Homecoming to Jinnah’s Pakistan
By Dr Akbar S. Ahmed
“We have to cancel today’s program due to a very high alert security threat. One brave officer died in Karachi yesterday, Chaudhary Aslam.” The email from Dr Naeem Mushtaq, the head of Human Resources at the Islamabad Club, sounded ominous. My lecture on Islam and Mr Jinnah, the Quaid-i-Azam, had already attracted a large number of RSVPs and I was looking forward to one of my last events before I returned to the United States.
I was concluding a six-week trip to Pakistan early in January 2014 which had involved giving an intense round of lectures, media and meetings. It was a time of high emotion for me as this was my first lengthy visit in nearly two decades.
But Dr Mushtaq’s letter left no room for doubt about the seriousness of the threat: “We need to protect international assets like yourself and therefore the Club management has decided to cancel the program on the information provided by our security department.”
It did set me thinking. The Islamabad Club is no ordinary institution. It is the bastion of prestige and power in the country. Its members are influential generals, civil servants, businessmen and politicians. Its facilities are unrivaled. The abrupt manner in which the lecture was cancelled revealed the impotence of the upper and middle class – the elite – and the boldness of those who were determined to challenge it.
Understanding the Crisis
In my last book, The Thistle and the Drone, published last year, I had proposed a thesis that the relationship between the center and the periphery has reached a breaking point across the Muslim world, due to the failure of the modern state to accommodate the diversity of minority groups and give them their due, especially on its borders. The delicate balance between center and periphery is now in jeopardy, from Morocco to the Caucasus Mountains. In most cases, the center has prevailed with brute force. Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain are some examples. However, the periphery has also succeeded in some cases in not only challenging but overwhelming the center, as in Libya.
In Pakistan, the tribal periphery has been subjected to over a decade of turmoil that has left it devastated. I pointed out that the disruption for ordinary tribal peoples is caused not just by the drone strikes but also by the suicide bombers, clan warfare and Pakistani security forces hunting for terrorists. As a result large numbers have fled their homes to live desperate lives as refugees in the bigger cities of Pakistan.
I witnessed the stark disparity between center and periphery in Peshawar. The governor of the KP Province Mr Shaukat Ullah graciously hosted a dinner for me at the governor’s house attended by some 40 senators and members of parliament from the Tribal Areas. The security was extremely tight. In fact, Peshawar itself looked like a military camp under siege: high walls, barbed wires, roadblocks and barriers, with unshaven soldiers asking us to stop every few yards. It broke my heart to see what the violence had done to this beautiful city where I had spent so many happy years. I could not imagine anyone taking their infant children in a stroller along with their wives down Fort Road as we did when we lived there. People are fearful of exposing themselves and every day is like a battle for survival. This historic city of gardens was reduced to a battleground, with men of violence, in and out of uniform, slaughtering each other with cruelty.
The people of the province complain of how far they are being left behind in the law and order situation, development and education compared to the Punjab. The Punjab is almost like another country within Pakistan. Mian Shahbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister, has made it probably the most developed and well-run province in the entire subcontinent, but its rapid development has caused a further divide between center and periphery. The peripheral provinces of Pakistan, KP, Baluchistan, and Sindh, are resentful due to the blatant imbalance between the provinces. They complain that the present government is basically a government of the Punjabis, by the Punjabis and for the Punjabis. The idea of a federation of provinces is thus weakened.
The devastation of the tribal areas has had profound consequences for Pakistan as a whole. The center is now under assault by the desperate and infuriated periphery and its responses seem to have been restricted to two strategies — either “peace talks” or the use of “force”. Pakistanis discuss these options passionately throughout the land. I found these arguments flawed. Both dialogue and force had been used over the last decade and both had failed. Besides, I had become quickly aware that it was not simply a question of dealing with the Taliban alone (The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, TTP, is the Pakistani version of the Taliban which came into being after 2007). The situation is far more complex and changing rapidly.
