Pakistan Calling: Still hope at the end of the line

DFID and British Council reports underline the existential crisis Pakistan is facing, but its people are rallying to save the nation. Salman Shaheen looks at Pakistan Calling, a new RSA project seeking to galvanise the British Pakistani community and the

Squashed beneath the seat of a train bound for Karachi, a frightened young boy hides in the hot dark from armed men searching for people who pray to a different god. Leaving behind his Mysore home that day in 1948 when Gandhi was assassinated and India was aflame with anti-Muslim violence, my father, like so many fathers and mothers of British Pakistanis, was looking to find hope, freedom and safety in the world’s newest nation.

Today that dream rests on a knife-edge. A British Council study on Wednesday found that 96% of young Pakistanis believe the country is heading in the wrong direction. They are pessimistic about the economy and the state of democracy and 40% would like to see sharia law introduced. A DFID report on the same day found that British aid to Pakistan is being undermined by widespread tax avoidance and corruption. It isn’t hard to see why the reports are gloomy. 

Whilst not a failed state, Pakistan faces mounting challenges which threaten to turn it into one. The country sees weekly suicide bombings and escalating sectarian violence against its Shia, Hazara, Hindu, Ahmadi and Christian minorities. Some 60 million people (one in three) live in poverty. Half of adults, and two out of three women, are illiterate. One in 11 children die before their fifth birthday, and 12,000 women die in childbirth every year. Almost half of children under five suffer from stunted growth, which affects brain development and their ability to learn. And this situation won’t necessarily improve. Pakistan’s booming population – set to double over the next couple of generations to more than 300 million people – will put an ever greater strain on housing, education, water, transport and healthcare as the country struggling to survive.

Yet despite these challenges, Pakistan stands on the cusp of achieving its first democratic transition of power between two elected governments unmarred by the military coups that have plagued the nation in its past. Pakistan’s ability to survive its convergent crises owes much to the resilience of its people and their determination to save the nation they, like my father, journeyed over a thousand miles to create. From the furnace of partition, new institutions like the Edhi Foundation were forged. What began as one man in a van providing medical aid to the poor has now grown into hundreds of hospitals and a fleet of ground and air ambulances. It’s an example that has inspired many others.

The wealth of progressive initiatives and programmes in Pakistan, however, rarely make the front pages. A new partnership Pakistan Calling – set up between the Samosa’s Anwar Akhtar and the RSA think tank – now aims to showcase some of this work.

The project provides a forum for young filmmakers in Pakistan (and the UK), in which they can challenge perceptions of today's Pakistan and provide the basis for constructive cross-cultural dialogue between Britain and Pakistan. With approximately 1.2 million people of Pakistani heritage in the UK - part of a global diaspora stretching back many decades, Pakistan Calling aims to serve as a conduit to nourish their links with the diaspora community in Britain to aid development.

Akhtar wants to draw attention to the wider crises Pakistan is facing, not only by engaging the British Pakistani community, but by aligning the Department for International Development (DFID) with its interests and the interests of Pakistani civil society. He believes DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have not had strong access to networks within the British Pakistani community. But with the help of the RSA, he wants to set up a new model for cultural discourse to support education and development.

Despite the problems of tax collection – a fundamental aspect of any successful nation state – Britain must not turn its back on Pakistan. Tackling poverty and building a prosperous democratic Pakistan will help not only millions of poor Pakistanis, but also improve stability in the country, the region, and beyond. We must not forget that Pakistan is a nation of great potential. In Karachi and Lahore, it has two bustling metropolises that could rise to become global cities. It is rich in resources and arable land, has a highly skilled professional class and an ancient history. In many respects, it has all the raw ingredients to make the kind of successful global nation state that India is fast becoming. But it also has all the toxic elements in violence, corruption, poverty and religious extremism that could lead to its undoing if its strained civil institutions are not given the urgent help they need.

Like my father hiding beneath that train seat 65 years ago, Pakistan is perilously close to danger. But in the end, my family made it to Karachi where they flourished and my grandmother, Mumtaz Shirin, went on to become one of the nation’s pioneering authors and the kind of cultural producer for whom Akhtar wants to provide a platform. Because at the end of the line there was hope. There still is.

Salman Shaheen is a freelance journalist who has written for the Times of India, New Statesman, New Internationalist, Liberal Conspiracy and Left Foot Forward. Films from the Pakistan Calling project can be viewed here 

 

Celebrating Pakistan's Independence Day on the seafront in Karachi. Photograph: Getty Images

Salman Shaheen is editor-in-chief of The World Weekly, principal speaker of Left Unity and a freelance journalist.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue