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Frontiers of the Imagination

In the past few years, Pakistan has come to be defined by its status as a “failed” state. Nandini Ramachandran examines two anthologies — one seemingly propelled by a Western, militarist understanding of the inefficiencies in the country, the other that attempts to show us something beyond tired tropes and reductive readings.

Nandini Ramachandran  4th Dec 2011

A Pashtun man passes a road sign while pulling supplies towards the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing in Chaman on November 28

'My blood, like a flag, has been unfurled there'— "Two Elegies"; Faiz, trans. Agha Shahid Ali

"How can Obama be just as wrong as George W. Bush?" begins a 2007 post on the blog Chapati Mystery. It goes on to analyse a speech on foreign policy President Obama gave during the elections, challenging the 'charismatic whisperer' myth within world politics by arguing that the notion that all terrorists were born in the same cave in Afghanistan is as reductive as it is counterproductive. "Our terrorists", it concludes, "even when they are born in Bradford or housed in Hamburg, remain in the wild frontier of our imagination."

Chapati Mystery was founded in 2004 by the Pakistani historian Manan Ahmed (he blogs/tweets as sepoy). It has grown in contributors and prestige since then, and this year sections of CM's archives were anthologised in Where the Wild Frontiers Are. The art of the blog post, Amitava Kumar writes in the introduction, is that of "fresh blood on the bandage". It would be impossible to replicate in print, and it's fortunate that Mr. Ahmed doesn't try. The book benefits from a historian's diligence, though Wild Frontiers isn't history. It is historiography, as much about ideology as about events, a close study of how (a)historical narratives are dispersed. It is an appraisal, and an indictment, of the prejudices that plague our geopolitical thought.

To understand the gravity of Manan Ahmed's quest, imagine being an Indian scholar in the West circa 2011. Consider how it would feel if, seeking news of a country embroiled in civil society agitation, the local media talks exclusively about Kashmir or Nagaland or the Maoists. Imagine that our country was only approached as overlapping battlegrounds, that the vast chatter of public life in India was greeted with silence. Imagine that Anna Hazare and Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy were all ignored in favour of Narendra Modi, while Thomas Friedman wrote op-ed after op-ed claiming that what we really need is another Indira Gandhi. Now imagine such misinformation and deception persisted not for months or years, but decades. That it shaped policy and perception, and your city collapsed into your country and your country collapsed into a 'fanatic' civilisation born from a figment of a foreigner's fancy. Imagine being colonised all over again.

Imagine that our country was only approached as overlapping battlegrounds, that the vast chatter of public life in India was greeted with silence.

The presumptions that Wild Frontiers disputes are as evident in books as in blog posts. The borderlands of Pakistan are brisk business in the economy of information. If I were compiling such an argument, my touchstones would be intuitive to the point of trained: Taliban, ISI, The Hudood Ordinance, Polio, Baluchistan, Waziristan, Karachi. I'd lament Kashmir, always Kashmir, the ur-jihad. With more space, I might venture an outline of the conflict between Barelvi, Deobandi, and Wahhabi Islam.  I'd talk about the unlikely heir to the Bhutto cult, the venality of the army, the crumbling lawyers' revolt. Having bemoaned the sheer feudalism of it all, I'd finish in a flurry of whirlpool metaphors. The country is spiralling out of control; the state is devolving, rule of law decaying, even the mountains are drowning. We must needs intervene.

his is an argument blessed by familiarity and mystery equally. On the one hand, facts are stacked up with a comforting rhythm. We all agree on the militancy and the misery of the 'greater' Middle East, where despots rule. They suborn Islam to political ends, a process made easier by a premodern populace. A virulent strain of such extremism is being preached on a far corner of our subcontinent. They wanted Kashmir as well, but we stopped them. Now our neighbours are facing bankruptcy and catastrophe, while democratic reform resulted in Zardari. Glossing over the brutality of this reality, there is the arcane allure of globalised Donor Speak: the 'negotiated settlements' and 'strategic hamlets' of 'Af/Pak'; Musharraf's 'enlightened moderation' and Obama's desire for a 'secure stable nation'. The narrative slowly becomes inescapable, who would trade 'jihadi insurgents' for 'surgical strikes'? Such an affinity would surely be as deplorable as endorsing a 'prisoner exchange' with Palestinian terrorists.  Somewhere within this inexorable logic, one basic truth is cordoned off: that 'jihadist politics' is as absurd a phrase as 'legal politics'. People resort to jihad for all the multifold reasons they do anything. They might be coerced, desperate, even bored.  Jihad, like all law, is its own justification. Like any law, it must be given meaning by politics. It must be interpreted, not translated.