The Taliban were no longer only in the Tribal Areas; their presence was apparent in the bigger cities as well. Their actions were not restricted to the ethnic tribesmen from the Tribal Areas but seemed to be supported at some level and in certain cases by ordinary police constables, peons in the office, and domestic servants in elite homes. Besides, as Sunni Muslims, they were now working closely with equally deadly Sunni groups from the Punjab including organizations like the Sipah-e-Sahaba, whose main target was the Shia.
The bold war tactics and consequent violence that came from the TTP provided inspiration to two other sections of society: the landless labor and peasants whose confrontation with the landlords and elite had been simmering for the last decades, and the emboldened criminal elements in society.
All three are helped by the desperate situation of the poor in Pakistan. Lack of jobs, electricity, and gas combine with high prices of basic foods like wheat and sugar make life intolerable for ordinary Pakistanis. Stories of suicides of desperate parents jumping onto railway tracks with their children appear in the media.
Families were prudently hedging their bets, one son going to the police, the other to the army, the third taking employment as a domestic servant, and the fourth joining the Taliban. Because all of these jobs were at the lowest rung of society, the brothers have one thing in common, apart from blood, they face a similar “enemy” — the Pakistani elite.
The merging and overlapping of the Taliban with the class confrontation and the criminal elements of Pakistan has created a new dynamic. Traditionally, the bold war tactics of the tribesmen in the Tribal Areas were restricted to their own areas and used during wartime. We have seen since 9/11, however, and especially after the attack of President Musharraf on Lal Masjid, the representatives of the state become a target far from the Tribal Areas. The attacks on GHQ of the Pakistan Army, when the assailants reached dangerously close to the office of the Commander-in-Chief himself, the Mehran Naval Base in Karachi, and the Air Force Base in Peshawar reflect the characteristic boldness of tribal tactics.
Aftab Sherpao of the KP Province who heads his own party and was once Interior Minister for Pakistan told me that we should not be so focused on analyzing the Tribal Areas alone because Pakistan must first get a grip of the collapsed law and order situation in the settled areas. There are large swathes of territory from Peshawar to Swabi—the most fertile territory of the province—which are completely lawless. The three elements we have identified have combined to paralyze the administration. Sherpao said that there were what he called Taliban “sleepers” in Peshawar. The Taliban had told him they could take Peshawar tomorrow if they wanted, the question was what would they do with it. Meanwhile they have set about systematically demolishing the fabric of the state. They have destroyed 2,000 schools and targeted and killed the most outstanding police officers in a deliberate bid to demoralize the administration.
Sherpao was in deadly earnest. He lost his elder brother, the charismatic Hayat Sherpao, and his brother-in-law, a senior police officer, to assassins. He narrowly escaped several attempts on his own life. These tactics of the Taliban had now combined with the desire of the less privileged and often landless peasant to challenge landlords and with the criminal elements. The combination of the three elements is playing havoc with an already demoralized and shaken society.
In Swat, landless peasants openly have challenged their landlords. I was told by Brigadier Ajab Khan, who was formerly in charge of army operations in north Swat, that 95% of the Taliban in that region belonged to the Gujar community, who had lived in the valley centuries ago and felt dispossessed by the Pashtun Yusufzai Khans. They now wanted their ancestral lands back and were prepared to kill for it. When the Gujar combined with the Taliban in Swat, they set out, according to the Brigadier, to destroy its economic base by wiping out the rich forest reserves of the area and even removing the copper from the wires of ski lifts.
It is well to keep in mind that the leadership of the Taliban is coming from the Shabi Khel clan of the Mahsud tribe, the boldest fighters of the Pashtun tribes. While their last leader, Hakimullah Mahsud was a mass murderer, nonetheless he was a product of Pashtunwali, the code of the Pashtun. His actions emphasized revenge, in accordance with the code, but as a Pashtun he also understood the importance of honor. The new leader, Fazullah, who is also Pashtun, comes from a very different social context. Having lived and worked in Swat as a low level mullah in a society known for its hierarchy, Fazullah brings a hatred of the Swat elite which is not tempered by any kind of code.
