‘Try and disarm us, if you can’

Tariq Ali finds old friends and new enemies in Lahore

Islamabad remains the official capital, but these days real power in Pakistan is exercised from the Punjabi capital of Lahore. This city, dry, warm and abundant, where I spent the first 20 years of my life and which I still love, is always changing, usually for the worse. The old Mall at its lower end, near Kim’s Gun, was once the haunt of bohemians of every sort. Poets, artists, left-wing intellectuals, film directors could be seen at their tables in the Coffee House, cursing the dictator of the day or discussing the merits of blank verse as they dipped their samosas in a mint-chilli compote and sipped tea throughout the month of Ramadan. That was more than thirty years ago. Queen Victoria’s statue, which once sat in front of the Punjab Assembly building, has long since gone. Some imaginative soul decided to replace history with fantasy. A giant stone Koran is poised precariously on the plinth where the Queen once sat.

The Mall is Lahore’s principal thoroughfare, linking the Civil Lines and cantonment of the old colonial city to the bazaars and monuments of the Mughal Empire. It is choked with cars and taxis moving at five miles an hour. A much-favoured taxi and rickshaw pin-up these days, I noticed, is Osama Bin Laden. The State Department’s ‘most wanted terrorist’ is well on his way to becoming a Pakistani hero. Contrary to what outsiders may think, his popularity is not confined to the plebeian sections of the city: many middle-class students are searching for extreme solutions in the guise of religion, and not just in Lahore. This city, more than any other, is an accurate guide to what is going on in the rest of the country, because Pakistan, since the defection of Bangladesh, is really an extended Punjab. The provinces of Sind, Baluchistan and the Frontier are sparsely populated and largely tribal.

The latest excitement in Lahore was the opening of PACE, a large supermarket (whose owners include Imran Khan) in Gulberg, once a spacious residential area, which has now succumbed to the lure of small and big businesses. The entrance to PACE attracted more visitors than the goods on display. Peasants with marvellous moustaches, anointed with mustard seed oil, came from nearby villages with their entire families and packed the foyer. Adults and children, half-fearful, half-excited, screamed with pleasure as they travelled up and down the new escalators. Rather than Lahore in the epoch of globalisation, it could have been a scene from turn-of-the-century Paris, were it not for the noise of loudspeakers in competing mosques compelling one to cease work or conversation and plug one’s ears.

Not far from PACE, hidden away in a tiny lane, is one of the new architectural glories of Lahore: the Institute for Women’s Studies, a residential postgraduate college for South Asian women. The very idea of such a centre has enraged the Beards. But the Director of the Institute, Nighat ‘Bunny’ Khan, remains unperturbed. I wondered which of the country’s top architects were involved.

‘None of them,’ Bunny replied, her gruff voice tinged with pride. ‘We decided to commission a woman, Fawzia Qureshi. She’s a senior lecturer in architecture at the National College of Art. This was her first big commission.’

Qureshi has used a tiny plot of land to build a structure on three levels which demonstrates an exemplary management of light and space. The essential purpose of the building – what gives it its special character – is to develop sociability and a sense of community. With its courtyard and terraces and seminar rooms bathed throughout the day in natural light, it is a carefully arranged marriage of Modernism and Islamic tradition.

But how long can an Institute for Women’s Studies last? In Sind and tribal Baluchistan women are still killed for bringing ‘dishonour’ to their families. The writ of the Pakistani state does not extend to these regions; and a woman who refuses to marry a man chosen by her father, or who has an extra-marital affair, is despatched summarily. Everyone knows the identity of the killers but the police remain aloof. The murders are seen as a matter for the family and the village elders. Feminist lawyers and human rights activists have tried for many decades to change things, with some success: this was one area where the previous government was enlightened. But the delicate hand that signed a decree setting up more facilities for women also authorised the arming of the Taliban and the assault on Kabul. The present government is pushing through religious laws designed to make women second-class citizens. Hacks in its employ have already begun to denounce Bunny’s Institute as a nest of atheists and Communists. The usual tag in these circumstances would be ‘lesbian’ but the word, I discovered, does not exist in Urdu or Punjabi. No such inhibitions prevent the use of colourful phrases to describe male homosexuality, incest and bestiality.

