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Pakistan’s search for identity | Financial Times

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Since Pakistan’s parliament declared the world’s first Islamic republic in 1949, two years after the traumatic partition from India, liberal Pakistanis have yearned for their country to be more like the rest of the world. Now they are noticing with alarm that the rest of the world is instead becoming more like them.

For Pakistan, perhaps the most surprising and certainly the most important of recent changes in political culture around the world — complete with affirmations of nationalism, religious exceptionalism and even bigotry — has been in India, the neighbour and now enemy with which it shared thousands of years of history before independence from Britain in 1947.

India was able to boast for decades after partition that it had more Muslim citizens than the Muslim state set up for them next door — citizens, furthermore, who enjoyed equality in a secular and tolerant Indian republic.

Yet today the Indian government under the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi stands accused of persecuting Muslims as a matter of policy and of attempting to become a Hindu version of its Islamic neighbour.

Three new books on Pakistan, all by western journalists who know the country and some of its recent leaders well, underline the strength of the argument made by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, against India becoming a “Hindu Pakistan” and indeed against the creation of any nation based purely on religion. “The whole idea of a theocratic state is not only medieval but also stupid,” Nehru is quoted as saying by Declan Walsh in his chapter on Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, in The Nine Lives of Pakistan.

Many Pakistanis, including Jinnah himself, would agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment if not the man, for as these books make clear, the country’s 200m or more inhabitants have always been more easy-going, diverse and religiously heterogeneous than Pakistan’s grim international reputation as a cauldron of Islamist terror would suggest.

Unfortunately, the primacy of religion as a founding principle of Pakistan — exploited and exacerbated by the army generals who have always had a heavy hand in running the country even in periods of ostensible parliamentary rule — has exacted a terrible toll in bloodshed, poverty and instability since independence.

“Depending on who you asked, Islam or the army were supposed to be the glue holding the place together. Yet both, in their own way, seemed to be tearing it apart,” Walsh writes about his first impressions of the country he covered for a decade. “More concept than country, Pakistan strained under the centrifugal forces of history, identity and faith. Could it hold? Pakistanis themselves seemed unsure . . . It was a country of sighs and regrets, the only I had been where some of its own citizens quietly regretted it had ever come into being.”

Among the lives witnessed and colourfully described by Walsh, a New York Times reporter expelled by the Pakistani security services in 2013 for knowing too much about how the country worked, are those of Salman Taseer, the flamboyant Punjab governor shot dead by one of his own bodyguards after defending a Christian woman falsely accused of blasphemy; Nawab Bugti, the literature-loving Baloch separatist leader killed by troops in his remote cave hide-out; Chaudhry Aslam, the gun-toting Karachi cop killed by a Taliban suicide truck bomb; “Colonel Imam”, the spy who saw himself as “a kind of Pakistani TE Lawrence” but was taken hostage and killed on video by the very Taliban jihadi organisation he had once helped to create; and Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the “reluctant fundamentalist” slain by government forces in the siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad in 2007.

The common theme of violent death is impossible to miss, as it is in books about the Bhutto family, whose members have been disproportionately victims of murder even by the tragic standards of south Asian dynasties and of Pakistan’s lethal politics.

In The Bhutto Dynasty, Owen Bennett-Jones, who reported for 30 years for the BBC, has written a scholarly history of the family, including the rise and fall of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the intelligent if sometimes arrogant and politically naive prime minister toppled and eventually ordered hanged in 1979 by Zia ul-Haq, the man he had appointed army chief and wrongly assumed was harmless.

Of the three books, Bennett-Jones’s also does the best job of investigating how Pakistan actually functions, or fails to function, whether the subject is the respective roles of the armed forces and the Taliban in the assassination of Zulfikar’s daughter Benazir — who was twice prime minister and the first woman prime minister in modern times of a majority Muslim state — or the egregious corruption of which she and later her husband Asif Ali Zardari were accused when in office.

Victoria Schofield’s The Fragrance of Tears does not delve deeply into these difficult areas, but describes instead her personal friendship with Benazir (who knew her at Oxford university and called her “Vicks”) and successfully sheds light on the human side of a courageous politician who could not escape her dynastic destiny and paid the ultimate price for her ambition when she was assassinated after a political rally in Rawalpindi in 2007.

