Book by former diplomat challenges the “doomsday scenarios” painted by “outsiders”.
Forty-eight hours after Islamabad's latest embarrassment, the bizarre circumstances surrounding the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden, the Pakistan High Commission in London hosted the launch of academic and former diplomat Maleeha Lodhi's new book, Pakistan: Beyond the ‘Crisis State' (Hurst & Company, £16.99), a collection of articles by Pakistani scholars offering an “insiders' perspective” on Pakistan. According to Ms Lodhi, it is intended to challenge the “doomsday scenarios” about Pakistan painted by “outsiders”.
After the event, one guest — a prominent British Pakistani academic — described it as a “typical gathering of Pakistani liberals” alluding to the hand-wringing comments about the state of Pakistan combined with fervent expressions of “faith” in its future. Pakistan, Ms Lodhi and others complained, had come to be “defined and judged” almost wholly by outsiders who tended to view it through “a single lens”. Pakistan was often reduced to a “caricature” by instant experts who did not care to see beyond their noses.
“There is more to Pakistan than an entity which lurches from crisis to crisis,” said Ms Lodhi.
Yes, Pakistan had more than its share of extremists, crazy mullahs, lying politicians and venal spooks. And, true, the country was in a huge mess. But prophecies about its imminent collapse were vastly exaggerated, she claimed. A few years ago, she recalled, a prominent American commentator predicted that Pakistan was “six days away from an implosion”.
“I met him on the eighth day and said I had just returned from Pakistan and we were still standing. He said: no, no I didn't mean it that way.”
If foreign critics of Pakistan were to look more closely and without preconceived notions, we were told, they would discover a country with a resilient people, a robust civil society, an independent and noisy media and a vibrant cultural scene. Pakistan's misfortune was that it was afflicted with a “weak” and “fragile” state. But it was also blessed with a “strong society” which retained its faith in Pakistan's future.
Although the book is meant to counter Pakistan's negative image, ironically its analysis of “what led us to where we are” ends up confirming why it is seen the way it is. Which, in fact, makes it a rather honest book; a mostly candid account of the near-collapse of the Pakistani state, the only sacred cow, understandably, being Jinnah whose flawed vision of a modern state founded in the name of religion remains unexamined.
Ms Lodhi is pretty brutal in her criticism of successive governments, including the two she served in. She was at the heart of Pakistan's foreign policy establishment in the Musharraf regime in the run-up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, first as Ambassador in Washington from 1999 to 2002 and then in London from 2003 to 2008. Before that (between 1993 and 1996) she served Benazir Bhutto's government as its top diplomat in Washington. Yet, in her account of their failings she comes across simply as a passive bystander.
Arguably one of the best pieces is historian Ayesha Jalal's, “The Past As Present”, a withering examination of what she calls the “reality deficit” of Pakistanis and their “tendency for paranoia” — a result of years of peddling of “myths” as historical truths in an attempt by the Pakistani state to assert an imagined “Islamic superiority”. The origins of Pakistan itself are shrouded in “mistruths” and “distortions”.
“History has been reduced to a jumble of clichés by official hacks expounding improbable versions Pakistan's much-touted Islamic ideology...The self-glorification of an imagined past matched by habits of national denial have assumed crisis proportions today when Pakistan's existence is under far more serious threat from fellow Muslims than it was in 1947 from rival non-Muslim communities,” she writes. What Pakistanis need is a “mature” understanding of their history allowing them to shed their “penchant for myths, delusions and conspiracies”.
“Critical awareness of Pakistan's present problems in the light of history can overcome the reality deficit and help create the political will that can allow Pakistan to navigate its way out of a daunting present and chart a future consistent with the aspirations of its rudderless and long-suffering people,” concludes Professor Jalal.
Novelist Mohsin Hamid is more optimistic and insists that a “brighter future awaits us” though his optimism appears to derive more from deeply-felt emotions of someone who had been away from his homeland for many years than tangible evidence. Other contributors include journalist Ahmed Rashid who examines Pakistan's role in Afghanistan and Syed Rifaat Hussain, a strategic affairs expert, who writes on “the India factor” arguing that a solution of the Kashmir dispute holds the key to the stalled peace process.
Ms Lodhi and her team of writers call for bold political and electoral reforms involving what she calls a “paradigm shift from patronage to issue-based politics”. Pakistan's political parties need to “evolve into modern political organisations”. There also has to be a recognition that Pakistan's problems are its own and need “home-grown” solutions independent of “external” assistance”, a shorthand for America. Hope and faith in Pakistan's future underpin much of the debate but can hope alone be a substitute for a coherent strategy and a will on the part of Pakistan's ruling elite to change course, of which there is scant evidence?
But Ms Lodhi retorts that “you can't have strategy without hope”.
(Pakistan: Beyond the ‘Crisis State' is to be published in India soon.)