The last time I was in Pakistan, more than two years ago, the surface calm was deceptive. As I was lunching my mother in her favourite Islamabad restaurant a jovial moustachioed figure came over to greet us from an adjacent table. His wife, Benazir Bhutto, was abroad on a state visit. Senator Asif Zardari, State Minister for Investment, was responsible for entertaining the children in her absence and had brought them out for a special treat. An exchange of pleasantries ensued. I asked how things were proceeding in the country. ‘Fine,’ he replied with a charming grin. ‘All is well.’ He should have known better.

Behind closed doors in Islamabad, a palace coup was in motion. Benazir was about to be luxuriously betrayed. Farooq Leghari, the man she had carefully chosen to be President, was preparing to dismiss her government after secret consultations with the Army and the leaders of the opposition. During dinner that same week, an old acquaintance, now a senior civil servant, who is fond of Benazir, was in despair. The President, he said, had sought to defuse the crisis by asking for a special meeting with the Prime Minister. Benazir, characteristically, turned up with her husband. This annoyed Leghari: one of the subjects he’d wanted to discuss with her was her husband’s legendary greed. Despite this, he stayed calm while attempting to convince the First Couple that it was not only their political enemies who were demanding action. The scale of the corruption and the corresponding decay of the Administration had become a national scandal. He was under pressure from the Army and others to move against the Government. In order to resist them, he needed her help. He pleaded with her to discipline her husband and a number of other ministers who were out of control. Zardari, stubborn as always in defence of his own material interests, grinned and taunted the President: nobody in Pakistan, he said, including Leghari, was entirely clean. The threat was obvious: you touch us and we’ll expose you.

Leghari felt that the dignity of his office had been insulted. He began to tremble with anger. He suggested that the Minister for Investment leave the room. Benazir nodded and Zardari walked out. Leghari entreated with her again to restrain her husband. She smiled and gave her President a lecture about loyalty and how much she valued it. The people who were complaining, she told him, were jealous of her husband’s business acumen. They were professional whiners, has-beens, rogues resentful at being passed over. She made no concessions.

By Pakistani standards Leghari is an honest, straightforward man. He was Benazir’s choice as President only because she thought he lacked ambition and would do her bidding. ‘He may not be very bright, but his heart is in the right place,’ disappointed contenders were told. Earlier this year, Leghari told me that this meeting, the last of many, had been decisive. He could no longer tolerate her excesses: if she continued in office the Army would intervene against democracy for the fourth time in the country’s history. Reluctantly, he decided to invoke the Eighth Amendment: a gift to the nation from the late dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, which gives the President powers to dismiss an elected government. New elections were to be held within 90 days.

Corruption was the main charge levelled against Benazir and Zardari. It was alleged that the couple had used Prime Minister’s House to amass a large private fortune – reckoned to be in the region of one billion dollars – and transfer their assets abroad. Immediately after Benazir’s fall, Zardari was arrested: he still languishes in a Karachi prison, charged with a series of offences for which government lawyers have yet to find proof acceptable even in a Pakistani court, where standards of evidence are exceptionally low. The state has still to find a reliable witness. Zardari’s business associates and friends have remained loyal. One of them, the chairman of Pakistan Steel, committed suicide rather than give evidence against his former patron. Some of Benazir’s closest supporters – and they exist – insist that her political prestige was squandered by her husband, that he is a fraud, a poseur, a wastrel, a philanderer and much worse. A few weeks ago, addressing a friendly gathering at a seminar in Islamabad, Benazir tried to defend him. He was much misunderstood, she said, but before she could continue, the audience began to shake their heads in disapproval. ‘No! No! No!’ they shouted. She paused and then said with a sigh: ‘I wonder why I always get the same reaction whenever I mention him.’