Again and again, from Sindh to the Afghan border by way of Punjab or Balochistan, we are brought back to the vexed questions of religion and identity in Pakistan.

Jinnah, born a Shia Muslim and married to a Parsi, liked his whisky as much as many other Pakistanis, declared that Hindus and Christians should be free to worship in their own places, and once fondly imagined he would be able to regularly visit his mansion in Mumbai across the border in India after partition.

But as the years rolled by, the divisions hardened between India and Pakistan and within Pakistan itself. Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims and other religious minorities persecuted. Nor was there unity within Islam. Sunni fanatics have slaughtered Shias with bombs and guns, and even among Sunnis the Saudi-influenced puritans have denounced the Sufi mysticism and saint-worship practised by millions of Pakistanis (although some Sufis were also prone to violent extremism).

Walsh rightly points to the largely forgotten commission of inquiry led by Justice Muhammad Munir into Punjab’s anti-Ahmadi riots of 1953 as a fateful turning point. Munir asked his interviewees to say who counted as a true Muslim and was dismayed to hear each declare their own beliefs to be the only true path.

Munir’s conclusion was that Pakistani leaders needed to think carefully about how they were going to forge a successful nation on these shaky Islamic foundations. Such a masterful and lucidly argued report, says Walsh, “could never be written today” because since it was published Pakistan’s leaders have comprehensively hijacked Islam for their own pernicious ends.

The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Divided Nation, by Declan Walsh, Bloomsbury, RRP£20, 368 pages

The Bhutto Dynasty: The Struggle for Power in Pakistan, by Owen Bennett-Jones, Yale University Press, RRP£20, 320 pages

The Fragrance of Tears: My Friendship with Benazir Bhutto, by Victoria Schofield, Head of Zeus, RRP£25, 352 pages

Victor Mallet is the FT’s former south Asia bureau chief

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Australia calls Great Barrier Reef warning politically motivated

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Australia has labelled a draft decision by the UN’s World Heritage Committee to include the Great Barrier Reef on its “in danger” list as politically motivated.

The committee, which is chaired by Tian Xuejun, China’s vice-minister for education, and selects Unesco World Heritage sites, proposed adding the world’s largest collection of coral reefs to the danger list because of the damaging impact of climate change and coastal development.

The designation could ultimately lead to the reef losing its World Heritage status, although officials said listing was intended to prompt emergency action to safeguard a living structure that stretches 2,300km along Australia’s eastern coast.

But Sussan Ley, Australia’s environment minister, said the government had been “blindsided” by the committee’s finding and alleged there was a lack of consultation and transparency. She added that Canberra would challenge the draft decision.

“When procedures are not followed, when the process is turned on its head five minutes before the draft decision is due to be published, when the assurances my officials received and indeed I did have been upended, what else can you conclude but that it is politics?” she said.

That the World Heritage Committee is chaired by a senior Chinese official has stoked suspicions in Canberra that it had been singled out over its diplomatic and trade clash with Beijing.

China-Australia relations have soured following Canberra’s call last year for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 and Beijing’s imposition of tariffs on Australian wine and barley imports.

Ley said she and Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, had already spoken with Audrey Azoulay, Unesco director-general, to complain about the draft decision.

But scientists downplayed the suggestion that the “in danger” listing was politically motivated. Three mass bleaching events in five years demonstrated the need for the government to do more to tackle climate change, they said.

“I’m seeing some press coverage saying this is all a plot by China not to buy wine, lobsters and to screw the Barrier Reef. I think that’s pretty far-fetched given that the draft decision released overnight will be voted on by 21 countries,” said Terry Hughes, professor of marine biology at James Cook University.

The controversy will heap further international pressure on Canberra, which has been pressed by the US, UK and others to commit to a national target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

In a draft decision due to be voted on next month, the committee urged Canberra to “provide clear commitments to address threats from climate change, in conformity with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, and allow to meet water quality targets faster”.

