It is one of the vanities of a war, like the war on terror, to believe that your enemy’s reasons for fighting are the same as yours. We are bringers of freedom, democracy and Western-style capitalism; they hate freedom, democracy and Western-style capitalism. It is an irresistible symmetry; and if not a way to win a war, it is certainly a way to convince yourself that you’re fighting the good war. But there is another possibility, one that the Americans, and other defenders of post-colonial thinking, are loath to admit: that a place’s problem might truly be its own; that your reasons for fighting are not your enemy’s reasons; and that you might only be a side-show in an internal war with historical implications deeper than your decade-long presence in the country.
In the case of Pakistan, the imposition of this easy West versus Islam symmetry has helped conceal what is the great theme of history in that country: the grinding down of its local syncretic culture in favour of a triumphant, global Islam full of new rigidities and intolerances. It is this war, which feels in Pakistan like a second Arab conquest, that earlier last month saw, as its latest target, the Data Sahib shrine in Lahore—among the most important of thousands of such shrines that dot the cities and countryside of Punjab and Sindh.
Under attack: (clockwise from left) A Friday gathering at the shrine of Sufi saint Data Ganj Bakhsh in Lahore on 2 July, a day after suicide attacks killed several people. Arif Ali / AFP; supporters of the banned Islamic group Jamaat-ud-Dawa chanting slogans during an anti-India rally in Lahore last month. K.M. Chaudary / AP; and a Karachi theatre screening Bollywood movies in January 2009. Asif Hassan / AFP
These shrines are a memorial to the hybridity of the land, if not the state, of Pakistan. Until Partition, before the exodus of Pakistan’s Hindu and Sikh populations, they were places (as they still are in India) where Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims worshipped together. Behind each one—formed out of more than six centuries of religious reform, which created humanistic, more tolerant hybrids of India’s religions—would be some tale built around a local saint that celebrated the plurality of the land. To adhere to the spirit of these shrines was to know that deeper than any doctrinal difference was a shared humanity; it was almost to feel part of a common religion; the spread of this shared culture through Punjab, Sindh and Kashmir constituted an immense human achievement. And for as long as the plurality remained, the religion remained, seemingly immune to fanaticism, incapable of being reduced to bigotry and prejudice. But once the land of Pakistan, after Partition, was drained of its diversity (and this constituted no less a shock than if London or New York were suddenly cleansed of their non-white populations), the religion lost its deepest motivation, which was to bring harmony to a diverse and plural population. The amazing thing was that even after Partition, when the land of Pakistan was no longer so plural, it was this religion, full of mysticism, poetry and song, that clung on as the dominant faith of the people of Pakistan.
But it is also this religion now, far greater than any Western import or influence, that is the enemy of the new fanaticism. It is, if not the true front of the war on terror, certainly the cause of the rage behind it. It is this war that the Taliban, more than any about freedom, capitalism or democracy, concepts of which they have at best a thin knowledge, are fighting. For, in order to achieve the vacuum in which their nihilistic vision of Islam can be realized—and it can only be realized thus—the full world, the world of culture, of stories, of songs, of dress, of ornate ritual, must be destroyed. It is the busyness of the world—and this is where the West comes in too—a busyness made of the labour of men, of their ambitions, their hopes, their entertainments, their culture, that is the enemy of the bearded men.
But there is also something else, and this has been going on in Pakistan since its inception: the wish to cleanse the Islam of that country of its cultural contact with the Indian subcontinent, a contact that is, for many in Pakistan, a contamination. For me, with my Indian upbringing, and Pakistani father, this desire to remove all trace of India was visible everywhere. It was there in the dress of a woman in Karachi, under the hem of whose black Arab abaya an inch of Indian pink was visible; it was there in the state’s desire to impose restrictions on weddings so that they would be stripped of their Indian rituals and become only Islamic; it was there in the hysteria surrounding the kite-flying festival of Basant, where public safety concerns—and this in Pakistan!—were invented so that the Indian spring festival could be put out of business once and for all.
The attack on the old religion of Pakistan—and there will be many more—is the last front, and one hopes the most resilient, in the way of meeting the conditions for a complete nihilism. The reaction in Pakistan to this latest attack on Data Sahib has been one of widespread outrage, reaching into sections of society beyond that tiny sphere that foreign journalists like to describe as “civil society”. It has also been notably less muted than the reaction after the attack on the Ahmadi Mosque in May, which produced that same mixture of lies and conspiracy that is the foundation of Pakistani political opinion.
But one cannot be too hopeful. Pakistanis have stood by and watched the decay of their society for over six decades now. It seems that once the original outrage dies down, no significant majority will be found to defend the old religion of Pakistan. They will see it go as they have seen so many things go. The reason for this is that original idea on which Pakistan was founded, the idea of the secular state for Indian Muslims, has perished and nothing has taken its place. The men who say “Pakistan was founded for Islam, more Islam is the solution”, have the force of an ugly logic on their side. Their opponents, few as they are, have nothing, no regenerative idea to combat this violent nihilistic one.
As the attacks on shrines like Data Sahib multiply, as the Americans discover that nothing will be achieved by throwing money at Pakistan, as India realizes that Pakistan’s hatred of it is not rational, that the border issue with Kashmir cannot alone be the cause of such passion, as the world begins to see that Pakistan’s problems are not administrative, Pakistanis will have to find a new narrative. The sad truth is that they are still a long way from discovering the true lesson behind the experience of the past 60 years: that it is of language, dress, notions of social organization, of shared literatures and customs, of Sufi shrines and their stories, that nations are made, not religion. That has proved to be too thin a glue and 60 years later, it has left millions of people dispossessed and full of hateful lies: a nation of human bombs.
Aatish Taseer is the author of two books, Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey through Islamic Lands and Temple-Goers.
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