah to that of a confident member of the international community.
An important achievement is that the Pakistani people have shown the way to emancipate themselves from the hold of dictatorial regimes. Crucially though, they have been unable to stand up to the reactionary religious establishment that opposed the creation of the country in the first place. The shield of religion has been unable to offer useful protection to the country, despite the frequent cries of Islam ‘being in danger’. Islam in government and as a political philosophy has proved its inadequacy from the beginning and is hardly the model worth pursuing. Many Islamic societies continue to live in despotism, exploitation and insecurity.
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Pakistan’s security obsessions have made it delusional, psychotic, fearing how to protect itself from the rest of the world. It is a conspicuous failure as a heavily militarised country, remaining beset by widespread violence and terrorism. Excessive national security efforts have drained its limited economic resources, without making the country safer or more stable. The Pakistani state since independence has constantly raised the bogey of an Indian threat and its political leaders continuously promote a fear psychosis of war among the people. Talks of imminent threats to national security from external forces are pure nonsense. The primary threat is from the insidious forces working from within that seek to prevent the development and functioning of free institutions, those institutions that should be a way of life.
Another festering problem is that Pakistan’s ethnic groups have legitimate complaints against the arrogant centre in Islamabad. The governing Punjabi elite has neglected the other three major ethnic groups: the Sindhis, Pashtuns and Baloch, primarily because a majority of Pakistan’s budget is spent on the military rather than economic development, schooling or infrastructure. Only two percent of Pakistan’s GDP, for example, is spent on education despite the fact that Pakistan’s literacy rate stands at 57 percent. This is, after all, a country where half the country’s population is below the age of 21. One third of them have never been to a school of any kind.
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Moreover, Pakistan’s economy is in shambles, propped up by international aid, and its political system is notoriously corrupt and unresponsive, although a civilian government has come to power. The country has a population of nearly 200 million and the highest population growth rate in the region. One third of the population overall is below the poverty line, with another one third just above it. The poor state of the economy is due to shortsighted policies, mismanagement and absence of financial discipline that have blunted national progress in technology and industry.
National reinvention will require an attack on the taboos, a free discussion of what has been shrouded in sanctity, particularly the idea of an Islamist ideological state. Hopefully, this effort will lead to a reduction of the national paranoia that is the root of instability and address the deep-seated insecurity that manifests itself from time to time through the manufacture of conspiracy theories. An important objective should be to remake Pakistan and end the confusion of Pakistan’s purpose and identity once and for all. This vital challenge lies with the Pakistani people themselves. Only the people and the intellectuals at their forefront can break the vicious circle of political and cultural suppression strengthening each other and further weakening society.