Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Inconstant, as always

We know why Shakespeare’s Juliet would not let her lover Romeo swear “by yonder blessed moon”. She cried: “O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, / That monthly changes in her circled orb / Lest that thy love prove likewise variable”.

Our distinguished religious scholars of the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee, with the help and assistance of the entire administration, seem to have a similar vacillating attitude towards the new Shawal moon. Year after year after year, they seem unable to decide the definite appearance of this moon in the sky and keep the nation from celebrating two or even three Eids.

And so it was this year, with some additional predicaments. Indeed, the decision seemed to have been forced by Frontier’s Senior Minister Bashir Bilour, who announced that Eid would be celebrated in the province on Wednesday even when the Ruet-e-Hilal decision was pending rather late on Tuesday evening. The Central Ruet-e-Hilal Committee, then, made up its mind just before 11 pm.

Writing about this moon-sighting confusion would, of course, be a ritualistic exercise because we could have taken it for granted. But isn’t this something to think about? Confusion, it appears, has become our way of life. This moon business goes back to the days of Ayub Khan and I can recall Syed Mohammad Jafri’s humorous poem on two Eids. But this is no longer funny. That we feel content to live with it is the real issue.

I wonder if this attitude, this tolerance of something that seems patently irrational, is so ingrained in our minds that our ability to deal with socio-political and national security crises has also been undermined. We do not demand decisive action on major issues and continue to prevaricate. We generally tend to play both sides.

Playing both sides is what our government has been accused of by some American critics in the specific context of the war against terrorism. But this war that our security forces are now fighting in the tribal belt, particular in Bajaur, has become serious and it is not about to end. In this gloom of war, we again feel very confused about what it actually means and whether it is our war, after all.

In a sense, this debate about whether this war against terror is America’s war or Pakistan’s battle for survival is a reflection of the abiding polarisation between modern-liberal and radical Islamist sentiments. Somehow, the overall thrust of the culture of the tribal areas is not in harmony with the demand for progressive social change. Hence the ignominy of the bombing of girls’ schools in such places as Swat.

Meanwhile, tensions are mounting in every sector. There is confusion not only about who is fighting whose war but also on issues that have to be tackled on a priority basis. One thing, however, is certain, The sense of insecurity in the country is rising. We have not yet recovered from the shock of the Marriott bomb blast two weeks ago. In fact, its reverberations continue as it was only on Thursday that the United Nations decided that the spouses and families of its staff in Pakistan should leave the country and be relocated for an interim period. A similar decision was taken by the British High Commission.

Even the Eid holidays were not without an incident of terrorism. On Thursday, the second day of the official Eid, a very serious attempt was made to assassinate ANP chief Asfandyar Wali but he survived the Charsadda suicide blast. It was still a very disturbing attack and another indication of the reach of the terrorists. It is instructive that Asfandyar was shifted to Islamabad for security reasons.

With all this focus on the war against terrorism and the disruptions that this war has caused, the economic crisis has somewhat receded into the background. But this still remains the most difficult challenge for the new government, though it should no longer be considered so new. Unfortunately, the pace at which the government is taking its decisions is very slow. Again, we sense confusion about what they want to do. The federal cabinet remains unfinished and there is hardly any sense of urgency about moving forward, in whichever direction.

The Pakistan Army, though, has taken the initiative and its operations are likely to produce a long-term impact on the state of affairs in the tribal areas. In a report datelined Peshawar, the New York Times said on Friday: “After years of relative passivity, the army is now engaged in heavy fighting with the militants on at least three fronts”. The title of the report: “Confronting Taliban, Pakistan finds itself at war”.

One important dimension of this war, apart from the displacement of about 250, 000 people, is the involvement of lashkars that are willing to take up arms against the Taliban. Perhaps this indicates a shift in the alliances that are being made in the tribal areas. But the impact of the war is to be felt throughout the country. There has been this fear that the Taliban may also have infiltrated the congested Pakhtun settlements of Karachi.

In a larger context, our minds are also preoccupied with the economic crisis of the United States and about the focus on Pakistan in the political campaign of the presidential elections now just one month away. Irrespective of our ambivalent feelings about the United States, our linkages with the sole superpower of the world are deep and we may feel the shock of its economic meltdown.

Indeed, there is this debate about how the status of the United States as the only superpower may be threatened. According to John Gray, a former professor of the London School of Economics, this is “a historic geopolitical shift in which the balance of power in the world is being altered irrevocably”.

Well, if the balance of power does shift, how would it impact Pakistan? On the face of it, we do not seem to have the intellectual resources to worry about these things. In many ways, we remain engrossed in matters of the moment, be that the sighting of the moon. But our ability to comprehend the global developments and adjust our vision and our priorities in accordance with the new realities remains restricted. We are bogged down in a locale that seems so far away from the modern world.

And yet, we are at war. We are fighting this war for our survival. It is another matter that we are also very confused about all this. I am reminded of the concluding lines of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’: “And we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night”.

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