It noted the loss of almost one-third of shallow-water coral cover following a “bleaching” event in 2016 — a process linked to warmer than normal water that can lead to a mass die-off of coral.

The row over the “in danger” listing occurred at a difficult time for Australia’s conservative coalition, which is embroiled in internal squabbling over climate policies.

On Monday, Barnaby Joyce, a climate sceptic and supporter of coal mining, ousted Michael McCormack to become leader of the National party, the junior coalition partner to the Liberal party, and Australia’s deputy prime minister. Joyce is expected to oppose any move to commit to net zero by 2050.

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The slippery slope of politicised street names

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It is confusing for taxis and Amazon delivery drivers, but in England I live in a Kent village on a street called simply “The Street”. Google Maps disconcertingly emphasises the “The” in big letters.

Surely no street name can be less political than mine. But in a much bigger conurbation, the decision by the mayor of Budapest to impose new street names in the Hungarian capital to highlight China’s human rights abuses is the latest example of the tendentious politicisation of place names around the world. 

There is no doubt about Gergely Karacsony’s purpose. By calling the streets around the site of a proposed Budapest campus of China’s Fudan University “Dalai Lama Road”, “Free Hong Kong Road” and “Uyghur Martyrs Road”, the mayor wants to embarrass Viktor Orban, the authoritarian and pro-China prime minister of Hungary.

He seems to be succeeding. In the face of public protests, Orban is now hesitating to impose the Chinese university project he previously championed to please Communist party leaders in Beijing. You can see why Karacsony did it. He is an opposition politician, and Orban has steadily undermined Hungarian democracy, limiting the scope for other forms of political action. 

But renaming streets for short-term political ends can be the start of a slippery slope. It does nothing to satisfy residents or help visitors find the place they are looking for, which are surely the main reasons for having names at all. And future mayors might change them all back again or impose their own ephemeral political views on the city nomenclature. 

Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, has undergone such a bewildering series of street name conversions since the end of French colonial rule — a reflection of sometimes violent regime changes — that avenues are often known to locals by several different names and visitors struggle to navigate the city.

When I lived in the Zambian capital Lusaka in the 1980s, one avenue was briefly renamed Saddam Hussein Boulevard after the Iraqi dictator gave a shipment of oil to the cash-strapped government of Kenneth Kaunda. Now that Saddam is dead and no longer so popular it has again been renamed, this time as Los Angeles Boulevard. But because there was already a Los Angeles Road, that too was renamed last year after national footballing hero Kalusha Bwalya.

Many political or nationalist renamings, it is true, can stand the test of time. There are countless streets and squares in France named after General Charles de Gaulle, and scarcely a substantial town in India without its MG Road in memory of Mahatma Gandhi. 

Some names, however, inevitably lose their appeal. In Madrid I bought my car from a Renault dealer in a street I was amazed to discover was still called the Calle del General Yagüe, a Francoist commander in the civil war known as the Butcher of Badajoz. The name was changed in 2017 to Calle de San Germán. 

A court has just ruled that another Madrid street, called the Calle de los Caídos de la División Azul, can retain its name because the fallen Spanish soldiers who fought for the Nazis on the eastern front might be considered victims of the war as well as perpetrators. 

But the lesson must be that there is little to be gained for mayors, governments or inhabitants if street names are changed purely for short-term political advantage, whether for celebration or denigration.

In our small village in Kent, there was not much scope for change, but change came anyway. There were always three principal roads: The Street, where the church is; Back Street, which runs parallel to it behind the village; and the main road, which joins them at the top and leads to the local towns in either direction. My first experience of the political or social motivations behind street-naming was when Back Street became Swan Lane (after a pub) and the main road was fancifully relabelled Poplar Road. 

Such cosmetic changes are innocent enough — who wants to live with an address on Back Street or the B2082? — and they have become part of the local geography. But somehow I doubt that Budapest’s Free Hong Kong Road will be called that a few years from now. 

victor.mallet@ft.com



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Western powers reignite Beijing anger after G7 and Nato warnings

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For more than six weeks, Taiwanese military officers wondered where the Chinese fighter jets had gone.

