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An interview with Pervez Hoodbhoy
Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. He writes and lectures on South Asian issues and has appeared on major news programs in Pakistan and around the world. I talked with him at the University of Maryland in College Park in August.
BARSAMIAN: In an article in Dawn, one of Pakistan's leading English-language newspapers, you describe Pakistan as "a muddled nation," and then you go on to say that "history's baggage is difficult to dispense with" and that there is "the unmentionable truth when it comes to Pakistan." Could you expand on these comments?
HOODBOY: Remember that Pakistan was created in 1947 and that Mohammad Ali Jinnah—regarded as the founder of Pakistan—rallied the Muslims of India to form a separate homeland for Muslims. The assumption had been that Muslims were different from Hindus, that they could never live together. That was what Jinnah called the two-nation theory.
That theory got a severe blow in 1971, when East Pakistan broke off and became independent Bangladesh. Subsequently, it didn't make any difference to the way that the dominant leadership or, for that matter, most of the people in Pakistan thought. The two-nation theory lay at the very basis of Pakistan, we were told. But now that's coming under question, because here is the Taliban, who say, "We are the true Muslims, we are the people who know what the sharia is, and we are going to make this an Islamic state."
The Pakistan army was brought up on the notion that they were not just the defenders of the geographical boundaries of Pakistan, but they were the ideological defenders of Islam. But today they're confused. They don't know why the Taliban have to be fought. They're fighting them because the Taliban are cutting off their heads, literally. But you see the muddle comes about because Pakistan has not resolved the question of what it's all about. Why is Pakistan a nation, given the fact that there are many different peoples who live there, peoples who are often in conflict over resources? The notion that Islam can provide a basis for building a nation is falling apart.
Another problem is sectarian violence. Some Sunnis are not accepting the Shi'a minority. There are attacks on them, on Christians, and other religious minorities. The Taliban have just given an ultimatum to the Shi'as of Pakistan and they have three options. Number one, accept Islam. They don't consider Shi'ite Islam to be Islam. So they say, become like us: become Sunni Wahhabi Muslims. The second option is, you pay tax, which is called jazia. And the third is, get out of here. The Shi'as are an embattled minority in Pakistan, but they're a big minority. They're something like 30 percent of the population. On the other hand, the Christians and the Hindus are 2 percent and 1 percent. So they live in fear.
Most recently, in the town of Gojra in Punjab a mob attacked Christians after allegations of blasphemy. A 20,000-strong crowd went in and burned houses of Christians. Over 70 of them were destroyed. Christians were killed, some injured. This is now becoming typical. This intolerance comes from the fact that Pakistan is for Muslims only and, of course, Muslims of the right kind.
You've written about the efforts of Zia-ul-Haq, the military dictator from 1977 to 1988, to heighten Pakistan's Islamic identity of a particular type, moving it away from its South Asian origin and heritage to a more West Asian, Saudi Arabian variety.
Although Pakistan was formed as a homeland for Muslims who wanted to live separately from Hindus, in terms of customs, language, and dress, you wouldn't notice the difference as you moved across the border from Delhi to Lahore. It seemed just one continuum. Even today it doesn't look all that different. Although now, as soon as you move beyond Lahore and start looking more closely, you can see how different it all has become. For example, when I started teaching at my university—35 years ago—there was scarcely a young woman in burqa. Maybe there was one on campus, not more. Today, as I teach my physics classes, I see row after row of burqa-clad women. I can't see their faces. It's a very eerie experience, I must say.
Why did this happen? When General Zia-ul-Haq took over, he sought legitimacy in Islam. He redefined the entire concept of Pakistan. No longer was Pakistan to be merely a Muslim state, it was now to be an Islamic state run by the sharia. So the entire history of Pakistan was rewritten, the curriculum in the schools was changed, and even the language was forced to change. Slowly Pakistan's South Asian identity was changed and it was made closer and closer to Saudi Arabia, which is now exerting its cultural and ideological influence on Pakistan.
And during the Zia period as well, there was a huge explosion in madrassas. Explain what they are.
Madrassa in Karachi, Pakistan
Madrassas are Islamic seminaries. They go back 1,100 years or so and concentrate on teaching the Qur'an, Islamic law, rhetoric, a kind of logic, and so forth. In spite of the fact that the world has changed, that education has not. They were pretty much on the margins 40 years ago; 25 years ago there were maybe 3-4,000 of them in Pakistan. Now there are something like 25,000. Even the government doesn't know how many there are.