It is perhaps too much to expect Western critics of 'Islamism' to appreciate such nuance when Orientalism is a legacy of colonial thought. What is depressing is to encounter it in books like Pakistan: Beyond the Crisis State, edited by Ms. Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan's former ambassador in Washington. At the risk of judging a book by its title, the very moniker gives away much: most of its articles are squarely situated within a 'rogue state/failed state' paradigm. Crisis State is broadly split into two parts, security and economy. One section, presumably directed at the Pentagon, details the struggle against militancy and attempts to redeem an army recovering from the taint of Musharraf. The prose here ranges from deadpan threats to bleak humour:

"Without the Army's support, given the current power balance in Pakistan, the civilian government will not be able to move quickly on resolving issues with a dominant and potentially hegemonic India...However [General] Kayani appears to be a man of inner confidence, hence the quiet that marks his demeanour... he could well leapfrog history by taking those bold steps forward that matter most and stick to them" (Shuja Nawaz; "The Army and Politics")

The political economy section is subtler. Democracy is duly praised, though 'electoral politics' is decried, and we're treated to profiles of the chief crooks. Zardari is "tentative but tenacious" and Nawaz Sharif "confident but confrontational". This part of the book identifies 'structural adjustments' that the state must make to rehabilitate itself. Some of these suggestions are heartening. Mohsin Hamid argues for more taxation, Ayesha Jalal for historical integrity, Ziad Alahdad for a sustainable energy policy. I found the final essay fascinating, because it offers a detailed record of our tortured peace process.  Others are blatant World Bank/IMF propaganda, and one article cites the former's criteria for good governance as the underpinning for a ten point plan to retool institutions.Image 2nd

Crisis State is bursting with the profundity of data. This is the book to reach for if you want to know how many madrasas bedevil the region or what funds are being guzzled by whom or the number of drones hopping across the Durand line. The analysis they fortify remains gloomy and apologetic all through. Reading this book, one could be convinced that there is no fate worse than the one it addresses. To be sure we have resources, it says, but we have neither the skill nor the will to harness them. The only defence we have to victimhood is to call ourselves a casualty of war, the only revival we can imagine is tactical and contingent. Our economy is wrecked, our elections are a shambles, our wars only multiply. Crisis State was written, this reviewer suspects, solely for an international audience eager for soundbites and statistics. It is weaponised knowledge, arming pundits with justifications to continue destroying Pakistan in their bid to make it a 'modern democracy'. The size of its betrayal would've forced Manto into asking his fellow citizens what he once asked Uncle Sam — my country is poor, but why is it ignorant?Image 3rd

This is a query that haunts Manan Ahmed as much as Manto, and his book is an antidote to the assumptions many make about Islamic societies. Wild Frontiers taps into the angry bewilderment of generations of postcolonial thinkers. Why is it, everyone from Frantz Fanon to Eqbal Ahmad to Mahmood Mamdani has asked, that modern civilisation insists on operating in binaries? If we don't hate them, they must hate us. If we aren't invading them, they will invade us. For us to be free, they need to be enslaved. Edward Said emphasises this trajectory in his book Covering Islam. In the preface, he derides the "free floating hostility" of Bernard Lewis — godfather of the 'Islamic Terrorist' syndrome — and the countless columns of calumny he inspired. "The Roots of Muslim Rage", Said writes, is a crude polemic devoid of historical truth, rational argument, or human wisdom. It attempts to characterise Muslims as one terrifyingly collective person enraged at an outside world that has disturbed his almost primeval calm and unchallenged rule."

It was a polemic that would proliferate and intensify in the years after Professor Said's death. For all Mr. Ahmed's disdain for those who take Said literally and see "empire hidden in every Jane Austen novel", it's that legendary Professor's standard he upholds. For that reason alone, read Where the Wild Frontiers Are to truly go beyond the crisis state. Tilt your cup, as Faiz would've said, don't hesitate!

Read more: Click to find out what the vertiginous chapati told Nandini. 

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