The Army, Religion and America

Dawn, May 22, 2005
Book and Authors
The Army, Religion and America
By Tariq Ali

D Barsamian: In an article in New Left Review entitled “The colour khaki,” you talk about your native land, which you have called “janissary Pakistan”, and the politics of a country that was created out of British India during the partition of 1947. What are some of the salient points of your piece?

Tariq Ali: “Janissary” is a word only known by aficionados of the Ottoman Empire. This was the army the Ottomans created. Not strictly a mercenary army, it was used by the Ottomans to capture territory — to take large parts of the world. The salient feature of the janissary army was that it predominantly comprised non-Turkish people. So when I talk about janissary Pakistan, I’m saying that Pakistan and its army are the janissaries of the world’s only empire today — that this is an army used by the American empire. Sometimes I say in jest to Pakistani friends — many of the people I went to school with later became senior officers in the military — “When the United States needs a secular dictator, we provide one. When they need an Islamist dictator, we provide one. And I’m sure if one day they ask for a hermaphrodite dictator, we will provide one as well... ”

I called the essay “The colour khaki”: this brownish green colour, the colour of the military uniform, now dominates Pakistan in every single way. The army, of course, is one of the legacies of the British Empire; the British didn’t leave much behind, but they did leave us an army, a civil service, and a railway network, all of which still function to some degree. In Pakistan, which was formed in 1947, the national movement was very weak. The Punjab, the largest part of Pakistan, had been run by a combination of landlords during the empire, and while they continued to run it after the British left, their rule and their control were weak; therefore, the army played a very big role. So Pakistan, from its birth, was ruled by a military-bureaucratic complex. The civil servants basically dominated political life, with the army poised to take over if politics ever got out of control.

Pakistan’s first military coup took place in 1958, to preempt an April 1959 election that the United States feared would put into power nationalist parties ready to break Pakistan’s security pacts with the United States which they would have done, incidentally. So they organized a military coup. It has been the same ever since, a recurring cycle: a military dictatorship, a civilian government that promises a great deal and delivers very little, and then another military dictatorship and another civilian government. The bulk of that country’s life has been dominated by military dictatorships — while elected representatives have run the country for 15 years, and unaccountable bureaucrats and their tame front men for 11, the army has ruled for 29.

Our current dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, wears a suit and a tie when he travels abroad, but the only base he has in the country is his position as commander-in-chief of the Pakistani army. That’s why the US does business with him; they’ve always preferred to deal with the army in Pakistan, because they know it well. Many of the officers were trained at Fort Bragg and other American institutions, and the Americans feel they can do business with them, whereas with the politicians it’s always a bit difficult.

There is a historical analogy with Latin America and countries in the Middle East as well: this American alliance with the military.

The dictatorships in Latin America, in particular those imposed during the Cold War, kept those countries on the side of the United States. In Pakistan it’s the army that has done that. There were some doubts at the end of the Cold War, because the United States lost interest in Pakistan and Afghanistan; after the Russians had been defeated, the Americans didn’t much care about the region — until September 11, of course. They had even been talking to the Taliban, but they weren’t interested in Pakistan or its problems, and a section of the army Islamists and fundamentalists who had worked closely with the United States against the Russians in Afghanistan — deeply resented this neglect.

We must never, ever forget the image of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser, standing on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, addressing a huge gathering of people with beards, telling them: Go and fight against the Russian infidel. Go and wage the jihad. God is on your side. People in Pakistan remember that, and they said, we worked together with the Americans and we liberated Afghanistan, and then they dumped us. This brutal, unceremonious dumping created a lot of anger, because people were genuinely under the illusion that the Americans were on their side — not realizing that empires always act in their own interest; they have no other motivation. That created a lot of anger.

It was during that phase of the Afghan conflict with the Russians that the Islamist groups in Pakistan armed themselves; they had never been armed before. A lot of money and weapons flowed through the country, and the Islamists became a menace to civil institutions, civilian life — killings took place. Then Sunni fundamentalist groups arose, which started bombing Shia mosques and killing Shias because they regarded them as heretics.

Then the Shias began to organize. The country was awash with factional violence for many years. That was a legacy of General Zia’s rule, which completely disrupted the nation’s political culture and political life. We are still paying a price for it.

Let me just add something that Brzezinski said later in the 1990s. When it became apparent that elements of the mujahideen, which had been so warmly embraced, supported, and trained by the United States and its Pakistani mercenaries, had morphed into the Taliban, he asked rhetorically, well, compared to the collapse of the Soviet Union, what’s “a few stirred-up Muslims?”