I don’t think Zardari was the only reason for her unpopularity. The People’s Party had done little for the poor who were its natural constituency. Most of her ministers, at national and provincial level, were too busy lining their own pockets. Infant mortality figures remained unchanged through the whole of her time in office. Permanently surrounded by cronies and sycophants, Benazir was isolated from her electorate and oblivious to reality. In the General Election that followed her removal from power, the People’s Party suffered a humiliating defeat. The Pakistani electorate may be largely illiterate, but its political sophistication has never been in doubt. Disillusioned, apathetic and weary, Benazir’s supporters refused to vote for her, but they could not bring themselves to vote for the enemy. The Muslim League won a giant majority (they hold over two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly), but 70 per cent of the electorate stayed indoors.

Lahore has been the hometown of the Sharif family which now rules Pakistan since 1947. They were blacksmiths in East Punjab (now in India) and sought refuge in the new Muslim homeland. They worked hard. Their foundries prospered. They had no interest in politics. One day in 1972, Benazir’s father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was advised to nationalise the Sharif family enterprise. It was an economically inept decision, but it pleased party loyalists and distracted attention from Bhutto’s failure to push through badly needed land reforms. The landlords, of course, were only too pleased to support half-baked nationalisations of industries large and small. Muhammed Sharif, the family patriarch, became a sworn enemy of Bhutto. When General Zia took over in July 1977, the Sharif clan cheered loudly. When Zia ordered the execution of Bhutto after a rigged trial, the Sharif family gave thanks to Allah for answering their prayers.

The rivalry between Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, and Muhammed’s son, Nawaz, therefore, has rich antecedents. Nawaz Sharif became a protégé of Zia’s and was brought into politics at the dirty end of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the most powerful institution in the country. Today, he is the elected Prime Minister of Pakistan. His brother, Shahbaz Sharif, is the Chief Minister of the Punjab and their Abaji (‘dear father’) amuses himself in his dotage by sponsoring the appointment of old cronies as ambassadors. He even selects the President of the country. The current incumbent, a bearded simpleton called Rafiq Tarrar, is one of Abaji’s factotums. What makes Tarrar dangerous is his sympathy for an extremist Muslim sect, the Ahle-Hadis, which has its own armed wing.

Of the two brothers, Shahbaz is regarded as the more sophisticated politician, and it is now an open secret that Washington would like to swap the brothers round, sending Shahbaz to Prime Minister’s House and giving Nawaz his old job in Lahore. The US Embassy has organised a visit to Washington for Shahbaz to meet Sandy Berger at the White House. A swap would make sense, but in order to effect the change, Abaji will have to be won over.

Little has changed since the Sharif brothers won the last election. Corruption, spreading from the top down, is now so extensive that visiting economists from the World Bank and IMF are shocked. Local wits express dismay at the news that Nigeria heads the list of the world’s most corrupt countries. ‘Even here,’ they say, ‘we can’t quite make it to the top. Why didn’t we bribe the agency compiling the statistics?’ The élite, led by the politicians, continues to loot the country’s wealth. Benazir’s gang has had its turn and now it’s that of the Brothers Sharif. Less than 1 percent of the population pays income tax. The politicians, many of whom are landlords, refuse to countenance a serious agricultural tax. State-owned banks have been forced by successive governments to lend money to politicians, landlords and businessmen, and discouraged from retrieving it. Bad bank loans stand at 200 billion rupees (£1 = 85 rupees) – the rough equivalent of 70 per cent of total public revenue. Pakistan will mark the new millennium with a foreign debt of $42 billion and a domestic debt of $70 billion: the combined figure is $50 billion higher than GDP.

