Thursday, 31 May 2012


book review MJ Akbar's Tinder Box in Strategic Analysis
Strategic Analysis, 36:1, 169-170
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09700161.2011.628465
M.J. Akbar, Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan, Harper Collins, New Delhi, 2011, 343 pp., Rs 499, ISBN 978-93-5029-039-2
MJ. Akbar brings his English literature background, writing skills and experience as a journalist with a notable body of work behind him to bear on a topic that has been and remains central to the story of the subcontinent—the past and future of Pakistan. That he prefaces his title with tinderbox reveals his pessimism regarding Pakistan’s future. For him, Pakistan can plausibly be characterised as a ‘toxic jelly’. The book traces the current failing trajectory of Pakistan back to its ideological roots in the two nation theory and the decline of the Moghul empire. The decline made the Muslims of the subcontinent seek refuge in a defensive conservatism. This was not a new phenomenon as it harked back to the manner in which Islam spread in India and the clergy’s political manoeuvrings in the Moghul court in particular during the reigns of Akbar and Aurangzeb. The story gains speed with Shah Waliullah importing Wahabbism from Arabia at a time when Nadir Shah and later Abdali laid waste to the Moghul legacy. His intellectual successors, specifically Syed Ahmed of Bareilly, kept up the proto Islamist cause through the 19th century and fought the first ‘jihad’ against the Sikh kingdom. This set the stage for the second jihad against British expansion as part of the wider mutiny. The consequence was the seeds of Partition being sown at Aligarh in Sir Syed Ahmed’s bid to emulate the conqueror. The graduates of the university, representing the Muslim elite, and unwilling to subordinate themselves to democratic possibilities or be subsumed among the larger Indian mass, set about fashioning an identity. This culminated eventually in the state of Pakistan. While they would have preferred a secular Pakistan, as articulated and represented by their Quaid-i-Azam, Jinnah, Akbar recounts how a separate and distinct strand in the story of Muslim India unfolded alongside. The narrative of loss inherited by conservative forces was only deepened early last century with the seeming assault on Muslim lands elsewhere culminating in the ending of the caliphate. A reaction to modernism and later globalisation has led to a turn, in despair, to Islamic roots. The social dimension of this phenomenon is fundamentalism and the political dimension, Islamism. Maulana Maududi was both proponent and practitioner of this strain. The ground had already been prepared for Maududi’sarrival on the scene in the lamentations of the poet philosopher Mohammad Iqbal. Iqbal’s recognition of Maududi as a kindred spirit facilitated his move to the newly born Pakistan. His vehicle for political and social action, Jamaat i Islami, coincided with Pakistan’s birth and has since been intertwined with the Pakistan story. Akbar attributes the subversion of the state and perversions in society to the overrepresentation of the conservative strain of Islam in society and polity. This has made PakistanafertilegroundforradicalandrightistreligiousconstructsfromSaudiArabia, andinparticularforthecontestbetweenWahabbismandSalafism.Sectarianandethnic fissures and the context of an unending war next door in Afghanistan contributed to a loss of control by the state over these exclusivist groups. The current situation has an intellectual pedigree going back in time and transcending the region. This complex story unfolding in its geopolitical, regional, national and local narratives is woven together competently by Akbar. This ability is also visible in his book,India:TheSiegeWithin.Naturally,then,heentitlesthechaptertracingPakistan’s trajectory into the future, ‘Pakistan: The Siege Within’. His liberal bias, evident from his work on Nehru, spills over to suffuse the book with a sense of irritation regarding Pakistan’s seemingly inexorable domestic and consequently international course. Akbar ends by recalling Maulana Azad’s critique of the new state. That Azad’s words have proved prophetic vindicates Azad, but does not help much since any perverse satisfaction over the state of Pakistan cannot help stabilise that state. High on description,thebooklacksaprescription.ItseemstosuggestthatforafailingPakistan to retrieve lost ground would require a return to Jinnah’s original intent. This is hardly useful, since it does not say how this can be done. Does it mean that the radicals should be taken on militarily? Can such an action succeedatall?Orisitpossibleforasecularelite,whichhasdemonstrateditsincompetencerepeatedlyoverhalfacentury,toreformitself?Woulditnotcommitclasssuicide if it were to go down the route of education, land reform, demilitarisation, etc., which alone can save Pakistan? Its inability and unwillingness to move in this self-evident direction only increases the revolutionary attraction of the radical, untested critique in the form of Islamism. The massive engagement of the lone hyperpower in a war in the vicinity accounts for some of the problems faced by Pakistan. Since Akbar researched his book at the Brookings Institution as a visiting fellow on its project on US policy in the Islamic world, the absence of such a critique in his book is understandable. It is no wonder, then,thathemissesouttheroleoftheWestinthecreationandsustenanceofextremists in the Islamic world in general and of the US’s role and interest in Pakistan’s descent into chaos in particular. To end by saying that Pakistani course correction awaits an intellectual defeat of the followers of Maududi by the inheritors of Jinnah is to end tamely on a wishful note. That the followers of Jinnah have failed Pakistan has enabled the other side to pose an existential challenge. Believing that this can be reversed just by pointing to its desirability as Akbar does is wishful thinking. Since the story of Pakistan’s descent into anarchy has been told several times now, not least in Ayesha Jalal’s The Shade of Swords, there is little that is new in the book. That Akbar articulates it well is all that recommends the book.


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