The change of Taliban leadership is fundamental to the understanding of the thesis that I am presenting here. Fazullah will look to the entire province and indeed the rest of the country as a target to wreak havoc with maximum cruelty because he believes he is fighting to remove a corrupt elite and impose the Sharia. He also has a personal reason to hate the center. He lost his brother in a drone strike for which he blames both the US and Pakistan. He is thus driven by a desire for revenge on a personal and class basis.
I heard many heartbreaking stories from Pashtun friends and relatives in Swat of members of families being surrounded by their erstwhile tenants and killed. Several of my wife’s relatives in Swat were killed in what appears to be straightforward class warfare. The elite were barely able to put up a fight. Most of them now live in Islamabad and talk of taking revenge. In one particularly gruesome case outside of the Pashtun areas, a domestic servant, known for his long service and supposed loyalty, tended to the aged parents of a friend of mine. The father could not move around due to his illness, and the servant looked after the mother. But when he was alone on one occasion, he suffocated her to death with a pillow.
Criminal gangs that had been active mainly in Karachi have been emboldened by the TTP. Karachi had established the success of criminals kidnapping well-off Pakistanis and ransoming them for large sums of money. Allying with the TTP, criminal elements now operate in the bigger cities of northern Pakistan with impunity. No member of the elite is safe. Anyone, anywhere can be picked up from the home or on the way to the office. Ambassadors, superintendents of police, and even academics – whether vice-chancellors or ordinary lecturers – are fair game. Medical doctors are popular because the kidnappers assume they make sufficient money to pay large ransoms. Yet for all the widespread breakdown, it appears that even now there are some elements of the traditional code of honor in operation as I did not see reports of Pakistani woman being kidnapped.
The success of this recent trend may be gauged by the fact that the son of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of the Punjab assassinated by his own bodyguard, who was kidnapped after his father’s death, has still not been recovered. The whereabouts of the kidnapped son of a former Prime Minister of Pakistan remain unknown. There is little or no sympathy in the general public for these kidnapped young men. The cynical response is that their fathers have made enough money through corruption to pay some of it to the poorer elements in society.
As if this picture was not gloomy enough, there are several other elements which need to be discussed. Pakistanis commonly believe that there is also a clash on three levels in society which is causing violence. The clash between Shias and Sunnis has seen relentless tit for tat killings, especially religious heads, medical doctors, and scholars. Pakistanis believe that Saudi money supports the Sunnis and Iranian money the Shia in their violent confrontation with each other. They also believe there is a confrontation between Indian agents who want to destabilize Pakistan and Pakistani security forces, thus reflecting the historical clash between Hinduism and Islam. Pakistanis will also talk about attempts by Western powers, namely the United States, to break up Pakistan, an endeavor which fits into the Clash of Civilizations theory in which the West is pitted against Islam.
The Failure of the Elite
There is also the failure of the elite to come to grips with the problems of Pakistan. Many of its members, like Pakistani “liberal” commentators, reflect ideas picked up from Washington or London think tanks such as the War on Terror. They simplify what is happening in Pakistan as an Islamic movement. Their analysis is replete with words and concepts like jihadis, Islamists, and salafis which explain little and add to the confusion. Not fully understanding the problem, like their Western colleagues, they are incapable of offering solutions.
The ruling elite of Pakistan appear to be overwhelmed by these problems. It is the traditional rabbit caught in a headlight. Apart from discussing its favorite conspiracy theories—and I heard the range and diversity—it has little idea of how to halt the rapidly deteriorating situation. The elite know something terrible is happening, but it has little idea what to do about it. It is the failure of the modern state and the elite is culpable for allowing the situation to deteriorate to this point. The ruling class has yet to connect the dots for themselves. It does not see its own complicity in the chaos.
