Home truths

Pakistan is far from being the country many of us think. Fatima Bhutto dispels a few myths.

Everybody seems to be an expert on the Islamic Republic of Pakistan these days. You can't turn left without running into some pundit or pontificating layperson moaning heartily about Pakistan's future, lording it with their imaginary Pakistan PhDs over all and sundry. Baron- esses, David Miliband, the fellow who reads the news - they're all Pakistan wonks now.

It used to be that, upon telling someone you hailed from Pakistan, you'd get a benign smile: "Oh, yes, next to India." Yes, next to India, and Iran and China and Afghanistan. Now, the mere mention of Pakistan elicits a knowing wink. "Where's Osama hiding, then? Ha ha ha." We don't know, he doesn't send out a monthly newsletter. Detroit, I would venture.

But just as no one knows anything certain about Islam in today's "I'm an authority because I saw a documentary once" age, there is no country with more mythology surrounding it than my Pakistan. Here are my three favourites:

1. Pakistan was created so fundamentalist Muslims - and no one else - would have a country of their own to call home.
In his address to the constituent assembly of Pakistan on 11 August 1947, three days before the country's independence was to be celebra­ted, Muhammad Ali Jinnah called for liberty in the new nation. "You are free. You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed - that has nothing to do with the business of the state."

Moral of the story? Religious extremists are made, not born. You can thank General Zia ul-Haq, our pro-Islamist president from 1977-88, and his financial backers Mrs Thatcher and Mr Reagan for that. What you have today is not how it's always been. It is said that the indigenous inhabitants of Sindh, one of the four provinces of Pakistan, were the Dravidians. Then came the Aryans. Then the Arabs. And it was with them - pardon the rush through thousands of years of history - that Islam, and Sufi Islam, came to our lands.

Today, the struggle for the soul of Pakistani Islam is being fought between the qawwali- singing, tolerant Sufis and the puritanical Wah­habi Muslim sect, which has been supported for years with funding from orthodox Sunni Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Who will win? The Sufis, according to Ayeda Naqvi, who teaches Islamic mysticism. "It was Sufis who came and spread the religious message of love and harmony and beauty. There were no swords . . . And you can't separate it from our culture - it's in our music, it's in our folklore, it's in our architecture. We are a Sufi country." And it is worth noting that religious, or Islamist, parties have never prospered on a national level in Pakistan. They peaked in 2002, winning 17 per cent of the seats in the National Assembly after the US invasion of Afghanistan, but dropped back to 1 per cent in 2008.

2. Sufis? No, no, no. Pakistan is a nation of madrasa-educated, bearded Taliban enthusiasts.
In fact, it's not Islamic schools but rampant corruption that's brought the Taliban and their ilk to the forefront. As Jinnah presciently noted in that same early speech, corruption and bribery are a threat that Pakistan must put down with "an iron hand". He called corruption (and nepotism, in case you were wondering) our "great evils". But no one listened. Puppet parliaments, military dictatorships - every single one of them supported by western powers - and corrupt but pliable civilian rulers all but ensured that our young nation's wealth would be spent on those great evils and little else.

Take the last budget, with its total outlay of 2.5 trillion rupees. Of that, Rs32bn were set aside for education, with another Rs22bn towards higher education. That sounds interesting - not too spectacular, but not too shabby either. Until you read on, that is: Rs166bn were earmarked for the construction of dams; federal ministries walked away with Rs262bn for their own costs; and an income support scheme named after the president's late wife, under which poor people line up to receive charity cash payments (photo with president optional) received Rs70bn. Our politicians prefer these projects to spending on health and education, because it is easier to siphon off funds from them. So, is it any wonder that Islamists who turn up and build madrasas and medical camps end up becoming popular? No. But we owe that to corruption, not to their attractive political philosophies or their ability to grow beards.

3. Pakistan funds religious terrorists such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
But so does the US, notably Sunni militias in Iraq and once even the Taliban in Afghanistan. Find me a country that doesn't stash its cash in dirty bank accounts and then we'll talk.

