Whatever one may think of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, it is hard to deny that his call to celebrate the heritage of Sindh in particular and Pakistan in general has touched a chord. Perhaps it’s the fact that, after years of paying homage to attitudes imported from the Arabia Deserta, someone of prominence has had the guts to promote traditions with actual roots in Pakistan, and to do it vociferously, without apology or qualification. In this age of “Allah Hafiz” and Ansar Abbasi, this is no small relief. Two other aspects of the festival are also especially important. First, the choice of Moenjodaro as the site of the opening event – though understandably controversial for archaeological reasons – sent a refreshingly clear signal of the desire to own all of the region’s history, not just that associated with Muslims or Pakistan. Second, the inclusion of performers and languages from all over Pakistan – including Punjab – turned the festival into a celebration of the country as a whole rather than one focused on Sindh. Thus, it came to symbolize an alternative view of Pakistan to place against the one promoted incessantly by those who seek to turn the country into an ahistorical, joyless Salafist emirate. I have to believe that this is exactly what the goal of the event was, and I think that it is an extremely important one.
It has become conventional wisdom to blame the Taliban or other extremist religious groups for Pakistan’s recent tragic turn towards becoming a narrow-minded, intolerant society, but anyone with any knowledge of the facts realizes that the extremists are just a visible symptom of an older, less visible and far more insidious disease. The intolerant ideology that today is being imposed on people through guns and bombs was nurtured for decades – even centuries – in mosques and homes, courts and seminaries, conditioning millions of people all over the Muslim world to equate piety with bigotry. But in South Asia, it was always kept in check by two important forces: The living multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies of the region; and a fundamentally tolerant, open-minded and welcoming tradition within Islam, i.e., Sufism. And nowhere was this more true than in the regions that constitute the country of Pakistan today. While the men occupying the shrines of the great Sufi masters may no longer have been as inspiring as their ancestors, the ethos of Islam in Punjab and Sindh, and to a lesser extent in other areas, was shaped by the tradition of those masters and great Sufi poets like Shah Latif, Rahman Baba and Bulleh Shah. This is not to say that all was wonderful – how wonderful could things be in a feudal society? – but Islam was not a divisive factor.
Then came Pakistan – or rather, the movement to create Pakistan. Perhaps its most harmful effect was to turn Islam into an ideological weapon. Admittedly, India was not the only place where this happened (see Qutb, Sayyid), but India was the only place where it succeeded! An ideological state was created based on an inherently exclusionary view of Islam – a land for Muslims and thus, by implication, a land not for “others”. And once a society sets off on the path to purification, there is no reason to stop at any particular point. What has followed – the bombing of churches, the persecution of Ahmadis, the prejudice against Shias – is a logical consequence of that first decision to draw the first boundary between “us” and “them”. Ever since then, the disease has grown steadily, helped along by the (necessary) creation of a mythological history to justify the ideological state, feeding delusions of ancestral grandeur on the part of presidents and generals seeking to replicate the triumphs of heroes past. The Objectives Resolution of 1948, the anti-Ahmadi movement of the 1950s and their being declared non-Muslim in 1974, the creation of the Council on Islamic Ideology in 1962 and the Federal Shariat Court in 1980, the entire reign of General Zia, the Hudood Ordinance, the Blasphemy law – the history of Pakistan has traversed the path of increasing intolerance ever since the beginning. On the one hand, it has led to the Taliban. On the other, it has gradually crushed the older, more tolerant, more inclusive traditions that had dominated the region for centuries. And that brings us back to the Sindh Festival.
There was a time some years ago when many of us believed that the ideological fever would eventually subside and the natural, organic ethos of the Pakistani region would reassert itself. However, for reasons that can be understood in retrospect, that has not happened. Most of Pakistan has actually succumbed to the ideological virus, with the old attitudes fighting a desperate rearguard action. What used to be called the Northwest Frontier was lost during and after the Afghan jihad; in the last fifteen years, Punjab too has mostly been overrun by extremist groups and their political sympathizers; Baluchistan is struggling with both extremism and insurgency; which leaves Sindh. If the people of Pakistan – most of whom are still not extreme fundamentalists – are to reclaim their country from the clutches of insanity, the reclamation project must start from Sindh.
Of course, no cultural festival – however delightful – or a photogenic young leader with a famous name can accomplish what needs to be done. The rot of decades will take a long time to reverse, and will require active participation from millions of people. However, one of the most important components of any rearguard action must be to provide a positive alternative to the unacceptable situation. Ideas must be opposed by ideas, not just by refusal. The extremist ideology that has gained ground in Pakistan must be met with an alternative ethos with content – something that people can hold and cherish and celebrate and identify with as Pakistanis. And for this alternative to have any chance of prevailing, it must be able to excite people viscerally, to attract them in ways beyond naming, to resonate with their being. It must be something that they already carry in their hearts so that when they are reminded of it, they recognize it as their own and love it for that reason. Principles such as “rule of law” and “human rights” are extremely important, but, unfortunately, they do not move populations. They must ride in on something more primeval, something more intertwined with peoples’ sense of themselves. Faith, art, community and tradition are such things. These, after all, are the things that the other side is using (in addition to guns and bombs, of course). They must also be deployed in the cause of good – but very carefully. The last thing Pakistan needs is another ideology with its own purity tests and its own interference in governance. The ideology of oppression must be countered with a gospel of liberation – one that actively seeks to include rather than exclude; that is based on allowing people the freedom to make their own choices and find their own truths. This is something that the great Sufis and poets understood well, which is why they are still loved by millions hundreds of years after their death. No king or cleric has that love, and that is a fact!
Pakistan is a region rich in history. Unfortunately, most Pakistanis are only familiar with its cartoon version. They do not know of all the great civilizations – Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim – that rose and fell in the area over three thousand years. Of the even older Indus Valley civilization, they know only the words “Moenjodaro” and “Harappa”. They are not aware that Alexander’s armies sailed down the Indus; that Iranian kings ruled over Sindh; that Sialkot was the capital of King Menander; that major international trade routes ran through Sindh and Baluchistan two thousand years ago; that whole new schools of Hindu and Buddhist and Muslim thought developed in places where gas stations stand today. But history never truly dies; it lives in the traditions of the people, in their art, in their languages. If a leader should rise to reclaim all that history, to revive the arts of the people, to welcome people of all creeds, to celebrate the open-minded ethos of Sufi Islam and its poets, and to do it in a broad, national and inclusive way, he or she could truly begin to turn back the tide of obscurantism that is engulfing Pakistan. It will take years, perhaps decades. And it will be dangerous. It will require not only the use of the creative arts but also the exercise of military power, because people with guns cannot be defeated with just songs and Sufism. But the process will begin, and people will have something to stand for, not just against.
It is hard to say if Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is – or can even become – the leader that Pakistan needs. I am skeptical – change that to very skeptical, given recent history and the tragic tradition of unfulfilled promise that is his legacy. But one, skeptics can be wrong; and two, there may be others. What I do know is that the attitude exemplified by the Sindh Festival and Bilawal’s recent statements is exactly what Pakistan needs, and that Sindh is the only place where the counter-offensive can be based. Fortuitously, Sindh is also home to Karachi, which is not only the largest city in Pakistan but also its economic center and home to the largest secular urban population in the country. If the ethos of secular commerce can be married to a new cultural awakening, an alternative history of Pakistan may yet be possible.