The elite—“the chattering classes”—are not the solution, but in fact part of the problem. I found the elite materialistic and obsessed with consumerism. Their lives were disconnected from the suffering and poverty around them. They have become real citizens of the globalized world where the poor are invisible and being made invisible, they are dehumanized.
The elite have an infinite capacity for self-destruction. While the upper class enjoys the perks of globalization—connectedness with the world, financial and business deals with multinationals, bank accounts, property and holidays abroad, children studying in the West, and high standards of living—they are not prepared to share even the crumbs with their impoverished fellow citizens. Their children wear t-shirts and jeans and play guitars and visit their parents for summer and winter breaks from universities in the West. Lavish dinner parties, where the rich and influential meet with the wives decked in sparkling jewelry, are like throwing petrol into a raging fire.
Former Ambassador Tariq Afridi, a good friend from my school days in Abbottabad, educated at Cambridge and a world class polo player, looking at the general decline and collapse around him, believed that “this is who we really are.” He thought that until the 1960s and 1970s, the older generation trained by the British had been able to maintain some standards of morality, behavior, dress, and character but with the passing of that generation, the Pakistan elite today was “reverting to type.”
This elite is tiny and lives in a bubble of affluence. The vast majority of Pakistanis live a very different life. They are mostly jobless, barely literate, hungry, and angry. They use the rhetoric of Islam to express their anger at their plight and are no longer prepared to see the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty and do nothing about it. They expect the government alone to clear up the mess.
But this is a problem not for the Prime Minister of Pakistan alone. It is a problem confronting the nation itself, and every citizen must accept the challenge to take back and reestablish the writ of the state. But time is running out.
There is talk of wanting the Sharia among ordinary Pakistanis by which they mean justice, jobs, and incorrupt and efficient administration. Islam is thus a highly potent symbol for those challenging the current order. Ordinary servants are encouraged to think of the house in which they work as their own, the peasants to take possession of the land that they till, and kidnapping for ransom as a justifiable act against those seen as heartless and corrupt members of the elite. These acts, which are blatantly against Islam, are justified as Islamic ones. The frightening fact is that people have little idea of the theology and history of Islam itself. Leaders of groups involved in these acts target an opposing sectarian or class group and pronounce that they are not real Muslims and therefore deserve to be put to death. Minority groups–like the Hindus and Christians–have been targeted and are terrified.
Pakistan appears to be in the midst of a slow motion revolution. The violence seems to be coming from every direction, and the elite has been unsuccessful in checking it. Something like 50-60,000 Pakistanis have died in the years since 9/11. General Hameed Gul, once the all-powerful head of the ISI and supporter of the Taliban, was confident that the Taliban would be in power within two years. He said, “Both dictatorship and democracy have failed.”
But this is not a revolution in the manner of Iran, in which a recognized leader, Imam Khomeini, led an organized clerical structure to take power from a corrupt and effete Shah of Iran. Nor is this a revolution in the classic Marxist mold as in Russia led by Lenin or in China led by Mao. There is no recognized leader, nor a unified organization or even an established command and control structure, or a vision of what would happen if these groups actually succeeded in destroying the fabric of the administration that holds up Pakistan. It is this imprecision of organization and ideology which makes the revolution so dangerous to the stability of Pakistan..
The battle lines for Pakistan have been clearly drawn between a Taliban version of the country with all the chaos and turbulence that it entails and one envisaged by Mr Jinnah, a modern Muslim state. Whether you admire Mr Jinnah or are a critic, there is no doubt that in the context of Pakistan, he symbolizes a modern Muslim nation promising full rights to women, minorities, and the poor. He unequivocally supported the rule of law and the constitution. Besides he is perhaps the most powerful unifying factor in a divided nation. Remove Jinnah and no other Pakistani can fill the void.