Pakistan's problems, like Islam's, are myriad. But CNN doesn't define them for us. They are the problems faced by most people in my country every day - the difficulty of getting access to drinkable water, the rising price of food, the struggle to secure employment when most people are illiterate, the absence of justice and law and order. But no one wants to be a pretend authority on those subjects when there are US drones to drop bombs on villages and a sexy war on terror to talk up. Let's not forget that diarrhoea still kills many more children than the Taliban do in our nuclear-armed state. That's the crux of 21st-century Pakistan's problems.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Everything you know about Islam is wrong

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Why Tehran hates Isis: how religious rifts are fueling conflict

Above all, the Islamic republic wants stability – and to fight back against a group that despises Shia Muslims.

The alliance between Iran and Syria might seem an unlikely one. As Iran is an Islamic republic, one might not expect its closest ally to be a dictatorship that grew out of the political doctrine of Baathism, a secular Arab nationalist movement that originated in the 1930s and 1940s. But politics – and perhaps especially the politics of relations between states – develops its own logic, which often has little to do with ideology. Baathism advocated Arab unity but two of its founding fathers, Michel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi, both Syrians, disliked each other and would not be members of
the same party.

Projects to fuse Syria and Egypt and, later, Syria and Iraq foundered, creating in the latter case a personal bitterness between Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, and Saddam Hussein, though both were Baathists, at least nominally. That led to the two states breaking off diplomatic relations with each other at the end of 1979. When Iraq invaded Iran the following year, Syria and Iran became allies against Iraq. Syria cut off an oil pipeline that had allowed Iraq to export its oil from a Mediterranean port and Iran supplied Syria with cheap oil.

Iran and Syria had other things in common, including resistance to the US in the region, opposition to Israel and a supportive relationship with the Shia Muslims of Lebanon, which led to the creation, with Iranian help, of Hezbollah after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Since then, Syria has been of value to Iran as a reliable ally but also as a bridge to Hezbollah.

How does all that affect the present desperate situation in Syria and in the Middle East more widely? The first point to deal with is Iran’s position towards Islamic State, or Isis. Some commentators would have you believe that Iran and Isis, as so-called Muslim fundamentalists or Islamists, have something in common, or that Iran’s Islamic Revolution had something to do with the origins of Islamic State.

That is wholly misleading. The extreme Wahhabi/Salafi form of Sunni Islam that underpins Islamic State regards Shia Iranians – and, indeed, all Shia Muslims – as heretics and apostates. This hostility is not somehow theoretical or theologically abstract: it is visceral, bitter and deep. It inspires frequent suicide bombings of Shia mosques and other targets in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and (more recently) Saudi Arabia. It is a major threat to Iran and to all Shia Muslims – a greater threat to them than the Isis threat to us, because they are geographically closer. The Iranians are supporting the fight against Isis in Syria and Iraq in self-defence and supporting the self-defence of those they are sympathetic to in those countries (the Iranians back the Alawite Assads in Syria because of their long-standing alliance but also for sectarian reasons). They are not acting, as the Saudis and some other Gulf Arabs would have us believe, because they have hegemonic ambitions in the region. That view arises from the insecurity and paranoia of the ruling elites in those states and their dislike of Shia Muslims.

The Iranian regime has many faults. We may deplore the repressive policies of the regime internally, its treatment of women and the unacceptably high level of executions there. But on most of those points, there are others in the region that are worse; and in our thinking about what to do in Syria, Iraq and the region more widely, we have to consider Iran’s record as a force for stability or instability. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Iranians helped to establish the proto-democratic governments we backed and, like us, have consistently supported them since, despite their weaknesses and failings. With the exception of its policy towards Israel, Iran has acted to favour stability elsewhere in the region, too. (Recent reports suggest that the Iranians have stopped funding Hamas.) Considering the actions of the Saudis towards Shias in Bahrain and Yemen, the Iranians have responded with restraint.

