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Essential Readings: Reading Pakistan

[Protest in Karachi against drone strikes. Image from EPA/The Express Tribune] [Protest in Karachi against drone strikes. Image from EPA/The Express Tribune]

Here are the stripped down facts: Pakistan is roughly 165 million people. Most of us are young: 69 percent of the population is under age 30. And we’re poor. Almost a quarter of the people here live below the poverty line. As I write, the quarter-finals for the cricket world cup are underway. Pakistan’s unpredictable and occasionally magnificent team is playing the West Indies. The sport, which was a kind of civilizing project to teach Victorian mores, has become a national obsession.  

Beyond that, you could go through this or this or this or this, but at the end of it, frankly, you’d know very little, or more accurately, you’d know just enough to be absolutely sure that whatever the U.S. is doing in Pakistan — and you’re not quite sure what that is — is absolutely correct.  

Part of the problem lies in the dearth of good materials on Pakistan. There is no single book, article, documentary, or multimedia work that alone tells the story adequately. There are, however, some classics worth reading. Tariq Ali’s earlier works, especially Can Pakistan Survive? provide an incisively written introduction. Military historian Ayesha Siddiqa’s book Military Inc., about the military establishment’s massive role in the Pakistani economy, was banned in Pakistan, and is a must-read. Journalist Ethan Casey’s memoir about his travels through the country, Alive and Well in Pakistan, serves as an excellent counter to reporter Nicholas Schmidle’s fear-driven To Live or to Perish Forever.  

You know the standard narrative about Pakistan. It has something to do with terror, Islam, nuclear weapons, militants, and evil. Now here are some points for the counter-narrative.  

1) The state deploys religion for instrumental reasons  

For some, Pakistan’s ineluctable slide towards Islamist politics began with the two-nation theory, that is, the idea put forward by various Indian Muslim intellectuals during the anti-colonial movement against the British that Hindus and Muslims were separate nations. Pakistan was founded as a secular homeland for a religious minority, they say, but that basis prioritized religion as the primary identity. It’s a fatalistic narrative that is less than accurate. The secular left didn’t just die out because of state ideology; it was actively killed off.   

While the role of Islam was a subject of debate in the new state, Islamist parties were still marginal. Secular politics — from the liberal to the left — were a force in the intellectual circles of the fledgling state. Led by organizations like the Progressive Writers Association, it was in the domain of cultural politics that questions about national identity were passionately discussed. After the American-backed military dictator Ayub Khan came to power in a bloodless coup in October 1958, he secured alliances with Pakistani liberals, among others, to smash the Left. Khan banned the Communist Party, staged a take-over of affiliated newspapers, and imprisoned intellectuals like the poet Habib Jalib, whose caustic wit and plain-spoken criticisms regularly earned him jail-time till his death in 1993. Here is Jalib singing his acerbic poem about establishment intellectuals like Hafeez Jalandhri, who wrote Pakistan’s national anthem and would later serve under various military regimes:

Other policies have included state management of auqaf, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s criminalization of Ahmadis, a small sect in Islam, General Zia’s handover of the educational system to the Jamaat-i-Islami (an Islamist political party), and his establishment of a parallel shari’a based court system contributed to the institutionalization of political Islam. The process was aided in no small part by American policy and American dollars. These were funneled through Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and the Army to produce mujahideen to battle the Soviets during the Cold War.

Most of us alive today are too young to remember the country before Zia. But this generation is looking for nationalist redemption and a solution to its concerns. Unfortunately, it won’t find any among the liberal intelligentsia.  