Yet I found many Pakistanis cynical about Mr Jinnah and challenged the very idea of Pakistan itself. Recently Jinnah’s last resting place in Ziarat was destroyed. The symbolism of what had happened shocked me both because of my high regard for Mr Jinnah but also because that beautiful house had been part of my charge when I was Commissioner of the Sibi Division in the mid-1980s.
There is a constant debate in Pakistan between the so-called liberals and the more conservative elements that both use—and distort—the message of Mr Jinnah. The former argue that Jinnah was “secular” by citing his speech to the Constituent Assembly on 11 August 1947. They point to the lines in which Mr Jinnah said that Pakistanis were free to worship, the Hindus in their temples, the Christians in their churches, and the Muslims in their mosques. The argument assumes that Islam somehow is intolerant of its minorities. That is not the correct Muslim position whatever the realities of Pakistan today. If we are to take the example of the Holy Prophet of Islam himself, the Treaty of Medina guaranteed freedom of worship for the Jews and the Prophet’s letter to St. Catharine’s Monastery in Egypt, guaranteed the same for Christians. Besides, when Lord Mountbatten came down to Karachi to preside over another session of the Constituent Assembly just three days later and proposed that the model for Pakistan should be Akbar, the Mughal Emperor, Jinnah rejected the idea, pointing out that they already had their own role model to inspire them, which was the holy Prophet of Islam. In order to understand Jinnah we need to put both speeches together, and a clear picture of a just, orderly, and compassionate society emerges. He condemned nepotism, provincialism and corruption while emphasizing special care of the poor in society. The Quaid was adamant however that Pakistan would not be a “theocracy.”
Realizing the importance of Mr Jinnah and in order to understand him better, I had spent most of the decade in the 1990s in conceiving and completing the Jinnah Quartet, which comprised the feature film Jinnah, a documentary film, an academic book and a graphic novel. I received both adulation and vitriol for my efforts. Lies were told in print especially about the Jinnah film (ignoring the detailed audit report which was conducted in 2000 by a British firm-- see the Jinnah Film Audit Report which is on-line).
Dr Mushtaq, a gentle and scholarly man, had written to me that Pakistanis only honor their heroes after they die and he predicted that after my death Pakistanis would love me and name a day in my honor. Before his theory could be tested, I decided it was time to leave.
The situation warrants a long-term and radical strategy to re-establish the writ of the state. It needs to be holistic and long-term. The path ahead will be difficult and will require courage, wisdom and compassion from the leaders of Pakistan.
The first most vital step is to establish the writ of the state. This can only be done by the reconstitution of a strong, neutral, just, and compassionate civil service, police, and judicial structure in the districts. The elected representatives need to work in tandem with the bureaucracy. The argument that high quality civil servants no longer exist is not correct. Even on this trip I had the privilege of meeting over lunch some of the legendary officers of the old Frontier Province like Omar Khan Afridi and Azam Khan who could be persuaded to advise and guide the service. Even younger officers like Khalid Aziz need to be actively involved in this process. They all agree with my thesis in The Thistle and the Drone that without the reconstruction of a strong political administration and tribal leadership the Tribal Areas will not be stabilized. But the process would not be successful unless the army was withdrawn and allowed the traditional structures to function. The army needs to change its role in Pakistan affairs. Its soldiers are not trained in civil administration but to keep the borders safe. Of course, they need to assist bureaucracy when the situation demands. But without the army returning to the barracks, the civil administration will not be able to grow. It is therefore a Catch 22 situation for both.
The army still remains largely intact, its command and control structure in place, in spite of the debilitating and long drawn war on the periphery. The appointment of a charismatic new army chief, General Sharif, has raised hopes among Pakistanis of a leader capable of confronting the challenges that Pakistan faces.
I also noted the energy and vitality in the genuinely free media, in the arts and in literature. There was so much impressive talent in Pakistan. And most important there was a freedom in the air which offset the real challenges of electricity and gas shortages, the high prices and collapsing law and order.