While I was there, the Army was asked by the Government to take over the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) and ensure that all electricity bills were paid on time. Soldiers arrived at every house to read the meters and discovered the ingenious methods being used to slow down the meter or to steal electricity directly from the supply system by circumventing the WAPDA wires. Interestingly, most of those involved in such schemes could afford to pay their bills: one of them is a wealthy landowner who is also a minister in the Sharif Government. Despite the evidence, she continues to plead her innocence and has not, so far, been asked to resign. In some ways this is the most useful thing the Army has done in Pakistan, and if one were convinced that interventions of this kind could reduce corruption and chicanery, one would welcome the Army taking over the Inland Revenue and various other departments of state. But past experience has shown that officers and soldiers soon get the hang of corruption. It’s said that Nawaz Sharif, on Abaji’s advice, has kept the Army at bay by bribing corps commanders with money-bags containing a crore of rupees (a ‘crore’ = ten million) for each general. Someone suggested that the corps commanders should now be known as crore commanders.

The country meanwhile continues to rot. A state that has never provided free education or health care can no longer guarantee subsidised wheat, rice or sugar; nor can it protect innocent lives from random killings. Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, has been involved in a virtual civil war for a decade, with Urdu-speaking children of the refugees who trekked to the new homeland from India in 1947 waging war on indigenous Sindhis as well as the Government. Several thousand from all sides have died in armed encounters. In these conditions people have to fend for themselves. The suicide rate is soaring, especially among the poor, driven to insanity by their inability to feed their children. In January a transport worker in Hyderabad who had not been paid for two years went to the Press Club, soaked himself in petrol and set himself alight. He left behind a letter:

I have lost patience. Me and my fellow workers have been protesting the non-payment of our salaries for a long time. But nobody takes any notice. My wife and mother are seriously ill and I have no money for their treatment. My family is starving and I am fed up with quarrels. I don’t have the right to live. I am sure the flames of my body will reach the houses of the rich one day

It is the abdication of its traditional role by a corrupt and decaying state, combined with the surreal neo-liberal economic prescriptions handed down by the politburos of the IMF and World Bank, that has created the space for political Islam. In successive general elections people have voted against hardline religious parties. (The Pakistani electorate casts proportionately fewer votes than the Israeli electorate for religious extremists.) Until now, Islamism has derived its strength from state patronage rather than popular support. The ascendancy of religious groups is the legacy of General Zia, who received political, military and financial support from the United States and Britain throughout his 11 years as dictator. The West needed Zia to fight the Afghan war against the former Soviet Union. Nothing else mattered. The CIA, for example, turned a blind eye to the sale of heroin to fund the Mujaheddin, and the number of officially registered heroin addicts in Pakistan rose from 130 in 1977 to 30,000 in 1988.

In the same period, a network of madrassahs (religious boarding schools) was established throughout the country. Initially, most of these were funded by foreign aid from a variety of Islamic sources. Since board and lodging were free, it was not only the children of Afghan refugees who flocked to them: poor peasant families were only too happy to donate a son to the madrassahs. It would be a mouth fewer to feed at home and the boy would be educated; as they saw it, he might find a job in the city or, if he was really lucky, in one of the Gulf States.

These schools, however, had no interest in education in a secular sense: what they provided was a new kind of ‘religious scholarship’. Together with verses from the Koran (to be learned by rote), the children were taught to banish all doubts. The only truth was divine truth and the only code of conduct was to be found in the Koran and the Hadith. Virtue lay in unthinking obedience. Anyone who rebelled against the imam rebelled against Allah. The madrassahs had a single function: they were nurseries designed to produce fanatics. The primers, for example, stated that the Urdu letter jeem stood for ‘jihad’; tay for tope (‘cannon’); kaaf for ‘Kalashnikov’ and khay for khoon (‘blood’). The older pupils were instructed in the use of sophisticated hand weapons and taught how to make and plant bombs. ISI agents provided training and supervision. They also observed the development of the more promising students, or taliban, who were picked out and sent for more specialised training at secret army camps, the better to fight the holy war against the unbelievers in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s oldest Islamic party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, grew in influence during the Zia years. Its leaders assumed that they would run the madrassahs. The party has always prided itself on its cadre organisation, based on the Leninist model of small cells, and has shunned mass membership – although this may have been because it, in turn, was shunned by the masses. With the advent of the madrassahs, its leaders thought their time had come – the students, they believed, were all potential recruits – but they were to be disappointed. Since dollars were freely available thanks to the war, different Islamic factions emerged and began to compete with each other for mastery in the schools and a division of the spoils. The ISI became the arbiter of intra-religious disputes and favoured some groups against others.

