May 3, 2011


Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven – review: Anatol Lieven's clear-sighted study asks if Pakistan has lost control of its international narrative (Pankaj Mishra, 5/03/11, The Guardian)

Lieven is more than aware of the many challenges Pakistan confronts; in fact, he adds climate change to the daunting list, and he is worried that Pakistan may indeed fall apart if the United States continues to pursue its misbegotten war in the region, thereby risking a catastrophic mutiny in the military, the country's most efficient institution. But Lieven is more interested in why Pakistan is also "in many ways surprisingly tough and resilient as a state and a society" and how the country, like India, has for decades mocked its obituaries which have been written obsessively by the west.

Briskly, Lieven identifies Pakistan's many centrifugal and centripetal forces: "Much of Pakistan is a highly conservative, archaic, even sometimes inert and somnolent mass of different societies." He describes its regional variations: the restive Pashtuns in the west, the tensions between Sindhis and migrants from India in Sindh, the layered power structures of Punjab, and the tribal complexities of Balochistan. He discusses at length the varieties of South Asian Islam, and their political and social roles in Pakistani society.

Some of Lieven's cliché-busting seems straightforward enough. Islamist politics, he demonstrates, are extremely weak in Pakistan, even if they provoke hysterical headlines in the west. Secularists may see popular allegiance to Islam as one of the biggest problems. But, as Lieven rightly says, "the cults of the saints, and the Sufi orders and Barelvi theology which underpin them, are an immense obstacle to the spread of Taliban and sectarian extremism, and of Islamist politics in general."

From afar, a majority of Pakistanis appear fanatically anti-American while also being hopelessly infatuated with Sharia. Lieven shows that, as in Latin America, anti-Americanism in Pakistan is characterised less by racial or religious supremacism than by a political bitterness about a supposed ally that is perceived to be ruthlessly pursuing its own interests while claiming virtue for its blackest deeds. And if many Pakistanis seem to prefer Islamic or tribal legal codes, it is not because they love stoning women to death but because the modern institutions of the police and judiciary inherited from the British are shockingly corrupt, not to mention profoundly ill-suited to a poor country.

As one of Lieven's intelligent interlocutors in Pakistan points out, many ordinary people dislike the Anglo-Saxon legal system partly because it offers no compensation: "Yes, they say, the law has hanged my brother's killer, but now who is to support my dead brother's family (who, by the way, have ruined themselves bribing the legal system to get the killer punished)?"

Lieven, a reporter for the Times in Pakistan in the late 1980s, has supplemented his early experience of the country with extensive recent travels, including to a village of Taliban sympathisers in the North West Frontier, and conversations with an impressive cross-section of Pakistan's population: farmers, businessmen, landowners, spies, judges, clerics, politicians, soldiers and jihadis. He commands a cosmopolitan range of reference – Irish tribes, Peronism, South Korean dictatorships, and Indian caste violence – as he probes into "the reality of Pakistan's social, economic and cultural power structures".

Approaching his subject as a trained anthropologist would, Lieven describes how Pakistan, though nominally a modern nation state, is still largely governed by the "traditions of overriding loyalty to family, clan and religion". There is hardly an institution in Pakistan that is immune to "the rules of behavior that these loyalties enjoin". These persisting ties of patronage and kinship, which are reminiscent of pre-modern Europe, indicate that the work of creating impersonal modern institutions and turning Pakistanis into citizens of a nation state – a long and brutal process in Europe, as Eugen Weber and others have shown – has barely begun.

...why would you worry that it's going to?

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Posted by at May 3, 2011 5:24 AM

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