Pakistan must also reach out to its neighbors especially India and Afghanistan and convert the prickly relationship to a friendly one–as Mr Jinnah envisaged. There is so much in common between Pakistan and the two countries in cultural and historical terms that could be built on. Bolder foreign policies on both sides of the border are needed to bring people together. With the population explosion and depletion of resources combined with the collapsing law and order situation in the country, Pakistan simply cannot afford to be entangled in complicated hostile relations with its neighbors.
In spite of the gloom and doom of the elite and the law and order situation, my trip to Pakistan had gone very well. I was overwhelmed by the love and hospitality I received everywhere I went.
My wife Zeenat and I had flown in to Lahore from Washington, DC at the end of November as guests of Dr Jim Tebbe, the Rector of Forman Christian College, where I was to receive an honorary PhD at the convocation. The award was given in an impressive ceremony by Mr Mohammad Sarwar, the Governor of the Punjab. It was a great honor for me and I found the event deeply moving. I felt nostalgic as I wandered about the beautiful Forman campus lost in memories of one of the happiest periods of my life.
Zeenat and I were delighted to be with our daughter Dr Amineh Hoti and son-in-law Arsallah Khan Hoti in Islamabad and to see how much they were contributing to Pakistan in their own fields. Both were promoting better understanding and better citizenship through notions of insaniat (humanity), ilm (knowledge) and adab (culture). We were privileged and thrilled to be present when Dr Hoti launched the Center for Dialogue and Action at Forman in Lahore and Arsallah was appointed to the important post of Member of the Privatization Commission.
As a family we were blessed to participate in interfaith bridge building. We visited Nankana Sahib not far from Lahore to pay respects to the birthplace of the great prince of peace Guru Nanak who founded the Sikh faith. We celebrated Christmas with the poorest section of the Christian community living in the midst of the opulence in Islamabad. The Pastor welcomed us to take part in the ceremonies and Dr Hoti spoke beautifully from the pulpit conveying a message of peace and harmony.
I was delighted to be able to reconnect with old friends like Wasim Sajjad, my class fellow from school in Abbottabad and the former president of Pakistan and chairman of the Senate, and Kamal Hyat my close friend from my Forman College days, and relatives such as Syed Ahmed Masood. Another school friend, former Ambassador Anwar Kemal, lived just outside Islamabad on a farm and generously provided us with a regular supply of the “best” home produced egg in Islamabad.
I also felt privileged to meet some of the most important men of the land, for example Mian Shahbaz Sharif and General Raheel Sharif (no relationship between the two in spite of similar sir names). Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the former Prime Minister and another Formanite, treated my family and me with the warm hospitality and affection for which he is famous.
Sartaj Aziz, the elder statesman of Pakistani politics, graciously chaired the book launch of The Thistle and the Drone at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. Because he is the Foreign Affairs and Security Advisor to the Prime Minister the media was in attendance in full force and next day the headlines were about Mr Aziz condemning drone strikes in Pakistan.
It is these intelligent, patriotic, and committed Pakistanis—and there are thousands of Pakistanis of this caliber—who are keeping the country functioning and giving it optimism in spite of the chaos around them. I sometimes marvel at the courage of these Pakistanis. I know that most Americans would not be able to live in these conditions with any sense of equanimity and calmness.
I was also able to discuss my ideas at a lunch hosted for me by the Dean of the Ambassadors in Islamabad, the popular Argentinean Ambassador Rodolfo Martin Saravia, who had invited several of his fellow ambassadors.
Senator Mushahid Husain, a high profile public intellectual, invited me to the Senate to address a large gathering of Senators and Parliamentarians from the government and opposition benches in the grand Banqueting Hall of the Senate. Senator Sabir Baloch, Deputy Chair of the Senate, introduced me affectionately in his welcome address by saying that we had met decades ago when I took over as Commissioner of Makran Division, which is his home. He said because I was related to Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan, I emphasized education and within a week of arrival announced that I would build the first big public school of Makran. When I was told there was no money in the budget, he said with a chuckle, I declared a tax on any Makrani wanting a gun license. With these guns, the Senator recounted, I said you kill each other, and with the school you will be able to educate yourselves.
