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A Rare Trove of Political Insights

by Khaled Ahmed

A compilation of author Ammar Ali Qureshi’s essays and reviews covers a gamut of the issues concerning Pakistan

Author Ammar Ali Qureshi’s Views and Reviews (Folio Books 2021), collecting 39 published columns and book reviews, can be rated amongst the most readable books of the year, containing more political wisdom in 200-odd pages than most other recent texts.

Born in Lahore, and educated in Pakistan, Iran and United Kingdom, Qureshi holds an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Engineering and Technology (UET), Lahore, in addition to an M.BA. from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Lahore, and, finally, a Masters in Finance from imperial College London, U.K. as a Chevening Scholar.

With an introduction by Pervez Hoodbhoy, Qureshi’s book is a keepsake from a rare banker. A.J.P. Taylor’s masterpiece The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918, set something off in him, as he sums up: “Nearly 25 years after buying A.J.P. Taylor’s book of selected writings in New Delhi, I have authored my debut book: a symposium of essays and book reviews penned in five cities during the last 15 years.”

Punjab: getting some history right

Qureshi’s compilation begins by restoring historiographical balance in Pakistan’s “authorized version” of history by taking a look at Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Punjab. Ranjit Singh’s sprawling Sikh Empire, which extended from areas of Afghanistan on the northwest to Tibet on the northeast, was a fusion of Mughal and Sikh traditions and embraced military ideas from the Europeans. The rise and fall of the Sikh Empire is a fascinating tale of the courage and sagacity of Ranjit Singh followed by the incompetence and avarice of his unworthy successors, who squandered it away in 10 years due to intrigue and internecine warfare powered by gendered family politics.

Ranjit Singh was liberal in extending state patronage to Sikh, Hindu and Muslim institutions. Nearly 7 percent of the state revenue was spent on religious institutions. Among the Muslim shrines which received state patronage were the shrines of Data Darbar and Mian Mir (Lahore), Hazratbal and Shah Hamdan (Kashmir), Pir Mitha (Wazirabad) and Sakhi Sarwar (Dera Ghazi Khan) in addition to support for eminent families such as Syeds in Multan, Peshawar and Bannu as well as descendants of Baba Farid in Pakpattan and Bahauddin Zakariya in Multan.

Toynbee’s ignored wisdom

In one of his reviews, Qureshi picks apart historian Arnold Toynbee’s insight on Pakistan from 1955: “A child of the strife that has arisen from the impact of Islam upon Hinduism.” Although it had been nearly 1,000 years since Islam established itself in Indian subcontinent, Toynbee rationalized the creation of the new state when he wrote “the pace of the psyche’s self-adjustment is so slow that, in A.D. 1947, the Muslim community in the Indian subcontinent decided that there was still not enough common ground between the two communities, Muslims and Hindus, to remain united under a single government, given that the former British Indian Empire was to become independent and self-governing.”

Explaining the role of religion and the risks associated with it, Toynbee made a statement which is perhaps at the crux of the crisis that the country faces more than five decades later: “A common adherence to Islam manifestly a force that binds a majority of the people of Pakistan together; but now I am going to venture onto more controversial ground. I should say that it would be a calamitous if Pakistan were ever to become a Muslim state in an exclusive and intolerant way, for then Islam might become a far more disruptive force than the racial and linguistic differences which Islam at present overrides.”

Stumbling into predictable sectarianism

In another review of Andreas T. Rieck’s The Shias of Pakistan: An Assertive and Beleaguered Minority, Qureshi notes that Iran and Pakistan were members of the pro-West and anti- communist blocs CENTO and SEATO until 1979. The Shah of Iran was helpful, becoming the largest bilateral donor to Pakistan, providing $800 million in loans and credits till 1976. In 1971, Pakistan met its daily consumption of 60,000 barrels per day of crude oil by buying 50,000 barrels from Iran. Reacting to political confederations of the 1950s between Egypt and Syria and then Jordan and Iraq, the Shah proposed to President Ayub Khan a confederation between ran and Pakistan with a single army and the Shah as the head of state. The idea of political confederation was again discussed in the 1970s between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But after the revolution, Iran adopted an explicitly anti-Western foreign policy and viewed President Ziaul Haq as an American pawn. Washington nudged Islamabad toward jihad after the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. Saudi Arabia and the United States financed and armed the Afghan jihad, in which Islamabad played a leading role and pursued a strategy which favored Saudi-led mujahideen groups in Afghanistan.