2) It’s the Army, stupid  

Pakistan’s Army, the sixth largest in the world, is an amalgamation of corporations that owns a country. It’s the only local breakfast cereal company, for example, and the largest landowner. While governments may rise and fall, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship has been cemented between the Pentagon and the Pakistan Army. It’s both economically and politically dominant and is always a player, even during times of civilian rule. In East Pakistan — now Bangladesh — it raped and pillaged and massacred its way across the territory in a failed bid to crush dissent there. Here’s some of their handiwork caught on tape:  

Most recently, it was involved in the Swat operation, which is an instructive study on the interplay between Pakistan’s elites — often liberals — and the military. Inaugurated on April 26, 2009, Operation Rah-e-Rast (Righteous Path) was heralded by Pakistani liberals and the U.S. Both camps had been unsettled by the irenic tone of the secular, provincial government as it struck a peace deal in February with the militant-turned-questionable-peacemaker, TNSM leader Sufi Muhammad. The deal quickly soured, and a feverish clamor for an Army offensive took over.

After the operation, I went to Swat. It takes over five hours to get there from the capital, Islamabad. Along the way, velvet mountains rise like moss green waves, cresting against a blazing blue sky. A sliver of a road hugs the mountain curves, just wide enough for two lanes of passing cars and jubilantly colored trucks. It was built by the British, this road, and it once carried Winston Churchill as a twenty-two-year-old cavalry lieutenant involved in military expeditions to extend British rule. A museum of his effects rests atop a mountain in Chak Dera, gazing down on neat empty fields and what look like Japanese fruit trees.  

Now, it’s years later, and Swat has been through another bout of violence.  

After this war — if it can be called a war— Swat has the startling runic quality of a Dali painting. Fuschia flowers peek furtively through a window in a lone crumbling brick wall standing mysteriously at the edge of a field. A few miles on, a soldier peers out of a sand-sack fort by the side of a dappled road. Directly across from him, a staircase plateaus into the open air like an unfinished thought. Driving through Swat is like that now: a series of questions, punctuated by the Army.  

Those I meet are indifferent and placid as they relate horrifying stories about the Army, the Taliban, and all the deaths in-between. This leaked video will later confirm their stories: it allegedly shows brutal interrogations of local Pashtuns by the Army. And, still later, this video [warning: graphic] will appear showing showing outright murder by Army soldiers:

3) Ethnic fissures

While Islamists have gotten the lion’s share of the attention, ethnic fissures run across the country. The explosion of ethnic politics is partly the consequence of policies that sought to increase the strength of the center — and of the most populous province, Punjab — at the expense of others. Many political parties today are ethnically based. Pakistan’s teeming port city of Karachi, for example, is ruled by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement or MQM, a party founded in the early eighties to advance the interests of the ethnic mohajir community.  

In fact, state-led Islamization is partly a response to these ethnically-based politics, which sometimes form the ideological base for separatist movements. 

This pattern is notable in Balochistan, which has always rejected the idea of the Muslim identity as the basis for inclusion into Pakistan. The largest of Pakistan's four provinces, constituting nearly half of the country's territory, Balochistan was forcibly annexed by Pakistan in 1948 as Pakistan’s imagined community collided with Baloch nationalism. Occupation by the Pakistani Army — which controls 600 checkpoints and six Army garrisons throughout the province — coupled with Islamabad’s policy of siphoning away the province’s vast natural resource wealth towards the rest of Pakistan, has fostered four insurgencies since 1948, with the fifth currently underway. The vast gulf between what Balochistan provides for Pakistan and what it gets in return continues to fuel a stubborn nationalism, attacks on infrastructure, and an increasing number of Baloch demanding outright independence. They do it with guns, but with verses too.  

4) Alternative visions  

Despite the insistence of the mainstream media, there are in fact forces pushing for democratic rule in Pakistan, but they are not likely to be found among the English-speaking intelligentsia that today speaks for Pakistan to the west. These Pakistani liberals speak fondly of the socialist, leftist poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, but they can’t imagine a class-based politics. They claim Edward Said and Eqbal Ahmed as comrades-in-arms, but they support American drones and Army attacks on civilians, and speak with a general derision for the mass of Pakistanis, reducing them all to a fanatic, anti-American mob. They share an affinity with Christopher Hitchens and David Horowitz, but in America, they have colonized left spaces on behalf of Pakistan with a hawkish, troubling politics. These are the new liberals, and their rise is concomitant with the general global colonization of liberal thought by neoliberalism.  

