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Pakistan Playing with Fire

By Afrah Jamal Sep 05 2011 Playing with Fire: Pakistan at War with Itself By Pamela Constable Random House; Pp 352; Rs 1,495

So this is where your people retreat from fundamentalist kind? It was not, but to the nice American perhaps that golf course appeared like a sanctuary in a land r aven by violence. While it is true that every day something new drives a stake i n this illusion of security, that day at least there was not a single fundamenta list in sight. Today, such private islands are under threat alongside everything else. Pamela C onstable, foreign correspondent and former deputy foreign editor at The Washingt on Post puts the nation under intense scrutiny, identifying the war for Pakistans soul with one set pulling it forwards towards a modern international era, the ot her back toward a traditional and ingrown world. Her new book knits disparate ele ments of Pakistani society extracted from various testimonies into a grotesque t apestry littered with bloodcurdling tales of injustice and violence. Segments fr om crisply titled chapters Hate, Khaki; Talibanisation; Honour; Siege read like a dystopian novel where a society is slowly being unravelled by its own prejudic es and where no cause (is) too noble to subvert, no beneficiary too humble to che at and no martyr too scared to exploit. A smorgasbord of issues like social injustice, intolerance, corruption, and clas s warfare are served up with relish. Some, like terrorism, are given ample cover age in the media. Others that touch upon the inherent bigotry or gender politics get sidelined by security issues. Here she moves from stately corridors of powe r to the saintly looking houses of worship already fractured before the Taliban made an appearance; where people are shown to be complicit, squandering away the ir hard won freedom in a hundred different ways collectively caught in the cross fire. This rendition generates a mix of fear and loathing with some pity thrown in for the common man caught in a vice. The upper crust, which cannot carry out a poli te conversation for more than a few minutes without the host/hostess interrupting to order about some servant or the other to do tasks they are perfectly capable of performing themselves invoke her contempt. Her point is that these requests, n o matter how politely framed, no matter how genteel the patron, reinforces the g ulf of class and place that has long kept Pakistani society stagnant and stratif ied instead of allowing it to become dynamic, creative and diversified. She adds a chorus of voices to her own like Roedad Khans who believe that a major obstacle to democracy is not the anger, frustration and religious activism of the poor bu t the passivity, silence and cynicism of the elite.

About the diversity she fixates on, the contrasts between the women from differe nt backgrounds that in her opinion is so stark that women of Pakistan truly might as well be living in several different nations and centuries. About the bosses s he speaks of Washington and Rawalpindi (home of the army) in the same sentence, while Islamabad (the Presidency) recedes into the background. Then there are the Taliban whose behaviour, according to her, is not that far ou t of line. Why? Because Pakistanis are accustomed to living with a brutal police culture, a domestic spy apparatus that used slander, lies and espionage techniqu es as political weapons, topped with a tradition of tribal codes that mandated ha rsh punishments for moral offences. This argument is repeated ad nauseam. There is very little liturgical space between the demands of the Taliban and calls by oth er conservative Sunni groups for a total Islamic state, she adds. Citing a poll t hat shows 80 percent of the population in favour of harsh punishments drives the point further home. Yet, many would argue that were this true then the outrage at the infamous Swat video would not have sent the army to liberate Swat; or kep t religious parties at bay (so far). But at the same time it is hard to deny the disturbing trends where an accusation of blasphemy however vague and unsubstanti ated has the power to sweep away reason and objectivity even among officials cha rged with enforcing law and administering justice or the closet Taliban mindset t hat allows the real deal to thrive. Or the fact that the sole noble laureate Abd ul Salam, an Ahmedi, is seldom mentioned and whose achievements she insists were an embarrassment and a glitch in the official narrative that Ahmedis are enemies of Islam infidels to be avoided, mistrusted and despised. There are minor corrections August 14 is Pakistans Independence Day and not its De fence Day. True, Karachi is home to a volatile mix of criminals, business mafias, political shock troops, Islamic sects, militant factions and warring ethnic enc laves but to state that Afghan migrants fleeing invading Soviets built the city i s a stretch. The sole comfort in this miserable scenario the writer does not thi nk Pakistan is a failed state;: fake yes; failed no agreeing with Roedad Khans as sessment that it is one that has means, opportunity but no moral values/political will to use them. For her the single greatest political achievement in this nati ons entire 64-year existence will be ensuring that an unpopular corrupt and indiff erent leader stayed in office for his full term. For Pakistans sake, one hopes she is wrong. The book sums up 64 years of mistakes, misdemeanours and masquerades and delivers it with merciless precision. The one person who comes out with his dignity intact is Edhi a man who she says has always perched from an unassailable perch on the lowest rung of the ladder; who runs far more than an ambulance serv ice. In her words, It was a philosophy of life. Fortunately, there are many such vo ices of reason. They just tend to get lost in this din. The reviewer is a freelance journalist who blogs at http://afrahjamal.blogspot.c om. Source: The Daily Times, Lahore URL: 58