Ziaul Haq’s coup led to the onset of serious trouble for the Shias of Pakistan and was undeniably the worst turning-point of their history. Even before the advent of the Afghan Jihad and Iranian revolution, Zia had allied himself with Sunni Islamic parties as junior partners in his government. The first concrete step taken against Shias was abolition of separate religious syllabi in 1978 on the ground of being “harmful to national unity.” Coinciding with the Iran’s Islamic Revolution in February 1979, Ziaul Haq promulgated his first batch of Islamic laws (Hudood Ordinance) under a single Hanafi fiqh. This move angered the Shia who swung into action and launched Tehrik-e-Nifaz-Fiqh-Jafariya (TNFJ), a movement for the enforcement of Shia jurisprudence, in April 1979

Rise and fall of Zulfikar Bhutto

Reviewing Shamim Ahmad’s balanced and thought-provoking book on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Qureshi writes: “The psychodynamics of Bhutto’s rise and fall can be explained best by his complex psychological personality. Bhutto, according to Ahmad, exhibited a classic personality which can be ascribed to his parents’ marriage. His father was a land-owning Sindhi aristocrat who fell in love with a Hindu dancing girl. After converting to Islam, she became his second wife, but was not accepted by his family. The humiliation and rejection his mother faced in the Bhutto household left deep scars on young Bhutto’s psyche. He imbibed egalitarianism and empathy for the downtrodden from his mother and inherited the arrogance of a feudal lord from his father.”

The China connection

When then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai visited Pakistan in 1966, a few months after the war with India, he was cheered by jubilant crowds and welcomed by a phalanx of Pakistani officials in Lahore, prompting the U.S. Consul General in the city to bemoan that “Pakistan is lost.” Decades later, China’s military chief General Xiong Guangkai, during his exhaustive parleys with his American counterparts, remarked that Pakistan was China’s Israel. China also timed its missile sales to Pakistan, Washington noted, as a retaliatory move to U.S. sales of F-16s to Taiwan in 1992.

Strategically, Beijing views Pakistan as a counter-balance to India, but at the same time it wants Pakistan-U.S. relations to be robust as this places limits on the scope of U.S.-India relations. It also means that Pakistan does not become a source of tension in U.S.-China ties and more importantly does not impact Sino-Pakistan security ties due to Washington pressure or sanctions.

The 2007 operation against Lal Masjid was triggered by a vigilante attack launched by the mosque’s leader Maulana Aziz. A group of seminarians, including 10 burqa-clad girls, raided a Chinese massage parlor and acupuncture clinic in one of Islamabad’s wealthiest neighborhoods. They grabbed the three guards, entered the house and ordered the seven Chinese staff and their Pakistani clients to accompany them. When they refused, they were beaten up and taken to the Jamia Hafza madrassa, the girls’ section of the Lal Masjid seminary where “a spokesman announced to local press that clinic was used as a brothel house; and, despite our warnings, the administration failed to take any action; so we decided to take action on our own.” Months earlier, the Lal Masjid vigilantes, true to their sectarian indoctrination, had attacked another “brothel run by a Shia lady,” thrashing the inmates and kidnapping four policemen for good measure.

Dangerous for China

After the Lal Masjid incident in 2007, terrorism in Pakistan assumed menacing proportions till the Pakistan Army cleared militants from FATA and Swat following a series of failed agreements. China, as a matter of policy, advised Pakistan to control and combat militancy, which was a threat to both Pakistan’s society and state, and could potentially derail China’s growing investment in Pakistan’s economic projects.

More importantly, notes Qureshi in his review of Andrew Small’s The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, Pakistan has become the most dangerous overseas location for Chinese workers. China may have been sympathetic to the blowback argument used by Pakistan’s officials in the past to justify its reluctance to move decisively against militants but as China’s stake in Pakistan’s economy expands, Pakistan’s security apparatus will likely come under increasing Chinese pressure to step up its anti-militant drive.

The terminal disease

Pakistan also scores poorly when it comes to civil justice—ranked at 107 out of 113 countries. Barring early years, the judiciary in Pakistan has often been seen to be subservient to military or civilian rulers. Martial law has been upheld four times by the judiciary invoking the doctrine of necessity. Judiciary in Pakistan has been attacked by both a military dictator (President Musharraf in 2007) and a civilian prime minister (Nawaz Sharif in 1997). Judges have been removed through the use of PCO by military dictators or a rebellion engineered among judges by a civilian prime minister. Nawaz Sharif got away with the rebellion engineered against former chief justice Sajjad Ali Shah. The Sharifs, their current travails notwithstanding, have been major beneficiaries of judicial decisions in the past.

In his article on Corruption and its Discontents, Qureshi delivers the following verdict on the future of Pakistan: “In 2012, the National Accountability Bureau chairman put the financial cost of corruption in Pakistan at Rs. 7 billion daily—around 10 percent of the GDP. According to the State Bank of Pakistan, capital flight in the last three years (2014-17) amounted to nearly $8 billion, mostly consisting of siphoned off and ill-gotten wealth. Even if half of these figures can be saved through strong institutional mechanisms and the enforcement of the state’s writ, there can be a massive improvement in the quality of existing public services.

“Religious extremism is our most pressing problem. It has many causes but its link to corruption cannot be ignored or downplayed. In 2016, the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report warned that corruption fuels extremism, increases economic instability and has a corrosive effect on society. Curbing political corruption needs a strong parliament, an independent judiciary and a fearless media. As long as there no politically neutral and across-the-board accountability carried out by a competent anti-graft body staffed with qualified and experienced investigators and prosecutors, the lope of curbing or eliminating political corruption will remain just a pipedream.”

The essays and reviews of Qureshi compiled by Folio Books are truly worth reading. Offering valuable insights and analyses of the issues, historical and current, plaguing Pakistan, it is poised to become an essential addition to every Pakistani library.

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