That said, there are Pakistanis genuinely struggling for a democratic, just future. A lot of them do not speak English, so you may not hear them, but they are struggling courageously.The Okara peasant movement, for example, beat back the advances of the Army on their land, despite torture, kidnappings, and murder. In 2010, shipbreakers in Gadani, a coastal village known for this industry, organized massive protests. They continue to fight for fair wages and decent labor conditions. Pakistani fisherfolk are also struggling against corporate encroachment on their land and livelihood. Their latest fight in Karachi is against a questionable liquefied gas related project proposed by a company jointly owned by the Pakistani Engro Corporation and Dutch Vopak. Government hearings for the project are ludicrously carried out in English, and access to accurate information about the project’s environmental impact has been difficult to come by.  

Finally, the Arab summer is here, so it’s worth remembering a hopeful moment in Pakistan: in 2008, thousands of Pakistanis marched against the illegal removal of the Chief Justice by an illegal regime. It was a movement with reformist aims, but it achieved them, reinstating the Supreme Court judge and removing Musharraf in the process. Whatever may be said of the lawyers and the courts after — and much deserves to be said about their problematic politics and actions since then — it’s important to recall the potential of that moment and what it suddenly made seem possible.  

The soundtrack of that movement was Habib Jalib — recalled, remembered and re-sung by my generation.


Essential Readings

Imagined Communities


Ethnic Fissures

Political Islam, Liberals and Leftists

Several soon-to-be-published works will help in filling the gaps. Saadia Toor’s The State of Islam? Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan, which tracks the forcible demise of the Pakistani Left, will be published by Pluto Press in July 2011. Just World Books is publishing historian Manan Ahmed’s Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination, a collection of the most intriguing posts culled from his popular blog Chapati Mystery, in May 2011. Finally, Dispatches from Pakistan, a collection of essays edited by historian Vijay Prashad, Qalandar Bux Memon, editor of the magazine Naked Punch, and me, will be out later this year. Dispatches draws on young activists, scholars, and journalists actively engaged in Pakistan to present a more complicated and generous view of Pakistani society, politics, and culture than is available in the global media today.


[Editors' Note: This is the fourth in a series of "Essential Readings,"  in which we ask contributors to choose a list of must-read books, articles, and new media sources on a variety of topics. These are not meant to be comprehensive lists, but rather starting points for readers who want to read more about particular topics.

Madiha R. Tahir, who has authored this list for us, has herself published widely on Pakistan for a number of publications and in a number of different media. Links to a selection of her work can be found below, as well as on her website,]





5 comments for "Essential Readings: Reading Pakistan"


Thoughtful and though -provoking. It needs to be read widely by many of us in South Asia who are struggling with issues of peace and conflict - building people to people relationships and imagining a new regional vision. Thank you Madiha

Lalita Ramdas wrote on April 16, 2011 at 03:30 AM

This is really really useful and comprehensive and thank you for including literature as well!

Laleh wrote on April 16, 2011 at 06:55 AM

other essential readings: The Clash of fundamentalisms (Tariq Ali} The Duel (Tariq Ali) Moth Smoke (Mohsin Hamid) Letters to Uncle Sam (Manto)

Movies: Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters) Islamabad Rock City-Junoon

Music: Nusrat Fateh Ali Junoon Vital Signs Strings Coke Studio (All Parts)

Saulat Qadri wrote on April 16, 2011 at 08:59 AM

This is a fantastic compendium of materials about Pakistan. Thank you, Madiha.

Lisa Hajjar wrote on April 16, 2011 at 02:12 PM

Yes, thank you! Another vote for Khamosh Pani film, which is fantastic, as is Gyan Pandey's excellent history of the partition.

Frances Hasso wrote on April 16, 2011 at 03:33 PM

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