Iran’s acceptance of greater Russian involvement in Syria has to be seen in the context of the wider instability in the Middle East. Again, we should not misjudge it. It seems that the latest, more intensive Russian intervention came at a point when the Assad regime was coming close to collapse. The Iranians were therefore bound to welcome the intervention; but the history of relations between Iran and Russia is not a happy one and a greater Russian military presence in the Iranians’ near abroad must be making some of them uneasy. When Russian ships launched cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea that tracked across Iranian territory on their way to targets in Syria (announcing at the time that this territory was “unoccupied”), “uneasy” was probably an inadequate word.

After the settlement of the Iranian nuclear question in July (when Iran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of economic sanctions), hopes for further immediate co-operation between Iran and the West have been disappointed – in particular by the apparent ban of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, on bilateral discussions with the US. Nonetheless, there have been discussions, notably in the margins of the recent multilateral talks on Syria.

Just as there was opposition to the nuclear deal within the US, there was strong opposition in Iran. Khamenei’s ban is best understood as reassurance to those hardliners that, apart from the nuclear deal, it will be business as usual.

The nuclear deal is a major event in Iran’s foreign policy but if the Iranians are cautious in developing their relationship with the West, that may be no bad thing. The multi­lateral talks on Syria could be a good place for that to begin – those talks are, in any case, the best hope available for a solution to the carnage in that country. There are models for that in what was done recently in Somalia; one fruitful avenue to explore for the Middle East as a whole could be a multi­lateral negotiation culminating in a treaty guaranteed by outside powers, along the lines of the Westphalia Treaty that brought the Thirty Years War to an end in Germany in the mid-17th century.

Lurking in the background to all this, however, and behind the shocking massacres in Paris on 13 November, is our queasy position towards Isis and the troubles of the Middle East. Some Iranians believe that western countries secretly support Isis. That is wrong, of course – it is a view based on conspiracy theories and misleading propaganda – but not as wrong as we might like to think.

Since 1979, when the Saudi royal family got a scare from religious radicals briefly occupying the sacred precincts in Mecca, it has appeased extreme Wahhabi clergy within Saudi Arabia and has supported the application of their doctrines within and without the country. Outside Saudi Arabia, it has funded mosques preaching Wahhabism throughout the Islamic world, to the point that their brand of Sunni Islam is now becoming dominant in many communities where previously it was quite alien, symbolised by the practice of those British Pakistanis who have begun to adopt dress codes from the Arabian Peninsula, such as the wearing of the niqab.

Al-Qaeda, Isis and their sympathisers are the result of those 30 years of preaching hatred (along with other contributory factors such as the collapse into civil war in countries such as Iraq and Syria and the alienation of young men of immigrant origin in western countries). Isis does no more than put into practice the doctrines of puritanical intolerance advocated by Saudi Wahhabism. Our too-uncritical support for Saudi Arabia puts us in a shameful position.

The debate over whether or not to send RAF warplanes to bomb Isis positions in Syria is secondary to the need for the bombing to be done in close, effective support of ground forces. We may have to swallow our misgivings and accept that we bomb in support of Iran’s troops, or Assad’s, in addition to those of the Kurds or others.

We also urgently need to re-examine our relations with the Saudis and the other Gulf Arab States that have supported and encouraged the spread of extreme Wahhabism. The Saudis have belatedly realised that Isis is as much a threat to them as to everyone else (it may actually be more of a threat to Saudi Arabia because the jihadis’ dearest wish is to establish their caliphate in Mecca and Medina).

Yet that is not enough. We need to make clear that our continued friendship towards the Saudis cannot simply be bought with the weapons we sell them but has to be conditional upon taking a more responsible attitude in their religious policies – not so much for human rights reasons, as Jeremy Corbyn and others have suggested (although those reasons have their place) but for our security and for the stability of the Middle East region.

If that preaching of hatred is not stopped – as the preaching of the Catholic Counter-Reformation eventually came to an end – then even if we, the Iranians, Russians and others succeed in defeating Isis, we will only find ourselves confronted in a few years by yet another generation of murderous jihadis, recruiting from another bunch of foolish, ignorant and disaffected young men, just as Isis followed on from al-Qaeda

Michael Axworthy is senior lecturer at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter and the author of “Revolutionary Iran”

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State