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Current Affairs ( 6 May 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Islamabad's Moment of Reckoning

By Farzana Shaikh

May 7, 2011

DARK SKY: Recent history hasn't been too kind to Pakistan. Its people will now be desperately hoping something good comes from Osama's death

These are extraordinary times indeed for Pakistan. Not since 1971 when the country's ruling masters - the military - surrendered to foreign forces and left Pakistan divided has there been so palpable a sense of shame, confusion, and anger. The death of Osama bin Laden, which will long be savoured abroad as a moment of triumph, is likely to be forever seared in our national memory as a moment of abject humiliation.

For many in Pakistan this moment will also represent one of those familiar 'turning points' in the country's recent history to which it has grown accustomed. Like the shocking execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto;the assault on the Red Mosque;the assassination of Benazir Bhutto;the bombing of the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad (Pakistan's own 9/11); the attack on the revered shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh;and, most recently, the cold-blooded murder of governor Salman Taseer. It has amplified calls for national selfreflection and focussed fresh attention on the roots of Pakistan's current malaise.

Those roots have been allowed to fester in the midst of the interminable struggle between the country's military and civilian forces, and in recent years neglected by a population exhausted by the daily battle for survival in the face of a shattered economy and endemic violence. Yet, sooner or later, the big question (after the furore dies down over who in Pakistan's state apparatus knew what about bin Laden's presence and for how long) is bound to surface: can this 'turning point' become an opportunity for Pakistan to address the roots of its malaise and explore the possibilities for reform? If so, in these grave times, what is the way forward? Nothing short of a leap of imagination and a concerted move to resolve, once and for all, the enduring uncertainty over the role of Islam in the definition of Pakistan's constitutional identity will do. For that, Pakistan must now consider a fresh constitutional settlement that unequivocally rejects empowering the state and its citizens on the basis of their perceived relationship to Islam.

It is this that has nurtured the state's fatal attraction to the language of holy war, which has exacted so heavy a price from the people of Pakistan. Their loss has been the military's gain. Its futile quest to 'match' India abroad has not only deepened Pakistan's dependence on the United States, but left the country dangerously vulnerable to Islamist groups at home.

Pakistan's current predicament is dire indeed. But the catastrophe it now faces is the outcome of decades of state policy directed by the military. This policy, which ensured the convergence of militarism and militancy, was sustained and paid for by hiring out Pakistan's services to the highest bidder - namely, the United States.

Although far from equal in this relationship, Pakistan has proved to be a wily partner by successfully resisting the leverage of the United States (and assiduously cultivating China) while using the United States to establish parity with India on the battle-field and on the global stage. It is then Pakistan's rivalry with India that has facilitated US intervention in Pakistan - intervention largely encouraged by Pakistan's dominant military. For even when such intervention was at its most damaging for the country, as during Pakistan's alliance with the United States in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the gains - namely mastery over the execution of covert war against India in Kashmir - were judged to far outweigh the suffering inflicted on Pakistan's people. That brings us to the present day: for while it is no secret that hostility to America runs deep in Pakistan today, it stems as much from anger against what America is doing (whether fuelling the appalling loss of lives or violating Pakistan's sovereignty through drone strikes and the 'hot pursuit' of Osama bin Laden) as against what America isn't doing. And what America is seen not to be doing is taking on board its ally's concerns at India's burgeoning influence in Afghanistan. In this transactional relationship of mutual dependence rather than mutual respect, the price for services rendered is all that has really mattered. And Pakistan, in the form of its warped civil and military state structure, has concluded that it has been dealt a raw deal by America. To break this damaging nexus, Pakistan must engage directly with India and learn to fight its own battles rather than allow itself to use, and be used by, American power.

But for Pakistan to fight its own battles, at home and abroad, independently of American and other props, it must first clarify what it stands for. That will depend on the country's confidence to project an identity grounded in a clearer vision of the state's relationship to Islam, which has left it prey to deep divisions and vulnerable to the forces of extremism. For uncertainty over the state's precise relation to Islam has greatly undermined its capacity to confront the so-called 'existential threat' now posed by militant groups in the country, which claim to act in the name of Islam. The state's ambivalence over Islam - reflected in the acknowledgement of a public role for Islam while refusing to accept its implications - has given license to Islamic militants who now seek to hold the state up to its professed 'Islamic' standards.

This is not to say that Pakistan's leadership must try and co-opt one or other variant of 'true' or 'real' Islam. Consensus on this issue has always eluded, and will always elude, the country. Rather what must be sought is a new constitutional settlement that formally and categorically rejects any provision that would empower or grant special privileges to the country's citizens on the basis of their putative relationship to Islam.

This would not only strip religious hardliners of the moral high ground they seek to occupy, and thereby restore to all citizens of Pakistan the equality to which they are entitled, but clear up once and for all the question of what we in Pakistan are really fighting for.

The answer is clear: the fight against terrorism in Pakistan is not a struggle for the defence of Islam nor a war designed to pit 'good' Muslims supported by the state against 'bad' Muslims allied to the Taliban or al-Qaida. Rather it is a struggle for the survival of Pakistan against those who aim to subvert, and seek to operate in defiance of its laws.

Source: The Times of India