The reason is that at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, General Zia-ul-Haq and the Pakistan army joined with the Americans, the CIA, and the Saudis, which brought together fighters from across the Muslim world for a religious war against the Soviets. As part of this, they needed soldiers, so Saudi Arabia put a lot of money into creating the madrassas. This allowed Saudi Arabia to extend its ideological influence deep into Pakistan. And the madrassas then provided the cannon fodder. So, today, what we see are really the effects of that war.
So one could say that some of the problems facing Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan are the detritus from the great jihad of the 1980s.
It's even more than that. It was actually the Soviet Union's invasion and the massive investment that the United States put into creating that jihad, which today is responsible for the state of affairs. And that is why when a Pakistani says that, "Oh, the Americans must be behind it," there is that understanding that it wasn't this way before. We didn't have mujahideen, we did not have these thousands of seminaries, we did not have this huge amount of violence in our cities and in the North-West Frontier Province.
There is a town in north India called Deoband which has a well-known madrassa. One sees in commentary about Pakistan that there is a Deobandi strain of Islam at work in some of its madrassas. What is Deobandi?
In Pakistan, Sunnis are of two major kinds: the Deobandis and the Barelvis. The Deobandis actually originated from India where there is a town also called Deoband. They were firm believers who fought against the British. Then, after Partition, their leaders came to Pakistan. The Deobandis in Pakistan today are the biggest supporters of the Taliban, whereas the Deobandis in India do not support the Taliban and also have come out against suicide bombings.
The Deoband strain of Islam is rather close to the puritanical Wahhabi Islam that has come directly from Saudi Arabia. Abdul Wahhab was a reformer who was against the concept of Muslims praying at graves, of deifying Muhammad. They have come into conflict with the folk Islam that still exists in Pakistan. So there is actually an intense conflict between the Deoband and the Barelvi. Both are Sunnis, I must emphasize, and both are opposed to Shi'ite Islam.
I recall on my visits to Pakistan visiting shrines of pir, Sufi saints, where there would be music and drumming and dancing, and also the imbibing of certain intoxicating herbs.
That is a phenomenon that one has to see. They get quite wild dancing and imbibing that kind of smoke. But this is precisely why the puritanical, fundamentalist strain of Islam is so virulently opposed to Sufi Islam. What we see, in particular in Swat and the conflict areas, is that the Taliban have targeted this kind of folk Islam. Today, the shrines have been physically attacked, some have been bombed. The number of devotees who go to the shrines has dropped drastically.
Next to my university, in Islamabad, there is a shrine of Barree Imam. He's a saint from hundreds of years ago. For the first time in history that anyone can recall, there was no annual celebration of what they call the Urs because of fear of suicide bombers, because of fear of the threats from the Taliban, and because of the proximity to the presidency and the prime minister's secretary, they canceled it.
The boundary separating Pakistan from its neighbor Afghanistan was delineated by the British in the 1890s, the so-called Durand Line, named after the British colonial secretary who divided the two areas and split the Pashtun people into two different geographical entities—what later became Pakistan and was then Afghanistan. This seems to be a central issue in the region.
The British, in their infinite wisdom, did other things, too, like in Kashmir. But let's come to the Durand Line. On both sides there are Pashtuns. They speak the same language, they have the same customs; they are one people. And yet, quite arbitrarily, Durand drew a line and didn't care, basically, what would ensue. He had to get his job done.
The consequences now are before us. That line is senseless. It is a formal boundary, but it's not one which any state can enforce or protect. It runs across mountains, down valleys. And the Pashtuns don't recognize it. So in these times, when one also has an insurgency, of course, you cannot stop the Taliban from living in Pakistan and fighting in Afghanistan. Although it might change in the years to come.
Kashmir, which was also another very arbitrary division and which led to three wars between India and Pakistan, is the outstanding dispute between the two countries. Again, it was an arbitrary decision by the British that they would divide it up in this way. So the legacy of British colonialism is something that has left very bitter fruit for the people of the South Asian continent.
In terms of the Taliban, can we make a distinction between the Taliban in Pakistan and the Taliban in Afghanistan or do you see them as identical formations of a certain variety of Pashtun nationalism?
I don't see it as Pashtun nationalism at all. I think that the Taliban in Afghanistan have very different goals from the Taliban in Pakistan. The Taliban in Afghanistan are fighting the Americans. The Taliban in Pakistan are out to seize the country and to impose their way of thinking on the people of Pakistan who don't want it, by and large. Consider the fact that there are no Americans in Pakistan. Yet the Taliban in Pakistan have said that they are the ideological blood brothers of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Yet the people they kill, decapitate, injure are all Muslims, they are all Pakistanis. In fact, their targets have been the elders in their own tribes. It's an insurrection to remove the old leadership and to force their vision of Islam down every Pakistani's throat.
One of the recent developments in Pakistan has been the Taliban movement in Punjab. So this breaks the mode of the Taliban exclusively for the Pashtuns or being a Pashtun formation. What's the significance of that and has Taliban ideology appealed to Punjabis?
Taliban supporters in Pakistan's Swat Valley
I think that's a very important point. The fact is that the Taliban are not simply Pashtuns. It is about a religious ideology. The ideology of the Punjabi Taliban and the ideology of the Pashtun Taliban are identical. They believe in that same version of sharia, they believe that women should be totally covered from head to foot, they believe that men should have beards, etc., and they believe in death for the apostate. Some people maintain that they represent a class force that struggles against oppression and they derive their constituency from those who have the least to lose. I think that is completely wrong. These are not the modern Sandinistas. The fact is that, yes, the Taliban derives some support from the Gujjars, who in Swat are among the lowest of the classes. They have snatched land from the rich and given some of it to the Gujjars. But this is a tactic. It is not part of the Taliban philosophy to have social reform and redistribute wealth. In fact, they don't see anything wrong with some being very rich and others poor. This is merely tactical so that they can increase the number of fighters in their ranks. They make no demands for more jobs, hospitals, and schools. So they are not social reformers, rather they are ideologues who believe in a way of life that is entirely primitive. They are against girls' education. They are against anything that is modern and they're filled with hatred.
In the history of the country's elections, the sectarian parties have never generated more than 15 percent of the total vote. So that seems to indicate that there isn't widespread support for this type of Islamic rule.
You're absolutely right. When the elections were held in February 2008, in the area that the Taliban subsequently captured (Swat), the bulk of the votes were given to the secular Awami National Party. Although that party later was afraid to confront the Taliban and acceded to most of their demands, yet the people, when they're given the choice, do not want the Islamic extremists. I think this is something that should bring us hope. The Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan have never received more than a few percent of the national vote.
I remember talking to some young Pakistani journalists in Peshawar. They were from the Bajaur and Mohmand agencies (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) along the Afghan border. They told me political agents would go from Islamabad to basically run the particular agency. When they were in their ministry, they were just some low-level clerk or officer, but when they went to the agency, they became a raja, a king. They used their power excessively, and this created resentment towards Islamabad.
Rightly so. These minor officials, as you say, became lord gods and viceroys. This is really one of the reasons why the Taliban found such fertile ground. The fact is that the Pakistani central government has not dealt with either the provinces or the Federally Administered Tribal Areas well.
What you see in Balochistan is another expression of this. In fact, although there is no religious struggle there, there is a very angry population that is now fighting for seceding from the center or at least fighting for a new contract with the center. And what they say is, "We're being run from Islamabad. Although our province, Balochistan, has all the minerals, it produces virtually all the natural gas and petroleum, yet it gets a pittance in return for that." So if you look at Qatar or some of the other oil states, they're doing so well. And they didn't have populations which were very advanced. But as a consequence of that wealth coming in, those people became wealthy. Not so in Balochistan.
You acknowledge in an article in Dawn that there is some public support for the Taliban in Pakistan. What is the nature of that support? Is it simply religious fundamentalists, or is there some class-driven component to this that may not be obvious?
There certainly was overwhelming support for the Taliban as of four or five months ago, but no longer. And that was because the mass media in Pakistan—a lot of it is private and sympathetic to the Taliban—was covering up for their excesses. It continued to do so until, I'd say, three months ago. It was at that time, after the Taliban had taken over Swat and compelled the government to give them concession after concession and the government had handed Swat over to the Taliban.