During May, only four entered the island’s air defence identification zone. In the first half of this month, there were incursions on only four days and a stretch of nine days without any activity at all. This compared to a previous pattern of as many as 20 incursions a month.

But on June 15, a day after US president Joe Biden and other Nato leaders issued a statement condemning China’s “stated ambitions and assertive behaviour”, 20 PLA fighter jets, four nuclear-capable bombers and four additional military aircraft entered Taiwan’s ADIZ. It was the largest number of planes ever dispatched by the People’s Liberation Army into the zone, with some of them also skirting around the southern tip and east coast of the island before turning back

One senior Taiwanese government official said Beijing could not restrain itself after the Nato communique — and a G7 summit statement issued just days earlier — criticised Beijing’s activities in the Taiwan Strait and its crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

“Beijing wanted to prove wrong those in the west whom they accuse of hyping a China threat theory,” the official said, referring to the reduced military activity in May and early June. “But of course they could not keep it up. Once Taiwan gets a little support, they have to react.”

Chinese analysts said Beijing had no choice but to show its resolve after the Biden administration accelerated its efforts to build a “united front” against China at the G7 and Nato summits — something President Xi Jinping’s administration had long feared but that never materialised when Donald Trump was US president.

“The G7 and Nato have been distorted into anti-China platforms,” said Victor Gao, a former Chinese diplomat now at the Center for China and Globalisation, a Beijing-backed think-tank. “There are increasingly large forces in China that believe if the US wants to single out China as its fundamental enemy, then let the US have an enemy.”

Beijing also responded to the G7’s criticism of its policies in Hong Kong with a show of force in the territory, where it recently snuffed out the only public commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre on Chinese soil. In the early hours of Thursday, police arrested senior staff at the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper for alleged “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security”.

A senior officer with the Hong Kong police force’s national security division later said the arrests were related in part to more than 30 articles published in the newspaper.

Beijing’s actions around Taiwan and in Hong Kong were matched by scathing rhetoric. Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesperson and one of China’s most outspoken diplomats, said the G7 communique “exposed the bad intentions of the US and a few other countries to create antagonism and widen differences with China”.

“The US is sick,” Zhao added. “The G7 should take its pulse and prescribe medicine for it.”

Such comments appeared to contradict recent instructions from Xi, who said last month that official propaganda should “set the right tone, be open and confident but also modest, humble and strive to create a credible, loveable and respectable image of China”.

Xi, however, also noted that China was involved in a “public opinion struggle” internationally. “Powerful anti-China forces in western society want to attack and discredit China,” Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador in Paris, said last week in a state media interview. “We must fight back to safeguard our own interests. Our sovereign security and development interests are inviolable.”

Yun Sun, a China foreign policy expert at the Stimson Center in Washington, said such rhetoric reflected growing alarm in Xi’s administration. “There is a real concern in Beijing that a united front is forming [and] includes many elements that China does not wish to see such as Taiwan, maritime security and human rights,” Sun said. “That’s why we are seeing some unusually harsh responses from Beijing on G7 and Nato.”

Hong Kong police blow out candles lit by activists to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Beijing responded to G7 criticism of its policies in Hong Kong with a show of force in the territory © AP

“Germany, France and other EU countries are hesitant to confront China as [openly as] the US,” added Shi Yinhong, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, who advises the State Council on foreign policy issues. “But they are now closer to the US when it comes to dealing with China.”

Some Chinese officials and analysts argue that while Beijing will continue to respond forcefully when criticised over Taiwan, Hong Kong or other “core interests”, this does not preclude co-operation with the US on other issues such as climate change or global tax reform.

Fu Ying, a former Chinese ambassador to the UK, said at a recent seminar that the Biden administration wanted to “prevent China from moving forward to replace the US”. But, she added, “we hope [technological and economic] competition can be managed to ensure it is on a positive track, pushing each other to seek joint development and improvement”.

Beijing “should stand firm on matters of principle but not be too distracted by anti-China hostility”, Gao said. “In the long term China will have a larger economy than the US — no one can change that. Time is on China’s side.”

Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing



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