It illustrated how out of touch he was with the stirred-up Muslims. The stirred-up Muslims finally came and hit New York and the Pentagon. This is what Chalmers Johnson described presciently as “blowback”. No one has ever challenged Brzezinski on that particular remark; we will never see an editorial in the New York Times denouncing him for it. This is a recurring feature in US foreign policy: their interests require an alliance with X or Y or Z; they go ahead without a thought about the consequences, for themselves or for the rest of the world.

DB: Let’s go back to the origins of Pakistan. It’s one of the largest Muslim countries in the world — its population is around 150 million. Two key figures are Muhammad Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Start with Iqbal. He was born in 1873 and died in 1938. Why was he important and what role did he play in the formation of Muslim consciousness in South Asia?

TA: ...The entry of the British and the collapse of the Mughal Empire ruined the livelihoods of large numbers of people — scribes, calligraphers, artisans — who worked around the court, eviscerating the Muslim elite. Slowly the perception took hold that Muslims were dispossessed, that they had nothing left. The British didn’t treat them well either, and that provoked a mutiny, the first rebellion against the British, in 1857, which came close to success, incidentally. In some parts of India the British were defeated, but it was British technology and the fact that they could win over elements of the native ruling classes — that finally won the day. This left a deep mark on the Muslims of India.

Gradually, currents within the Muslim community began to embrace modernity, to look toward the West in an attempt to learn something there. Syed Ahmed Khan was one of them. Muhammad Iqbal, whom you asked me about, was one of the great poets of the Indian subcontinent. Initially, Iqbal believed in a composite nationalism, which incorporated everyone — Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist — to fight for a free India. In fact, he wrote the anthem of India, “Tarana-i-Hindi”: “More beautiful than the rest of the world is our great nation of India.” It is still sung today in parts of India, because it became the anthem of the nationalist movement.

Iqbal and others became very disturbed when Mahatma Gandhi, great man though he was, began to use a great deal of Hindu imagery to awaken the Hindu masses. A group of Muslim politicians, including Iqbal and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, reacted quite strongly; they said, we never had any of this before. Why is Gandhi referring to Ram Raj and this and that? Suddenly they realized that the empire had created a competition between the two communities.

The Muslim League was set up in 1906 by British initiative. If you look at the founding document of the Muslim League, it says, we, the rulers and Muslim notables of India and talukdars, large landowners, have created this organization to foster a sense of loyalty to the British Empire. That’s the founding document of the Muslim League — it was created to challenge nationalism. The Congress leaders, Gandhi and Nehru, not to mention Patel, made a lot of mistakes, in my opinion, by antagonizing sections of Muslims who could have been held together — but that would have meant concessions, serious concessions. That didn’t happen.

lqbal formulated the idea of a Muslim nation in India; his theory was that we were two nations, but at the same time, he remained very aware of the internal class divisions. To his enormous credit, Iqbal — a poet — never forgot that in spite of the rift between Muslims and Hindus, the real division in India was between peasants and landlords. He was shocked by the treatment the peasants received, and he wrote this wonderful poem — I think the title was “Lenin’s interview with God”. Lenin dies and goes up to heaven in the poem, and God says, hi Lenin. Nice to see you here. Why were you creating so much trouble on earth? Lenin gives God an explanation and says, God, don’t you know what exists in the real world, the suffering? And God then gives this instruction to the Archangel Gabriel, which is one of the classic verses of Indian poetry. The original is in Urdu, and it goes something like this:

Arise, awake even the wretched of the earth
Shake the foundations, tremble the walls
of the mansions in which the wealthy sleep;
And in every field where a peasant starves,
There go and burn every bushel of wheat.

This particular verse became a favourite of the progressive movement — I remember hearing from old peasant leaders that when this verse was recited to the peasants, there would be tears in their eyes. This was the poet who said at the same time that a separate Muslim homeland was necessary. Initially, there was no big fervour for it amongst the Muslim masses. In the parts of the country where there were large Muslim populations the North-West Frontier Province, Balochistan, and the Punjab, which was of course equally divided — there was no big enthusiasm for Pakistan. The fervour came from those parts of India where Muslims were a small minority: Central India, Uttar Pradesh Province, places where Muslim landlords and intellectuals feared that after Indian independence they would be totally overwhelmed by Hindu domination. They did not realize that they might not have been overwhelmed had large Muslim states been part of an Indian federation.

Excerpted with permission from Speaking of Empire and Resistance: Conversations with Tariq Ali By Tariq Ali and David Barsamian The New Press. Available with Liberty Books (Pvt) Ltd, 3 Rafiq Plaza, M.R. Kayani Road, Saddar, Karachi. Tel: 021-5683026. Email: Website: ISBN 1-56584-954-X 234pp. Rs830

Tariq Ali is a novelist, playwright, filmmaker and the author of several books on world history and politics. David Barsamian is the founder and director of Altenative Radio. He has conducted book-length interviews with Noam Chomsky, Eqbal Ahmad and Edward Said


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