For a time the Afghan war consumed the energies of the rival religious groupings. After the first, Cold War version was over, the Pakistani state refused to accept a coalition government in Afghanistan. It was Benazir Bhutto’s Government that unleashed the Taliban, backed by Pakistan Army commando units, in an attempt to take Kabul. The US, fearful of Iranian influence in the region, backed the decision. The dragon seeds sown in 2500 madrassahs produced a crop of 225,000 fanatics ready to kill and die for their faith when ordered to do so by their religious leaders. General Naseerullah Babar, Pakistan’s Minister for the Interior, confided to friends that the only solution to the Taliban menace inside Pakistan was to give the extremists their own country and this, he said, was what he had decided to do. The argument was disingenuous at the time, but in the light of what has happened over the last two years, he deserves to be tried as a war criminal.

With the Cold War at an end, the militant Islamic groups had served their purpose and, unsurprisingly, the US no longer felt the need to supply them with funds and weaponry. Overnight they became violently anti-American and began to dream of revenge. Pakistan’s political and military leaders, who had served the US loyally and continuously from 1951 onwards, also felt humiliated by Washington’s indifference. ‘Pakistan was the condom the Americans needed to enter Afghanistan,’ a retired general told me. ‘We’ve served our purpose and they think we can be just be flushed down the toilet.’

The Pakistan Army – one of the Pentagon’s spoilt brats in Asia – was loath to see the country relegated to the status of Kuwait. That was the meaning of last year’s nuclear tantrum. It had the desired effect: Pakistan is back on the ‘B list’ of countries in the US State Department. On 29 November, the Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz attempted to soothe Western opinion. ‘I see no possibility of an accidental nuclear war between Pakistan and India. Pakistan has an effective control and command system.’ This is pure nonsense, but even if it were true, imagine what would happen if the Taliban took over the Pakistan Army. Every political leader in Pakistan is aware of the danger. Nawaz Sharif is trying to pre-empt political Islam by stealing some of its clothes, but this is a tactic that rarely works.

The irony of the present situation is that religion in the Punjab was always a relaxed affair. The old tradition of Sufi mysticism, with its emphasis on individual communion with the creator and its hostility to preachers, had deep roots in the countryside. But the annual festivals at the tombs of the Sufi saints, during which the participants sang, danced, drank, inhaled bhang and fornicated to their hearts’ content, as they had done for centuries, were forbidden when General Zia placed the country under martial law. In their place came a peculiarly non-Punjabi form of religious extremism, approved by Washington, funded by Saudi petro-dollars and carefully nourished by Zia.

Ninety per cent of Pakistan’s Muslims are Sunnis. The rest are mainly Shi‘as. The Sunnis themselves are divided into two major schools of thought. The Deobandis represent orthodoxy. The Barelvis believe in a more synthetic Islam, defined and changed by local conditions. For many years their disputes were literary, or took the form of public debates. No longer. Every faction now lays absolute claim to Islam. Disputes are no longer settled by discussion, but by machine-guns and massacres. Some Deobandi factions want Shi‘ism declared a heresy and the Shi‘as physically eliminated. A war between the sects has been raging for nearly three years. The Sunni Sipah-e-Sahaba (Soldiers of the First Four Caliphs) have attacked Shi‘a mosques in the heart of Lahore and massacred the faithful at prayer. The Shi‘as have responded in kind. They formed the Sipah-e-Muhammed (Soldiers of Muhammed), got Iranian backing and began to exact a gruesome revenge. Several hundred people have died in these intra-Muslim massacres, mainly Shi‘as.