The Taliban got what they wanted, then they shot themselves in the foot when the Taliban leader, Sufi Muhammad, came on television and said, "I don't believe in the constitution of Pakistan, I don't believe in its courts. I think democracy is haram," meaning that it's forbidden in Islam. And he even criticized the rabidly religious Islamic parties of Pakistan, saying that because they formally supported democracy, they were doing wrong. That was just too much. Then the Taliban moved out from Swat into the neighboring area of Buner and there they said, "We're going to take over all of Pakistan." That is what caused public opinion to swing around.
Today I would say there is only a minority that supports the Taliban's political objectives. I would say that there is still a resonance because the Taliban say, "We are fighting the Americans." The anti-American sentiment in Pakistan then becomes the determining force.
It seems to me that the Taliban constitute a regional force, not a national one. How could it possibly contend with the Pakistan army, one of the largest in the world, with an air force, tank divisions? So this threat to take over the country seems, on military grounds alone, highly implausible.
I agree. It is not going to be the case that Baitullah Mehsud, who is the head of the Taliban in Pakistan, is going to be sitting in the presidency in Islamabad. On the other hand, the Taliban are winning even as they lose militarily. Look at the way in which they have changed the nature of society in Pakistan, how people live, the sort of fear that exists. Look at our cities. I've been in Islamabad for 36 years. It used to be a beautiful city, now it's an ugly mess of concrete. There are barriers and machine-gun posts. There is fear, justifiably, because there have been a dozen suicide bombings as well as bombings of other kinds. Everything is barricaded. Barbers are afraid of opening their shops because they will be blown up by the Taliban. You have elite, upscale restaurants that have taken down their signs. No foreigner now is to be seen on the streets in Islamabad.
Women are receiving threats if they are seen driving a car or are unveiled. In fact, in the entire North-West Frontier Province, you won't see a single woman walking with her head uncovered. They can't fight a state which has got tanks and whatnot, but they can change the way we live and they are doing that.
What sectors of civil society give you hope? Can you identify some trends or movements?
There is a big silent majority, one that's appalled by the religious violence, the attacks on Christians, and by the fact that even Shi'as today are being asked to leave. As yet, they have not been galvanized into action. As yet, only the ethnic party, the MQM (Muttahida Quami Movement), has come out as unequivocally opposed to Talibanization in Pakistan. The very fact that in Karachi the secular MQM has support because it is secular is, I think, a good sign.
It is also heartening to see that at least some degree of involvement on the part of students is beginning to emerge. It's still far away from where it should be, far away from where it was in the 1960s, and it by no means compares with what one sees in Iran where they're in the forefront. But I think the signs are good.
Regarding your article "Whither Pakistan?," what's your answer, with all the doomsday scenarios of failed state and collapsing state?
There is an apocalypse industry that's operating in Washington and there are some who are saying, like Bruce Riedel, an adviser to Obama, that Pakistan will collapse in just a few months, that the fundamentalists will take over, that the Taliban are poised to snatch away Pakistan's nuclear weapons, and so forth. I don't think that will happen. I give it maybe a 1 percent probability. I'd say there's a 70 percent chance that Pakistan will continue on the road it's already been on, which means that religious fundamentalists, the Taliban, will continue to make inroads, they will continue to threaten our way of life and change it, but they will not have major military successes now that the army is actually fighting them.
But if we want to move away from this track and look towards a genuinely peaceful and prosperous Pakistan, one that's like other countries in the world, then I think we need a change of national philosophy. It has to be Pakistan for everyone, not just for Muslims, because that is too divisive given how many kinds of Muslims there are. It has to be Pakistan for whoever lives there. That means we've got to have the same laws for everyone, we've got to have a secular state, and we've got to have a state with economic justice. The fact that there are these enormous disparities of wealth, huge landholdings, massive privileges for the rich, the industrialist class, the business class, that has to go. We've got to get the state implementing land reform, labor laws, and a massive redistribution of wealth. We've got to have economic reform, economic justice to deny the fundamentalists and the extremists the fertile grounds upon which they get their constituency.
David Barsamian is the founder and director of Alternative Radio based in Boulder, Colorado. He is the author of numerous interview books with Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Eqbal Ahmad, Tariq Ali, and Edward Said. His latest books are What We Say Goes with Noam Chomsky and Targeting Iran.
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Contact: email@example.com; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.