Through the friendship and bonhomie of the gathering, two themes cropped up which I had heard in many other gatherings: That the United States was bent on destroying Pakistan and that interfaith dialogue was dangerous because it was a conspiracy to “dilute” the purity of Islam. I made the point repeatedly that the suspicion of Americans that so many Pakistanis harbor and their view of Americans as a hostile monolith is a mirror image of what many Americans think of Pakistan – a hostile Islamic population bent on spreading terrorism in the cause of their faith and determined to attack Americans. As for interfaith dialogue, I believe these distinguished Parliamentarians were unaware of Islamophobes in the US like Robert Spencer who argued exactly the opposite that interfaith dialogue was an attempt by Muslim scholars like me to convert Americans to Islam and that Islam was a dangerous and evil religion. Dialogue and bridge-building were the need of the hour. Besides, I pointed out the crisis in Pakistan could only be managed by Pakistanis themselves. The majority of the Senators responded positively to my message of understanding and bridge-building.
I had met, it seemed, everyone there was to meet, appeared on the major television chat shows, and addressed various gatherings, including the top Universities and young Pakistanis in schools, but one thing was still missing, and that was a meeting with a living mystic.
Then on the eve of my departure, my friend and comrade of many decades, Dr Ghazanfar Mehdi conveyed an invitation from Pir Naqeeb-ur-Rahman of Rawalpindi and his wife for a dinner in my honor at their house. The Pir was a leading Sufi figure of the Naqshbandi order and therefore spiritually linked to Zeenat’s direct ancestors like the legendary Akhund of Swat and the Wali of Swat. With his green hat, long flowing hair and talk of universal love, the Pir is a prime target for the Taliban who specifically attack such spiritual leaders as they speak of a universal and inclusive Islam. He is also easily accessible which makes him more vulnerable. As a sign of Islamic duty to the less fortunate, he runs a langar which provides cooked meals round the clock for the poor, who may at any time, without invitation, come and eat.
There was a festive air at the Pir’s large compound that night with strings of bright lights twinkling in different colors. It was an auspicious time: the celebration of the birthday of the Prophet of Islam. Sufis in particular celebrate the occasion with great joy and praise the Prophet as a “mercy unto mankind”.
The Pir and his followers were on hand to greet us with honor. Remarkably, the Pir’s wife is an articulate leader for interfaith dialogue among women and has been active in this field with the American Ambassador’s wife. She had also worked with Dr Hoti and the two were happy to re-connect. As we sat on carpets for dinner, the families joining us, Dr Mehdi read a beautiful Urdu poem composed by him in honor of the Prophet. The Pir then organized the showing of my video poem, “I, Saracen,” on a large screen TV. He appreciated it with kind words and blessed my efforts in building bridges.
This was the perfect ending of my visit to Pakistan, a dinner hosted for me by a leading Pir in which we could celebrate the Prophet’s birthday and talk of the message of peace and compassion for all humanity.
The future would be difficult for Pakistan, but I could see hope. Despite the chaos and mayhem of contemporary Pakistan, there was still wisdom and compassion deep in the soil of Pakistan. This, I thought to myself that night, was after all the land of Datta Sahib, Bulleh Shah, Baba Fareed, Rahman Baba and so many other mystics and spiritual leaders throughout Pakistan who advocated faith and peace. Their mystic verses had influenced the great Guru Nanak and his followers invited Mian Mir to lay the foundation stone of their most revered house of worship, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This land was rich with bridge-builders.
The arc of my visit had been completed. I left Pakistan feeling optimistic.
(Akbar S. Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and former member of the Civil Service of Pakistan. His latest book is The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, Brookings 2013).