In January this year, an armed Taliban faction seized a group of villages in the Hangu district of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier. They declared the area to be under ‘Islamic law’ and promptly organised the public destruction of TV sets and dish antennae in the village of Zargari. This was followed by the burning of 3000 ‘obscene’ video and audio cassettes in the small square in Lukki. There is something comical in this hostility to television – it reminds me of a Situationist spectacle in the Sixties – but humour is not something associated with the Taliban. ‘The hands and feet of thieves will be chopped off and all criminals brought to justice in accordance with Islamic laws,’ the leader of the movement, Hussain Jalali, announced after the burning of the TV sets.

Jalali’s aim is to extend the Afghan experience to Pakistan. ‘What can we do?’ a supporter of the Sharif brothers asked me, wringing his hands in despair. ‘These bastards are all armed!’ I pointed out that some of the bastards were being armed by the Government to create mayhem in neighbouring Kashmir, and that our bloated Army was also armed. Why wasn’t it asked to disarm these groups? Here the conversation ended. For it is no secret that religious extremists have penetrated the Army at every level. What distinguishes the new extremists from the old-style religious groups is that they want to seize power and for that they need the Army.

Ahle-Hadis, one of the most virulent groups, is a creation of the ISI. It wants to see the Saudi model implanted in Pakistan, but without the monarchy. It has supporters and mosques everywhere, including Britain and the US, whose aim is to supply cadres and money for the worldwide jihad. This group is drawn from the most orthodox of the Sunni sects; it doesn’t have a mass following, but it does have Rafiq Tarrar’s support and government ministers grace its meetings. Its sub-office is at 5 Chamberlaine Road in Lahore. I was tempted to go and interview them, but the sight of thirty heavily-armed guards made me change my mind. The group’s armed wing, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (Soldiers of Medina), could not exist without the patronage of the Army. It has a membership of 50,000 militants and is the leading participant in the jihad to ‘liberate’ Indian Kashmir. Its ‘soldiers’ are trained by the Army at eight special camps in Azad (Pakistani-controlled) Kashmir, funded by Saudi Arabia and the Government of Pakistan. The movement recruits teenagers from poor families for the holy war and has lost several hundred members in Kashmir. The Government pays 50,000 rupees (about £600) for each corpse returned from the battlefield: 15,000 go to the family of the ‘martyr’ and the rest helps to fund the organisation.

The Harkatul Ansar (Volunteers Movement), once funded by the US and backed by the ISI, was declared a terrorist organisation by the State Department last year, and promptly changed its name to Harkatul Mujahideen. Its fighters were among the most dedicated Taliban and it has shifted its training camps from the Punjab to Afghanistan. Osama Bin Laden is its leader. He continues to maintain close contacts with the ISI and his supporters have warned the Government that any attempt to abduct him or ban his organisation would lead to an immediate civil war in Pakistan. They boast that the Army will never agree to be used against them because it contains too many of their supporters.

Both these groups want to take over Pakistan, but not in harness. Each dreams of an Islamic Federation, which will impose a Pax Talibana stretching from Lahore to Samarkand, but avoiding the ‘Heretics’ Republic of Iran’. For all their incoherence and senseless rage, their message is attractive to those who yearn for some semblance of order in their lives. If the fanatics promise to feed them and educate their (male) children they are prepared to forgo the delights of CNN and BBC World.

The alternative to an Islamic Federation is to mend the breach with India. The recent visit to Lahore of the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Vajpayee, was welcomed by business interests and an otherwise critical press. There is a great deal of talk about a new permanent settlement: an EU-style arrangement incorporating India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, an opening of the frontiers and a no-war pact between India and Pakistan. This is undoubtedly the most rational solution on offer, but it would necessitate the disarming of the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and other groups. The Indian Prime Minister demanded that this be done as a gesture of goodwill. ‘Try and disarm us, if you can,’ the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba retorted. ‘If you do, we will have to do now what we were planning to do in two years’ time. It’s up to you.’ It is this desire for a head-on clash, whatever its probable outcome, that distinguishes the new wave of Islamic militants in Pakistan. Mercifully, they still constitute a minority in the country, but all that could change if nothing else does.