Pakistan's Troubles Stem From Misunderstood Past: Ayesha Jalal Interview with NPR

Pakistan's Troubles Stem From Misunderstood Past
NPR, September 30, 2010

STEVE INSKEEP, host: Now, when the flooding came to Pakistan over the summer, Ayesha Jalal was just finishing an extended visit to the country. She's a Pakistani-American historian and her books have pressed a troubled country to rethink its history. She recently returned from teaching university students in the city of Lahore.

As homes were destroyed and bridges were destroyed and levees burst and other buildings and cities and towns were destroyed, did you did you ever get a feeling that you were in a country that was going backwards in time?

Ms. AYESHA JALAL (Pakistani-American Historian): Oh, absolutely. I think these floods have caused a 20 year hit in terms of infrastructural development, whatever they had. So yes, absolutely. One felt one was drowning. I think it'll take a while before Pakistan can muster the sort of money and the courage to rebuild. It'll take a long, long time.

INSKEEP: It's interesting to think of a country being forced to go back in time, because your profession is looking at the past and you came to Pakistan to encourage some Pakistanis to look at their past in a different way. What brought you to the country?

Ms. JALAL: Well, I was asked to come and help set up the history major at the Lahore University of Management Sciences - that's one of the very prestigious universities that Pakistan possesses. I couldn't say no to that because for years I've believed that Pakistan has not done a good job teaching history. They've been rather more interested in ideology and projecting national or official ideology. So to teach history as a discipline, as a way to learn the methodology of understanding the past, I think is extremely important in a country that's prone to conspiratorial thinking.

INSKEEP: What's an example of the difference between a piece of history and a piece of ideology and how that warps people's thinking today?

Ms. JALAL: Well, I think a very good example is the reasons for why Pakistan was created. The ideologues would argue that it was created for Pakistan to become an Islamic conservative bastion, whereas the history tells you otherwise. The history tells you that Pakistan emerged out of an attempt to win a large share of power for Indian Muslims in India.

INSKEEP: Lets remember that Pakistan was created in 1947 when what was then British India was divided into two countries, India and Pakistan.

Ms. JALAL: That's right. When the British decolonized, they split India into two because the India National Congress, the largest nationalist party in India, and the All-India Muslim League, which was the Muslim largest Muslim party, failed to come to an agreement on how to share power. It's this fact that is not acknowledged and realized. And this, I think, is at the roots of many other problems that Pakistan faces in terms of the sense of identity, the relationship with India, which as you know is a very, very complicated and problematic relationship which accounts for so many of the woes of Pakistan.

INSKEEP: What connection do you see, if any, between this historical confusion and Pakistan's modern trouble with Muslim extremists?

Ms. JALAL: Well, I think there's enormous degree of connection here, because while Pakistan has always claimed to be a Muslim state, the extent to which the state subscribed to a conservative radical version of Islam, that came about largely for strategic reasons in the late '70s, where the quest for identity, or to find their feet, saw Pakistan turning increasingly towards the Arab world.

You see with the onset of the Soviet invasion and the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Pakistan tilts towards an increasingly more radicalized militant Islam, which was really quite alien to the people of Pakistan, and this was justified by the then-ruler, the military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq, on the grounds that Pakistan was after all created in the name of religion.

INSKEEP: I feel like I'm hearing something of a parallel between political debates in Pakistan, the country where you were born, and political debates here in the United States, because Americans always will try to go back to the founding fathers and what did they intend, and people will raise arguments about what Jefferson said about something and why that means that their modern policy today on some modern issue is in line or totally out of line with the founding fathers. And if you get that wrong, you can create all sorts of problems. It sounds like you're saying that something very similar happens in Pakistan.

Ms. JALAL: Well, absolutely, but I think in the case of Pakistan, beyond debating what the founding fathers intended, there's a fundamental denial of the factors that led to the creation of Pakistan. I don't think the U.S. is as confused about the causes of the formation of the U.S. federation. But I think in Pakistan, where you have a situation where there are more Muslims today in India and in Bangladesh, there is a much greater degree of confusion why Pakistan was created.

INSKEEP: Are Pakistanis actually asking why are we even a country at all? Why aren't we just still part of India?

Ms. JALAL: You know, my book, my first work, which is on this subject, "The Sole Spokesman," came out in 1985 during Zia-ul-Haq's regime. And at that stage there was a good deal of criticism of my work, very few people read the book. But now I think that after so many years there's a much greater willingness to debate this issue. The younger generation is quite promising. They're asking questions, and it could result in something positive for Pakistan.

INSKEEP: If Pakistanis ask that question, why were we created, does it lead to the even more terrifying question, should we even be here, should we go out of business as a country?

Ms. JALAL: No, I think that's not going to happen. But the problem is that the official history does not add up. It does not provide them with explanations, which is what the youth finds frustrating. So I do think that the problem with the Pakistani mindset has a lot to do with the absence of history as a discipline, because history as you may be aware, means to investigate. It's a methodology to know the past. It's the absence of that methodology in their thinking that has made them far more susceptible to conspiracy theory.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by conspiracy theories in Pakistan?

Ms. JALAL: There are those in Pakistan, for your information, who believe that the Americans are behind all manner of attacks that are taking place - in fact, it's the Americans and not the Taliban. There are those who would go so far as to say that even the Americans are responsible for the floods. It's easy to dismiss the mindset, but as a historian I take it very seriously because perceptions matter. There's a reality deficit, which stems from a fundamental ahistorical understanding.

INSKEEP: Ayesha Jalal of Tufts University is the author of books including "Partisans of Allah" and "The Sole Spokesman."


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